Friday, 30 May 2014

What's Self Love Got to do With It? | Character Analysis of Malvolio

Nigel Hawthorne as
Olivia's pious steward is one of the most popular characters in Twelfth Night. But what is it about Malvolio that makes him so easy to laugh at?

Twelfth Night, written in around 1601, was penned for the winter festivities of 'Twelfth Night', which was a huge celebration with song, dance, drink, feasting and merriment. 

Moreover, festivals were a time of dressing up and role reversal: themes that are abundant within the play. In other words, Twelfth Night is (despite the sadness of the central plot), about misrule, letting loose and just having a good time - all things that Malvolio opposes.

Who is Malvolio?

Not a very pure Puritan, but a Puritan nonetheless
Malvolio is steward to Olivia and, therefore, handles the running of her household. He is described by Maria as “…a kind of puritan”(II.iii). 

Of course, the Puritans, who wanted to close the theatres and were vehemently opposed to any form of entertainment, including the winter festivals, such as Twelfth Night, were not exactly popular with those in Shakespeare’s audiences.

Therefore, by aligning Malvolio with the Puritans, Shakespeare is doing two things: firstly, he is setting Malvolio up as the perfect antagonist to the loose-living Toby Belch; and secondly, he is ensuring that the audience not only enjoys the subsequent torment of Malvolio, but also that it is complicit in those events. 

Shakespeare's Source for the Character of Malvolio

In recent times, scholars have suggested that the character of Malvolio may be based on a Yorkshire landowner and magistrate by the name of Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby. 

Hoby was a Puritan who, in 1600, set about suing his neighbours in what became a famous court case of the era. Apparently, some local men entered Hoby’s home, began to drink, play a rowdy game of cards, then proceeded to ridicule Puritanism. Things took an even darker turn when they talked of raping Hoby’s wife. 

Sir Hoby’s case against William Eure and several of his neighbours was successful, and the court awarded him damages.

Is Malvolio's chastising of Toby's partying inspired
by a real event?

Many Shakespearean scholars believe that this event may have inspired act II, scene iii of Twelfth Night, in which Malvolio is disturbed by the drunken singing and merriment of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria.

Is Malvolio a Power Hungry Villain?

Is it Olivia's good looks and charm Malvolio is leching
over or her power?
Of course, Puritan or not, Malvolio shows a less than pure facet of his character during act II, scene v, in which he fantasises about marrying Olivia. 

Shakespeare makes it clear, however, that Malvolio is not in love with Olivia, he is simply in love with the notion of social status and, above all, the ability to chastise Sir Toby for his loose morals and heavy drinking.

A Puritan stereotype was that they were power hungry, so Shakespeare is deliberately playing up to all of the received ideas about Puritanism. 

Again, it's clear that this is intended to illicit a specific response from his audience and, crucially, to add to the humour of the play. 

It's perhaps worth bearing in mind that, although the play is still very comical today, the Elizabethan audience would have appreciated a satirical nature to the humour. This is something that a 21st century audience, largely, misses out on.

How do Audiences React to Malvolio?

As already alluded to, Shakespeare’s audiences, then and now, find Malvolio haughty, unpleasant and with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Consequently, they're likely to thoroughly enjoy the mockery and later torment of him.

Do we feel sorry for the way Malvolio
is 'notoriously abused'?
However, modern audiences do tend to take a more sympathetic view of Malvolio than their Elizabethan counterparts. Although the unpleasantness in his character undoubtedly remains, there is something uncomfortable about watching his imprisonment and mock exorcism. 

Trying to make someone believe they are insane, even if it is to teach them a lesson they richly deserve, tends to make us a little uneasy.

Of course, there may have been an element of this discomfort within Elizabethan audiences too, which might be suggested in Olivia’s recognition that he has “...been most notoriously abused”(V.i).

However, the level of sympathy an audience feels for the character will naturally depend upon the way an actor plays the role and, importantly, how the play is directed. Subsequently, it could be the modern approach to directing and performing Twelfth Night that leads an audience to feel a little sorry for Malvolio.

If you'd like to know more about Twelfth Night, take a look at 'Who Loves Whom in Twelfth Night?

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

Monday, 19 May 2014

5 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare's King Lear

Interesting Facts About Shakespeare's King Lear
Written between 1603 and 1606 (and rewritten on a number of occasions), King Lear is one of Shakespeare's most famous and popular tragedies. Sibling and romantic jealousy, fraternal betrayal, greed, insanity and bloody violence - what's not to like?

Here are five interesting facts about Shakespeare's King Lear:

1. There were FOUR versions of the play: the 1608 First Quarto (possibly from Shakespeare's 'foul papers'); the 1608 (although printed in 1619), Second Quarto; the 1623 First Folio; and the 1632 Second Folio. 

The modern text of the play is a conflation of the two quarto versions and the first of the folios, thanks to early editors, like Alexander Pope.

In fact, though, the versions differ wildly, with nearly three hundred lines of Quarto One that are not in Folio One, and around a hundred lines of Folio One that aren't in Quarto One.

The First Quarto Version of King Lear

2. It's thought that Shakespeare may have made one of those revision when The King's Men shifted premises to the indoor Blackfriars Theatre. 

Was King Lear altered for an indoor stage?

Nahum Tate did unspeakable things to King Lear

3. As if four versions weren't enough, in the 17th century, Nahum Tate decided that Shakespeare's interpretation of the tragedy was just too...well, tragic. 

Tate offered a much happier ending, with Lear and Cordelia surviving, and Cordelia going on to marry Edgar. She must have jilted the King of France, I suppose.

Most shocking is that Tate's 'cheerful' version of the play was the version for nearly a century and a half! For more on what unforgivable things Nahum Tate did to King Lear, click here.

4. Like many of Shakespeare's plays, the plot for King Lear did not come from thin air. 

Leir of Britain and his three daughters, illustration from
around 1250

The basis for the story actually came from the semi-legendary Celtic tale of Leir of Britain, which Shakespeare probably picked up from Holinshed's  The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande.

There's also a good chance Shakespeare pinched the name Cordelia from a character in Spencer's The Faerie Queene, who, coincidentally, also dies by hanging.

The role of Lear's fool was written for
Robert Armin

5. It's reckoned that Shakespeare wrote the part Lear's fool specifically for Robert Armin: the company's resident comedian.

Armin played most of Shakespeare's clowns, including Feste, Touchstone, Thersites and Lavatch.

And Robert Armin was another actor who turned his hand to writing, although not as prolifically as his pal Shakespeare!

Friday, 16 May 2014

An Overview of Othello's Character

How stupid must Othello be to be drawn in by Iago's lies?
Iago is the archetypal villain, so the poor sap who is taken in by him must be incredibly naïve. Or is there something more complex about the relationship between Othello and Iago? What is it about Othello that makes him easy for the dastardly Iago to manipulate. 

There's no doubt about it, Othello was an incredibly daring play for its time.

During a period of history that was rife with racism, Shakespeare presents his audience with not only a black protagonist, but a black hero; a successful and honourable leader of men.

In addition, of course, Shakespeare’s audience is presented with a case of interracial marriage, something that is not brought into the mainstream again until 1967 in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

With a modern viewing, it is easy to forget that the play was so controversial, but in order to examine the character of Othello, it is important to consider the era in which he exists, because one of the reasons it might be so easy for Othello to be fooled by Iago is that he's an 'outsider'. 

Although, having said that, despite the disadvantage of being a black man in fiercely racist climate, he is respected by many. And this is something worth keeping in mind.

Othello as a Man of Honour

Othello won Desdemona over with tales of bravery on
the high seas
It is interesting to note that Othello’s Venice is a world in which men are defined by their military prowess and honour. 

So, even in a racist climate, Othello’s skills as an officer, and his morals as a gentlemen are enough to win over the vast majority of the Venetians.

In fact, if it weren’t for his marriage to Desdemona, Brabantio would perhaps recognize these qualities, too.

One thing is for certain, it is Othello’s reputation which protects him from Brabantio’s wrath. 

It is also fair to suggest that the bravery and honour displayed by Othello on the battlefield is what has attracted Desdemona to him. She says, "I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."(I.iii) In other words, it is his character that she adores. His race, meanwhile, is completely inconsequential to her.

 Is Othello Stupid to Believe Iago?

It's easy for us to see through Iago, because we see
and hear things that Othello doesn't
This is a complicated question, in part because Othello is a complicated character. 

Like almost all Shakespearean characters, Othello is a well-rounded human with flaws and inconsistencies to his character.

Of course, it is possible to argue that he is very naïve in terms of friendship, or as Iago says, "The Moor…will tenderly be led by the nose as asses are."(I.iii) 

But let's face it, anyone who trusts someone can be ‘led by the nose’ and, of course, as an honourable man, Othello may just assume that those around him are equally honourable. Oh, how wrong he is! 

This could be said to be naïve, but it is perhaps more accurate to label it as innocence, because, unlike us, Othello has no cause to doubt Iago.

Othello's Innocence About Love

For a man who's always in control, the madness
of love must come as a shock to Othello
One of the most interesting aspects of Othello's character, especially considering his great leadership qualities is this innocence he seems to possess.

And it's not just about friendship, Othello seems to have an equally innocent view of romantic love.

For instance, it becomes clear that the relationship between Othello and Desdemona is a bit of a whirlwind, and whereas he attracted her by telling stories of his adventures, she shared very little of herself. He doesn't know much about her, but then infatuation makes 'knowing' someone irrelevant!

What Othello does know for sure about Desdemona is she betrayed her father to be with him. And as Brabantio says, “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see:/She has deceived her father, and may thee”(I.iii)

Othello's innocence is coupled with an overwhelming passion, which he has possibly never experienced before. After all, elsewhere in the play, Othello seems in possession of great restraint. However, as a man in love, he has absolutely no control, and this provides Iago with a perfect opportunity to abuse his position of trust.

It could be said that it is a simple mixture of naivety, innocence and passion that causes Othello’s downfall. 

And arguably, it is the innocence of love that makes the tragedy of the play all the more profound.

For more on Othello, you might want to check out 'Is Othello a Tragic Hero?' and '10 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare's Othello'

Thursday, 15 May 2014

All's Well That Ends Well in a Nutshell

The plots of Shakespeare's plays are almost always multilayered - with some being more complex than others. But is it possible to simplify them? What if Shakespeare were alive and working as a screenwriter? He'd need loglines (one or two sentence summaries), of his works.

So, here's my effort at reducing one of his plays to its most simple parts - All's Well That Ends Well in a nutshell.

When a young woman saves the life of a king, she's permitted to marry the man of her dreams, but her bridegroom is rather more reluctant. When he makes a run for it, she'll stop at nothing to get him back.

Wouldn't sound out of place in a modern romcom, would it? Of course, the comedy in All's Well That Ends Well is a little darker than When Harry Met Sally, but still...the timelessness of Shakespeare's plays shines through!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sarah Bernhardt and Shakespeare

Sarah Bernhardt in the 1890s
One of the most famous actors of her generation, Sarah Bernhardt is a thespian legend. Among her many iconic performances, she is perhaps best known for her roles in Shakespeare plays.

Here's just a little taste of Bernhardt's career and her contribution to Shakespeare's continued popularity.

A Little Background on Bernhardt

A performer for all of her adult life, Sarah Bernhardt was a firm favourite with audiences in the United Kingdom, the United States, and in her 'native' France.

I say, 'native', because, although Bernhardt claimed that France was her country of birth, there is much about her life that remains a mystery. She was famously dubbed by Alexandre Dumas, fils, as a, “consummate liar”.

Subsequently, she remains one of the most iconic of iconic figures, partly because she's still shrouded in mystery.

It is perhaps this mystique surrounding Bernhardt that ensured her success and the continued interest in her life and work. Whatever the exact reason (or reasons), for her popularity, she became known as ‘The Divine Miss Sarah’ and is still considered to be one of the world’s finest actors.

Do Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs Bernhardt

Bernhardt as Theodora in 1882
Bernhardt was just seventeen when she graced the stage for the first time, in 1862. From that date, until her death, in 1923, she was almost continuously working.

And during the twentieth century, Bernhardt was eager to be part of the very latest acting medium: film. She starred in nine movies between 1900 and 1923.

One such movie was an adaptation of Hamlet, Le duel d'Hamlet (1900), directed by Clement Maurice.

Sarah Bernhardt and Shakespeare

Sarah Bernhardt’s first foray into Shakespearean theatre, came in 1867. At the age of just twenty-two, Bernhardt took part in a production of King Lear.

It was in 1899, in London, that Bernhardt took on arguably the most famous role in the Shakespearean cannon: Hamlet.

Although that may seem like quite a radical move, the fact is, during this period, it was not unusual for women to play the depressed young Danish prince. In fact, Sarah Bernhardt was just continuing what had become something of a tradition.

Sarah Bernhardt is famous for her
portrayal of Hamlet
Despite having one of her legs amputated, Bernhardt continued to perform and, in 1916, just a year after the loss of her leg, she played the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, in Washington D.C.

What Elizabeth Robins Thought of Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet

Despite being one of the most famous, and popular, actors of her day, Bernhardt wasn't without her critics. And her Hamlet was treated harshly by author, playwright and fellow actor, Elizabeth Robins.

Elizabeth Robins' very famous critique of Bernhardt’s Hamlet, entitled ‘On Seeing Madame Bernhardt’s Hamlet’, was published in the North American Review, in December 1900.

Robins reaction to Bernhardt’s performance was less than flattering, claiming that “…in this version of Hamlet, the great tragedy has been drained of its dignity, as well as robbed of its mysterious charm.”

It should be mentioned, in fairness, that Robins is not without compliments for Bernhardt, “Among the most notable of these is her wonderful mastery of sheer poise, that power she has of standing stock still for an indefinite length of time with perfect ease and grace, never shifting from her ground, and equally never ceasing for a moment to be dramatic.”

An actor herself, perhaps Elizabeth Robins
was a little jealous of Bernhardt
However, it is clear that Robins does not approve of Bernhardt’s portrayal.

Now, there are numerous possible reasons for this. For instance, despite her claim to have no preconception of a woman playing the role, she may have already reached a conclusion about the suitability of a female in the part.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning Robins’ fascination with Edwin Booth, whose portrayal of Hamlet was very highly regarded during the period.

Alternatively, Elizabeth Robins, herself an actor, may have been suffering from a case of professional envy!

Despite her detractors, Sarah Bernhardt was, and continues to be, a cherished figure in France and the wider world.

Her performances in Shakespearean plays, and Hamlet in particular, are still the subject of discussion...a fact that would, no doubt, displease Elizabeth Robins.

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

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Shakespeare's Guide to Life

William Shakespeare's work has endured for more than four centuries, predominantly because he was so darned perceptive about life: love, hatred, ambition, jealousy, sorrow, compassion, guilt...the list goes on and on. 

In other words, Shakespeare seems to have had a great insight into what it is to be human. His plays are littered with phrases that still resonate with us, and many of his quotes are as telling about human nature now as they ever were.

So, here are just a few of Shakespeare's life lessons.

Richard II before time did
much wasting

"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me..." 

Richard II, V.v

It's not exactly a cheery thought to be sure, but it's true. Time does waste all of us, it is wasting us right at this very moment, so let's make sure we're not frittering our time away. 

Macbeth with his 'get it over and done with'
school of thought

"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly"
Macbeth, I.vii

I don't often find myself thinking, 'What would Macbeth do?', because, I figure, that way trouble lies. However, when it comes to getting something unpleasant over and done with, I try to keep these words in mind.

For Forrest Gump it was like a box of chocolates;
for Shakespeare a mingled yarn

"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and
ill together.."

All's Well That Ends Well, IV.iii

Along the same lines of Hamlet's, "...nothing either good or bad..." The First Lord in All's Well That Ends Well reminds us that human beings are complicated creatures.

King Lear knows there's a good reason to cry

"When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools..." 
King Lear,

It seems as though Shakespeare had quite a bleak view of the world. Accurately bleak, though.

You'd want to make sure someone was steering
that, wouldn't you?

"Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer'd"

Cymberline, IV.iii

In other words, sometimes when your ship comes in - it's just dumb luck! Of course, another way of looking at it is, some people get things they don't necessarily deserve. Either way, it is, indeed, the way the world works.

Of course, Timon knew a thing or two
about being used

"...they love thee not that use thee..."

Timon of Athens, IV.iii

Timon is actually talking to a prostitute. But, the principal is the same, I think, in any walk of life. If you're being used, then the person doing the using, will toss you aside as soon as they're done with you. 

Love is a madness, so Cressida reckoned.

" be wise and love
Exceeds man's might..."

Troilus and Cressida, III.ii

Shakespeare makes frequent mention to the blindness and madness of love. Anyone who's ever been a victim to that particularly breed of insanity knows the feeling well. 

Claudio's depressed to say the least

"I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it."

Measure for Measure, III.i

Yep, definitely bleak! And, that just about sums it up.

These are, of course, just a tiny fragment of the beautifully perceptive phrases that Bill Shakespeare tossed together. If your favorite isn't on my list, why not add it in the comments below? 

And if you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare and his words, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon

Sunday, 11 May 2014

10 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare's Othello

Othello is one of Shakespeare's
most popular plays
Written in around 1603, Shakespeare's Othello is one of the Bard's most popular and frequently performed plays. Here are just a few interesting facts surrounding the work, its characters and its performance history.

1. In Shakespeare's source material, the only character with a name is Desdemona

Like many of Shakespeare's plays, Othello didn't come exclusively from the playwright's imagination. 

In fact, he 'pinched' the basis for the play from a tale called Un Capitano Moro. It was a short story and, in it, all of the characters are known by their rank or title...except Desdemona, whose name means ill-fated.  

2. The character of Roderigo doesn't exist in Cinthio's Un Capitano Moro

Despite lifting some the plot, it can't be said that Shakespeare didn't add his own spin on the story. For instance, the manner of Desdemona's death is vastly different in Cinthio's original. 

Another of his additions was a whole new character: Roderigo. Click here for more on why the Bard may have chosen to include a comic foil for Iago.

Iago has more lines than any other character in the play

3. Iago is by far the most verbose character of the play

Although Othello is the tragic hero, he doesn't have the lion's share of the words - not by a long shot. With 1098 lines of dialogue, Iago far surpasses Othello's paltry 887. 

Iago also speaks some of the most memorable lines; ones that have worked their way into everyday language: "The best with two backs," (Okay, maybe not every day!), and "Wear my heart upon my sleeve."

4. The name 'Othello' means wealth

It's not difficult to see why Desdemona is called Desdemona, it's calling a spade a spade. 

However, dubbing Othello 'Othello' isn't quite so obvious. But maybe it's not so much of a mystery when we consider that, when Shakespeare Christened Othello, there was probably no such name. And although it is taken to be a variant on the old Germanic name Otto, Shakespeare may, in fact, have taken it from an ancient Roman Emperor nicknamed Otho.

If you're interested in learning more on Othello's name, its origins, and why Shakespeare may have chosen it, check out David Shajer's thoughts on the subject, here

5. The subject of interracial marriage wasn't tackled again in mainstream entertainment until 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was
groundbreaking, but Shakespeare took
on interracial marriage over 350 years earlier

I think it's easy to overlook just how ahead of it's time Othello was. Keep in mind, Shakespearean theatre was the Hollywood of its day. It made big bucks and it drew in the masses; it wasn't just for the educated and/or wealthy. 

The fact that the subject of interracial marriage wasn't really touched upon in the same way for more than 350 years, tells us just how radical it was.

6. The word 'honesty' or variants thereof are used 52 times over the course of the play

And with wonderful dramatic irony, it is said most often by, or about, Iago.

7. The play was first performed in 1604 at Whitehall Palace

Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, there is a known record of Othello's premiere: it took place on the 1st of November as part of the 'Hallamas Day' (aka All Hallows or All Saints' Day), festivities. In the record, "The Moor of Venis" was said to be written by a "Shaxberd". 

8. Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, Othello wasn't adapted during the Restoration period

"The problem with this tragedy is it's just too tragic..."
Nahum Tate
During the Restoration and the eighteenth century, most of Shakespeare's plays were tweaked (and in some cases rather severely altered), to appeal to a more sensitive and sedate audience. 

For example, click here for a taste of how Nahum Tate took a whopping pair of garden shears to King Lear

Othello, though was not subject to similar treatment. Testament to the play's brilliance? Maybe, but does that mean King Lear is less brilliant? 

In any event, Othello did remain unmolested by the likes of Tate. 

9. The first film version of Othello was made in 1909 and shot in Venice

Directed by Ugo Falena, Otello (as it was originally titled), was shot on location in Venice - and it's thought by some that this was the first Shakespeare play to be filmed in the play's actual locale.

10. There are currently 20 film versions and adaptations of the play, including:

Stuart Burge's 1965 adaptation

Oliver Parker's 1995 offering

And Tim Blake Nelson's O from 2001