Monday, 23 April 2012

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare! | The Life of a Genius

Whenever Shakespeare was born,
he probably didn't look like this.
Despite having one of the most famous names and recognisable faces in the entire history of humankind, relatively little is known about the man himself. This is especially true of his early years.

For instance, no one knows for sure when Bill Shakespeare was born. There is a record of his baptism in Stratford-Upon-Avon on 26th April, 1564. Because infant mortality during this era was so high, parents usually ensured that their children were baptised soon after birth. Subsequently, it is asserted that he may have been born on around the 23rd of April. This is considered to be Shakespeare official birthday, in part because it is also the date of his death - albeit several years later.

The 23rd of April is also St George’s Day and, as Shakespeare is one of England’s finest exports, it’s fitting that he is celebrated on the same day as the country’s patron saint.


Salad Days

Baby William was born to John Shakespeare, a glove maker and alderman (member of the local council) and Mary Shakespeare né e Arden (no relation of Elizabeth). Mary Arden was the daughter of a wealthy landowner, this coupled with John’s successful business and respected position suggests that the Shakespeares were financially comfortable.

Although no records exist to prove that William Shakespeare ever had any kind of formal education, his parents’ status would certainly suggest that he did. The King’s New School, was located just a stone’s throw from the Shakespeare home. So, it is very likely that this was the school he attended. There, he would have learnt Latin and would have become familiar with the classics, including Ovid. This knowledge would prove invaluable to him later in life, as a playwright.


Going to The Chapel and We’re…

In November of 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare married the slightly older Anne Hathaway (she was 8 years his senior). During this period, the legal age of consent was 21. Consequently, William needed his father’s permission to marry. It seems that arrangements for the wedding were made rather swiftly and the marriage banns, which are usually announced three times, were permitted to be read just once.

So, what was the rush? Were William and Anne so swept up in their love for one another that they felt compelled to marry instantly?

Six months later, Anne gave birth to a girl, Susanna, who was baptised on the 26th May, 1583. Yes, it was a shotgun wedding.

Two years after Susanna, came twins; a boy named Hamnet (sound familiar?) and a girl named Judith. The pair were baptised on 2nd of February, 1585. Sadly, Hamnet died at the age of 11 and was buried on the 11th of August, 1596.

The Lost Years

After the birth of the twins, Shakespeare slips off the radar rather. From 1585 until 1592, when he began to be noted as part of the theatrical scene in London, nobody knows exactly where Shakespeare was or what he was doing.

Since Shakespeare’s death, there have been many assertions as to what he may have been doing during these ‘lost years’. One theory states that he was forced to leave Stratford, after being caught poaching deer on a local estate. Others suggest that he spent the time teaching and there is also a theory that he began his theatrical career rather menially; caring for the patrons’ horses.

However, this is all guesswork and no evidence exists to support any of these theories. So, Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ remain a mystery.


All The World’s a Stage

Like much of Shakespeare’s life, it is unknown when he began writing. As he is also known to have performed, it may be that he began his career as an actor. Nevertheless, records state that his plays were being put on the stage by 1592.
From 1594, his plays were performed exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which later became known as the King’s Men; a company formed and run by a group of actors (or players as they were known) including Shakespeare himself. Unsurprisingly, with Shakespeare’s material to work with, they quickly became the leading company in London.

Sketch of The Globe Theatre
It was clearly a lucrative venture, because, in 1599, a group of company members invested in the construction of a theatre. This outdoor structure was built on the River Thames’ south bank and came to be known as the Globe. By 1608, the company was also able to purchase Blackfriars; an indoor theatre.

During this period, Shakespeare, like his fellow company members, was living high on the hog and dividing his time between London and Stratford (where his wife and children remained). By 1597, he owned the second largest house in Stratford and, in 1605, made an investment in the parish tithes.

Shakespeare and his company were valuable property and, by 1598, his name carried enough cache to be on the title page of the quarto editions of his play - something that was not done when they were first published, four years previously.

Throughout this time, he continued to act both in his own and other writers’ plays. For example, he is said to have performed in many of Ben Johnson’s works, including Volpone and Every Man in His Humour. Some scholars believe that his acting career slowed after 1605, but he is still listed as a ‘principal actor’ in the First Folio addition of his works.

Twilight Years

By 1606/1607, Shakespeare’s output began to reduce and plays he did work on were predominantly collaborations. After 1613, no theatrical work is attributed to him.

Retirement was rare in those days, as there was no provision for pensions. Therefore, he never withdrew completely from the London theatre scene and made occasional trips back. However, by this period, the majority of his time was spent in Stratford.

In 1616, at the age of 52, Shakespeare died. He was survived by his wife, Anne, and both daughters, Susanna and Judith. The lion’s share of his estate was left to the eldest daughter Susanna with instruction that it to be passed to her first born son.

If you want to know more about the life,
times and work of Shakespeare, check out
An Introduction to The Bard of Avon
Anne, on the other hand, gets hardly any mention in his will, except to bequeath her his “second best bed.” These three words have prompted much speculation. Some literary historians and scholars view this is a snub.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that a household’s best bed was reserved for guests. Therefore, the ‘second best bed’ was likely to be the marital bed. Subsequently, it would be imbued with emotional significance. An opinion explored by Carol Ann Duffy in her poem ‘Anne Hathaway’.
It’s also worth mentioning that the law at the time dictated that one third of a man’s estate automatically passed to his widow. Consequently, Shakespeare may have felt no need to specifically bequeath anything, other than the bed, to Anne.

Whether this infamous line from his will was intended as an affectionate gesture or speaks of an acrimonious marriage, we’ll never know. It, like so much of Shakespeare’s life, is and will remain shrouded in obscurity and ambiguity.
This post is an extarct from What's It All About, Shakespeare An Introduction to The Bard of Avon, which can be found on, and all other European Amazon outlets.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Where is The Volta in Shakespearean Sonnets?

The Front Page of
Shakespeare's Sonnets
What is a volta, what purpose does it serve and where can it be found in a Shakespearean sonnet?

As you may (or may not) know, Shakespearean sonnets, although named after Shakespeare, were not actually ‘invented’ by the Bard of Avon. So, you may also see this sonnet form referred to as the English sonnet (more on that here). 

But regardless of what we call it, the influence is still the same: the Petrarchan sonnet, which came from Italy and spread like wild fire across the rest of Europe.

So, when looking at what the volta is, what it does and where to find it, it’s a good idea to start with the example set by Petrarch and his posse. 


What is a Volta?

Volta can be used in reference to any type of poetry, but is most frequently used in regard to sonnets. It comes from Italian, and quite literally means ‘turn’, which is why you might hear it referred to as ‘the turn’ or the ‘turning point’.

And that’s pretty much all it means. It is just a line (a thought expressed in the poem), which in some way alters its meaning.

In other words, we think the sonnet is about one thing…but, no, wait, it’s actually saying something else. Or, in less dramatic circumstances, it just denotes a change in tone.

The really good news is that the volta is often, but not always, signposted.

What do I mean? Well, unsurprisingly, as the volta poses a “BUT”, you will often find the volta does, indeed, begin with a ‘but’ a ‘yet’ or an ‘and yet’.

Where is The Volta in a Petrarchan Sonnet?

Francesco Petrarca The Man We Have to
Thank for Petrarchan Sonnets

Finding the volta in a Petrarchan sonnet is a fairly straightforward affair.

Usually, a Petrarchan sonnet can be divided in two: an octet, which is the first eight lines. And a sestet, which is the remaining six lines.

The volta is most frequently found at the beginning of the sestet. Or, put more simply, the turning point of the sonnet often occurs in line 9.

Another good pointer is that the volta sometimes comes with a change in rhyme scheme.

Let’s use good ol’ Woodsworth, and one of his sonnets, to illustrate:

'London, 1802'

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

There is no ‘but’ or ‘and’ or ‘yet’ here, but there is a clear division. The octet gives a very bleak view of humanity - Lord knows what Wordsworth would make of London now, but I digress - and the sestet shifts the mood, by referring to all the fine qualities that Milton possessed.

As for the rhyme scheme, in Petrarchan sonnets the first eight lines typically follow this pattern: ABBAABBA.

The final six lines, however, can vary. In Wordsworth’s ‘London, 1802’. we have: CDDECE. There are no real rules to a Petrarchan sonnet’s sestet…except that it cannot end in a rhyming couplet.

Where is The Volta in a Shakespearean Sonnet

Henry Howard The Man We Have to
Thank for English/Shakespearean Sonnets

And the ‘no rhyming couplet ending rule’ is something that the English sonnets, and our friend Shakespeare, throw right out of the window.

Shakespearean sonnets, unlike their Italian cousins, are divided into three quatrains (groups of four lines) and a closing couplet (two lines).

In addition, among the many things Shakespeare messes with when marking the sonnet form with his very own brand, the volta is not to be found in just one place.

There are times when Shakespeare does indeed follow the old Petrarchan way, and places his ‘turn’ on line 9. However, more often than not, Shakespeare’s voltas are found in the closing couplet.

Examples, you cry? Well, here we go then. This is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might.
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ!
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

In the first eight lines, he is bemoaning the fact that he’s inarticulate when it comes to expressing his heart. In line 9 (in Shakespeare’s case, the beginning of the third quatrain), however, he says, ‘never mind, let my writing tell you how I feel’.

So how about a volta in the couplet, you say? Despite the fact that that sounds like a euphemism, let’s take a look at one of those, too. Here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Just to prove I’m not making it up, there is an example of the volta being signposted loudly and proudly with an “And yet…”

The entirety of the three quatrains (first 12 lines) is spent pointing out all of the things in nature that are more attractive than the poet’s love. However, in the couplet, he says, ‘that’s okay, because I love her anyway and all that Petrarchan sonnet crap is just fanciful rubbish that the poets spout to get laid’…or words to that effect.

So, hopefully, you’ll now have no trouble finding a volta in a Shakespearean sonnet (or any other sonnet for that matter).

However, if you've found this most unhelpful and you’re more confused than ever, drop me a line.

And if you’d like further help with your Shakespeare studies, or you’re just curious to know more about the world’s most famous playwright, check out: What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon at, or any of the other Amazon outlets.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Tags Explained

Phwoar! That is one might fine hunk of man, am I right?
As the number of posts is creeping up, I thought it would be helpful to divide them into categories and offer a handy little menu (if you will) at the top of the page.

I quickly realised, however, that I had two problems: one, it was not easy to split them into a handful of categories. And two, if those categories’ titles are longer than two or three short words, they don’t fit properly beneath the header.

Anyway, those humps were overcome with the loose and quite ambiguous titles that you can now see above. But I’m beginning to wonder if they are too loose and too ambiguous. So, this very brief post is just going to explain what those tags mean and how you can find the information you’re looking for.

The Plays: Fairly self-explanatorily, under this tag, you will find posts about specific plays or more general posts about a genre or common theme among a group of plays.

The Sonnets: Equally brazen about its purpose, ‘The Sonnets’ tag is the place to look for any and all information relating to Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.

The Man: Yes, you’ve guessed it! This category is anything concerned with Shakespeare’s life and/or career.

The Guys: This section of the site is where you can go to find out everything you ever wanted to know about Shakespeare’s male characters: heroes, villains, clowns - you’ll find them all here.

The Gals: Conversely, for those unruly daughters, feisty chicks and obedient wives, you should take a trip to ‘The Gals’ tab.

The Words: Perhaps not so ambiguously, ‘The Words’ section contains all of the posts related to understanding or celebrating Shakespeare’s wonderful use of the English language.

In a Nutshell: Finally, if you're looking for a brief and simple explanation of what happens in one of the plays, you might just find the answer here. 'In a Nutshell' offers simple synopses for the plays.

Hopefully, that will enable you to navigate your way through the site.

But, as ever, if there is any information you’re unable to find or if you have a burning question you’d like answered (as long as it’s related to Shakespeare; I can’t tell you what’s causing that rash), please feel free to get in touch.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Are Shakespeare’s Comedies Actually Funny?

Is there really anything funny about
Shakespeare's Comedies?

Shakespeare wrote seventeen plays that are labelled comedies. However, as I touched on in my post on problem plays, the categorisation of these plays is not so simple.

Subsequently, readers or audiences who expect Shakespeare’s comedies to be a laugh-a-minute may be disappointed. The fact is, the things that determined which genre a play was placed in didn’t necessarily have to do with the number of humorous moments contained therein.


What Are Shakespeare’s Comedies?

In the First Folio, fifteen plays were classed as comedies. Later a further two would join the club and the seventeen plays that were listed in the comedy genre are as follows:

All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like it
The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
Two Gentleman of Verona
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Winter’s Tale

However, more recently, the term problem play would come to be applied to a number of Shakespeare’s plays. And All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice are now all deemed problematic. For more on these plays and why they are known as ‘problem plays’, click here.


What is a Shakespearean Comedy?

Today, we have a very broad range of genres to choose from and it’s fairly readily accepted that these can converge. However, when Shakespeare’s plays were published, they were wedged (sometimes with a shoe horn) into just three categories: tragedy, history and comedy.

So, if a play wasn’t a tragedy; in other words, if it didn’t fit the tragic mould, and it wasn’t based on a historical event, there was only one other place to shove it. The fact that there may be more laughs in King Lear than in Love’s Labour’s Lost (for example) is irrelevant.

Unlike tragedy, which has to fit a specific from, comedy can be anything - essentially, there are no rules (with perhaps the exception of the obligatory wedding, although even this is absent from Love’s Labour’s Lost). However you may find these common themes among Shakespeare’s comedies:

Love - Particularly young love that is being scuppered by elders, often parents.
Confusion - Often caused by a disguise and/or a far-fetched conceit involving twins.
Labyrinthine Plots - One thing almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies do have in common is that they have several plots that are running in tandem and entwined.

Is the torture of Malvolio too cruel to be funny?
Helena Bonham Carter and Nigel Hawthorne
in Twelfth Night (1996)
But the fact that there are no ‘rules’ to Shakespearean comedy means that there are facets of them that we find quite difficult to swallow in the context of a play that is supposedly funny. The quasi-tragic opening of The Comedy of Errors or the edgy cruelty in Twelfth Night is difficult to square with something that we assume should be light-hearted fun.

Of course, the reality is that almost all comedy swings from laughter to heartbreak. After all, any good comic actor will tell you that a comedy performance must arouse pathos, otherwise it is fruitless. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so freaked out by the fact that it’s difficult to find ‘jokes’ in Shakespeare’s work.


What Makes a Shakespearean Comedy Funny?

All that said, I’m not suggesting that there isn’t anything laugh out loud hilarious in Shakespeare’s comedies, because there is.

Much of Shakespeare's humour can only be appreciated
in performance | Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline
in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
From the pithy word play of Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of The Shrew, to the slapstick in The Comedy of Errors and the silliness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is many a laugh to be had. Just about every form of comedy can be found within Shakespeare’s comedies.

However, it’s easy to miss, because it was never intended to be read. If you’re desperately searching for a glimmer of humour in one of Shakespeare’s comedies, then I encourage you to watch a version of it; either on stage or screen. Things that don’t seem funny on the page, will make themselves much clearer in performance.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare, in order to help you understand his work or assist your studies, check out my Introduction to The Bard of Avon, available at, or any European Amazon outlet.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Are Shakespeare’s Plays Sexist?

Was Shakespeare Sexist or a Feminist?
Not so long ago, I looked at the way Shakespeare can, and has been, viewed as a proto-feminist. So, let’s have a look at the argument from the other side.

In actual fact, just as feminism is an inaccurate phrase to use in relation to Shakespeare's work, so is sexism. As a twentieth century concept, it would be meaningless to Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries. But that doesn’t prevent us from taking that stance in a modern analysis.

The Role Of Women in Elizabethan And Jacobean Society

Firstly, it’s important to realise that, if we think Shakespeare’s plays are sexist, then they are only so in as much as a large proportion of the world was sexist during that era. Much like Benny Hill, Shakespeare was playing to the accepted stereotypes and conventions of his day. It is only in hindsight that watching a pervy old man chase some scantily-clad, buxom beauty round and round a field seems so very, very wrong.

And, despite the fact that England had a queen between the years of 1533 and 1603 (which encompassed the majority of Shakespeare’s career), women had a pretty raw deal. They are a long way from having any rights (although admittedly, at this time, so are an awful lot of men) and are, in one way or another, the property of men: either their fathers or their husbands. Their purpose in the world is twofold: to please their husbands and procreate.

Of course, this poses two problems. One, if a woman is made a widow, she runs a very real risk of becoming destitute - unless she can find another husband, which becomes more unlikely the older she gets. And two, it raises lots of questions about the nature of the ‘transaction’ between a man and a woman. Keep in mind, many women didn’t have much say over the men they married, the choice was made for them. In order to secure a roof over their heads women were, effectively, forced to sell themselves.

Shakespeare’s Most Sexist Plays

So, there can be no question that Shakespeare was writing during an era that we would now, unquestionably, describe as sexist. But what about his plays?

Well, we see evidence of the above, in much of his work. However, perhaps the most overtly ‘sexist’ plays are: The Taming of The Shrew, Hamlet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. All of them very clearly represent a woman as a man’s property.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in
The Taming of The Shrew
In The Taming of The Shrew, Kate vehemently states her disapproval at becoming Petruchio’s wife. However, her father has struck a deal with the man, so marry him she shall. And, of course, after the wedding, she is subjected to his attempts to ‘tame’ her, as though she were a horse that needed to be broken in - and we’re not talking about the kind of technique used by Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. Yes, it makes for some very humorous moments, but should we be laughing?

Then we have poor Ophelia, who is used as a weapon by both Claudius (with her father’s permission) and Hamlet. She’s treated like an object, a toy, without any feelings. Of course, eventually, she is quite literally broken; the death of her father driving her to suicide.

And for the girls of Othello and The Merchant of Venice, we have a very similar story. All three women: Desdemona, Jessica and Portia, have their lives ruled over by their fathers, even though Portia’s is dead! Of course, Desdemona and Jessica choose the same way out. Just like their sister in crime, Juliet, they run away from their fathers and elope.

For Desdemona, as for Juliet, this does not culminate in a ‘happy ending’, smothered to death, as she is, for an imagined infidelity. The really interesting question, however, is: if she really had done the dirty on Othello, would there have been any guilt or remorse? Or would he have felt entirely justified in his actions?

But Are Shakespeare's Women Really Helpless Victims?

Well, as we’ve already established, Jessica and Desdemona are what you might call ‘unruly’. They want to marry for love, and who can blame them, so they have no qualms about sticking two fingers up at their fathers and, in both cases, at social convention. Even Desdemona, who is so easy to view as a simpering victim, actually displays much more gumption than she’s often given credit for. Bear in mind, when Othello starts to go a little loco, she could run to her father or the Duke…or any other man around for that matter, and got herself out of Dodge.

Instead, she chooses to stay. She loves her husband and, because she thinks she knows him, is convinced that the little blip in their relationship will blow over. Now, you can call her a fool; one of the many women who make idiots of themselves over a man, but you cannot call her weak nor can you call her a victim. She certainly doesn’t consider herself to be one. When asked who has suffocated her, she replies, “Nobody; I myself.”

In many ways, Portia is smarter than the male
characters of The Merchant of Venice
Portia, on the other hand, goes along with her father’s rather peculiar method of finding her a husband, but, it seems, the old duffer knew what he was talking about, because she does, in fact, marry a man she would have chosen herself: a man who, in the process, proved that he is not merely interested in aesthetic worth. And then, of course, she quite literally goes and saves the day. So, she is more of a heroine than a representation of women without any status or value.

For poor Ophelia, the argument is a little more tricky. Or is it? Is her parting shot, the taking of her own life, an act not simply motivated by mind-numbing grief, but also a desire for revenge? Does she know that Hamlet does, in his own warped way, love her and that her death will affect him more greatly than he would have her believe? Was her suicide the act of a woman who is refusing to be the property and plaything of men?

And as for The Taming of The Shrew, it’s quite clear that Kate can give as good as she gets. Intellectually, she is Petruchio’s equal and this, more than anything else, is what makes the play such a joy to watch. However, it’s also worth considering the fact that Petruchio’s behaviour, which we know is an act put on solely for Kate’s benefit (he’s not usually quite that much of an arse) and, by the same token, Kate may well be putting on a bit of a performance. Who is to say that the final scene and her soliloquy are not done with tongue firmly planted in cheek? Is she really suggesting that men are more important than women? Or is she giving an argument for equality?

So, are Shakespeare’s plays sexist? Well, you can certainly find evidence of sexism (although we’re taking the plays out of context) within them, but are they inherently negative about girls? I would argue not, but what do you think?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Is Othello a Tragic Hero?

Does Othello Fit The Tragic Hero Mould?
Stanislavski as Othello (1896)
Yes, Othello is a tragedy, so the eponymous Moor, by rights, should be a tragic hero. But does he really fit the Aristotelian bill?

Well, truth be told, very few of Shakespeare’s tragedies fit Aristotle’s view. For a start off, Aristotelian tragedies should conform to the three unities: action, place and time.

Show me a Shakespearean tragedy that takes place in the space of twenty-four hours, in one location and with absolutely no subplot, and…that’s right, there ain’t one.

But Aristotle didn’t end there, he had a fairly firm notion of what characteristics a tragic hero should have, too.

What is a Traditional Tragic Hero?

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he goes into great detail about what he looks for in a tragic hero, and he discusses the most effective way to affect an audience. Basically, what it all boils down to is this:
  • A tragic hero must be a person of high status; an individual that an audience should look up to and admire
  • A tragic hero must be, essentially, ‘good’
  • A tragic hero cannot have committed any evil or catastrophic deed with intent
  • A tragic hero must have a fatal weakness, and it is this flaw that causes him to ‘accidentally’ commit the aforementioned deed


Othello is a Tragic Hero

So, let’s see how Othello measures up to that view.

How is Othello a tragic hero?
Well, the first point is a rather contentious one. On the face of it, a black man in an extremely racist period of history can hardly be seen as high status.

However, I think Shakespeare does, in fact, fulfil Aristotle’s first guideline, because Othello is a man of great honour, bravery and pride.

He has overcome many, but not all, of the racist opinions of Venice and made a great success of himself. Brabantio may not consider him to be ‘good enough’ for his daughter, but I think we, as an audience, feel an instant camaraderie with Othello.

Despite his lack of status and unenviable position of being a Moor in racist Venice, we do admire and respect him.

Next up, Othello is quite clearly a good guy.

The only possible exception being Iago’s claim that he has had an affair with his wife, Emilia. However, this is unsubstantiated and, given our source, I think we have to take it with a pinch of salt. Therefore, for the sake of argument, we can agree that Othello is essentially ‘good’.

But this is where things start to stray from the well-worn tragic hero path.

Othello is Not a Tragic Hero

Why is Othello not a tragic hero?
A tragic hero’s fatal flaw is called hamartia. Now, there is some argument over what exactly Aristotle meant by the use of the word, but it’s literal meaning is an injury (or harm) committed in ignorance.

In other words, it's a misjudgement or accident on the part of the perpetrator.

A good example would be Hamlet’s murder of Polonius or Oedipus killing his father (although this is a grey area; Oedipus knew he was killing someone, even if he didn’t know it was his father).

In any event, Othello’s smothering of Desdemona cannot be described as an act of ignorance or misjudgement - unless, of course, you say his misjudgement is that he thought he was killing an unfaithful hussy when, in actual fact, he was killing his faithful and loyal wife.

But I think a jury would have a hard time swallowing that one.

And then, of course, there’s the question of whether Othello really has a fatal flaw at all. At least, one in the traditional tragic sense.


What is Othello’s Tragic Flaw?

What Flaw Does Iago Exploit? Lawrence Fishbourne and
Kenneth Branagh in Othello (1995)
Some people claim that Othello’s flaw is jealousy.

I disagree, because, to me, jealousy is not an emotion or state of being that can exist on its own. It requires other things to feed it.

In Othello’s case, and most other cases of jealousy, this is insecurity.

Iago does not prey on Othello’s jealousy, he preys on his insecurity - the sense that he is not ‘good enough’ and that Desdemona will, therefore, eventually find a more suitable mate.

But then I’m inclined to dig a little deeper. Insecurity, on the whole, is not something we are born with - especially not if we are great, big, strapping generals in the Venetian army. So, why is Othello insecure? Well, my guess would be the systematic racism he has had to endure.

Is he an inherently jealous and cynical man? Well, judging by his implicit trust of Iago, the answer seems to be ‘no’.

Subsequently, I am of the opinion that, unlike many Aristotelian tragic heroes, Othello is not in possession of an intrinsic flaw, which causes his downfall. Instead, he is a victim of the endemic racism of his era; racism that has driven him to feel insecure about the permanence of his position and his well-deserved, but unusually good fortune.

So, is Othello really a tragic hero? Well, in my opinion, yes….and no. What do you think?

For more on Othello, take a look at 'An Overview of Othello's Character' and 'Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim or One Of Shakespeare's Spunky Gals?'

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Commonly Used Terms in Shakespeare’s Stage Directions

In my last post, I took a quick look at the lack of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. However, within the few directions that the Bard does give, there are some commonly used phrases, which may seem rather alien.

Why do they seem alien? Well, it has a lot to do with our modern understanding of how a theatre should look. Because, of course, Shakespeare’s theatres, whether outdoor, like The Globe, or indoor, like Blackfriars, were vastly different from the proscenium arch theatres that are the ‘norm’ for us.

What Did Shakespeare's Globe Look Like?

So, before we take a look at some of Shakespeare’s most commonly used stage direction terms, let’s have a quick gander at The Globe’s stage.

A Sketch of the Interior of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

As you can see, the theatre is open-air, with the exception of the small portion of roof, supported by two columns, which covers the stage. If necessary, actors could be lowered onto the stage from this roof, which was known as the ‘heavens’, with the help of a harnesses and some ropes.

At the back of the stage, there are three doors (used for exits and entrances) and, above, is a balcony - this was usually home to the musicians, but could also be used by the actors.

Finally, it’s handy to note that the stage itself was approximately 5ft in height and the ‘groundlings’ (those who paid just a penny to frequent the theatre) would be crammed onto the floor space around it, perhaps even leaning on the edge of the stage. If the mood took them, it would be quite possible for them to grasp the legs of King Lear or Macbeth.

The Interior of the Rebuilt Globe Theatre

Shakespearean Stage Directions

Some of the most common terms in Shakespeare’s stage directions are:

Above - This is exactly what it suggests. Any action that takes place ‘above’, is performed on the balcony above the stage. This is used (unimaginatively enough) as a balcony, for Juliet or the grumpy, half-asleep Brabantio. However, it could also be used to represent city walls. And, sometimes, it’s a convenient location for those who are overhearing conversations that are being had on the main stage.

Alarum - You may be able to discern that this is where the word ‘alarm’ comes from. And it has a similar meaning, except ‘alarum’, specifically, refers to a call to arms. In Shakespearean theatrical terms, it meant a fight, brawl, scuffle - what you will. Often, fight sequences would use every available inch of the stage and may even have gone down into the audience.

Below - Because the stage was 5ft high, it obviously had considerable space beneath, which was accessible by a trap door. This space was known as ‘Hell’ by the theatre lovies and would often represent a grave, dungeon or even the underworld. Shakespeare’s gravediggers use ‘Hell’ in Hamlet and it would have also been used, aptly enough, as Malvolio’s cell in Twelfth Night.

Discovered - As you may be able to see in the sketch of Shakespeare’s Globe, there is a section of the stage (in the centre), which can be covered with a curtain. This is known as the ‘discovery’ space and would be used for a private room, such as Gertrude’s closet in Hamlet or Desdemona’s bedchamber in Othello.

Dumbshow - Pretty self-explanatorily, a dumbshow is a sequence of performance with no words. Even by Shakespeare’s time, this was considered to be a pretty outdated and hokey form of drama, which tells us something about Hamlet’s players.

Flourish - Quite simply, a flourish was a fanfare of cornets, often to announce the entrance of a king, lord or emperor. As mentioned above, the musicians would usually be positioned on the balcony.

Severally - When a group of actors is instructed to reach the stage ‘severally’, it means that they should come in using different entrances. The word translates as ‘separately’ and, as the characters are using different doors to enter, it suggests that they are approaching from different locations.

And there you have it, Shakespearean stage directions explained. If you are not fortunate enough to be able to see a play in performance, it’s tremendously helpful to be able to envisage exactly what Shakespeare had in mind.

If there are any other terms in Shakespearean stage directions that you would like clarified, just let me know in the comments below.