Monday, 21 May 2012

Making Sense of Shakespeare | How to Read Shakespeare's Work

It wasn't Shakespeare's intention
for you to read his plays.

As you may already know, many of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published until several years after his death. He wrote his plays to be performed rather than read and, I suspect, it would be beyond his wildest imagination to think that almost 400 years after his death, schoolchildren would be sitting in classrooms reading his work. But, who knows, maybe he was terribly narcissistic.

What I quickly discovered when I first starting studying Shakespeare (which wasn’t that long ago….it wasn’t! Shut up) is that there are three very important things to remember about Shakespeare:
  1. Plays should be seen and not read
  2. Shakespeare’s work can mean anything you want it to (within reason)
  3. His plays were written for the entertainment of the masses

See a Play Before You Read a Play

Shakespeare’s plays are just that - plays; intended to be watched not read. Therefore, reading Shakespeare is akin to reading the screenplay of a modern film; it simply doesn’t have the same impact as seeing it performed.

So, I think the way to get the best from a Shakespeare play is to see it. Thankfully, with numerous film versions of his famous works, finding a DVD of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or any other Shakespearean masterpiece is easy and relatively cheap.

It’s All Open to Interpretation

Because Shakespeare probably never intended to publish his plays and he directed almost all of his own work, there was no need to write lengthy stage directions or descriptions. You’ll find precious few, with the possible exception of Titus Andronicus. Consequently, Shakespeare’s work can be, and has been, interpreted in any number of ways.

A skecth of the interior of the Globe Theatre
There is simply no way of truly knowing what Shakespeare’s intentions were; what he was thinking when he wrote a play or the message he was attempting to impart.

This is a particularly sticky issue when it comes to the problem plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, which was used by the Nazis as an anti-Jewish piece of propaganda. On the other hand, of course, many interpretations of Shylock have been extremely sympathetic towards his character.

Subsequently, throughout the centuries, people have seen what they want to see in Shakespeare’s work. Naturally, this freedom of interpretation does not always produce favourable results. However, one thing is for sure, it keeps Shakespeare’s work relevant, because it can be interpreted to fit almost any time or location.

His Aim Was Mass Appeal

When it comes to talk of Shakespeare’s intentions, scholars and historians can speculate forever. However, the most important concern for the man himself was that his plays were entertaining.

Today, there is a common misconception that Shakespeare is somehow elitist and only relevant to a certain section of society. Of course, he had royal patronage from Elizabeth I and, later, James I, but, in his own time, Shakespeare appealed to a large spectrum of the population, including the ‘great unwashed’.

The south bank of the Thames in Elizabethan
was a bit like Las Vegas

It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was situated on the south bank of the Thames, in London, which was the Las Vegas of Elizabethan and Jacobean England (minus the Elvis impersonators).

I suppose that would make Shakespeare the Celine Dion of Elizabethan and Jacobean London or perhaps the Barry Manilow. It may be best to leave that dodgy analogy alone now. But the point is, William Shakespeare wasn’t some literary genius in an ivory tower, he and his plays, were entertaining very ordinary people.

The theatre was surrounded by public houses, bear baiting pits, brothels and gambling houses. Consequently, Shakespeare’s audiences were often a little tipsy (to put it mildly), rowdy and easily distracted. Shakespeare had to ensure that his plays would keep the attention of these audiences for the duration of the play. In the case of Hamlet, this is over four hours, so no easy task.

Therefore, before starting to read a Shakespeare play, I urge you to shake any notion that you must desperately search for profound meaning. Yes, we can read those messages within the texts, but that wasn’t what was foremost in William’s mind. Oh, no. If tills (or cash registers for my American chums) had been invented in the 16th century, the only thing Shakespeare would have been thinking is ‘kerching’.

This post is an excerpt from What's It All About, Shakespeare?An Introduction to The Bard of Avon, which is avialable from,, Smashwords and all good online book retailers.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Oh, no, thou didn’t!! | Shakespeare’s Best Insults

No matter what you may think of Shakespeare’s plays, it could never be said that William Shakespeare did not use the English language with flair and finesse.

His poetry and plays offer a wonderful insight into the power of words. They can be used to woo, amuse, deceive, express inner turmoil and even insult. In fact, when it comes to witty and acerbic insults, Shakespeare was something of a master.

Often, modern English simply does not provide the right words, inflection and delivery to compose an ingenious insult. However, Shakespeare offers some of the finest invectives ever written. The following are just some of the best Shakespearean insults.

Best Insults from Shakespeare’s Comedies

“For I must tell you friendly in your ear,/Sell when you can: you are not for all markets.” - As You Like it (III.v) Spoken by Rosalind to Phebe.

In this scene, Phebe is ungracefully and cruelly shunning the advances of young Silvius, who is passionately in love with her. Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede), who overhears the conversation, insists that Phebe is no ‘looker’ and, therefore, should take an offer of love wherever she can get it.

“Come, you are a tedious fool. To the purpose.” - Measure for Measure (II.i) Spoken by Escalus to Pompey.

Sometimes the simple ones really are the best. In this scene, Pompey has a case of verbal diarrhoea. So, Escalus, in no uncertain terms, tells him to cut the drivel and get to the point.

 Beatrice (Emma Thompson) loves to insult
Benedick (Kenneth Branagh ) in Much
Ado About Nothing (1993)
 “I wonder that you still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.” - Much Ado About Nothing (I.i) Spoken by Beatrice to Benedick.

Similar to Escalus’ quote above, here Beatrice is enquiring as to why Benedick is still talking, as nobody cares to listen.

This is the first quarrel between the two characters and sets the tone for the wonderful ‘thrust and parry’ verbal jousting that the pair shares.

“You peasant swain! you whoreson malt-horse drudge!” - The Taming of the Shrew (IV.i) Spoken by Petruchio to Grumio.

This line beautifully demonstrates the point made above concerning the differences between modern English and Elizabethan English.

Words, such as “swain” “whoreson” and “malt-horse” provide a deeply offensive, but wonderfully mellifluous insult.

Best Insults from Shakespeare’s Tragedies

“Thou lump of foul deformity” - Richard III (I.ii) Spoken by Lady Anne to the Duke of Gloucester (who later becomes Richard III).

In this scene, Lady Anne is mourning the death of her husband (Henry VI), who was murdered by Richard in the field of battle.

While grieving over the dead body of her husband, Richard enters and begins to woo her. Understandably, she is none too pleased with his advances. However, it should be noted that, by the end of the scene, she dramatically changes her tune.

“They have a plentiful lack of wit.” - Hamlet (II.ii) Spoken by Hamlet to Polonius while reading about old men.

Like many great insults, the genius of this is in its simplicity. The oxymoron “plentiful lack” is what makes this insult clever and humorous.

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) doesn't have the highest
opinion of women (1948)
 “Frailty, thy name is woman!” - Hamlet (I.ii) Spoken by Hamlet about his mother, Gertrude, and the female sex more broadly.

Hamlet is dismayed that not only has his mother married so quickly after the death of his father, but she has married her brother-in-law, which would have been seen as an incestuous relationship at the time.

In his frustration, Hamlet concludes that women, as a sex, are simply weaker than men.

These are, of course, only some of Shakespeare’s best insults. Many more can be found throughout his plays.

This article was originally published by the author on Suite101.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's ingenuity with words, take a look at What's It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind | How Old is Juliet?

Ford Maddox Brown's painting of Romeo
and Juliet - that blonde gal looks
much older than thriteen to me
The young lovers of Romeo and Juliet really are very young (especially the female half of the duo). So, is the tragedy of Shakespeare’s most famous love story, a tale of true love or just puppy love?

This week, I received a message from Emma, who had stumbled onto the site and wanted to know how old Juliet is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She wrote, “a girl in my class said Juliet was really young, like fifteen or something. Is that true?”

Juliet is How Old?!

Well, in actual fact, Juliet is only thirteen. Oh, yes, indeed. Little miss Capulet is just a fortnight shy of her fourteenth birthday. Which, from a modern perspective, does really rather alter our view of the play.

After all, Romeo isn’t thirteen too, is he? Well, Shakespeare doesn’t specify Romeo’s age, but given that he is (roughly) the same age as Tybalt, Mercutio and Paris - it’s illogical to think of them all as being in their early teens.

Given that assumption, and the knowledge that men, traditionally (although this is not true of Shakespeare himself), took wives who were younger than themselves, we can guess that Romeo is at least in his late teens or early twenties. I hardly need to point out how wrong that age gap would seem to us now. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap said it best with their 60s hit Young Girl.

How Times Have Changed

However, it is important to put all of that in its historical context. Bear in mind, a girl was classed as a ‘woman’, as soon as she had physically become one - in other words, once her menstrual cycle had begun. If you were capable of having a baby, you were a woman.

More importantly, if you were capable of carrying a child, and you’re not doing exactly that, then time's a wastin'. Keep in mind, in late 16th and early 17th century Europe, the average life expectancy was only thirty-five, which means that Juliet is almost pushing middle-age!

And They Called it Puppy Love

17th century image of Mary Saunderson
(probably the first woman to play Juliet) -
it looks like it's been a long time since she
saw thirteen.
Nevertheless, for any of us who have experienced teenage love, especially that first great love (that you’re just convinced will last forever), we know that things rarely work out as we think they will.

Romeo and Juliet may have been certain that they would never feel so strongly for another human being as long as they lived - and, indeed, they didn’t.

However, there is a good chance, had they survived that flush of rampant hormones, the lust would have eventually dampened and, at some point in her late twenties (after she’d married an accountant), Juliet would look back at her diary entries; the sickeningly bad poetry she’d penned, the pages of practice signatures for ‘Mrs Juliet Montague’, and realize what an innocent, na├»ve and, ultimately, ridiculous notion of love she had.


If you have any questions about Shakespeare, his plays or his poems, please feel free to get in touch.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Words to Thank Shakespeare For

William Shakespeare was a bit of a radical and was responsible for 'inventing' a whole bunch of words; some 1700, that are still used in everyday English.

In most cases, he didnt create these words from thin air. Instead, he turned nouns into verbs, (which we still frequently do; googling for example) transformed verbs into adjectives and added prefixes and suffixes to all manner of words. Without question, the modern English language has much to thank William Shakespeare for.


Addiction:  First appeared in Henry V. ~ “Since his addiction was to courses vain, His companies unletter'd, rude and shallow, His hours fill'd up with riots, banquets, sports…”(I.i)

Advertising:  First appeared in Measure for Measure. ~ “I was then/Advertising and holy to your business…”(V.I)

Amazement: First appeared in King John. ~ “And wild amazement hurries up and down/The little number of your doubtful friends.”(V.I)


Bedroom: First appeared in A Midsummer Night
s Dream. ~ “Then by your side no bed-room me deny;/For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie.”(II.ii)

Blanket: First appeared in King Lear. ~ Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;/And with presented nakedness out-face/The winds and persecutions of the sky.(II.iii)

Bloodstained: First appeared in Titus Andronicus. ~ “These sorrowful drops upon thy blood-stain’d face,/The last true duties of thy noble son!”(V.iii)

Blushing: First appeared in Henry VI Part 3. ~ “And, if though canst for blushing, view this face,/And bite thy tongue…”(I.iv)


Circumstantial: First appeared in As You Like It. ~
“…this is called the/Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie/Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.”(V.iv)

Cold-Blooded: First appeared in King John. ~ “Thou cold-blooded slave,/Hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side…”(III.i)

Compromised: First appeared in The Merchant of Venice. ~ “When Laban and himself were compromised/That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied/Should fall as Jacob’s hire…”

Critic: First appeared in Loves Labours Lost. ~ “A critic, nay, a night-watch constable;/A domineering pedant o'er the boy;/Than whom no mortal so magnificent!”(III.i)


Deafening: First appeared in Henry IV Part 2. ~
“With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds…”(III.i)

Discontent: First appeared in Titus Andronicus. ~ “Rest on my word, and let not discontent/Daunt all your hopes.”(I.i)

Drugged: First appeared in Macbeth. ~ “…the surfeited grooms/Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg’d their possets…”(II.ii)

Dwindle: First appeared in Henry IV Part 1. ~ “Bardolph, am I not fallen away vilely since this last action? do I not bate? do I not dwindle?(III.iii)


Elbow: First appeared in King Lear. ~ “A sovereign shame so elbows him.”(IV.iii)

Excitement: First appeared in Hamlet. ~ “How stand I then,/That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,/Excitements of my reason and my blood,/And let all sleep?”(IV.iv)

Eyeball: First appeared in A Midsummer Nights Dream. ~ “To take from thence all error with his might,/And make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight.”(III.ii)


Fashionable: First appeared in Troilus and Cressida. ~
“For time is like a fashionable host/That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand…”(III.iii)

Frugal: First appeared in The Merry Wives of Windsor. ~ “I was then frugal of my
mirth: Heaven forgive me!”(II.i)


Gloomy: First appeared in Henry VI Part 1. ~ “But darkness and the gloomy shade of death/Environ you, till mischief and despair/Drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves!”(V.iv)

Gossip: First appeared in The Comedy of Errors. ~ “With all my heart, I'll gossip at this feast.”(V.i)

Grovel: First appeared in Henry VI Part 2. ~ “If so, gaze on, and grovel on thy face,/Until thy head be circled with the same.”(I.ii)


Hobnob: First appeared in Twelfth Night. ~
Hob, nob, is his word; give’t or take’t.”(III.iv)


Impartial: First appeared in Henry IV Part 2. ~
“Sweet princes, what I did, I did in honour,/Led by the impartial conduct of my soul…”(V.ii)

Invulnerable: First appeared in King John. ~ “Our cannons’ malice vainly shall be spent/Against the invulnerable clouds of heaven…”(II.i)


Jaded: First appeared in Henry VI Part 2. ~
“The honourable blood of Lancaster,/Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.”(IV.i)


Labelled: First appeared in Twelfth Night. ~
“…it shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will.”(I.v)

Lacklustre: First appeared in As You Like It. ~ “And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,/Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock…”(II.vii)

Laughable: First appeared in The Merchant of Venice. ~ “That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile,/Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.”(I.i)


Madcap: First appeared in Love
s Labours Lost. ~ “That last is Biron, the merry madcap lord:/Not a word with him but a jest.”(II.i)

Marketable: First appeared in As You Like It. ~ “All the better; we shall be the more marketable.”(I.ii)

Mimic: First appeared in A Midsummer Nights Dream. ~ “Anon his Thisbe must be answered,/And forth my mimic comes.”(III.ii)


Negotiate: First appeared in Much Ado About Nothing. ~
“Therefore, all hearts in love use their own tongues;/Let every eye negotiate for itself/And trust no agent…”(II.I)

Noiseless: First appeared in Alls Well That Ends Well. ~ “For we are old, and on our quick'st decrees/The inaudible and noiseless foot of Time/Steals ere we can effect them.”(V.iii)


Obscene: First appeared in Love
s Labours Lost. ~ “…I did encounter that obscene and preposterous event…”(I.i)

Outbreak: First appeared in Hamlet. ~ “The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind,/A savageness in unreclaimed blood,/Of general assault.”(II.i)


Pedant: First appeared in The Taming of The Shrew. ~ “But, wrangling pedant, this is
The patroness of heavenly harmony.”(III.i)

Puking: First appeared in As You Like It. ~ “At first the infant,/Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.”(II.vii)


Radiance: First appeared in Alls Well That Ends Well. ~ “In his bright radiance and collateral light/Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.”(I.i)

Rant: First appeared in Hamlet. ~ “Nay, an thou’lt mouth,/I’ll rant as well as thou.”(V.i)


Scuffle: First appeared in Antony and Cleopatra. ~ “Upon a tawny front: his captain’s heart,/Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst/The buckles on his breast…”(I.i)

Secure: First appeared in Henry VI Part 2. ~ “Now is it manhood, wisdom and defence,/To give the enemy way, and to secure us/By what we can, which can no more but fly.”(V.ii)

Swaggering: First appeared in A Midsummer Nights Dream. ~ “What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here,/So near the cradle of the fairy queen?”(III.i)


Torture: First appeared in Henry VI Part 2. ~ “You go about to torture me in vain.”(II.i)

Tranquil: First appeared in Othello. ~ “Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!”(III.iii)


First appeared in The Taming of The Shrew. ~
“Madam, undress you and come now to bed.”(Induction.ii)


Varied: First appeared in Titus Andronicus. ~
“Sweet varied notes, enchanting every ear!”(III.i)

Vaulting: First appeared in Henry VI Part 2. ~ “The pretty-vaulting sea refused to drown me.”(III.ii)


Worthless: First appeared in Henry VI Part 3. ~
“Poor Clifford! how I scorn his worthless threats!”(I.i)


Zany: First appeared in Love
s Labours Lost. ~ “Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,/Some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick,/That smiles his cheek in years and knows the trick…”(V.ii)

So, next time you're wondering what relevance Shakespeare has to modern life, ask yourself this question: Where would we be without worthless, puking pendants and eyeballs?

To find more words invented by Shakespeare and more Bard-knowledge than you can shake a stick at, check out ‘What’s It All About, Shakespeare’.