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'. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Is Shakespeare Anti-Semitic?

Is Shylock a victim or a villain?
Last week, I wrote a post about Portia from The Merchant of Venice and it sparked an interesting conversation on Facebook about the fact that the 'advocate of mercy' shows none to Shylock. This, in turn, naturally, led to the age old question: is The Merchant of Venice an anti-Semitic play?

The problem with looking at The Merchant of Venice in a post-Holocaust light, is that this is grotesquely far from the context in which Shakespeare's play was written.

Understandably, The Merchant of Venice is the subject of much scrutiny by critics and scholars. However, before labelling the play as inherently anti-Semitic, it is important to consider the circumstances of the play’s time and its intended audience.

Context of The Merchant of Venice

During 1596-1598, when The Merchant of Venice was written, the world was starting to become a smaller place. Throughout this period, Shakespeare’s audiences were learning about new countries, cultures and people, including Jews, who would have been deemed ‘exotic’ to the Elizabethans of London.

In fact, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them would have never encountered a Jewish person.

Usury, which, by law, was the only profession that Jews were allowed to have in 16th century Europe, was looked upon as a great evil and the cause of many merchants’ downfall.

Moreover, London was a growing centre of commerce and therefore Shakespeare’s audience would have consisted of a large number of merchants. Subsequently, jokes about 'evil' usurers in the Elizabethan era would be akin to jokes about 'evil' investment bankers today.

Are the Christians of The Merchant of Venice the
deceitful tricksters?

The Character of Shylock

Shylock is a thoroughly fascinating character, not least because, despite being the most memorable, he is not a prominent figure within the play. In fact, Shylock appears in just five scenes and has a total of seventy nine lines.

However, as with Falstaff in Henry IV, Shakespeare seems to have become fixated on a relatively minor character and he, in effect, steals the show.

Of course, Shakespeare’s decision to make more of Shylock’s character could be related to the success of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. However, unlike Barabas, Shylock is not simply a two-dimensional caricature. In other words, he is much more than a simple comedy villain.

Shylock as a Sympathetic Character

Indeed, there are sections of the play that allow directors and actors to portray Shylock as a victim rather than a villain. Many people cite the trial scene as a good example of the deceitful and dishonest means of Shylock’s downfall.

Do the Christians show any 'mercy' to
After all, had it not been for Portia pretending to be a doctor of law, Shylock would have succeeding in claiming his pound of flesh. Similarly, Lorenzo, with a little help from his friends, uses trickery to steal away with Jessica.

Therefore, the trickery and dishonesty that is accused of Shylock is actually perpetrated by the Christian characters of the play.

Of course, one of the most memorable speeches of the play, “hath not a Jew eyes?”, can be used to demonstrate the sympathetic way in which Shakespeare has written Shylock’s character.

However, if an interpretation of the play treats Shylock as a victim, it follows that all of the other characters must be villains, which is perhaps possible, but is it likely that that was Shakespeare’s intention?

What are your thought on Shylock? Do you think The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic or anti-Christian?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Why Does Macbeth do The Things He Does?

What makes Macbeth tick?
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragic heroes. At one time, a loyal soldier, he quickly falls prey to his own ambition and the persuasive predictions of a gang of witches. But what  really makes Macbeth tick?

Due to the fact Macbeth becomes a violent, murdering, paranoid, crazed, dictator, it is easy to forget that he begins the play as a respected general in the Scottish army.

So, how does this loyal and virtuous soldier, who is described as “…brave Macbeth - well he deserves that name…” become a regicidal usurper?

Macbeth’s Ambition

Often, it is claimed that Lady Macbeth initiates the plot to kill Duncan, but, while it is true she encourages the act, Macbeth does not shy away from murderous thoughts, “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step,/On which I must fall down, or else o’er-leap,/For in my way it lies.”

Furthermore, after Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor, as the witches predicted, the ambition of ascending to the throne is firmly cemented in his psyche, “Two truths are told,/As happy prologues to the swelling act/Of the imperial theme.”

Superstition in Macbeth’s Character

However, it is important to bear in mind that ambition alone does not result in Macbeth’s downfall. Many people point to the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy in Macbeth and it is fair to assume that, had he not met the witches, it would not have occurred to him to perform the act of regicide.

Therefore, there is an element of superstition in Macbeth’s character that should not be overlooked. This is particularly relevant in the later acts, when the witches prophecies become increasingly significant to Macbeth; dictating many of his actions - such as killing Macduff’s household, and sitting tight, even though Malcolm and the English army are looming.

Influence of Lady Macbeth

Is Lady Macbeth to blame for her
husband's evil deeds?
As mentioned above, it is erroneous to believe that Lady Macbeth is the instigator of the murder plot.

However, it cannot be argued that she has great influence over her husband and it is reasonably safe to assume that Macbeth would not have carried out the plan if it were not for Lady Macbeth’s provocation.

For more on Lady M, read my post 'Is Lady Macbeth a Bitch?'

What Makes Macbeth a Tragic Hero?

The play is named after him and he dies at the end. These two facts are indicative of Macbeth being a tragic hero, but they don’t make him one. So what does?

Shakespeare’s perception, and our modern view of tragedy are founded in Aristotle’s theories on the subject. Aristotelian tragedy, as described in Poetics, has shaped every form of dramatic art, from Ancient Greek theatre to big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

According to Aristotle, tragic heroes must conform to a few rules. Most notably:

  • They should not be too good. Otherwise, an audience will feel that their downfalls are unjust. 
  • They should not be too bad. Otherwise, an audience will feel no sympathy for them. 
  • They must have an intrinsic character flaw known as ‘hamartia’, which causes them to do something horrific and instigates their fall from grace.

Macbeth’s Bad Side

It’s not difficult to explain how Macbeth conforms to the first of the rules above. As soon as the witches tell him that he’ll be king, he begins to have rather dark thoughts about how he can make it happen. “…why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,/Against the use of nature?…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man…”

Of course, he doesn’t stop at the assassination of Duncan, either. In order to retain the throne, he is driven to even more heinous acts, including ordering the murders of Banquo, and Fleance, as well as the slaughter of every single member of  Macduff’s household.

is ambition Macbeth's only tragic flaw?

Macbeth’s Good Side

However, in concordance with Aristotle’s opinion, Macbeth isn’t all bad.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to find redeeming features in a mass-murdering tyrant. But it’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the play, he is lauded as a great and loyal soldier.

His hesitancy over committing regicide, “We will proceed no further in this business…” is also evidence of the fact that he is not an innately ‘evil’ person.

Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw

Often, Aristotle’s use of the word ‘hamartia’ is translated as a fault that causes a horrific act to occur as an unforeseen consequence or accident. Alternatively, the terrible act can be as a result of ignorance or negligence. For example, Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is an accidental act, which is caused by his hesitance in exacting revenge on Claudius.

However, Macbeth’s flaw, which is initially ambition, does not cause an accidental or unforeseen event.

The murder of Duncan is a very purposeful act, although it could be argued that, as he was focused solely on the witches prophecy, it was an act of ignorance rather than malice…but even that might be stretching it a bit.

What's It All About, Shakespeare?
A Guide to Macbeth
Later, after he has met with the witches for a second time, he begins to develop another flaw: hubris, which mistakenly convinces him that he is immortal. “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”

The tragic flaws of ambition and hubris cause Macbeth, the loyal and honourable soldier, to become a mass-murdering despot.

Despite the many horrific, bloody acts he has committed, we feel empathy for him, because he isn’t a ‘bad’ guy.

And there is a sense that, if he had never met the witches, he would not have come to such an unpleasant downfall.

This post is an excerpt from What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth. If you'd like to learn more about Macbeth and the play, the ebook is available on, and other European Amazon outlets, as well as Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and Sony.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

What Does it Take to be a Shakespearean Fool?

What is a Shakespearean fool? | The Gravediggers
from Hamlet
The fool or clown is a staple of Shakespearean drama, and although it may seem that a fool's only purpose is to provide humour, this is not always the case.

Clowns and fools are not a Shakespearean creation, they are a dramatic archetype, which has been used throughout the history of theatre. And although a key part of the fool's role is to provide laughter, he has always carried important social and political messages - this is certainly true of Shakespeare's fools.

What Does it Take to be a Fool?

The title 'fool' or 'clown' is a little misleading to our modern perception, because we tend to think of a clown as an idiot. If you called a modern day comedian a clown, while it may be technically true, he or she would probably be insulted, because the word carries certain connotations.

In Shakespeare's time, this was not the case. And so a fool or clown was, effectively, a comedian. A fool is not stupid. In fact, quite the reverse, the fool is often perceptive, witty and enjoys running linguistic rings around his 'betters'.

However, a Shakespearean fool or clown is always among the lower order, he is a commoner or a servant - sometimes serving as a professional clown, as is the case for Lear's fool, or Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It.

The Role of Fools in Shakespeare's Tragedies

Shakespeare's fools are a common sight in tragedies
as well as comedies | King Lear and his fool

You'd think, given that the principal role of a clown or fool is to provide laughter, that they would be exclusive to the comedies.

Not so. Many tragedies contain clowns, who provide comic relief or perhaps even heighten the tragedy. The fools of Shakespeare's tragedies are:

  • Gravediggers from Hamlet
  • Commoners from Julius Caesar
  • The Fool from King Lear
  • The Porter from Macbeth
  • Clown from Othello
  • Peter from Romeo and Juliet
  • A Fool from Timon of Athens
  • Thersites from Troilus and Cressida

Often, the fool or clown of a tragedy will have a set piece after a particularly tragic moment in the play, such as the Gravediggers who appear directly after Ophelia's suicide. And, as mentioned last week, the porter's "knocking at the gate" soliloquy, which follows Duncan's brutal murder.

While some people believe that these scenes serve as little more than light relief, others are convinced that the purpose of these scenes was to remind the audience that they are watching a play. The theory being that nudging an audience back to reality will allow them to apply the message of the play to their own lives - thereby increasing its impact.

The Role of Fools in Shakespeare's Comedies

And, similarly, in Shakespeare's comedies, the fool is not there just to make us laugh, but also to look more seriously at some of the issues raised within the play. 

Shakespeare's fools are clownish, but often have profound
pearls of wisdom, too | Alfred Molina as Touchstone
A clown's role is to entertain us and make us think. A good example of this would be Launcelot's examination of the 'sins of the father' theory, or Feste's mocking of grieving for a soul that is in heaven. 

In both instances, the fool is witty and playful, but at the same time gives us serious pause for thought.

The fools and clowns of Shakespeare's comedies are:

  • Lavanche from All's Well That Ends Well
  • Touchstone from As You Like it
  • The Dromio twins from The Comedy of Errors
  • Costard from Love's Labour's Lost
  • Pompey from Measure for Measure
  • Launcelot from The Merchant of Venice
  • Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Grumio from The Taming of The Shrew
  • Trinculo from The Tempest
  • Feste from Twelfth Night
  • Speed and Launce from The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Clown from The Winter's Tale
Pragmatic and witty, a fool is an extremely
useful 'voice' | Ben Kingsley as Feste

Just like their tragically foolish counterparts, Shakespeare's comedy fools may appear, on the surface, to be vulgar and idiotic. 

And there are undeniably classic jester/clownish moments, such as the slapstick humour surrounding the Dromios and the mistakes perpetrated by Puck, both of which lead to silly and pure fun. 

You could say that Shakespeare's fools and clowns have a simplistic view of the world, but that's not to say that they are simple-minded, they just have a way of cutting through all of the crap and getting right to the heart of a subject. 

And it is this that makes them so invaluable to a playwright. 

Pragmatic, logical and witty, a fool is an extremely useful 'voice' within a play. And although, as I often say, it's difficult/impossible to glean Shakespeare's own views within the plays, I can't help but wonder whether his opinions (if voiced at all) are voiced by the clowns.

The great paradox, of course, is that there is absolutely nothing foolish about Shakespeare's fools.

For more information about Shakespeare and his plays, take a look at What's It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Did Shakespeare Love Anne Hathaway?

Was Shakespeare's marriage to Anne
Hathaway happy?
Does the portrayal of love and marriage in Shakespeare's plays tell us anything about his own relationship? Is the cryptic 'second best bed' in Shakespeare's will anything other than the bequeathment equivalent of a slap in the face?

Although a writer's work (unless it's autobiographical) is never an effective method of judging his or her life, beliefs and perceptions of the world, it's a leap we seem incapable of avoiding. This is especially true when it comes to someone, like Shakespeare, whom we know relatively little about. So, the temptation, naturally, is to assume that Shakespeare's own opinion of marriage is reflected in his work.

What do we Know of Shakespeare's Marriage

Facts are few and far between concerning Shakespeare's relationship with Anne Hathaway. What is known for sure is that she was eight years his senior; their wedding was arranged very quickly, because Anne had fallen pregnant; and when Shakespeare moved to London to become a playwright, Anne and the children remained in Stratford Upon Avon.

None of this tells us much about the state of their relationship or whether they loved each other. We can make assumptions based on the shotgun wedding (at which time Shakespeare was only eighteen), and the fact that they lived apart. However, we don't know why or how this arrangement came about.

Perhaps Anne Hathaway didn't want to live in London
Perhaps Anne Hathaway didn't like the hustle and bustle of London, or maybe she was worried about diseases, such as the plague, which spread much more rampantly in crowded cities and had claimed the lives of nearly 25% of London's population in 1563.

It is possible that the distance between them indicated their marriage was not a happy one, but it is also possible that Anne Hathaway said, "Look, Will, London isn't for me, but you go follow your dream, babe." or words to that effect.

And, of course, we don't know how long they spent apart. We don't know whether Mrs Shakespeare and the kids came down to visit, and we don't know how regularly Shakespeare returned home to Stratford. So what little we do know about Shakespeare, tells us even less about his relationship with his wife.

The Portrayal of Marriage in Shakespeare's Plays

As mentioned above, looking into an author's work for clues about his or her own life is sometimes wishful thinking. But given that we have so little to go on, it is tempting to explore Shakespeare's plays and poetry for hints as to the state of his own marriage.

Would Petruchio and Katharina
really have a happily ever after?
In Shakespeare's comedies, we don't see many married couples - lovers who marry at the end of the play, yes, but men and women who are already married, not so much. And, although the weddings (sometimes multiple) at the end of a Shakespearean comedy is indicative of a happily ever after, there's a sort of ominous undertone to many of the pairings. 

For example, do we really think that Petruchio and Katharina will have a happy existence together? We may hope that they will, we may even imagine that they do, but, if they were a real couple, would they stand much chance of a blissful, long life?

The Macbeths are Shakespeare's happiest
couples - although they're not showing it here
And then, of course, there's marriage in Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, which can be roughly divided into two categories. One, a union of social convenience/necessity, such as Anne and Richard III or Regan and Goneril neither of whom seem to love their husbands. Two, a happy, loving pairing that operates as a partnership, such as Othello and Desdemona or Brutus and Portia. Of course, the problem is that in these examples, the relationships are doomed. Arguably, the happiest married couple in all of Shakespeare's work is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth....and look what happened to them.

So, it seems as though Shakespeare gives us a pretty grim view of marriage. 

However, it is worth mentioning that in a time when marriage was very much viewed as a social function, Shakespeare places an emphasis on marrying for love. The King of France takes Cordelia, despite her loss of dower, because he loves her. Desdemona, Hermia and Juliet run away to marry the men they love, rather than the men their fathers would choose for them. 

In other words, more assumptions can be drawn from Shakespeare's work. And yet, conclusions still cannot be reached as to the state of his own marriage.

The Second Best Bed

Why did Shakespeare leave his wife 'the second best bed'?

One of the most infamous phrases written by Shakespeare, doesn't come from any of his plays or his sonnets. In his will, Shakespeare bequeaths only one item to his wife: the second best bed. Much has been made of this and many people have various opinions as to what 'the second best bed' means: is it an insult? was the second best bed a piece of furniture that belonged to the Hathaway family?

Personally, I favour the view that, during the era, a household's best bed would be reserved for guests. Consequently, the second best bed would have been the one that Shakespeare and his wife shared. It was the marital bed and, therefore, imbued with sentiment. In addition, beds were expensive, particularly luxurious ones, sometimes costing the same as a small home. So, Shakespeare's second best bed was probably no insignificant, cheap piece of crappy furniture.

But why did Anne only receive the bed? Well, there is a theory that law of the time dictated that a wife was automatically entitled to a third of her deceased husband's estate. If true, there was really no need for Shakespeare to spell out any further bequests. However, this theory is disputed by others, who speculate as to whether the couples' children would have been responsible for financially supporting their mother or if Anne Hathaway was, in fact, financially secure in her own right.

So, Did Shakespeare Love Anne Hathaway?

It is, of course, impossible to say with any degree of certainty whether Shakespeare loved Anne Hathaway or vice versa. Neither can we begin to guess how happy or otherwise their marriage may have been. However, I don't believe that Shakespeare's will indicates any hostility to his widow. In fact, I think of his bequest as a sentimental and romantic gesture.

I also believe that, if anything of Shakespeare's own convictions are present in his portrayal of marriage within the plays, it is that the happiest marriages are founded in love rather than any social arrangement. We'll leave the fact that these relationships do not remain happy (for a variety of reasons) to one side for a moment.

If you'd like to find out more about Shakespeare's life and works, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.