Thursday, 29 November 2012

Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim or One of Shakespeare's Spunky Gals?

Is Desdemona's decision to protect Othello a
sign of weakness? | Alexander Cabanel's
portrait of Desdemona
Desdemona is one of Shakespeare's most interesting female characters. Unlike Katharina, she isn't an obvious rebel, but in her own quieter way, she radically defies the convention of her age.

The first time I read Othello, I found Desdemona to be a disappointingly 'wet' character - ridiculously obedient to a crazed husband, even to the point of protecting him with her dying breath. I believed this to be a sign of great weakness, but I was young and foolish. 

Since then, I've realised that there's much more to Desdemona. And, in fact, far from being wet, she's one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters.

Shakespeare's Source for Desdemona

Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s source material, Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio, ‘Disdamona’(sic), taken from the Greek for ‘unfortunate’, is the only named character. The others are only known by their rank or position. For example, ‘The Moor’ (Othello), ‘The ensign’ (Iago) and ‘The ensign’s wife’ (Emilia).

Why is this interesting? Well, it suggests that Cinthio, like Shakespeare, saw Desdemona's role as important - important enough to give her a name, albeit one that suggests her rather untimely demise.

Desdemona as an Independent Woman

Is Desdemona's biggest mistake marrying for
love? | Irene Jacob and Laurence Fishburne,
Othello (1995)
In many ways, Desdemona is a typical woman of her age. However, she is also an atypical woman of her age. 

According to the conformities of 17th century Europe, Desdemona is considered to be the property of her father. This is illustrated in Iago’s line “…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”(I.i) The word ‘your' indicating Brabantio’s ownership of his daughter.

Desdemona rebels against the conventions of Venetian society, both patriarchal and sexual, to elope with Othello. Her decision to marry her choice of husband is an act of defiance that is easily overlooked, because it is the norm in modern society. However, during the 17th century, almost all women, but particularly those of noble birth, married men of their fathers’ choosing.

Of course, not only is she strong enough to discard her father’s wishes, but she has the fortitude to defend this choice before the Duke and other prominent men of Venetian society, including Brabantio.

Desdemona as a Wife

Is Desdemona's fate sealed from the very beginning of the
play? |  'Othello and Desdemona' by Alexandre-Marie Colin
However, it would be a mistake to think that Desdemona only married Othello to break with convention and separate herself from her father. 

Although she is young, her decision to marry appears to be solely motivated by love; there doesn't seem to be a desire to distress her father. This is made clear in her heartfelt statement, "I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/And to his honours and his valiant parts/Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."(I.iii)

Nevertheless, it becomes clear throughout the play that Othello knows relatively little about Desdemona. What he does know is that she has betrayed her father and it is perhaps this streak of independence in her nature that worries him. 

After all, it is reasonable to assume that Iago’s accusations alone would not be enough to cause such jealousy in Othello. Iago’s calculated plan involves playing on Othello’s, already present, insecurities. More on that can be read here.

The Tragic Role of Desdemona

As mentioned above, the name Desdemona comes from Greek for ‘unfortunate’ or ‘ill-fated’. This notion of Desdemona’s tragic fate is also suggested in Othello’s “O ill-starred wench…”(V.ii) 

Is Desdemona a helpless victim or one of Shakespeare's
strong women? | Suzanne  Clotier in Othello (1952)
Of course, during the play’s first performances, it may have been argued that it was Desdemona’s betrayal of her father or her choice to marry outside her race that made her death an inevitability. 

Just as Macbeth brought about his grisly end by acting against the will of God and committing regicide, Desdemona acts against patriarchal convention and nature (apparently). Therefore, she is doomed to perish.

However, there is something very tragic and poignant in the fact that her death is the result of a simple desire to love freely. 

Her final tautological words, “Nobody, I myself.”(V.ii) can be, and often are, interpreted as her protecting Othello with her dying breath. On the other hand, perhaps she realizes that it was her own actions; her wish to be liberated, that led to her death.

What do you think of Desdemona? Is she a victim, just a pawn in Iago's game? Did she bring about her own death or was she simply subject to fate?

This post was original published on Suite101 by the author

Monday, 26 November 2012

Modern Movie Retellings of Macbeth

Proof, if proof were needed, that Macbeth is an enduring and timeless play, there have been a huge number of adaptations over the years. 

These films place the action of the play in various weird and wonderful corners of the world and in a variety of eras. Here is just a handful of the most popular:

Scotland, PA is a dark comedy
adaptation of Macbeth

Scotland, PA (2001)

Set in 1970s Scotland, Pennsylvania, the film is a dark comedy take on Macbeth, which centres around a greasy spoon called Duncan’s Café. 

Joe ‘Mac’ McBeth (Macbeth) works at the fast food restaurant and is passed over for promotion by his boss Norm Duncan (Duncan) in favour of Douglas McKenna (Macdonwald), who is embezzling money from the restaurant.

Three hippies (the witches) claim to be able to see the future and predict that Joe will be manager of a drive-thru style restaurant.

Joe and his wife, Pat (Lady Macbeth), reveal McKenna’s dodgy bookkeeping practices and Joe is swiftly promoted to manager. Joe and Pat then concoct a plan to kill Norm in a faked robbery. 

Throne of Blood | Macbeth
with Samurai warriors

Throne of Blood (1957)

A Japanese film, Kumonosu-jō literally translates as Spider Web Castle. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood takes Shakespeare’s play and shifts it to feudal Japan.

Macbeth is Washizu, a Samurai general under Lord Tsuzuki. Washizu encounters a spirit who foretells his future.

When he hears that he will become lord, Washizu and his wife kill Tsuzuki, and Washuki gains the title.

But, just like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Washizu’s troubles are only just beginning. 

Joe Macbeth sets Shakespeare's masterpiece in
1930s America

Joe Macbeth (1955)

Directed by Ken Hughes and starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman, Joe Macbeth is a gangster movie, set in 1930s America.

The ‘gangster’ genre is, I would argue, an ideal setting for Macbeth as it is a perfect modern slant on the dog-eat-dog world of 11th century monarchy.

In this adaptation, Joe Macbeth is convinced by his wife, Lilly, to murder the reigning kingpin and take charge himself.

The plan works like a dream, until Lennie (Macduff), a fellow mobster whose wife and children have been murdered by Joe, catches up with the new ‘king’.

Macbeth is in da club! Rave Macbeth

Rave Macbeth (2001)

Rave Macbeth is a German production, which is a much looser adaptation than those already mentioned. That said, the premise is unmistakably Macbeth.

Set in the world of dance music and raves, Marcus, played by Michael Rosenbaum (of Smallville fame), is fighting for superiority among a gang of drug dealers.

Things come to a head when Marcus’ girlfriend, Lidia, helps him gain the upper hand.

Men of Respect gives us a Macbeth of
the 90s, who listens to the insights
of a spiritualist. 

Men of Respect (1990)

Directed and written by William Reilly, Men of Respect is another gangsteresque Macbeth and centres around a hitman, Mike Battaglia (played by the very talented John Turturro), who listens to the prophecies of a spiritualist.

The spiritualist foresees that Mike will become the head of his ‘family’, so he sets about killing to get there, being sure to shift the blame elsewhere.

He eventually rises to a position of power, but soon realises there are consequences.


For me, it is fascinating to watch these adaptations and compare them to Shakespeare’s original. However, if you’re studying Macbeth, it is not advisable to see a modern interpretation and nothing else. While it might give you a feel for the play, many aspects will differ. 

Moreover, you’re missing out on the wonderful language of Shakespeare, which is, let’s be honest, what has made him such an enduring figure in drama and literature. Shakespeare’s storylines were good, but the way he told those stories was even better.

If you'd like to learn more about Macbeth, be sure to take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Did the Death of Shakespeare's Son Affect his Work?

How did Shakespeare cope with the death of his young son?
Hamnet Shakespeare, the playwright's only son, died in August 1596 at the age of eleven. 

There have been many theories about how his young son's death may have influenced Shakespeare's work - principally Hamlet.

However, I think it's unlikely that Shakespeare exorcised his grief in just one play.

Therefore, Hamnet's death probably affected much of the Bard's work.

The Problem with Biographical Theories

There is, of course, no way to categorically know what was going on in Shakespeare's mind at the time of writing any of his works. We can make assertions, based on what was happening in his life (and the world) at any given time, but we can never say with certainty what drove Shakespeare to write a specific work. 

Therefore, biographical theories are just that: theories. As such, there has been, and always will be, a difference of opinion. For some, Hamlet is the play in which Hamnet's 'ghost' looms largest. For others, themes in several of Shakespeare's plays focus on loss (especially of a child), grief and, as in Twelfth Night, a fantasy scenario in which all ends happily.

How did Shakespeare Respond to The Death of His Son?

Does Hamlet depict Shakespeare's grief
over his son's death?
There is one other thing to consider, before looking at the plays: Hamnet's death, although tragic, was not something that would have made headlines at the time. In fact, a third of children under the age of ten died during the latter part of the sixteenth century.

Therefore, Shakespeare was far from the only parent to experience this type of loss. Sadly, it was all too commonplace.

Did high child mortality rates mean Hamnet's death was a matter-of-fact part of life that Shakespeare was able to deal with?

Unlike Ben Jonson, whose son also died, Shakespeare certainly did not write anything specifically focused on the loss of his child.

Exactly how the Bard dealt with the untimely demise of his son, we'll never know. However, there is some evidence in his work to suggest that it wasn't an event he was ever able to banish from his mind.

Hamlet and Hamnet 

Given the similarity in name and the gritty, dark content of Hamlet, it's easy to see why people assume that the play is Shakespeare's great outpouring of grief over his son's death. It is one of the Bard's most nihilistic plays - capturing the hopelessness, depression and, sometimes, insanity of one who has suddenly lost a beloved family member. 

But, of course, Hamlet wasn't a creation of Shakespeare's imagination. The story stems from Scandinavian legend, although this does not negate the possibility that Shakespeare's grief is at the root of the play.

However, Hamlet probably wasn't penned until around 1600, some four years after Hamnet's death. Of course, it's quite possible that Shakespeare would delay writing the work that mourns his son, but I think it's unlikely. I also think that there are very clear hints of Hamnet in earlier works - and I'm not alone.

Grief in Shakespeare's Comedies

Twelfth Night has a happier outcome for the twins
who thought each other dead
At the time of Hamnet's passing, Shakespeare was predominantly working on comedies. So, you'd think there would be no room for references to death, but far from it. Twelfth Night, which features the supposed death of a twin (Hamnet and Shakespeare's youngest daughter, Judith, were fraternal twins) and the miraculous reunion of Viola and Sebastian. 

In addition, Professor Richard Wheeler of the University of Illinois asserts that the theme of cross-dressing in many of Shakespeare's comedies: Twelfth Night, As Well That Ends Well, Merchant of Venice is indicative of Shakespeare's hopes for his son passing to his daughters. I'm not entirely convinced by the theory, but it's possible.

Author Bill Bryson wonders if Constance's "Grief fills the room up of my absent child" speech from  King John is in response to Hamnet's demise. However, it's not clear whether this was written before or after the young boy's death.

Other Possible References to Hamnet

Grief over a child's death is a feature of many
Shakespearean plays
There are many other events and themes in Shakespeare's plays that we could suppose are reference to the playwright's son, for example the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Lear's heart-wrenching response to Cordelia's murder, and Julius Caesar adopting Marc Anthony, because his own son is deceased.

Consequently, I don't think we should be looking for Hamnet in a specific Shakespeare play, but in the overall tone of the man's work.

It's clear that Shakespeare improved his craft. Over the years, his writing became more mature, and the depth of his characters' emotions more profound. I suspect it was life experiences, including Hamnet's death, that enabled him to write words that still speak so eloquently of the pain of loss.

Perhaps, just like Richard II, the vast majority of Shakespeare's sorrow was kept from view.

"My grief lies all within; 
And these external manners of laments 
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief 
That swells with silence in the tortured soul."

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Did Shakespeare Have an Editor?

Title Page of The First Folio

Shakespeare almost certainly never had an editor in the modern sense of the word. And, during his lifetime, he may not have had any editor at all.

Shakespeare’s plays were not collected for the First Folio, until 1623; seven years after the Bard’s death.

The plays were brought together by John Heminges and Henry Condell, who were both actors with the King’s Men. Today, Heminges and Condell are commonly labelled as the ‘editors’ of Shakespeare’s First Folio, but, in truth, all they probably did was sling the plays together.

The Plays Were for Performing not Publishing

But it’s worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays with a vision for them to be published. The documents he wrote were for the use of his actors, and, therefore, not in a suitable condition for publishing.

Step in, Edward Knight, who was the ‘book-keeper’ and prompter for the King’s Men. It’s believed by some that it fell to him to proofread and prepare the documents for publication.

So Why Are There Different Versions of Shakespeare’s Plays?

Well, it’s believed that over 100 pages of the 900-page folio were still being corrected while it was already in the process of printing.

Writer Nicholas Rowe was the first to create
 a universal edition of Shakespeare's
complete works
Each printer was editing these pages as he went, but was only capable of fixing obvious typographical errors. It’s thought that approximately 500 errors were rectified in this way.

The result is that individual copies of the First Folio differ quite drastically in the errors they contain.

When Were The Mistakes in The First Folio ‘Fixed’

It was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century, that people attempted to create a ‘universal’ collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

It began with Nicholas Rowe (also a playwright), in 1709, and continued through to the Arden series.

Because Shakespeare’s plays were published several years after his death, and have subsequently been quite heavily tampered with, it’s impossible to say with certainty that the plays we now have are exactly the ones he wrote.

We also, sadly, can’t know whether he ever had an ‘editor’ who might have said, “A bear, Bill? Are you sure?”

Who knows, he may even have had an editor like this…

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Things I've Learned From Shakespeare

What does Shakespeare teach us?
One of the reasons Shakespeare's work remains so popular is that it deals with matters that can never be confined to one century or era. Love, hate, jealousy, revenge, ambition, betrayal; all of these things are just as relevant now as they were in Shakespeare's lifetime. 

So, what can Shakespeare teach us about life, love the universe and everything?

1. Your Twin is Almost Certainly Alive

Whether it's your identical or fraternal sibling, the chances are high that they survived that shipwreck. So, if someone's confusing you for somebody else, your first assumption should not be that said person is insane.

2. Love Hurts

No matter how simple the path to true love may seem, it never is. In some cases, the journey to happiness may entail turmoil, heartache, misunderstandings and require the assistance of good meaning friends, family members or magical folk. In other instances, however, the road is much darker, leading to murder and/or suicide.

3. The Person You Think is The Most Trustworthy is Actually The Least  

Keep your enemies close and your
friends at arm's length

If we learn anything from the likes of King Duncan, Julius Caesar and Othello, it's that we should always be wary of those people we think are most devoted and loyal to us - because those are the ones who will stab you in the back, or in the front, or try to convince you that your wife is having an affair. 

4. Your Dad is Probably Right

Now, although it's not always true that fathers are right (for example, Egeus, Hermia's father, is wrong in trying to marry her off to Demetrius), an alarming amount of the time, fatherly advice turns out to be sound advice - even if it's given for the wrong reasons, such as Brabantio's objection to Desdemona's marriage.

5. Extravagant Professions of Love are Usually False

This is particularly sound advice for monarchs. If someone - even if it's your own daughters - is laying on the flattery with a trowel, chances are high it's insincere. 

6. If You're a Chaste Novice Nun, You're Going to be in The Sights of Lecherous Older Men

Men love a girl in a habit

Poor Isabella. First, she has to resist the advances and blackmail of Angelo and, just when she thinks she's escaped with her virtue intact, the Duke decides he's going to marry her. Her opinion of the matter? Well.....I guess, we'll never know.

7. If You're a Historical Figure, Don't Expect Dramatists to Represent You Fairly...Or Accurately

Your representation in the fictional account of your life will largely depend upon who is on the throne at the time the play is written. 

If, for example, you were the last Plantagenet monarch and the granddaughter of the dude who killed you is currently on the throne, don't expect a glowing review of your reign. Similarly, if you're a Scottish chap who killed a king, you're not going to be portrayed kindly for a Scottish (and newly crowned English) king, who is slightly paranoid about being assassinated. 

8. The Rantings of Three Strange Women Do Not Mean You're Immortal

Use a little common sense were predictions are concerned, and bear in mind that there's always a catch. If they meant you're immortal, they would have said, 'you're immortal'. The "none of woman born" stuff leaves a small loophole.

9. If You're a Girl, Put on Some Men's Clothes & Nobody Will Recognise You

Clothes really do maketh the man...
or woman | Imogen Stubbs as Viola

It works every time. Our disbelief is willing to be suspended to such an extent that we're prepared to accept a small change of outfit will cause a husband to no longer recognise his wife, a father to not know his daughter and for everybody to believe that you are, in fact, a man. 

Of course, it's worth mentioning that if you're a girl dressed as a man, who is being played by a man in the first place, your disguise is that much more convincing.  

10. Don't Upset Your Fairy King Husband, Or He'll Make a Sucker Out of You

Although it might not seem like a likely scenario, it's always worth remembering; should you ever wed a fairy king, he has the power to make you look very foolish, should he choose to do so. Don't upset him. If he wants the changeling boy, just let him have him - it'll be easier in the long run.

If you've picked up any other useful life lessons from Shakespeare's plays, please feel free to share in the comments below. And if you'd like to learn more about the bearded Bard, please take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Shakespeare and Deception | Disguises, Lies and Misunderstandings in Shakespeare's Plays

Deception is a mainstay of Shakespearean
drama, regardless of the genre

Deception is rife within Shakespeare's plays, perhaps because deception is rife within human nature. 

Interestingly, deception in Shakespeare takes many forms. For example, there are instances of accidental deception, as in The Comedy of Errors.

There are many cases of characters using deception as a form of self-preservation, as in Twelfth Night and As You Like It. And then, of course, there are the occasions when deception is used in a more malevolent fashion, as in King Lear, Julius Caesar and Richard III.

Consequently, the dramatic effect of deception varies greatly. It can be purely comedic, it can be suspenseful, evil or cruel and, in some instances, it can create a bizarre mixture of all of these effects. For example, the torment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Common Deception Motifs in Shakespeare

Cross-dressing is a major form of deception in Shakespeare's
plays | Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like It
Throughout Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and histories, there are some recurring motifs of deception.

The most frequently used technique is cross-dressing and/or disguise, which is used by Viola and Feste in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like it and Portia in The Merchant of Venice to name but a few.

Deception can also be created by interfering, but generally well-meaning, magical or mystical forces, such as puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Ariel in The Tempest.

Of course, there are much more sinister motifs of deceit, including false expressions of love and/or devotion, found in plays such as King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Deception in Shakespeare’s Comedies

In Shakespeare’s early comedies, such as The Comedy of Errors, characters are deceived, but it is not due to a deliberate attempt by any individual. However, Shakespeare could clearly see the comedic value in confusing a character, and he used it to full effect. This example of deception, like the play itself, is quite crude in concept.

Deception in Shakespeare's comedies often
hinges on mistaken identity
However, as Shakespeare’s skills as a playwright developed, he also began to create more elaborate deceptions.

Often, as mentioned above, these deceptions are based on mistaken identity, particularly mistaken gender identity.

On the whole, deception in Shakespeare’s comedies is done without malice. In the cases of Viola, and Rosalind deception is necessary for their survival.

Similarly, in The Merchant of Venice Portia dresses as a man to help protect her new husband’s friend (although she also uses her disguise to test Bassanio later in the play).

However, these comedic examples of deception can sometimes cross the line from humour to cruelty, as demonstrated in the torture of Malvolio in the latter part of Twelfth Night.

Deception in Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Examples of deception in Shakespeare’s tragedies are just as common as in his comedies. However, these depictions of deceit are usually more malevolent. In addition, we find that, as in the case of Macbeth and Hamlet, even heroic and seemingly ‘good’ characters can be drawn to deception to achieve their ends.

Feigning loyalty to Duncan and innocence over his death,
Macbeth is a master of deception | Ian McKellen as Macbeth
Unlike the comedies, there is very little humour to be derived from the deception in tragedies.

In most cases, deceit is used within a tragedy to destroy a character's standing or reputation. In fact, in some cases, it is used to destroy a character’s sanity, such as Iago’s use of deceit in Othello or the deception of King Lear by Goneril and Regan.

These illustrations of deceit are intended to prompt empathy for the victim of the deception and aversion towards the perpetrator, but even this is not clear cut.

For example, Hamlet’s feigning madness leads to Ophelia’s suicide and ultimately the deaths of the majority of the cast. However, an audience can recognize the just cause he was trying to achieve and probably, therefore,does not entirely condemn his actions.

One thing is clear, the audience’s awareness of the deception, whether deliberate or otherwise, is crucial, because it is the dramatic irony which leads to humour, tension and/or empathy.

To find out more about Shakespeare, take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon?

Friday, 28 September 2012

Who Was The Real Macbeth?

The Real Macbeth of Scotland
Shakespeare’s play was based (and I use the word ‘based’ loosely) on an actual 11th century Scottish king, who did, indeed, murder his way to the top. 

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that regicide was not at all uncommon during this era. Subsequently,  monarchs of Europe did not usually reign for decades. In fact, they were, often, on the throne for very short periods.

How Did Macbeth Find His Way to Power?

The real Macbeth, who was known in his native 11th century Scotland as Mac Bethad and nicknamed The Red King, succeeded King Duncan, just as Shakespeare’s Macbeth does. However, unlike the old Duncan of Shakespeare’s play, the real Duncan was still called 'youthful' at the time of his death, in 1040.

This early passing occurred in August of that year, during a battle, and it was Mac Bethad who struck the fatal blow.

Shortly after Duncan’s death, his wife fled Scotland with her sons: Malcolm (who would become Malcolm III of Scotland) and Donald. Mac Bethad was crowned, without any serious opposition, although it is fair to assume that he wasn’t a popular choice with everyone - very few kings were!

The Real Macbeth’s Reign

The real King Duncan was nothing like
the old man of Shakespeare's play
Mac Bethad reigned for some seventeen years; a long time for the era. Duncan, in comparison, was only king for six measly years. In fact, Mac Bethad felt so secure on his throne that he took a pilgrimage to Rome, something no sane man would do if he feared being usurped.

Apparently, while in Rome, he was very generous, giving the impoverished Roman citizens money, ‘as if it were seed’. Something we would not expect from the despot, child-murdering, bloodthirsty Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play.

The truth is that no source from the period refers to Mac Bethad as a tyrant.

Even Malcolm III, who’s father was killed by Mac Bethad don’t forget, referred to him as ‘Mac Bethad the renowned’. And in Duan Albanach (a Gaelic poem written between 1058 and 1090), he is called, ‘the generous king’.

Nevertheless, in 1054, the Earl of Nothumbria, Siward, led an invasion into Scotland. There followed a conflict that waged for several years and, eventually, Mac Bethad was wounded in battle by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, and died several days later in Scone.

Who Succeeded Macbeth?

It was Mac Bethad’s step-son, Lulach, (who was not graced with nicknames as favourable as his predecessor), who took the throne after his step-father’s death. 

Known as ‘foolish’, ’simple-minded’, and ‘unfortunate’, his reign was short and, probably, not very sweet. Crowned on the 15th of August 1057, he ruled for just seven months, before being assassinated. He was succeeded by Malcolm III.

Who Was the Real Lady Macbeth?

Was the real Lady Macbeth anything
like Shakespeare's? | Dame Judi Dench
Mac Bethad’s wife was a widow named Grouch. Very little is known about her life or death, except that she was married to Gille Coemgáin, with whom she had a son, Lulach. 

In 1032, Coemgáin was killed in a fire, which also claimed the lives of fifty of his men.

It has been suggested that Coemgáin was, in fact, killed by Mac Bethad in an act of vengeance for the murder of his father. Whether or not Coemgáin was responsible for the murder of Mac Bethad’s father or if Coemgáin’s death was at the hands of Mac Bethad is something we’ll probably never know for certain. 

Regardless, Mac Bethad took Coemgáin’s widow, Grouch, as his wife. 

As far as is known, the pair never had any children, but, given that Lulach succeed his step-father, it’s fair to say that Mac Bethad had a fairly good relationship with his wife’s son. 

Of course, whether or not Grouch and Mac Bethad’s marriage resembled the loving bond shared by the Macbeths (at the beginning of the play at least), is just one more thing that we’ll never know.

If you'd like to know more about Macbeth the man or the play, be sure to check out What's it All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Top 5 Bad Boys of Shakespeare's Plays

Let's face it, we've always had a bit of a soft spot for the bad boy; the man who lives by his own rules, defies convention, but whose deeds are never quite so evil as to place him in the 'villain' category. From Heathcliff to Danny Zuko, guys want to be the bad boy and girls want to be with him.

So, is the same true of Shakespeare's bad boys? And who are those top five Shakespearean rule, and heart, breakers?

5. Romeo

Baz Luhrmann's modern take on 'bad boy'
Romeo | Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo
Hotheaded and impulsive (traits that will lead to his tragic fall), Romeo is the Elizabethan equivalent of any role played by James Dean. 

He is the super cool leader of the Verona pack and son of affluent parents. There's no getting around it, this guy's got everything. 

And, of course, he's got that extra special quality that makes him truly irresistible to young Juliet - wonderfully poetic dialogue. 

A Bad boy who can also express himself beautifully...the poor gal never stood a chance.

4. Bertram

What the heck does Helena see in Bertram?
All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's problem plays, and for good reason. It is not difficult to see what Helena finds attractive about Bertram to begin with: he's rich, he's young, he's handsome, and, just like Romeo, he's the alpha male of his gang of friends. 

What's a bit harder to get your head around is why, after he treats her so appallingly, does a runner and tries to have an affair with a young woman he meets in Florence, she forgives him and happily takes him back. 

Unfortunately, Shakespeare doesn't explore Helena's psyche much more than to emphasise she's completely infatuated. Perhaps, like many women, she believes she can calm her bad boy's wilder ways - and you could say that, by the end of the play, she has. Let's hope for her sake she did, anyway!  

3. Petruchio

Behind every bad boy, there has to be a
wild woman | Richard Burton as Petruchio
Petruchio is a footloose and fancy-free bachelor, living the life many men would envy, until he decides it is time to marry. However, he doesn't want to marry for love. Oh no, he wants to find himself a Sugar Mama, and he doesn't care how ugly or ill-tempered she might be.

With this in mind, you might think he only wants Katharina for her father's money and, that's certainly his initial reason for calling on her. 

I have a feeling, however, that he's rather intrigued by the 'shrew' he encounters. All this talk of "come, sit on me!" and tongues in tails is incredibly saucy, and unnecessarily so. He's clearly flirting outrageously with her, which indicates he's attracted to her.

Moreover, I think that she's attracted to (or at the very least intrigued by) him, too. 

His status as a 'bad boy' ensures that he's willing to hurl back whatever she throws at him. And I suspect, Katharina has never met anyone quite like him. In spite of herself, Kate is interested in this man who plays by his own rules.

2. Prince Hal

Fun- lovin', hard-drinkin', prank-pullin', Hal is a real
Shakespearean bad boy |  Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal
Before he becomes Henry V, Prince Hal is a hard drinking, irresponsible prankster, who is little more than an embarrassment to his father. 

Spending his days surrounded by questionable (to say the least) company, Hal is an Elizabethan playboy. Born into luxury, we can assume he never wanted for anything, nor has he had any responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, Shakespeare chooses to imply that Hal's wild salad days are always something of an act. "I know you all, and will awhile uphold/The unyoked humour of your idleness." 

It is, however, the battle for his father's kingdom against the rebel Hotspur that dramatically shifts his view, causes him to reassess his loyalties and, ultimately, leads him to shun his drinking partners.

1. Falstaff

Bad boys don't come much more lovable than
Falstaff | Roger Allam at The Globe
And speaking of Hal's questionable companions...Unlike the other bad boys in this list, Falstaff isn't a 'boy'. Far from it, he's an old man. However, that doesn't alter his claim to the 'bad boy' crown. 

In fact, so loved was this Shakespearean bad boy that Elizabeth I is said to have insisted that he make a reappearance - despite his off-stage death in Henry V - prompting Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Falstaff is, arguably, the epitome of a lovable rogue. On the surface, we shouldn't like him - he's a liar, a thief and a coward. However, his lies are almost childlike in their transparency and his schemes almost always fail, meaning that there remains an innocence about him. 

A lover of life, food, drink and women - in short, a pure pleasure seeker, Falstaff is incredibly likeable despite, or perhaps because of, his flaws.

For more on the greatest of Shakespeare's bad boys, take a look at 'There's Something About Falstaff'

Who's your favourite Shakespearean bad boy? And don't forget to check out the 'Top 5 Unruly Women of Shakespeare's Plays'

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

How to Read a Shakespearean Soliloquy

How to perform a Shakespeare soliloquy
Whether you’re performing in one of Shakespeare’s plays, preparing an audition speech or simply reciting a soliloquy for English class, there are ways to ensure that you get to grips with the speech.

Here are 3 simple steps to reading and, most importantly, understanding a Shakespearean soliloquy.

1. Make Sure You've Read the Whole Play

This is a trap that young student actors often fall into; they assume simply knowing the speech is enough. However, if you don't understand the context of a soliloquy, then you can't truly get to grips with its meaning.

For example, Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' cannot be fully understood as a philosophical examination of suicide and death, until you know what has brought Hamlet to that moment of dark reflection.

The same can be said of any other Shakespearean soliloquy: What brings Macbeth to that point of nihilistic hopelessness in the 'tomorrow' speech? What prompts an unexpected revelation for Viola in the 'I left no ring with her' soliloquy?

2. Follow the Rhythm

Iambic rhythm is important, but
should be used naturally

No, not the rhythm of the night like DeBarge, but the iambic rhythm of the vast majority (but not all) of Shakespeare's soliloquies. 

If you're not familiar with what that means, it's essentially a pattern of unstressed and stressed beats, which in its simplest form sounds like this: de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM.

If we put words to that, we begin to see that Shakespeare has made it very clear that certain syllables are intended to be emphasised. 

For example, if MUS - ic BE - the FOOD - of LOVE - play ON

Once you've established the specific pattern of the soliloquy you're reading, you might find it useful to mark the text or simply highlight the syllables that should be stressed. 

However, you'll probably notice that overemphasising the iambic rhythm makes the speech sound like a bad nursery rhyme. So, at this point, you may want to pull back on those stressed beats, so you master something that resembles a slightly more natural speech pattern. 

That said, it's important to keep yourself aware of those accented beats, because Shakespeare's chosen them to be stressed for a reason. Not only will it help you find the soliloquy's groove, but it might also help make sense of the speech.

3. You Can Go Your Own Way

Try not to be influenced by famous interpretations
of a speech | don't be afraid to do your own thing

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare, in my opinion, is that much of his work is open to interpretation. And this, in part, is why his plays have such staying power. 

There are still questions that we don't have the answers to: Is Hamlet really mad? Is Macbeth wholly responsible for his downfall? Is Shylock a victim or a villain? Why does Iago want to destroy Othello? Is Petruchio really in love with Katharina? 

Questions  questions, questions. And there really is no right or wrong answer to any of them. In fact, the answer frequently hinges on the way a production of a Shakespearean play is performed. 

A director or actors can choose to turn Richard III into a completely comic figure, they can make the Christians of The Merchant of Venice thoroughly dislikeable, or they can turn Lear's elder daughters into justifiably upset women. 

My point is that Shakespeare gives us very few absolutes. So, don't feel that you have to perform a speech in a particular way. 

Don't be afraid to have your own opinion about a character or the events of a play. If you can justify why you've taken a certain angle, you can never be wrong.

If you'd like to find out more about the world's greatest playwright, be sure to check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Superstition and The Scottish Play

Did Shakespeare have to play the
first Lady Macbeth?

Despite Macbeth's popularity, it has been dogged by superstition and rumours of curses from its very first production. The well-worn tradition of actors not saying “Macbeth” is all too familiar. But, from where did the notion of a cursed play arise?

Coincidentally, one of the very aspects of the play that proved its popularity is thought to be the origin of a dreadful curse. In the words of Rolf Harris, "can you guess what it is, yet?"

Why is Macbeth Considered an Unlucky Play?

Rumour has it that Shakespeare used genuine rituals to create the first scene of act IV, in which the audience observes the weird sisters dancing, chanting and mixing a peculiar concoction in their cauldron.

Some people believe that the real witches of Shakespeare’s time were displeased with the theatrical representation of their rituals and, subsequently, placed a curse on the play.

Another theory asserts that the notion of bad luck developed in theatre companies, because it would often be nominated as a fallback play. In other words, if injury or illness prevented a company from performing their scheduled play, Macbeth would be performed instead. Largely, this was because Macbeth requires a smallish cast and, being a short play, there were fewer lines for the actors to memorise.

Additionally, due to its popularity, Macbeth would often be the play performed by struggling theatre companies. Unfortunately, reversing the fortunes of a failing company is a lot to expect from one play, even one as good as the Scottish Play, so, inevitably, Macbeth was often the last play performed by many theatre companies.

The First Performance of Macbeth

Shakespeare may have used real incantations and
'black magic' to create the witches' scenes
Over the years, a catalogue of accidents, fatalities and bizarre incidents have been ascribed to the curse of Macbeth.

In fact, it is rumoured to have struck the premiere performance of the play. It is believed, by some, that Shakespeare had to take to the stage as Lady Macbeth, because the young man who had been cast in the role suddenly became very ill and, subsequently, died.

Of course, this tragedy can be attributed to the curse, but it is worth bearing in mind that due to the lack of sanitation in the 17th century and the rampant way diseases could spread, numerous people were killed by mysterious illnesses. And, although the thought of Shakespeare playing Lady Macbeth is a wonderful one, to me at least, there is no evidence to support it. So it is generally believed to be nothing more than a myth. Shame!

Real Life Instances of Bad Luck and Macbeth

Laurence Olivier experienced some bad luck
with Macbeth
One of these most famous cases of real life tragedy striking a production of Macbeth occurred at New York's Astor Place, in 1849, when 31 people were killed after a full-scale riot broke out in the theatre.

Additionally, the curse of the play is said to have struck the legendary Laurence Olivier, when he was nearly hit by a stage weight, in 1937.

The director and an actress, of that same production, were involved in a car accident on their way to the theatre.

And if that weren't enough, the 1937 production was hit with further bad luck when the theatre manager was killed by a heart attack during the dress rehearsal. Then, yes there's more, Olivier’s sword broke during one of the fight scenes and ended up flying into the audience, hitting a man who later also had a heart attack.

How to Avoid the Curse of Macbeth 

The majority of preventative methods are still followed by today’s actors. For example, the first cardinal rule is that the word ‘Macbeth’ should never be spoken, except when part of the dialogue. Speaking the name of the play in a theatre is believed to cause intense bad luck. Therefore, the phrase ‘the Scottish play’ is used as a substitute.

Why do actors say call Macbeth the
Scottish Play?
However, in the event that somebody mistakenly says ‘Macbeth’ there are various rituals that are said to reverse the bad luck. One of the most common is that the person who has spoken the forbidden word must exit the theatre, spin around three times, utter a profanity and then ask permission to reenter.

There are many, equally peculiar, variants of this ritual, which include spitting over the shoulder and letting out a tirade of profanities.

Some performers believe that an unfortunate individual who has spoken the name ‘Macbeth’ can be absolved by repeating the following mantra: “Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground.” Alternatively, some actors believe that the best option is to turn to another of Shakespeare’s plays and quote any line from Hamlet.

Any one of these actions is believed to rectify the damage caused by uttering the name of the Scottish Play.

However, some performers find that with or without saying ‘Macbeth’, unexplainable incidents of bad luck occur during productions of the play.

To find out more about Macbeth, take a look at What's it All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth

Friday, 21 September 2012

Top 5 Unruly Women in Shakespeare's Plays

In the past, when I've written about Shakespeare's women, I've mentioned that almost all of them are 'unruly' in some respect. Whether it's defiance of a parent, social convention or expected feminine sensibilities, many of Shakespeare's gals live by their own rules.

However, some of Shakespeare's women are more spunky than others. So, let's take a look at the top five unconventional, unmatchable and unruly Shakespearean women.

5. Portia (from The Merchant of Venice)

Is Portia the most intelligent character
in The Merchant of Venice?

On the face of it, Portia doesn't seem like an 'unruly' gal. After all, she follows her deceased father's rather unusual wish that she marry a man who passes the 'casket test'. 

So, you'd assume she's an obedient, young Elizabethan woman. However, she does something incredibly unexpected when she dresses as a man and poses as a doctor of law at the Duke's chambers, in Venice. 

What results is the revelation that she's more intelligent than any of the men in the play, as she's the only one to notice the little loophole in Shylock's bond. 

She also plays a trick on her new husband (or perhaps she's just testing Bassanio) when, as Balthazar, she asks for his wedding ring. It could be argued that this, and the aftermath of it, restores her to the status of 'silly and emotional' woman. But she's still one of Shakespeare's most unconventional women.

Read more about Portia here.

4. Rosalind

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's
most unruly women

Another cross-dressing, lover-testing Shakespearean woman is Rosalind from As You Like It

Forced to go on the run in the forest of Arden, Rosalind protects herself and her cousin, Celia, by suiting herself "all points like a man". And, while dressed as Ganymede, she runs into a young suitor Orlando and devises a plan to test the endurance of his love. 

This leads to some hilariously funny scenes, during which Orlando woos Rosalind believing her to be Ganymede, who is trying to 'cure' him of his sickness. 

And although Rosalind/Ganymede reverts to a giddy, 'typical female' at times, "What did he when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes him here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? and when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word", it's worth bearing in mind that she is the one who orchestrates the resolution for herself, Orlando, Phebe and Silvius.

3. Goneril and Regan

Goneril & Regan defy 'natural' femininity
by not only refusing to care of their
father, but also seeking to destroy him

Goneril and Regan probably wouldn't appreciate sharing a position in the top five. They certainly didn't appreciate having to share Edmund. Nevertheless, they both deserve a place among Shakespeare's most unruly women. 

And for fairly obvious reasons. They go against conventional 'femininity' by turning on their father and then waging war against their sister.

Of course, their reputation is not helped by their possibly adulterous (at least in the case of Goneril) affairs with Edmund and the way in which they are even prepared to turn on each other when it comes to their lust for him. 

Whether Goneril and Regan really deserve the label 'she wolves' rather depends upon your point of view. Certainly, if you were to examine the play from their angle, there may be reasons for their unconventional and unruly behaviour.

2. Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most popular
female characters

When it comes to Shakespeare's women, Lady Macbeth is up there with the most famous and most popular. However, she's also among the most hated, which, in my opinion, is a little unfair on the old gal.

In terms of being a 'good wife', she pretty much lives up to expectation - supporting her husband, being strong in the face of his weakness and protecting him from incriminating himself in the act of murder. 

However, where she really breaks with feminine tradition and, I believe, earns the hatred of some people, is in her request to relinquish her femininity in the great "unsex me" speech.

In short, she doesn't behave as we think a woman should; she's tough, she doesn't shy away from the thought of murder (although, in actual fact, it does make her more uneasy than she's willing to admit), and she has the balls to tell it to Macbeth the way it is. That didn't sit comfortably with the average Jacobean audience any more than it sits with a modern audience of a film like Fatal Attraction

In general, we are repulsed by women who act in a masculine way - the comedy gals who dress as guys can get away with it, partly because their cross-dressing for humour and partly because they're apologetic about their (in the words of Viola) "masculine usurp'd attire". 

1. Katharina

As far as unruly girls go, they don't come
much more unruly than Katharina

Fiery, funky and funny, Katharina is my vote for top Shakespearean unruly woman, because she is a match for any man who crosses her path.

She is (almost) a thoroughly modern woman in an over four-hundred-year-old play, which in itself is telling of Shakespeare's genius....or our strange society, I'm not sure which.

In any event, Katharina is tempestuous and fights against every one of the conventions placed upon her. She does not want to obey her father, although she is forced into marriage; she is unprepared to temper her character or her intelligence to snare a man; she is unwilling to obey her husband (at least at first); and she is uncaring of the names she is called.

Whether, of course, the fiery Kate is 'broken' by the end of the play is debatable. If so, then it wipes out all of the things that put her top of the unruly girls list - which is a shame.

However, if, as I suspect, there is more to her final soliloquy then a simple, 'men are wonderful and we women should appreciate them more'. It's open to interpretation and what we actually reach, by the end of The Taming of The Shrew, could be an embryonic form of sexual equality.

What are your thoughts? Who is your favourite unruly Shakespearean woman?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Romantic Jealousy in King Lear | Love Triangle of Edmund, Goneril and Regan

Falling for Edmund is the beginning of the
end for Lear's eldest daughters
In the words of Irvin Berlin, "Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man." Indeed, Lord help Goneril and Regan, who destroy each other over their infatuation with Edmund.

To be fair, calling the Edmund, Goneril and Regan subplot a ‘love triangle’ is probably inaccurate. A ‘lust triangle’ may be a more appropriate description of the emotion that the women have towards Edmund and, likewise, he has towards them. Although, of course, this could be debated

Regardless of how this facet of the play is labelled, it is undoubtedly a key turning point in terms of the outcome.

In addition, it tells us a lot about the characters of Goneril, Regan and Edmund.

The Relationship Between Goneril and Edmund

During Act IV, Scene ii, Goneril makes her feelings for Edmund abundantly clear. Before sending him back to Gloucester’s castle, (where her sister and brother-in-law, Cornwall, have taken up residence since the blinding of Gloucester), she offers him a ‘favour’, “Wear this; spare speech;”(IV.ii).

This is reminiscent of the tradition of a lady giving a favour to a knight, which is popular in the medieval European concept of courtly love. This favour is a token of admiration, affection and is supposed to offer good luck (the more personal the item given, the greater the luck bestowed).

Lust might be a more accurate way of describing
the emotion between Goneril and Edmund
According to the traditions of ‘courtly love’, the romance between a lady and her knight (or other nobleman besides her husband) is not focused on the physical, but the emotional. In other words, loving pure and chaste from afar. The erotic desire is said to be present, but is not acted upon.

Therefore, if we assume that Goneril and Edmund have a ‘courtly love’, then it could be argued that their feelings are deeper than a mere physical attraction.

As Edmund leaves, Goneril says, “O, the difference of man and man!/To thee a woman's services are due:/My fool usurps my body.” (IV.ii) Here, she is comparing Edmund and her husband, Albany.

Clearly, she finds Albany wanting, referring to him as “My fool.” On the other hand, she deems Edmund worthy of a “woman’s services.” This certainly suggests that, if the two have not yet consummated their relationship, she certainly wouldn’t be averse to the suggestion.

The Relationship Between Regan and Edmund

Unlike her sister, Regan is ‘available’, thanks to her husband being wounded during the blinding of Gloucester and subsequently dying. In Act V, she makes her stance known, “Now, sweet lord,/You know the goodness I intend upon you:” (V.i) However, she has seen her sister give “…strange oeillades and most speaking looks/To noble Edmund.”(IV.v) and, therefore, asks Edmund outright if he loves Goneril.

Edmund skirts the issue slightly by replying, “In honour’d love.”(V.i) She clarifies her line of questioning by asking if he has “…found my brother’s way/To the forfended place?”(V.i) When referring to her ‘brother’, she means her brother-in-law and the implication of ‘forfended’ (meaning forbidden) place needs no further explanation.

Would Regan and Goneril have been able to
defeat Cordelia's troops if they'd kept their
eyes on the ball?
Again, Edmund refuses to answer directly and merely responds, “That thought abuses you.” (V.i) This is a statement rather than a question, which could be used to argue that he is getting a real kick out of playing the sisters against each other.

It certainly seems that he is aware of, and enjoying, the manipulative power he has over both women. This is demonstrated in his dying breaths, “Yet Edmund was beloved:/The one the other poison’d for my sake,/And after slew herself.” (V.iii)

However, eventually he does provide Regan with an answer, “No, by mine honour, madam.” He insists that he has not known Goneril in the biblical sense, which, if the courtly love view is taken, could be true.

But, of course, the ruthless manipulation and deceit demonstrated where his father and brother are concerned does not make him the most trustworthy of characters.

Jealousy, Murder and Suicide

It is particularly interesting to note the timing of the love/lust triangle. As Goneril and Regan should be focused on the mounting threat of Cordelia and her French troops, they are completely distracted by Edmund. In fact, Goneril goes as far as to say, “I had rather lose the battle than that sister/Should loosen him and me.”(V.i)

"The one the other poison'd for my sake
And after slew herself"
Subsequently, rather than waging battle against their mutual enemy, they are engaged in a war with each other. The very clear jealousy is demonstrated in Regan’s insistence that Goneril “…go with us.”(V.i) rather than allow her to be alone with Edmund.

Just like Edgar and Edmund throwing down their gloves in challenge later in the act, this marks the challenge that has been thrown down between the sisters.

The intense jealousy leads Goneril to murder her sister with poison. Then, when Albany reveals the letters that were transported between Goneril and Edmund by Oswald, she realises that the jig is up and kills herself.

Edmund believes that both acts were done for the love of him. While he might be right about the first, the second could be debated.

It is interesting to consider what the outcome of the play may have been if the sisters had not fallen head over heels in love with Edmund. Perhaps if they had been focused on their goal, they might have succeeded.

However, as the ‘baddies’ of the piece, it is, of course, necessary for them to come to an unpleasant end.

If you'd like to read more about all three sisters, check out King Lear's Girls.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Is Everybody Acting in Hamlet?

The Players aren't the only ones acting in Hamlet
The theme of acting is not only central to Hamlet's 'mousetrap' plan, but it is also a constant undercurrent throughout the play. 

Is Hamlet really mad? Is Gertrude really innocent of the knowledge of the murder of her husband? Who can we believe and what can we ever know for sure?

Despite the obvious example of the players' performance, there are numerous cases of acting in one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.

Examining the Nature of Acting in Hamlet

There are several examples of Shakespeare’s tendency toward ‘postmodernism’ (although he was writing over 400 years before the movement began and the phrase came into usage). Two of the most striking instances are to be found in the chorus of Henry V and Hamlet’s discussion of the rudiments of acting in Hamlet.

From a modern perspective, this seems peculiar of 400-year-old drama, but plays within plays and the deconstruction of the art of theatre, which are both found in Hamlet, were commonplace in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and even those of his predecessors. If nothing else, this suggests that ‘postmodernism’ is not so modern after all.
Does the play within the play emphasise the theme of
acting that runs throughout the play?

The Players in Hamlet

At first glance, the purpose of the players is to provoke guilt in Claudius and expose his crimes.

However, as many of the characters in Hamlet profess or pretend to be other than they are (particularly Claudius and Hamlet), the players take on a more significant role within the play. There is something poetic about the fact that the players, who are themselves feigning events and emotions, are able to shine a light on the true emotions of both Hamlet and Claudius.

In addition, it is worth remembering that the main aim of Hamlet is to entertain and, as mentioned above, the play within a play technique was extremely popular with Shakespearean audiences.

Is Hamlet Acting?

Whether or not Hamlet is feigning madness is something that is hotly debated. It certainly seems fair to assert that his madness is concocted as part of his revenge strategy.

Is Hamlet's madness real or feigned? | David Tennant
playing mad
Evidence of this can be found in Hamlet’s claim that he will “… put an antic disposition on”(I.v) However, whether events turn this into a genuine madness is less clear, but one could certainly argue that Hamlet’s sanity declines throughout his intended revenge.

There are further incidents within the play that allude to Hamlet acting, for example in act II, scene i, Ophelia tells of Hamlet playing the part of a rejected lover.

This notion of Hamlet ‘playing the part’ either of a wounded lover or a madman simply adds to the enigma of the character.

To further complicate an audience’s perception of Hamlet, during his first appearance on stage he tells his mother “Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.”(I.ii). Of course, the implication here is that he is incapable of feigning emotion. His subsequent actions, however, prove this to be untrue.

Who Else is Acting in Hamlet?

Well, the short answer is: almost everybody. Claudius is clearly acting the part of innocent brother and loving uncle. As mentioned above, to what extent Gertrude is aware of that and is, therefore, acting herself is not clear. Polonius meanwhile conducts a form of acting, as he attempts to humour the 'mad' prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
can't fool Hamlet
And, of course, there are those who are encouraged to put on an act, but are not quite so convincing: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, who have a "kind of confession in their looks,"(II.ii) that reveals to Hamlet their true purpose in Elsinore. 

Then, there's Ophelia who is encouraged by her father and Claudius to shine on to Hamlet in order to get the truth out of him. She too is not really cut out for the task of deception. 

In short, Hamlet is riddled with acting and actors. The theme of acting, or at least 'playing a role', is fundamental, and the inclusion of the players seems to be a way of emphasising this point. 

Shakespeare give us professional actors and those who are acting for self-preservation or personal gain. And of course, things don't end so well for those 'amateurs'.