Friday, 20 December 2013

Are The Witches in Macbeth Evil?

Do the three witches in Macbeth represent more than
pure evil?
Are the witches wicked, old harridans who make Macbeth kill his king? Do they represent temptation? Or are they no different from the soothsayer who tells Caesar to "beware the Ides of march"?

In a comment on my post '5 Interesting Facts About Macbeth', a reader asked whether the three witches could be perceived as evil.

This is a really interesting question, and as I was mulling over how to phrase my response, I realised it was a topic that I could ramble on with for quite some time. So, here goes.

The Nature of Evil in Shakespeare

I think the first point to address is how we go about defining 'evil'. One of the things I love about Shakespeare's characters is they are nuanced, complicated, mixed-up, contradictory and....well, human.

There are very few truly evil characters in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, I can only think of one: Iago. And, let's face it, he would be better described as a psychopath, which begs the question: is he evil or is he ill? Maybe it doesn't matter either way.

But, the point is, there aren't many examples of pure evil in Shakespeare. For instance, Edmund from King Lear has been abandoned by his father and is entitled to no title or lands, simply because he was born out of wedlock. So, while he's undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, we can see how he came to be that way.

What about the witches from Macbeth, are they like Edmund (twisted in a way we can justify or understand) or psychopaths like Iago? Well, that really rather depends on what you consider it is they actually do in the play.

Do the Witches Cause Macbeth to Murder?

Witches are, traditionally, intimate with the devil

All the witches really do, initially at any rate, is tell Macbeth that he will be king.

They don't tell him to go and kill Duncan; they don't even hint that the old man needs to be got out of the way. Those thoughts drift through Macbeth's head without any prompting.

The three witches do however, with one very simple phrase, "thou shalt be king hereafter", start a chain of events that ends horribly for just about all involved. But why would they do that?

They have nothing to gain from Duncan's death or the disastrous state Scotland descends into....unless, of course, you think of them as minions of the devil, which, of course, is exactly what King James I would have believed.

And, I suppose, this is an arguement that could be put forward if you wanted to label the three women 'evil'. By virtue of the fact they are 'witches', they're intimate with demons and are, therefore, by nature, evil. This sounds a little too simplistic for Shakespeare, though, doesn't it?

It also poses a problem in our perception of the play, because if we conclude that the witches are to blame for Macbeth's actions, then he isn't. And if you take away Macbeth's ability to make decisions that will affect his fate, then he loses some of his 'tragic' status.

Are the Witches Able to Foresee the Future?

Like Oedipus, Macbeth makes his own fate
It certainly seems that the three weird sisters know what is lying ahead for Macbeth - their latter prophecies are very specific, if ostensibly a little cryptic.

But if the events of the play are already written, not only does Macbeth take no responsibility for his actions, but the witches don't take any for theirs either.

For one thing, they are simply reporting facts. Fair enough, they're not like the soothsayer, who tries to warn Caesar, but they are really only messengers. And for another, they speak to Macbeth because that's their 'part' in the fate that's already written.

Maybe Macbeth was right, and all the characters are "poor players"; no more than puppets who have lines to speak and scenes to act.

But by taking this view, we remove the 'good' and 'bad' out of everything. Every action simply is what it is, because it has already been determined by some higher power.

Alternatively, we might like to look at the play as self-fulfilling prophecy. Much in the way that Oedipus causes the oracle's prophecy to come to pass by actively trying to prevent it, perhaps Macbeth makes his own fate.

Shakespeare's Weird Sisters Are Complicated

For study help with Shakespeare's
Macbeth, check out the guide

Now, of course, the wonderful thing about this, as with many things in Shakespeare's plays, is that it's open to interpretation. I encourage everybody who has read or seen the play to think about what it is the witches do and whether they can be perceived as evil, and why.

Personally, I wouldn't call them 'evil', for all of the reasons above, but predominantly because the word suggests a dichotomous view of the play. 

The world (and Shakespeare's worlds always reflect this), is not that simple. There isn't mere black and white - in fact, more often than not, there is no black and white at all.

The witches are many things in the play, I've written about a few of them here, and to reduce them to pantomime villains is, it seems to me, to do them and, more importantly, Shakespeare a great disservice.

But what do you think? Let me know your views of the weird sisters.

If you're studying Shakespeare and would like to learn more about Macbeth, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Quotes About Shakespeare | Famous Thoughts on The Bard

Shakespeare is quoted often, but
what do others have to say about him?
I quite realise that there are people in the world who don't like Shakespeare. In fact, those of us who love him are, although I find it hard to stomach, in the minority. I've known several people; friends, co-workers and relatives, who dislike him for one reason or another: predominantly, because they don't 'get' it. 

My question to these people is always the same: how can so many people be so wrong? He's gone through peaks and troughs of popularity, but he is one of only a few playwrights from his era, whose work has 'survived' until the 21st century. He's by far the most famous playwright of his era - arguably the most famous playwright of ANY era.

This is only possible because he has been appreciated and much-loved throughout the centuries. And he's had some pretty famous fans.

So, here are just a few thoughts on Shakespeare...

"I have good reason to be content, for thank God I can read and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths." - John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet.

"When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder that such trivial people should muse and thunder in such lovely language." - D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), English author most famous for the infamous Lady Chatterley's Lover, which puts E. L. James to shame.

"Oh, how Shakespeare would have loved cinema!" - Derek Jarman (1942-1994), Stage and film director.

Mary Shelley was a fan of

"I also became a poet, and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated." - Mary Shelley (1797-1851), from Frankenstein.

"Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. They all knew the joy of creating in large or small forms, on unlimited or restricted canvases. These are the children of the gods." - Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), American author most famous for Fahrenheit 451.

"Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth." - Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

"I have always derived great comfort from William Shakespeare. After a depressing visit to the mirror or an unkind word from a girlfriend or an incredulous stare in the street, I say to myself: 'Well. Shakespeare looked like shit.' It works wonders." - Martin Amis (1949- ), from Money.

(a little harsh perhaps, but the portraits we have of Shakespeare don't offer the image of an Adonis.)

Shakespeare, looking like sh*t, according to Martin Amis' Money

"Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters. You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him- as you’ll find everything else worth saying." - Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), from Long Days Journey into Night.

"It is difficult to restrain admirers of Shakespeare once they have begun to speak of him." - Karen Blixen (1885-1962), Danish author, who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.

"Shakespeare, in some sense, helped create the modern man, didn't he, his influence is that pervasive. He held the mirror up to nature, but he also created that mirror: so the image he created is the very one we hold ourselves up to." - Jess Winfield (1962- ), American author and TV writer.

George Orwell said the worth of a writer
should be in the longevity of his work -
bodes well for Bill Shakespeare

"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good'. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that--for instance--Warwick Beeping is 'bad'. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion." - George Orwell (1903-1950), English author, journalist and critic.

"To become intimate with a great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience." - Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), British educator.

"A few people have ventured to imitate Shakespeare's tragedy. But no audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare's comedy...We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate into his coal-cellar, but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky." - G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), British writer and lay theologian.

"No one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean." - Harold Bloom (1930- ), American literary critic and professor.


For more on Shakespeare, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare An Introduction to The Bard of Avon, and if you know of any other great quotes about Shakespeare, why not share them in the comments below.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Why Did Shakespeare Create Roderigo?

When in doubt, give the baddies
curly moustaches
He's a pretty minor character. But does he serve a purpose beyond being Iago's foolish sidekick?

The character of Roderigo, in Shakespeare’s Othello, is one of those rare things: a creation entirely of Shakespeare’s imagination.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are retellings of established tales and, therefore, many of his characters (although often altered to suit the playwright’s purposes), have their foundations in fully formed fictional creations or historical fact.

Roderigo, however, has no precursor in Shakespeare’s source for OthelloCinthio’s Un Capitino Moro

So, why did Shakespeare create this lovesick fool and what purpose does Roderigo serve in the play?

Roderigo as Iago’s Sidekick

We're introduced to Roderigo in the very first scene of the play. Underneath Brabantio’s balcony, he and
Robert Coote as Roderigo, in Orson
Welles' Othello (1952)
Iago collude in a plot to ruin Othello by exposing his marriage to Desdemona. 

During this first scene, we also learn that Roderigo has given Iago vast sums of money, “That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine…”(I.i), which he believes is being used to help him woo Desdemona. In reality, of course, Iago is using Roderigo’s money for his own gains.

Subsequently, from the very beginning of the play, there are three things about Rodergio that are clear: he is naïve (to say the least); wealthy; and besotted with Desdemona. 

These traits will be exploited mercilessly by Iago.

When the plan to ruin Othello with reports of his elopement fail, Roderigo joins the journey to Cyprus. There, he comes in handy for Iago, who persuades him to bate Cassio into a public brawl. Ultimately, Iago draws his buffoonish right-hand man into a murder plot, which, unfortunately for Roderigo, goes awry. 

When Iago discovers the wounded Roderigo, he kills him - and, although we may feel some sympathy for him, I would venture to say that it's only a little.

Roderigo as a Comic Character

In modern interpretations of Othello, Roderigo is sometimes played as a foppish, idiot; akin to Andrew
Michael Maloney as Roderigo, in
Oliver Parker's Othello (1995)
Aguecheck in Twelfth Night. Certainly, this interpretation is supported by some of Roderigo’s dialogue, “I will incontinently drown myself.”(I.iii), in which he could sound like an angst-ridden, overly dramatic teenager.

Although it may seem peculiar to include such a clownish figure in a tragic play, it is worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare almost always includes comic moments in his tragedies. 

For example, the gravediggers in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth and the Fool in King Lear. Of course, this mixture of genres is not unusual today either.

By making Roderigo a comic figure, Shakespeare has encouraged his audience to feel no (or very little) empathy with the character when he is killed. And, that's probably just as well. After all, Roderigo’s death is in no way as tragic as Othello’s and Desdemona’s, partly because he participated in the plot.

However, in many ways, he is just as much a victim of Iago as the other characters of the play. However, because he is an overemotional fool, who stoops to underhanded methods in an effort to bed Desdemona, his death seems far from tragic.

The Significance of Roderigo

In my opinion, the principal purpose of Roderigo is added entertainment value rather than serving the plot.
Should we feel sympathy for Roderigo's
 fate; is he likeable enough?
After all, Cinthio managed just fine without him, and I can imagine an Othello without Roderigo in it - the play would not be lost without him.

So, I suppose it could be argued that Shakespeare added the character for no other reason than comic relief. 

As mentioned above, comedy is certainly something Roderigo adds and it would be difficult for any of the other characters to provide it without affecting the way an audience views him or her.

However, Roderigo does have a practical purpose from a dramatic standpoint. He serves to, at least in part, resolve the plot. In fact, to some extent, he absolves himself in death, as it is the letters found on his body that prove Iago’s guilt. 

That said, the rather rushed nature of the closing moments of Othello might suggest that this was all just an afterthought and certainly not the reason for the creation of Roderigo.


How do you feel about Roderigo? Do you think he does more than provide a few comedy moments? Should I feel more sorry for him than I do? Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

What Purpose do The Witches Serve in Macbeth?

Daniel Gardner is a little more kind to the three
witches, making them rather attractive in his
1775 painting
Do the witches just offer an exciting theatrical spectacle? Are they responsible for Macbeth's downfall? Are they simply an attempt to flatter the king?

“What are these/So wither'd and so wild in their attire,/That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth…you should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so.” (I.ii)

This rather unflattering description of the witches, or Weird Sisters, is spoken by Banquo and aptly demonstrates one of the reasons Shakespeare uses these characters in the play: They made a great visual spectacle.

However, the role of the witches in Macbeth is multi-purposed. As well as creating a stage spectacle, they have an intriguing function within the plot and, moreover, their inclusion is a very deliberate (and, you might say, cynical), way of appealing to the newly crowned James I.

The Witches as an Exciting Theatrical Spectacle

When reading Macbeth, it’s easy to overlook the impact the appearance of the witches would have had on a Shakespearean audience. Banquo’s description above gives us a flavour of how they would have appeared, but this was likely to have been accompanied by sophisticated special effects of the day.

At this point in Shakespeare’s career, he and his company had been made very wealthy by their theatrical ventures and, therefore, money was no object in terms of purchasing costumes and the equipment necessary to ensure that the witches and their, “Double, double toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”(I.i) made a fantastical effect.

There may also have been an element of humour involved. As women were not permitted to act, all female roles were played by men (usually adolescents whose voices had not yet broken). However, Banquo’s “And yet your beards…” may suggest that fairly masculine, and facially hairy, men were cast as the Weird Sisters.

However, Shakespeare made sure that the witches weren’t all style and no substance. They also play a crucial, if slightly ambiguous, role in Macbeth’s downfall.

Can the Witches of Macbeth Really See the Future?

Do the witches really know the future? If so, wouldn't
Macbeth have killed Duncan without their intervention?
It’s clear that the Weird Sisters' prophecy comes to pass, but do they really have the ability to see the future or simply know what ‘could be’ if Macbeth is nudged in the right direction?

This is not a simple question to answer and it makes the role of the witches much more intriguing than the impressive, flashy aesthetic display mentioned above.

The problem is that, if they really can see the future, Macbeth’s destiny was assured regardless of what he or Lady Macbeth did. That’s a fine assumption to reach, but, if that’s the case, he can’t really be viewed as a tragic hero, because tragic heroes, according to Aristotle, all have a fatal flaw or ‘hamartia’, which leads to their downfall. In other words, they are the cause of their own tragic fall.

If Macbeth’s downfall is entirely mapped out and, in spite of his actions, he is just a "...poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage", where do we place the 'fault'?

Therefore, we could argue that the witches’ prediction that he shall become king is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it is impossible to say with any certainty and this, to my mind, puts the witches among the most interesting characters of the play, surpassed only by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

How Shakespeare Flatters King James I With Macbeth

Was Macbeth just a way of impressing the newly
crowned King James?
You could say (but I wouldn't possibly suggest such a thing) that Macbeth is one massive attempt to impress and flatter the new king, in a way that verges on the sycophantic.

James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who lived and reigned in Scotland before ascending the English throne, would obviously have been pleased with the play’s locale and subject.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, he would also have been thrilled by the message of the play, which can be said to be: Kill a rightfully (Godly), appointed king and you shall bring disaster upon the country and yourself.

Bear in mind, Shakespeare has drastically distorted history to make Macbeth a cruel tyrant. In fact, the real Macbeth ruled successfully for seventeen years. In order to avoid giving any man, or woman, the wrong idea about regicide, Shakespeare has to twist the truth somewhat.

It’s also worth mentioning that James I was a descendent of Banquo, hence the witches’ clever line, “Thou shall beget kings”(I.iii) Indeed, Banquo’s begotten king is sitting among Shakespeare’s audience.

King James I’s Fascination with Witches

The witches of Macbeth are more than just a scary
dramatic sight, but that's certainly part of their appeal
However, Shakespeare does not stop there. The very inclusion of witches was, probably, done with the new king very much in mind. James I had an infamous fascination with witches and even considered himself an expert on the subject, writing a text entitled ‘Daemononlogie’, in 1597.

Although we have ideas of witches being burned regularly, the truth is that in England, and particularly London, during this period, the notion of witches was largely dismissed as nonsense. In Scotland, on the other hand, where James had worked his subjects into a frenzy, there were 300 women accused and executed for witchcraft, in 1590 alone.

It has to be noted, that his zeal for hunting witches tapered off after becoming King of England, probably because many people treated witchcraft and demonology as a joke.

Which brings up an interesting question, did Shakespeare write the witches into Macbeth in order to impress the new king or was it his way of subtly teasing James’ hobby and area of ‘expertise’? If so, it was a pretty dangerous game. But it wouldn't be the first time Shakespeare had played with fire where his writing is concerned. 

Of course, we’re unlikely to ever know for sure, but it is an interesting thought to ponder.

One thing that is certain, whether they were a joke or a dramatic tool of flattery, the witches play an important, interesting and multi-faceted role within Macbeth.

If you'd like to know more about the witches or any other aspect of the play, check out: What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Rap or Shakespeare?

Rapper and poet Akala is the self-proclaimed 'Black Shakespeare'. His belief, which he has taken around schools in the UK, is that Shakespeare's verse is not at all dissimilar to modern rap and hip hop lyrics.

He, therefore, encourages students to look at The Bard's work not as some untouchable, incomprehensible old poetry, but as the edgy, "spit on the riddem" of its day.

To prove his point to young urban kids, who (on the whole) think Shakespeare has nothing to offer them, Akala likes to play a little game of 'Rap or Shakespeare?'

This seems like a fun idea. So, I've picked out a few hip hop lyrics, and some Shakespeare quotes, and listed them below. Think you could tell modern rap from the words of William Shakespeare?

Was Shakespeare the Eminem of
his generation?

1) "My Crown is in my heart, not on my head..."

2) "Time flies, dreams die, people lose faith..."


3) "Be a king? Think not. Why be a king when you can be a God?"

4) "Trapped on a planet of pain and perpetrators..."

5) "Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs..."

6) "The mind is a terrible thing to waste."

7) "To all the seeds that follow me, Protect your essence."

Bill Shakespeare droppin' beats

8) "...her pale fire she snatches from the sun."

9) "...sleep is the cousin of death."

10) "This is the third time, I hope good luck lies in odd numbers."


1, Shakespeare, Henry VI Part Three

2, Xzibit 'Legends Never Die'

3, Eminem 'Rap God'

4, MF Grimm 'Emotions'

5, Shakespeare, Richard II

6, Guru 'Peace of Mine'

7, 2Pac 'Smile'

8, Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

9, Nas 'New York State of Mind'

10, Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor

How did you do? Were you surprised by the similarity between very modern lyrics and Shakespeare's Early Modern verse? 

If you'd like to get a better grasp on Shakespeare's language, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

If you can think of any other rap or hip hop lyrics that sound like they could have been written by Shakespeare, why not share them in the comments below?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Theme of Guilt in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Next to ambition, guilt is the second most important theme within the play. It is essential in our ability to empathise with Macbeth and to see him as a tragic hero, rather than a villain. 

In other words, guilt is what keeps him and Lady Macbeth ‘human’.

The Guilt of Macbeth

Macbeth displays signs of guilt before he
even wields the dagger that kills Duncan
Macbeth begins to display hints of guilt long before he has murdered Duncan.

In fact, as soon as the thought of murder occurs to him, he acknowledges the wrongness of it. “Stars, hide your fires,/Let not light see my black and deep desires”

And, of course, his infamous “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” hallucination suggests that anticipatory guilt is already pushing him toward the brink of insanity.

Of course, after committing regicide and claiming the throne, Macbeth is unable to enjoy the ill-gotten kingship. In part, this is due to his growing sense of paranoia, but it is predominantly due to the growing sense of guilt, which leads to insomnia and visions of Banquo’s ghost

What’s really interesting though, is that despite a guilt that is driving him insane, Macbeth does not stop.

He just keeps killing.

Now, it could be said that this indicates a lack of morality. However, it also suggests that, after the initial murder, Macbeth’s subsequent actions are motivated by fear of losing his position of power, and fear of discovery. In either case, the heavy burden of guilt, which he undeniably bears, is not enough to stop him.

The Guilt of Lady Macbeth

Is all of Lady Macbeth's
guilt subconscious?
Unlike Macbeth, whose guilt is very much brought to the surface, Lady Macbeth seems to conceal her feelings of self-reproach.

At least, the audience is not given much insight into them. This may be because she is unwilling to acknowledge it consciously.

In other words, her feelings of remorse are expressed only in her subconscious; while she sleeps.

However, after the death of Duncan, Macbeth becomes increasingly isolated from his wife. The audience, therefore, sees very little of her. Subsequently, she could be experiencing conscious guilt that we are just not privy to.

In either case, shortly after the famous sleepwalking scene of Act Five, Lady Macbeth’s guilt is so intense that it drives her to suicide.

This post is an excerpt from What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth. If you'd like to learn more about the play, the guide is available from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and a range of other ebook sellers. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Fine Line Between Shakespearean Heroes and Shakespearean Villians

Shakespeare's characters are never simple
What makes an interesting character, whether he or she is in a movie, a novel, a play or a TV series? 

Depth and complexity. Hidden, perhaps dark, facets that are teased out when that character is put under pressure.

Quite simply, we don't want to take one look at this person and think we know all there is to know. And this is just as true of heroes or protagonists as it is of villains or antagonists.

How Heroes And Villains Are Portrayed

Throughout human history's forms of storytelling, fashions for characterisations have fluctuated. In the Medieval morality plays, for example, characters were personifications of moral attributes: there was good and there was bad, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Flash forward around half a millennium, to early TV shows, and we had a very similar set-up: the goodies wore white hats, the baddies wore black and we knew exactly where we stood. And on some level, there's a comforting satisfaction in that.

However, today (and in various periods of history), we favour a much more complicated view of human nature. Hugh Laurie's House is not all bad, but neither is he all good. In other words, to a lesser or greater extent, he is just like most of us. In fact, I might go all the way and say, all of us. After all, even Gandhi wasn't quite as saint-like as he might have seemed to the outside world.

We are complex beings, with desires often warring against a sense of morality. It is this that makes us interesting and it's watching this war play out in another's life that can make for gripping entertainment.

Shakespeare's Heroes Aren't All Heroes

Even someone as 'good' as Desdemona
has a naughty streak
So, where does Shakespeare fit into all of this?

Well, he didn't want to portray a simplistic view of existence; he wanted to show life (and people) for the contradictory mess it often is.

Consequently, I think it would be difficult to find a main character who is completely 'good' in a Shakespeare play.

Even someone like Desdemona, who seems like a perfectly well-behaved woman, does something pretty outrageous by disobeying her father and marrying her choice of man. That's a sin we may be able to forgive her for, but it's a sin nonetheless; and would certainly have been viewed as one in centuries past.

But what about the heroes, surely they must be good, otherwise they're not worthy of the name. Well, 'hero' in this sense doesn't mean 'hero' as we've come to think of it - often attached to 'super'. But, here again, we can see a complexity: think Batman, he might be doing the 'right thing', but his methods are often questionable.

Anyway, I digress. Shakespearean heroes aren't like Superman. In fact, they are some of the most flawed characters within the plays.

I've written before about the ways in which Hamlet could be viewed as a villain.

I also notice that Macbeth is often mistaken for a villain. It's true there are no other baddies in the piece, unless you count the witches, but Macbeth is not a Shakespearen villain, he's a tragic hero - a good man, so deeply flawed that he transforms, in front of our very eyes, into a monster.

Similarly, King Lear is a man who thinks he's more sinned against than sinning, but is that true? He certainly doesn't do anything that would win him a 'father of year' award.

Ultimately, I think, it comes down to the perception Shakespeare has chosen to give us. As I mention in the post on Hamlet, if you look at the play through Ophelia's eyes, we might not feel quite so sympathetic to Hamlet's cause. But we don't see the events in Elsinore from her point of view, we see them from Hamlet's. We, therefore, understand (sort of) his manic behaviour and we excuse it.

Are Shakespeare's Villains All Bad?

Is Shylock a villain? If he is, he's
certainly not evil for the sake of evil
So, can the same be said for the villains?

Yes, absolutely it can. We see and hear a considerable amount of Iago's thoughts, but we're still not viewing the play exclusively through him. If we were; if we knew exactly what it is that got his goat, perhaps we would feel, as he does, that he's righteous in his attempt to destroy Othello.

Is Shylock a villain? Is Antonio a hero? Neither of them seem to fit those roles comfortably. The Merchant of Venice, which is supposed to be pretty light-hearted compared with the tragedies, is far from black and white, and despite its seemingly cheery ending it is, I think, intended to makes us think about the nature of right and wrong.

But maybe I have the view I do because I was at one time setting my sights on a career in acting. As an actor, you can't come to a role believing that a person is wholly good or wholly bad - well, you can, but the portrayal is likely to be very two-dimensional.

Actors Need to Find Something Sympathetic in The Roles They Play

Even Richard III has facets of his character
we can feel sympathy for
If you're playing Richard III, for example, you have to figure out why he believes himself justified in his actions, because he undoubtedly does - and you have to feel that way, too.

He would see himself as the hero, and actually so does Shakespeare, because Richard is another of his tragic heroes - the most villainous villain of them all but, yet again, not all bad.

And I suppose it's not unreasonable to suggest that as an actor himself, Shakespeare approached his writing as a performer, immersing himself in each character as he wrote, to ensure that there was truth behind every line, motive and action.

It could be that Shakespeare felt empathy for each of his characters and revelled in their imperfections.

Hamlet's, "...there is nothing either good or/bad, but thinking makes it so." is the perfect way to sum up Shakespeare's characters. The good ones, like Macbeth or Othello, are often tempted by the 'dark side'. And the bad ones, even rotten to the core ones, like Aaron, can prompt fascination and show a flash of a redeeming quality.

Heroes and villains are complicated creatures in Shakespeare's plays.

Friday, 2 August 2013

What's Iago's Beef? Why Does he Want to Ruin Othello?

What's Iago's motive? | Edwin Booth as Iago
Iago is one of the greatest villains in literary and dramatic history, but is it possible that he is motivated by nothing more than evil? Would he be as fascinating if that were the case?

The name ‘Iago’ is synonymous with villainy and evil. He is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s most popular antagonists, but what do readers or audience members learn about this dastardly character?

Most importantly, what can we unearth about what it is that drives his seemingly insatiable desire to destroy Othello?

What Does Iago Tell Us?

Well, he tells us a lot. But he doesn't really get into the nitty-gritty of why he's hell bent on ruining Othello. Yes, we know there's professional jealousy at play. And maybe a good old fashioned dose of racism, too. Is that enough cause to destroy someone so absolutely, though?

It seems fair to say, Iago’s motivations are intentionally obscure and his final words certainly confirm this notion, “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.”(V.ii). Of course, largely due to his naiveté and willingness to trust absolutely, Othello doesn't actually ‘know’ anything of Iago's true nature.

Was Shakespeare in a rush to finish? Was he just too lazy to write a thorough explanation? Or is this uncharacteristically silent Iago a deliberate change from the verbose, soliloquising man we think we've come to know?

In any case, given that Iago doesn't want to provide a motive, it might be argued that he does what he does simply because he can. However, this view of things is much too simplistic for my liking.

Does Iago's Ambition Drive him to Ruin Othello?

One of the most obvious reasons for Iago to plot against Othello is ambition. It's certainly enough to kill for (just ask Macbeth), so a few lies and a bit of betrayal is minor in comparison - bear in mind, Iago doesn't plan for things to pan out quite the way they do.

He is undoubtedly a Machiavellian character and it is clear that Othello’s decision to promote Cassio ignites a rage within him, “Cassio's a proper man: let me see now: To get his place and to plume up my will In double knavery – How, how? Let's see”(I.iii). It is from this point that Iago begins to formulate a plan to earn what he deems his ‘proper place’ by destroying Cassio.

At this stage of the game, it seems almost as if the only motive Iago has is to take Michael Cassio’s position. So, it could be claimed that, in fact, the aim is not to destroy Othello at all. In other words, Othello’s downfall is merely a side effect of Iago’s plot.

But, as Peggy Lee asks, is that all there is? Surely not.

Does Insecurity and Romantic Jealousy Drive Iago? 

Is Iago seeking revenge because Othello has had
an affair with Emilia?
Iago’s plot seems far too deliberately inclusive of the destruction of Othello for it to be collateral damage.

So what's his beef against Othello?

One reason Iago could have for wishing to ruin Othello is sexual jealousy. In one of his many soliloquies, Iago tells us that he suspects his wife, Emilia, has had an affair with Othello, “But partly led to diet my revenge, For that I do suspect the lusty Moor Hath leap'd into my seat…”(II.i) 

In fact, if Iago's to be believed, Emilia didn't stop there. He is even of the opinion that she and Cassio have had (or at least may have) an affair, “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too…”(II.i).

Now, it is made clear that both Othello and Cassio have quite a way with the ladies. So, it's not beyond the realms of possibility from that point of view.

Additionally, Emilia doesn't seem too averse to dabbling with infidelity, as she tells Desdemona that she would never be unfaithful in daylight, but "I might do't as well i' the dark."(IV.iii)

However, it's only fair to add that she tempers that by saying, “Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but for the whole world,-- why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?”(IV.iii)

Therefore, despite Iago’s suspicions, it seems that Emilia has remained faithful. At least that's my hunch - like so much of the play, it is something that we can never be sure of one way or the other.

So, Why Does Iago Want to Destroy Othello?

The mystery of Iago's motives is part of his appeal
Kenneth Branagh as Iago in Othello, 1995
The fact of the matter is, we can't really know. Perhaps it's one of the reasons he gives us, maybe it's a combination of them - or they might be the 'excuses' he uses to justify his actions, both to himself and to us.

Because he refuses to say, we'll never know for sure. We're left to draw our own conclusions, and that's unquestionably part of his appeal.

For more on Othello, take a look at Is Othello a Tragic Hero? and Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim?

Monday, 1 July 2013

Who Loves Whom in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Affections in A Midsummer Night's Dream change more quickly than those in inexplicably popular 'scripted' reality TV shows. So, who loves whom in the play and when do they love 'em?

Let's start with the feelings of adoration that do not alter.

Theseus Loves Hippolyta 

Yep, the Athenian Duke has got it bad for the Amazonian beauty (I fear her image in Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum doesn't do her justice). Likewise, she's got the hots for him. It's a funny match, given that he defeated her tribe, but it seems to be working for them. Throughout the play, these two remain very much in love.

Bottom Loves... Bottom

There's nothing Nick Bottom believes himself incapable of. In fact, he's so sure of his many and varied talents, that he wants to play every single role in The Mechanicals production of Pyramus and Thisbe

Okay, so let's move onto the more changeable relationships, and we'll start by looking at the situation at the very beginning of the play.

Love Connections in Act One

Lysander & Hermia are in Love

Dominic West as Lysander and Anna Friel as Hermia, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
It's forbidden, but these two can't keep their hands off each other. With Hermia's father against the union, their desperation to marry drives these young lovers to elope.

Demetrius Loves Hermia

Christian Bale as Demetrius and Anna Friel as Hermia
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Of course, this is debatable. Does Demetirus love Hermia or does he just love what's been offered to him by her father? Marriage was once (and in some cases still is) a financial rather than romantic arrangement, and Demetrius stands to gain as Egeus' son-in-law. But, for the sake of argument, we'll call what Demetrius feels for Hermia 'love'.

Needless to say, Hermia does not return his feelings. She has eyes only for Lysander, refusing to give him up even when she's threatened with life in a convent or death.

Helena Loves Demetrius 

Calista Flockhart as Helena and Christian Bale as Demetrius
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
It's not exactly clear what's gone on between these two. Lysander says that Demetrius charmed Helena, "Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,/Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,/And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,/Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry," implying that he led her on or at least changed his mind when he found out he was Egeus' favourite to marry Hermia.

So, does Demetrius court Helena because he has feelings for her? Or did he just fancy himself as a player? Make of it what you will. But what we do know is that his attitude towards Helena is catastrophically unflattering. "Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit;/For I am sick when I do look on thee." This may lead us to think that his feelings for her have never been anything other than contemptuous, but, as Shakespeare will soon demonstrate, love can quite easily turn to hate.

Hermia Loves Helena

Anna Friel as Hermia and Calista Flockhart as Helena, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Not in the romantic sense perhaps, but there is a very strong bond between the two girls. They're BFFs and describe themselves as, "Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;/So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart."

Love Connections in Act Two

Oberon and Titania Aren't Getting Along

To say they 'hate' each other is perhaps too strong, but I flirted with the idea. There is a bitter fight waging between these two fairies. In a plan to teach his queen a lesson, Oberon tasks his trusty sidekick with finding a love-inducing flower. 

Lysander Loves Helena

Dominic West as Lysander and Calista Flockhart as Helena
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Meaning well, Oberon orders Puck to place some of the love potion in a young man's eye, so he will fall in love with the woman who so clearly adores him. The only problem is Puck gets the wrong Athenian, and the first woman Lysander see is...Helena

Love Connections in Act Three

Titania Loves Bottom

Bottom by name, ass by nature. Nick Bottom is turned into an ass by Oberon and he makes sure that this strange creature is the first thing Titania sees with her 'love potioned' eyes. That'll teach her to take his changeling boy, right?

Demetrius Loves Helena

Christian Bale as Demetrius and Calista Flockhart as Helena
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Half-rectifying his earlier mistake, Puck places the potion in the right man's eyes and sure enough Helena is the first thing he sees. BUT Lysander is still in love with her, too. And poor Helena thinks both men are playing a cruel trick.

Hermia Still Loves Lysander

Anna Friel as Hermia and Dominic West as Lysander
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Hermia's feelings for Lysander remain unchanged and she is, naturally enough, confused and hurt by his sudden change of heart. In fact, he begins to talk to her with the same kind of contempt Demetrius had used on Helena, "Thy love! out, tawny Tartar, out!/Out, loathed medicine! hated potion, hence!"

Hermia Hates Helena

Anna Friel as Hermia and Calista Flockhart as Helena A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Hermia thinks Helena must have done something to bewitch her lover out from under her and is, of course, none too thrilled by the idea. Similarly, innocent Helena is hurt by the accusation and the fur begins to fly.

Helena Hates Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius

Calista Flockhart as Helena, Anna Friel as Hermia, Dominic West as Lysander
& Christian Bale as Demetrius, A Midsummer Night's Dream, (1999) 
In fact, Helena now believes that there is only one possibility: all three of them are in cahoots to tease and torment her. Her misery is our delight, as the confusion leads to hilarious squabbles between the foursome. "I pray you, though you mock me, gentlemen,/Let her not hurt me: I was never curst;/I have no gift at all in shrewishness;/I am a right maid for my cowardice:Let her not strike me."

Love Connections in Act Four

Titania & Oberon are in Love

Believing that her humiliation has been sufficient, Oberon lifts the spell on his wife and the Royal fairy couple let bygones be bygones.

Lysander & Hermia are in Love

Dominic West as Lysander and Anna Friel as Hermia, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Tasked with fixing the mess he's caused, Puck sets about separating the men and ensuring that they see the right woman upon waking. So, once again, all is right between these two. And after Theseus and Egeus hear of their adventure in the forest, they're suddenly perfectly happy for the two to wed - no nunnery or death for fair Hermia!

Demetrius & Helena are in Love

Christian Bale as Demetirus and Calista Flockhart as Helena, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
As for this happy couple, as I mentioned above, whether you can call it 'happy' is a matter of perception. But for now at least, they seem to have the happily ever after we were all rooting for.

Happy Ending? 

Well, I suppose it really depends on how you look at it. Do you feel that Demetrius has been drugged into feelings that he's never experienced and would never otherwise experience? Or has the potion merely reminded him of affection he has felt for Helena in the past?

And something else we don't know is whether the spell will last indefinitely. There's no mention of a time limit, but what if there is one? What if poor Helena wakes up one day to find her husband has done a runner, because he hates her once more?

But I don't suppose any of it really matters. It's just a bit of fun, and as Puck quite rightly advises: if you don't like it, just pretend it was all a dream!

For more on the four young lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, take a look here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Top 5 Shakespearean Villains

Shakespeare certainly knew how to write a great villain. Packing them full of contradictions and the most human of flaws, he ensured that audiences can relate to characters that might also be viewed as monsters.

One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays remain so popular and are, in many ways, timeless is because the Bard of Avon was a master of creating fascinating, rounded characters. Among his most intriguing and enduring creations are his villains.

While many of them display some inhuman actions, they are motivated by the most human of emotions: jealousy, revenge, heartache and ambition, to name just a few. The following is a list of just some of my top five Shakespearean villains.

László Mednyánszky's 'Shylock' (c1900)

5. Shylock

The Merchant of Venice is classed as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays and Shylock’s categorisation as a villain is in itself problematic.

Sometimes seen as an evil moneylender, who is blindly intent on collecting his “pound of flesh”, Shylock can also be viewed as sympathetic character, who is the victim of anti-Semitism and is merely giving as good as he gets, “The villainy you teach me/I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”(III.i)

4. Lady Macbeth

Another character who doesn’t quite fit the villain category comfortably, although I’m sure many would disagree with that analysis. I would argue that Lady Macbeth is misunderstood. It also seems unjust that the murder of Duncan is so often laid squarely at her door (or battlements).
Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth and Patrick Stewart
as her husband, Macbeth (2010)

What can’t be disputed is that her ambition for her husband led her to encourage his murderous thoughts and strengthen his resolve when it wavered.

Her tough line in questioning Macbeth’s manhood, and her grisly description of bashing her baby’s head in, are just two of the facets of her character that lead many to view her as the ultimate female Shakespearean villain.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on her, take a look here.

3. Edmund

Edmund convincing Edgar that he needs to
avoid their father.
Further female villainy can be found in King Lear. However, it is the manipulative, scheming and almost entirely remorseless Edmund who is arguably the real villain of the piece.

His intelligence and talents for smooth-talking allow him to wreak havoc.

He lies to his father and suggests that his half-brother Edgar is plotting against him.

Later, he shows little care when his father is blinded by Regan’s husband, Cornwall.

If that weren’t enough, he engages in an affair with Goneril and Regan (both of whom are married), driving Goneril to murderous jealousy.

2. Richard III

Alas, Richard never did find that horse
Shakespeare's infamous king is perhaps best known for his, “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech and for being prepared to give everything he owned in exchange for a horse.

His villainy is predominantly caused by bitterness; he is hunchbacked and ugly, and promises that if he, “…cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”(I.i)

And prove himself a villain he does; he has his brother killed, locks his nephews in the Tower of London (later having them knocked off, too), and beheads anyone who disagrees with him or gets in his way.

Incidentally, he does actually prove a lover as well, with the inexplicable wooing of Anne, widow of Lancastrian Prince of Wales, Edward, who was also killed by Richard. “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?/Was ever woman in this humour won?”(I.ii) Indeed!

1. Iago

Is Iago the very best Shakespearean villain?
In terms of physical violence, Iago’s hands are relatively clean, certainly much cleaner than Richard’s. However, in terms of manipulation, scheming and Machiavellian ambition, Iago has got to rank as Shakespeare’s best villain.

It is his talent for garnering trust, especially the trust of Othello, which makes him such an effective villain.

When the man you’re plotting to destroy refers to you as, “honest Iago,” you can be fairly certain you’ve got him right where you want him.

An audience is lead to believe that Iago is motivated by jealousy - he certainly considers himself worthy of far loftier heights than he’s been offered. However, when it comes to explaining his villainy, he is not terribly forthcoming, “…what you know, you know.” (V.ii) And this makes him all the more intriguing.

Do you agree with my top five? Is one of your favourite Shakespearean villains missing from the list? Let me know in the comments below.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare and his plays, be sure to check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Intorudction to The Bard of Avon.

The contents of this post were originally published by the author on

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy

Portia might seem only interested in getting
hitched, but she shows a much
smarter side in the courtroom scene
The Merchant of Venice contains a number of Shakespeare's best known speeches, including Portia's famous oratory on the ‘quality of mercy’.

Until this point in the play, Portia has appeared to be little more than a wealthy heiress courted by undesirable suitors. However, the “quality of mercy” speech and the courtroom scene as a whole, offers a view of a much more complex and intelligent character.

Why is it Portia Who Delivers the Speech?

Shakespeare could have used any number of characters to deliver this speech, including the Duke, so why does it fall to Portia, who has, until this juncture, had nothing to do with the ‘Shylock’ strand of the plot?

Perhaps the most fundamental (and uninteresting) reason is this is how Shakespeare’s source material told the story.

However, there are dramatic reasons, too. For example, if one of the Christian merchants had spoken the speech, it would have reduced Shylock’s validity as a worthy antagonist. His great weapon against the Christians is his power with words. Subsequently, although Shylock has only 360 lines in the play, they are undoubtedly some of the best.

And then there’s the duke. But if the Duke had delivered the speech, the play would have been resolved by a deux et machina, which is a valid theatrical device (used by Shakespeare on numerous occasions). However, it wouldn’t build dramatic tension throughout the scene, because an audience would know exactly how the play is going to be resolved. With Portia, things look a little more dicey.

Of course, the use of Portia also allows for cross-dressing, which is a firm favourite with Shakespeare, and the possibility for comedy, because, at the beginning of the scene, an audience is likely to think that Portia’s attempt to be a doctor of law (the term lawyer was not used at the time) will be a complete cock-up.

The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d

The quality of mercy speech is one of Shakespeare's
 most famous
So, we've looked at why Portia gives the speech. Now, let's take a look at the speech itself. What is she trying to do with it?

'The quality of mercy', like several of Shakespeare’s speeches, including 'To be or not to be' and 'Now is the winter of our discontent', is very well known, but most people could not quote beyond the first line or two.

The speech demonstrates Portia’s intelligence and boldness, but it perhaps also smacks of naiveté. Her seemingly innocent view of the world is, of course, another reason for using Portia to deliver the speech; the men of the play speak of commerce, spurning their enemies and revenge (all very unmerciful concepts).

Portia begins by using the metaphor of ‘gentle rain’ to describe mercy, and points out that mercy benefits the merciful and those who receive mercy, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

It is important to bear in mind that Portia already knows the Venetian law cannot prevent Shylock from taking the pound of flesh, so she has to make the concept of mercy as appealing as possible. She does this by describing it as a most becoming quality in the powerful, “Tis mightiest in the mightiest…”

The religious section of the speech is interesting, because Shylock’s response to this can, and is often, played in two different ways. On one hand, as a religious man, Shylock could recognise the human quest for salvation and mercy. Therefore he may be affected by the speech and waver a little in his pursuit of justice. 

It might not have had the effect she
wanted, but the quality of mercy speech
gives us an insight into Portia's character
Alternatively, as the Jewish faith places a high value on justice, Shylock could be entirely unaffected by Portia’s words. Shylock’s reaction is, of course, down to the choices of actors and directors.

Either way, like an Elizabethan Perry Mason, Portia delivers a very clever piece of courtroom oratory, which transcends the question of the legality of the bond and looks at a higher state of right and wrong.

By the time Portia reaches her closing, “I have said thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea…” incredibly, she has managed to deliver a persuasive argument for the immorality of justice. 

It might not have worked on Shylock, but it certainly gives the rest of us pause for thought.

If you'd like to learn more about the character of Portia throughout the course of the play, click here.

A version of this article was originally published, by the author, on