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Humanities Libertexts

5.1: Shakespeare

It is with real trepidation that I begin this chapter, for several reasons. One reason is that Shakespeare is among the greatest poets in history and it is always daunting and humbling to approach the works of such a poet—but of course the other chapters in this book also deal with great writers. Another, more important reason for my trepidation is that Shakespeare has become such an icon, both in the academic and non-academic worlds. At my own college, Shakespeare is the only author who has two separate courses all to himself, and to many people, the name Shakespeare is synonymous with literature. This phenomenon has its positive side because Shakespeare was, after all, so great. It also has a negative side, however, because in deifying Shakespeare, we distort literary history. Yes, Shakespeare was a great poet, but so, in his time, were Sidney and Spenser; and so, in other times, were other writers. For all his greatness, Shakespeare was as much a part of his time as any other great writer. He was a man of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries whose writings reflect sixteenth- and seventeenth-century modes of thought and, like the works of all great writers, say something to us as well. Whether Shakespeare says these things better than anyone else, whether he says the same things to all people, and whether what he says is universally true are other questions that are worth considering, but the first task is to read the plays.

One question that we might consider, however, is why Shakespeare is always taught in English literature classes. It is true that he wrote a number of poems—the sonnets, “Venus and Adonis,” and “The Rape of Lucrece” are the most famous—but generally when people think of Shakespeare, they are thinking of his plays. (Incidentally, in Shakespeare’s time, plays were hardly considered literature at all. In fact, it was Shakespeare’s works that helped persuade people that drama was more than simply entertainment.) Should not Shakespeare, therefore, be studied as drama? Should Shakespeare courses be taught in Theatre Arts departments rather than English departments? Such questions point to an unfortunate aspect of educational institutions, the division of knowledge into seemingly independent fields. The answer to the questions—or rather, my answer—is that the more ways we study Shakespeare, the better. Shakespeare was a dramatist who wrote dramatic poems. If we treat them only as drama or only as poems, we distort them. We must see them as both.

This approach to Shakespeare, or to any drama, has many implications. For example, elsewhere in this book I have expressed reservations about films based on novels, even when they are as good as David Lean’s Great Expectations. I want to imagine Pip and Estella and London and the whole action of the novel as Dickens presents them to me, not as a director and a screenwriter reinterpret them for me, with all the cuts and adaptations that the move from novel to film requires. Drama, on the other hand, was intended for performance and it is therefore vital to see the plays performed as well as to read them. We must remember, of course, that every production of a play is an interpretation of the play, and we may disagree with some of those interpretations. I do not think that we need to be like the composer Brahms, who said that he never went to performances of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni because none of them could match his own conception of the opera. Seeing an interpretation with which we disagree still reinforces our sense of the drama in Shakespeare and helps us, when we read the plays, to read them dramatically. And certainly it is vital when we see a film version of a play to keep in mind the differences between film and stage.

One helpful way to read these plays, or any play, is to pretend that you are a director trying to envision how the play should be performed. How should the lines be delivered? Where should the characters stand? What should they wear? What should the settings look like? These are questions that must be considered in staging any play, but they are especially challenging in Shakespeare. A person who begins reading a play by George Bernard Shaw will find, in addition to Shaw’s sometimes exhaustingly lengthy prefaces to the plays, detailed stage directions that describe what the characters look like, what they wear, what the room and its furnishings look like, where the characters stand, where they move, and how they think. None of these directions are in Shakespeare. Often we know that a character comes on stage because another character says something like, “Here comes Othello”; and often we can tell that a scene is ending because Shakespeare often ends scenes with a rhyming couplet (though not every such couplet signals the end of a scene). We only know what a character is wearing or what a character looks like if someone refers to that character’s appearance. Otherwise Shakespeare gives us nothing like modern stage directions, which means that as readers (or directors) we have many decisions to make, and some of these decisions are fairly difficult.

Let us consider just the matter of costumes. If we are presenting one of Shakespeare’s Roman dramas, like Antony and Cleopatra, what kind of costumes should the actors wear? We know that the play is set in Rome and Egypt at the time of Augustus, so ancient Roman garb might seem appropriate. On the other hand, we also know that Shakespeare’s actors wore the clothing of their own time, so that if we wanted to approximate a Shakespearian performance we might well have our actors in costumes from the early 1600’s. On the third hand, if Shakespeare’s actors wore clothing that was contemporary in their own time, we might want to have our actors in contemporary clothing, too. Each of these approaches to costuming has a clear rationale, and an inventive director might well have a rationale for yet another approach. Similar questions can be raised about every other aspect of a production, which means that the attentive reader must constantly be making decisions about the text.

Furthermore, that attentive reader should practice reading aloud. All poetry, as I said earlier, should be read aloud, but poetry that was intended for performance must be read aloud. And the reader need not try to sound like Dame Judith Anderson or Diana Rigg, Sir Laurence Olivier or Derek Jacobi. They are fine actors with fine, cultivated British accents, but what we now call a British accent is not at all what a British accent sounded like in Shakespeare’s time. (Surprisingly, the pronunciation of English in parts of the Appalachians or on the Delmarva Peninsula is closer to Shakespeare’s pronunciation than are the British accents of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.) In fact, thanks to changes in pronunciation, many of the puns in Shakespeare’s plays are overlooked. More important than the pronunciation, then, are the rhythm of the language and the way the words work together. The reader should just be sure not to pause at the end of every line unless there is punctuation there that requires a pause. Finally, reading aloud makes the reader more aware of Shakespeare’s incessant use of word play.

Let me add a word about that word play. It used to be commonplace that Shakespeare included in his plays a kind of low humor, like puns or sexual innuendoes, to satisfy the lower classes, who could not be expected to understand the more profound implications of the plays. That view is simply incorrect. There certainly is a lot of humor in Shakespeare, much of it explicitly sexual and much of it quite “low,” and there are puns and double-entendres everywhere. (A quick look at Eric Partridge’s book Shakespeare’s Bawdy can be instructive in this area.) But the humor, the sexual references, and the puns always have a meaning. A good example of the humor can be found in Macbeth, which so many people have read in high school. Just as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth are killing the king, there is a knock at the gate and the drunken porter comes onstage to admit Macduff and Lennox to the castle. His speech, delivered in a drunken voice as he staggers to the gate, repeating “Knock, knock, knock” every time the impatient Macduff knocks at the gate, has often been viewed as an episode of comic relief at a moment of high tension. Without question, the scene has its humorous aspects, but when we look closely at the porter’s words, at his references to Hell, to Beelzebub and other devils, to an “equivocator,” we can see that this speech refers directly to the horrifying action of the play and to the nature of its main character. And, since the word “equivocator” refers specifically to events that surrounded the Gunpowder Plot, an attack on the English government, the porter’s speech also serves to connect that action and themes of the play with current events, as virtually everyone in Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized. Not only is this speech not a distraction, not something inserted just to keep people’s attention or to keep them entertained, but it is an integral part of the play. In fact, whenever we come across a scene like this, a scene that seems so incongruous, we should concentrate on it, because such scenes frequently give us deeper insight into the plays.

As for Shakespeare’s puns—and I write as someone who loves puns—we must realize that in the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, puns were regarded as manifestations of the divine, since they indicated connections in the universe that would otherwise be hidden. Even Jesus used puns, as when he said to Peter, whose name means “rock,” “Thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church.” Consequently, Shakespeare’s use of puns is often humorous, but, as we shall see, it also often contributes another sense to Shakespeare’s words beyond their literal meaning.

And then there is the matter of Shakespeare’s sexual references. There are plenty of critics around who find sexual references everywhere, even when they seem non-existent to less highly trained eyes, but there is no question that Shakespeare, despite our veneration of his plays as “high” art, was indeed fond of sexual innuendo. The plays teem with double-entendres and sexual references. Many of these rely on slang from Shakespeare’s time (duly noted in the Partridge book mentioned earlier), but many are still clear today. Among the former are Hamlet’s advice to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery,” in which Hamlet might be telling Ophelia to go not to a convent but to a brothel, which is entirely appropriate in view of his feelings about his mother’s sexual relationship with his uncle (although a convent, a place devoted to, among other things, chastity, might be equally appropriate). Among the latter are the passages at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet in which Sampson and Gregory discuss how to “thrust [Montague’s] maids to the wall,” after which Sampson clarifies what he means by “cutting off the maids’s heads” by saying, “Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.” Some years ago, a major publisher, in preparing an edition of Romeo and Juliet for high school use, censored this passage, as though it were just some “funny stuff ” that students had to be protected from. But Romeo and Juliet is about, among other things, sex and brutality and the relationship between them, and this opening passage helps to prepare the way for what follows. If we cut out or ignored every such passage, Romeo and Juliet would be a very short play indeed and Romeo and Juliet themselves might just as well be pen pals.

But they are not. They are real people who feel real passions, as do the other characters in the play. One striking quality of Shakespeare’s plays is how real so many of the characters seem. If we read other dramatists from his era, even the best, like Marlowe and Webster, their characters seem more two-dimensional. Shakespeare’s are more like people we know, or could know, which leads us to another misconception about Shakespeare, the notion that the heroes of his tragedies have a “tragic flaw.” Actually the idea of a “tragic flaw” derives ultimately from Aristotle’s Poetics, a book that Shakespeare seems to have pretty much ignored, where it means something like “mistake.” As the concept is now thought about and taught, it derives largely from Renaissance discussions of Aristotle which were heavily influenced by Christian ideas of original sin. Most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes do not have a single such “flaw” that leads to their downfalls, and it is a waste of time and a distortion to try to find such flaws. Is Hamlet indecisive? Perhaps at times he is, but if he took clearer action, we would probably think him headstrong. As it is, everyone in the play is fine as long as Hamlet dithers. It is only when he starts to act that the bodies begin to fall. More to the point, who in Hamlet’s situation would not be occasionally indecisive? Hamlet is not Superman. He is a real person trying to cope with an impossible situation. If he makes mistakes—and he does make mistakes—he does so because he is a human being, not because he is a towering figure who has a single overwhelming flaw. Macbeth offers an even clearer case: rather than being a good man with a tragic flaw, Macbeth is a weak, ambitious man who has a few redeeming qualities. We can hardly say that ambition is his tragic flaw because ambition very nearly defines him, nor does anyone weep at his death.

So was Shakespeare breaking the rules? Was he breaking them when he ignored the Renaissance requirement for “unity of time” and allowed sixteen years to pass during the intermission of/in The Winter’s Tale? Was he breaking them when he ignored “unity of place” in Antony and Cleopatra and allowed the scene to change from Rome to Egypt and back, over and over? The answer, of course, is certainly not. Shakespeare did not write to a formula, nor did he construct his lays by following rules. Like all great writers, he knew the conventions and used them to make his own rules. Looking for tragic flaws and imposed unities may make the reader’s task easier, but it has little to do with what Shakespeare wrote.

Another misconception about Shakespeare that is still taught is that Shakespeare’s tragedies have a structure that looks like this:

This is an old notion that may once have seemed helpful to readers but that, like the idea of a tragic flaw, has little to do with the reality of the plays. We can make the plays fit the diagram, but only by distorting them. Perhaps the most telling evidence against the accuracy of this structural diagram is the fact that the act and scene divisions in the plays are not Shakespeare’s. They were added later, when the plays were printed. Again, instead of trying to fit Shakespeare into someone else’s scheme, we should look at the plays themselves.

Before we actually get to the plays, however, there are still several issues left to clarify. One came up recently at a dinner party I attended when someone, learning that I teach English, naturally turned the conversation to Shakespeare and asked why Shakespeare’s plots were always so silly. I carefully turned the conversation in yet another direction, but if my questioner reads this book, he will find an answer. One answer is that Shakespeare’s stories are generally not silly, but the real answer goes beyond that facile response. Even if someone thinks that Shakespeare’s stories are silly, we must remember that Shakespeare did not invent them. Almost without exception, Shakespeare took his Shakespeare stories from other sources. The history plays, of course, are based on various chronicles of English history, and the Roman plays are based on the work of historians like Plutarch, though Shakespeare made changes even in those sources, but the rest of the plays also have clear sources. Some derive from earlier sources and some come from contemporary works. It is true that Shakespeare often combined stories from different sources in his plays, which is a kind of invention, but even so, he did not create the stories. In twenty-first-century terms, then, Shakespeare was a plagiarist and a thief.

But Shakespeare did not write in the twenty-first century. It is only relatively recently in history that people have been so concerned about the originality of intellectual material. Previously the use of someone else’s material was regarded as a form of flattery. Furthermore, originality lay not so much in what story one was telling but in how one told the story. If we think back to Greek drama, we can see that the playwrights all relied on mythological stories for their plots. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each have a play based on the story of Electra, but those plays differ tremendously, sometimes commenting on each other. So it is with Shakespeare. It makes no difference that the stories were used elsewhere. What is important is the way that Shakespeare tells them, the poetry he uses, the twists he makes in the plots, his insights into the characters and their actions.

This last point leads to another frequently asked question: Did Shakespeare’s original audiences understand the subtleties of the plays? This is a difficult question to answer, since no one interviewed those audiences as they left the theatre and there was no London Times to review the plays. Clearly Shakespeare was considered an important dramatist, though drama was not considered in his time to have the high status of other forms of literature. Shakespeare may never have intended to publish his works—the first dramatist who did so was Ben Jonson, whose life overlapped Shakespeare’s—but whether he did or not, the publication of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, after his death, testified to the importance of those plays. We must remember that Shakespeare lived in a time before videotape, before instant replays. He would have expected his audience to see his plays once, not to read them, not to buy the DVD, not to wait for the movie. In those circumstances, could anyone, even in a more oral culture than our own, have grasped the full subtleties of the plays? Of course not. Even today, with printed editions and recorded performances, we cannot grasp them fully. Nonetheless, the plays were obviously considered good entertainment. Apparently Shakespeare made a living from them.

Or did he? Did a country actor named William Shakespeare really write these plays? This is actually a non-question. The answer makes no difference at all, and the question only concerns people who prefer not dealing with the plays. If the plays are so brilliant that we cannot believe they were written by a country actor, they are so brilliant that we cannot really imagine the mind that did create them. If that good-looking bald actor did not create them, then someone else did. What matters is the plays. We do not search Beowulf in order to learn its author’s identity, and we do not read these plays to learn about Shakespeare.

Speaking of Beowulf, though, I should point out that the language of Shakespeare’s plays is not Old English or even Middle English. It is Early Modern English, and, aside from notoriously obscure passages, it is not all that difficult. Furthermore, modern editions of Shakespeare modernize his spelling. Consider this passage from the second scene of As You Like It as in appears in the First Folio:


Yong Gentleman, your ſpiritſ are too bold for your yeareſ: you

haue ſeene

cruell proofe of this manſ ſtrength, if you ſaw your ſelfe with

your eieſ,

or knew your ſelfe with your iudgment, the feare of

your aduenture would

counſel you to a more equall enterpriſe.


Shakespeare’s spelling and punctuation (and elsewhere even his grammar) differ from ours. The letter “j” is represented by “i” and the letter “v” by “u.” In addition, the modern letter “s” is represented by the long s, which looks like an “f ” without the line all the way through the stem. If reading a modernized Shakespeare seems difficult, get a facsimile of the First Folio and read that. The modernized version will very quickly begin to seem easier.

Another, more important, problem has to do with determining what Shakespeare wrote. The quick response is that we often do not know, which is a big problem when we come to do close readings of the texts. Many of the plays were not printed until long after Shakespeare had died, but even for those that were printed earlier, we do not know how involved Shakespeare was in preparing the texts for publication. In those plays for which we have more than one early edition, the texts are often quite different. Editors since Shakespeare’s time have come up with fairly standard texts, but the relationship between those texts and the plays as they were performed in Shakespeare’s time is unclear.

It occurs to me that reading Shakespeare’s plays is analogous to painting a house. The painting itself is relatively easy once the preliminary work has been done. I have spent a long time on preliminaries here so that the reading itself might be easier and more enjoyable. Now it is time to turn to the plays. I have chosen two to discuss in the hope that if readers enjoy these plays, they will read others. The two plays I will discuss are the comedy As You Like It and the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. I chose the former because the comedies are important and not taught as often as they should be, and this is just a wonderful play. I chose the latter because it is a great tragedy, but it is not as well-known as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, or Othello.

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