Friday, 27 July 2012

Why is Hamlet's 'To Be or Not to Be' Speech so Popular?

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.

"To be or not to be?" is arguably the most famous line in the entire Shakespearean canon and has been performed by some of the finest actors to grace the stage. 

The soliloquy is a fine example of Shakespeare’s ability to express a character’s torment with nothing other than language. Obviously, in performance, the speech’s power is even more potent, but the speech alone adequately express the tumultuous workings of Hamlet’s mind.

Clearly, it is not just the words that create such an extraordinary effect, the type of verse is crucial too.

The soliloquy is written in iambic pentameter with many of the lines having a feminine ending, meaning that they have eleven syllables rather than ten, the last of which is unstressed. Iambic pentameter with a feminine ending was a popular choice of Shakespeare’s and is used to similar effect in Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech.

Giving 'To be or not to be?' a Little Context

Perhaps the most well known soliloquy, the speech comes during the third act of Hamlet, by which point the eponymous hero’s sanity is beginning to unravel, or at least, this is what the audience is led to believe. Whether or not Hamlet is feigning madness is still hotly debated, but it would certainly seem that by Act Three he cannot be described as being of entirely sound mind.

The audience is aware of Hamlet’s determination to avenge the death of his father, but it is clear that he is unsure (to put it mildly) of the best course of action. In the interim, his peculiar behaviour has resembled that of a spoilt teenager and his mother, Gertrude, describes “…Hamlet’s wildness…”(III.i) to Ophelia.

What is Hamlet Talking About in The 'To be or not to be' Speech?

What is Hamlet chatting about?
A large part of the appeal of the “To be or not to be?” speech is that Hamlet is not really speaking of suicide or the choice between life and death. Instead, he is addressing the very issue of existence. Not, on the face of it, that may seem to be the same thing, but it is a much more philosophical discussion and is, actually, what we would now consider, a metaphysical debate.

Another reason that the soliloquy is so memorable and well loved is that Shakespeare has posed a dichotomy. In other words, the first lines present questions with diametrically opposite choices, for example, “To be or not to be?” and “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”(III.i).

We swing from one side to the other, almost like the ticking of the clock, which fits beautifully with the iambic rhythm. In an odd way, the soliloquy is both soothing and disturbing.

What is The Answer to The Question 'To be or not to be?'

Although Hamlet seems to draw the conclusion that death is a “…consummation Devoutly to be wish’d…”(III.i), he finds himself with a reason to doubt his conclusion.

This is not only typical of Hamlet’s character, but it is also indicative of the human condition, because death is inevitable, but it also the big unknown. As Hamlet puts it, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.”(III.i).

Towards the end of the speech, Hamlet claims that “…conscience does make cowards of us all: And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment, With this regard, their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.”(III.i)

These final lines rather neatly describe the character of Hamlet. In fact, it could be argued that it is a moment of very clear self-recognition. The kind of clarity we would expect from a madman? I think not.

For an insight into the performance of "To be or not to be?", take a look at Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

King Lear’s Girls | Have Goneril, Regan and Cordelia Been Royally Screwed Up by Their Father?

Cordelia, Regan and Goneril: King Lear's

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's best loved plays, but there are often conflicting views about its female characters. On thing is for sure, Lear girls are breaking the mould right, left and centre.

I’ve written about feminism in Shakespeare - or, more accurately, feminist views  retrospectively attached to Shakespeare’s work in the past. And you could argue that my analysis of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia is verging on the Germaine Greer. However, I do believe that there is evidence within the play to support my view that Lear’s girls are a product of some shockingly bad parenting.

It is evident that Shakespeare has written the women of King Lear in a way that is ambiguous and lends itself to the possibility of interpretation. Goneril and Regan, in particular, are hotly debated. It can, of course, be argued that they are the evildoers of the piece, but Shakespeare never creates two-dimensional characters. And there is some evidence within the play to suggest that the two elder daughters behave as they do in response to their treatment at the hands of Lear.

The Female Characters of King Lear

For example, the commencement of the play is a competition, orchestrated by Lear. He instigates the 'who loves Daddy most?' contest, which from Gloucester’s “…in the division of the kingdom it appears not which of the/Dukes he values most…” we know to be a completely arbitrary exercise.

Lear also makes no secret that Cordelia is his favourite, and we can be fairly sure that he knows she loves him more than her elder sisters. So, why does he put them to the test? Surely, the only outcome from this little exercise can be jealousy, resentment and rivalry?

Therefore, can we blame Goneril and Regan for acting as they do?

Goneril & Regan: Evil or Just Misunderstood Young Women?

Are Goneril and Regan really
all that bad?
It seems to me that an audience’s dislike of Goneril and Regan is primarily created by their lust for power. However, in a male character this trait may not be so distasteful. I mean, we don’t feel quite as badly about Edmund, do we?

So, it seems that it is the combination of femininity and power which is difficult to reconcile with, and that holds true even today. This is interesting, when we consider that King Lear was written approximately two years after the death of Elizabeth I. Perhaps, therefore, it is not simply the notion of a woman in a position of power that is problematic. Instead, the problem seems to arise when a woman is openly displaying ambition and succumbing to it with violent and, sometimes, cruel actions.

These seem to be typically ‘masculine’ behaviours and it appears that it's the abandoning of femininity (or typically held views regarding femininity) that an audience finds both repellent and fascinating in equal measure.

From the outset, we are ostensibly offered a representation of Lear’s two elder daughters as scheming and Machiavellian.

Cordelia: King Lear's Youngest Daughter

Cordelia, meanwhile, appears to redeem womankind. Her honesty is both refreshing and dignified, which is in sharp contrast to her sisters' rehearsed and empty speeches.
Despite her father’s obviously growing anger, Cordelia remains calm and refuses to participate in his perverse game.

In fact, it seems that, of the three daughters, Cordelia has become most like her father. She certainly seems to have inherited his stubborn streak.

Lear's Influence Upon His Girls

King Lear has some unorthodox parenting
techniques | Ian Holm as King Lear
Not only this, but it is evident that Lear can be very cruel as well as mule-headed.

First, we observe an instance of it in his overreaction to Cordelia’s insistence that she will not take part in the charade of dividing the kingdom. Second, there is his callous outburst, this time directed towards Goneril, in which he prays to the gods that she be made infertile.

At this particular point in the play, it seems that all Goneril has done to prompt his outburst is to ask that a portion of his entourage be dismissed. Lear's overreactions, and his cruelty to Goneril over something which is seemingly trivial, could be seen as stimulus for his daughters’ later malice.

Through Lear's rages, and his bizarre way of measuring love, we are offered glimpses of his slightly unorthodox parenting style. Is it any wonder, therefore, that his daughters seem a little less than well-balanced?

It is possible to view all three of Lear's daughters as victims of their father. One thing is certain, though, these women are extremely complex. Shakespeare has written three very full, interesting and diverse characters. The women of King Lear should not be considered as two-dimensional or singularly driven.

Monday, 16 July 2012

There’s Something About Falstaff | What Makes Falstaff Such a Popular Character?

Eduard Von Grutzner's 1896 painting of
Falstaff - happy as a sandboy with his
big ol' jug of wine

We have always been enamoured by the ‘lovable rogue’. Whether it’s the Artful Dodger or Captain Jack Sparrow, we invariable root for charmers, who possess somewhat dubious morals. But it seems to me that Falstaff’s popularity goes far beyond his belonging to a certain character type.

Part of the reason the Elizabethans and Queen Elizabeth (The Merry Wives of Windsor was penned to satisfy the queen’s desire to see more of the plump, old knight) loved Falstaff is that he is very funny.

In many ways, the rotund fellow is a comedy grotesque. With an adoration for all the excesses of life and a propensity for laziness, Falstaff can be seen as a precursor to Homer Simpson.

How Can We Love a Coward and a Liar?

Despite Falstaff’s flaws (and there are many of them), and the ‘fat drunkard’ gags, we actually feel great empathy for the old knight. Why? Because we know that he is, at heart, not all bad. Yes, he’s prone to lying, but his lies are laughably transparent and, consequently, innocent.

Falstaff knows himself, and realises that he is incapable of any genuine scheming (of the sort that would see him work his way up the rungs of power and status). And the fact of the matter is, he doesn’t want power or status. He simply wants a large meal and a bottle of sack. There is no genuine malice in Falstaff, he is, essentially, harmless. Of course, Orson Welles went a step further by stating that Jack Falstaff is, in fact, a "good man".

The World-Weary Falstaff

Having said that there are similarities to be drawn between Falstaff and Homer Simpson (and there undoubtedly are), there is one very significant difference: Falstaff is intelligent; he’s a deep thinker. With his exploration of ‘honour’ he even becomes something of a philosopher.

Old Falstaff has seen it all and, unlike Hal and Hotspur, he knows exactly what price must be paid for honour and he is simply unwilling to pay it. While this may be perceived as cowardice, I think it is more likely to be viewed as ‘good sense’. Falstaff’s assessment of honour and chivalry is convincing. It is, “insensible” to the dead, and “detraction will not suffer it” for the living. These are valid points that are difficult to argue with.

Falstaff The Everyman

Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Moreover, Falstaff’s view of life and his attempts to get by - taking the path of least resistance whenever possible - gives the very ordinary members of Shakespeare’s audience a character with whom they feel connected. Most of them weren’t (and aren’t) princes. To them, the notions of chivalry are as alien as they are to Falstaff.

So, Sir Jack is much more than just a comedy character; a grotesque; a figure of fun. There is a real pathos to him, because he is us.

He represents the good, the bad, the greedy, the lazy and the witty in every single one of us. He is by no means perfect, but that’s why we love him. To put it in his own words, “…banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

If you haven’t been watching the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, ‘Henry IV parts 1 and 2’ (with Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff) is currently still available on iplayer. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

5 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Fun facts about Macbeth - Shakespeare's
Scottish Play
In terms of the frequency of its performance, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most popular play. There are several reasons for this, one of which may be that it is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. 

Staging Hamlet, conversely, is something of an epic, which often means that it is cut, or the audience members leave with very numb buttocks.

Penned between 1603 and 1607, Macbeth was one of the first plays Shakespeare produced under the reign of the new king, James I. 

Despite its longevity, the play is very much a product of its time, with many nudges and winks to England’s new king as well as references to the political unease of the era.

Here are just a few interesting facts about Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the playwright’s motives in writing it.

1. Macbeth was a real king of Scotland. How did the actual Macbeth compare with Shakespeare’s fictionalised version? Well, the real Macbeth was a comparatively successful ruler (kings tended not to reign for long periods, as they were inevitably betrayed by ambitious men close to them).

From what we know, although the real Macbeth did usurp his predecessor Duncan, he was not a tyrant. Click here for more on the real Macbeth.

So, why would Shakespeare twist history? Well, partly, because he knew that a play about a man who killed a king and then successfully ruled would probably not appeal to the recently crowned James, especially given contemporary events (more on that later). 

Therefore, he had to ensure that Macbeth became a monster and, more importantly, that he was punished for usurping the rightly appointed king.

James I had a well-documented fascination with witches
2. The witches were almost certainly included to please King James. James, who had been the king of Scotland before ascending the English throne, had something of an obsession with witches.

He instigated a mass witch hunt in Scotland, and even wrote a book on the subject of witches and witchcraft entitled Daemonologie.

This fascination seemed to stem from a paranoia about witches, several of whom he believed had instigated an assassination attempt.

3. The witches prediction that Banquo will ‘get’ kings is both historically accurate and is another unashamed nod to James, because James is, in fact, a descendant of Banquo.

4. The play was written in the period just before, during and following The Gunpowder Plot. In November, 1605, Robert Catesby and a group of fellow disgruntled English Catholics (Catholicism had been outlawed under the reign of Elizabeth I and continued to be so under Protestant King James) planned to blow up the House of Lords, along with James himself inside. 

The plan was foiled and those involved were tortured and murdered.

However, it sent shockwaves through the court and London. And it unquestionably influenced Shakespeare when writing Macbeth. Not only was the play a great piece of entertainment, but Macbeth’s bloody end also served as a warning to anyone else, who may have been pondering an attack on the king’s life.

5. It is rumoured that the boy playing Lady Macbeth (no women were allowed to act during this period, so all female characters were played by young men) died shortly before the first performance. It is reckoned that, unable to find anyone to fill the part on such short notice, Shakespeare leapt into the deceased actor’s shoes.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this version of events. So, the story is likely to be mythical, but it’s a good one nonetheless!

If you'd like to learn more interesting facts about Macbeth, check out the What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Why Doesn’t Shakespeare Always Use Iambic Pentameter?

Why doesn't Shakespeare use iambic
pentameter throughout his plays?
In response to my last post on what iambic pentameter is and how to recognise it in its various forms, I was asked, ‘why doesn’t Shakespeare use iambic pentameter all the way through his plays?’

Well, that’s a fabulous question. So, let’s take a look at some of the instances when Shakespeare has chosen not to use iambic pentameter, shall we?

Which Shakespearean Characters Speak in Prose?

You will find that there are some characters in Shakespeare’s plays who never speak in verse. Typically, these will be the ‘commoners’. For example, take a look at the beginning of Julius Caesar.

Flavius enters and rails against the “idle creatures” in verse:

“Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?”

However, in complete contrast, the dialogue of the carpenter and the cobbler is written in prose:

“Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am but, as you would say, a cobbler.”

“Nay, I beseech you, sir, be not out with me: yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend you.”

The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream do
not speak in iambic pentameter.
(1937 production of the play at The Old Vic Theatre)
Similarly, you’ll notice that the rude mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream all speak in prose, until, of course, it comes to performing their ridiculous rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe.

So, what is Shakespeare trying to achieve? Is he saying that ‘commoners’ are less sophisticated? Perhaps, but this does not always mean that they are less intelligent. After all, the commoners in the first scene of Julius Caesar run verbal rings around their ‘betters’.

However, the difference in dialogue certainly marks the disparity in class, which has long been a preoccupation with the English.

The Difference Between Poetic Dialogue and an Argument

Pattern of speech alters when characters are
arguing, like Richard Burton and
Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of The Shrew
There are, of course, other instances where Shakespeare does not use iambic pentameter. These occasions have less to do with class and more to do with directing the rhythm of the dialogue and, by extension, the pace of the scene. What do I mean? Well, let’s take a little look at The Taming of The Shrew.

Although some of the lines between Petruchio and Katharina do conform to iambic pentameter, there are those that don’t:

Katharina: There is, there is.
Petruchio: Then show it me.
Katharina: Had I a glass, I would.
Petruchio: What, you mean my face?
Katharina: Well aim’d of such a young one.

Kenneth Branagh and Julie Christire
in Hamlet (1996)
This is a much more staccato rhythm, which tells us, without needing to hear the lines spoken, that the witty back-and-forth is rapid and relentless. We see this in other places, too. For example, the beginning of Hamlet, which is not an argument, as such, but is intended to be a dramatic ‘bam’ of an opener. And, then, of course, there is the fraught tête à tête between Hamlet and his mother.

Gertrude: Why, how now, Hamlet!
Hamlet: What’s the matter now?
Gertrude: Have you forgot me?

We can see that in, these instances, Shakespeare’s choosing not to use iambic pentameter as a dramatic device. We can assume, without needing to watch the scene in performance, that this passage, like that between Petruchio and Katharina above, is quick, angry and full of venom.

So, there are a few reasons that Shakespeare doesn’t always use iambic pentameter. What you can be sure of is that whatever choice he made, it was a very deliberate one; designed to reveal something about the scene, the dialogue and/or the character speaking it.