“After God, Shakespeare has created most.” ~ Alexandre Dumas
As February is famed for the commemoration of Saint Valentine, as well as being heart health month in the USA and UK, I thought it would be good to celebrate with a love-in devoted to William Shakespeare. Plus, I never need an excuse for a spot of Bardolatry, especially on a #ShakespeareSunday.
No-one in the canon of the English language has written more about love and its many faces, forms and facets than our Will.
Shakespeare’s insight into the foibles of human nature still resonate over 400 years since he quilled his immortal sonnets and plays. Observations from his frequently performed works often can provide a parallel to our personal lives as well as current events.
Take one of Shakespeare’s most vile villains – Richard III. His ruthless ambition for the crown of England and all the foul deeds he undertook in his quest for power were relinquished in a heartbeat in the face of death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The last words Shakespeare puts into king Richard’s screaming mouth as, sans steed, he is about to be butchered are: “A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth
The small things we take for granted are often the things we miss the most when they’re gone, and our need is great. Robust health is one that springs to mind.
Love is surely the state of being that is taken for granted the most. Those thoughtful acts of kindness and love that are performed daily and thought nothing of are sorely missed by the receiver when the doer is no longer willing or able to perform them.
But unconditional love is a divine blessing, it’s the only emotion that provides an infinite supply. The more you give away the more flows to you and through you.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, poems, comedies, histories and tragedies embody eternal human qualities and struggles, captured with such eloquent expression that the mysteries surrounding his life and his status as a god of literature – one of the greatest writers and dramatists that ever lived – shows no sign of slowing or abating. He is everywhere – almost, dare I say – ubiquitous.
Shakespeare is so often reduced to soundbites, but that’s because he wrote so many fantastic pithy phrases and unforgettable one-liners. Not to mention the plethora of new words he introduced into the English language that we frequently use today, without realising their origin.
When it came to phrase-making, he was second to none! (Also one of his).
“The best known and least known of figures.” ~ Bill Bryson
But the Bard is so much more than the sum of his genius parts. For my part I found Shakespeare heavy going at school, but I have come to love and appreciate his way with words as I have matured.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
~ William Shakespeare from Sonnet 97
Shakespeare was, and still is, a man of the people. London’s burgeoning East End was his stomping ground, along with his fellow players of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men during the reign of James I.
The Opiate of the People
In Shakespeare’s time eighty percent of the population were illiterate. His plays were meant primarily to be seen rather than read.
But you can’t please everyone, and even though he was loved by ordinary people and royalty alike, Shakespeare still had his detractors. He was envied by the playwright Robert Greene, who ungraciously labelled him an ‘upstart crowe’ in his 1592 autobiography. It is poetic justice that no one remembers the critics…
Romeo and Juliet
Probably the first play to be staged that had romantic love as its central theme, with an onstage kiss for good measure! It is based on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.
Anthony, Viscount Montagu (his patron, Henry Wriothesley’s grandfather), may have inspired Shakespeare’s choice of name for the family foes of the Capulets.
Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee c. 1884
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
I always used to think that Juliet was asking, albeit in poetic fashion, the location of her paramour, but in fact, ‘wherefore’ means ‘why’. She is pondering on the existential crisis of why she had the misfortune to fall in love with a Montague, a sworn enemy of her family.
Blaise Pascale summed it up perfectly: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
It seems forbidden love (or any kind for that matter), is something humans still fall into in the 21st century, as those in the grasp of its all-consuming intensity will know. There are many wonderful adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, I particularly enjoyed the most recent film (screenplay by Julian Fellowes):
As you may have gathered, the question my title poses is, why Shakespeare, and I’ll leave it to the centuries of brilliant writers and artists to answer that one!
Let’s start with the loving act of friendship on the part of John Heminges and Henry Condell to honour their dead friend and colleague, not solely by publishing 36 of his plays in the First Folio of 1623, but also with this touching preface for the generations of fans to follow:
“To the Great Variety of Readers,
Read him, and again, and again: And if you then do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of is friends, whom if you need, can be your guides: if you need them not, you can lead yourselves, and others, and such readers we wish him.”
Henry Crawford’s line in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, (often attributed as Austen’s own view): ‘Shakespeare… is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct.’
Charles Dickens was obsessed with Shakespeare and carried a volume of his plays around with him at all times; he even bought a house because of its associations with Falstaff. The influence of Shakespeare shines through his novels, including the depiction of family relationships based on Cordelia and Lear, as well as his use of theatrical-style devices borrowed from the plays.
There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Henry V in Winston Churchill’s ‘Their Finest Hour’ speech, and he used a quote from Julius Caesar in a memo to his staff in 1943, the one which begins, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’
From Henry James’ 1876 review of Romeo and Juliet: ‘One never sees Shakespeare played without being reminded at some new point of his greatness’, although aside from his admiration of Shakespeare’s craft, it seemed he had a problem with the Bard being a common oik from Stratford!
Shakespeare was surely one of our greatest exports.
Abraham Lincoln would read his works aloud on many evenings to his aides (who may or may not have been as enamoured of them as their leader), and the French writer, Flaubert said: ‘When I read Shakespeare I become greater, wiser, purer.’
The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh wrote of how Shakespeare made him feel in a letter to his brother: ‘What touches me… is that the voices of these people, which… reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.’
The political prisoners held captive on South Africa’s Robben Island reportedly read a smuggled copy of the Complete Works, disguised as a Hindu Bible. Each of them signed their names by their favourite passages.
Walter Sisulu chose a speech of Shylock’s: Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, / For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe. Nelson Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar, which begins: Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once. Years later Mandela said, “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.”
Hamlet was one of the first characters in literature to be a fully rounded human being, plagued by doubt, inner conflicts and suicidal thoughts, which Sigmund Freud found perfect case study fodder. Hamlet helped him to explore the concept of the unconscious, and also to illustrate the Oedipus complex – maybe a step too far!
Book titles taken from Shakespeare include: Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, The Dogs of War, Under the Greenwood tree, Infinite Jest, The fault in Our Stars, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Remembrance of Things Past, Murder Most Foul, to mention but a few.
Such Sweet Thunder – The title of the jazz suite album and first track, are Duke Ellington’s homage to Shakespeare’s characters, with the title representing Othello:
Shakespeare has been credited with more than 1,000 films and TV shows. According to The Guinness Book of Records he is the most filmed author of all time. Hamlet has around 79 film credits with Romeo and Juliet hot on his heels with 59.
“Shakespeare – the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God.” ~ Laurence Olivier
William Hazlitt wasn’t taking any prisoners in the 19th century when he wrote: ‘If we wish to know the force of human genius, we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators.’ Hmm… better stop now!
Venus and Adonis by Titian c. 1560s
Shakespeare’s most successful published work during his lifetime was his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, which must have seemed rather racy and titillating to Elizabethan audiences… It was written between 1592 – 94 (when London’s theatres were closed due to the plague), as was another of his long poems, The Rape of Lucrece.
Shakespeare’s perspicacity and ability to illuminate the consequences of a mortal sin, versus the pleasure in committing it are remarkable.
Tarquin ruminates over whether to rape the virtuous Lucretia:
What win I if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week,
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
After he commits the terrible act, poor Lucretia is tormented with horribly realistic guilt and shame, ending ultimately in her suicide.
Tarquin and Lucretia by Luca Giordano
A poem with hard-hitting themes, which unsurprisingly was not as successful as Venus and Adonis.
Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, one of the few occasions that Shakespeare ‘speaks’ to us in his own voice, (even if it is obsequious in tone): ‘The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end, and ‘What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.’
The Sonnets and the mystery of the ‘Fair Youth’
It is debatable whether these were ever meant for public consumption and may only have been intended for the recipient, or a private audience. The subject is addressed as ‘you’ and known variously as ‘my lovely boy’, ‘lovely youth’ and ‘beauteous and lovely boy’, referred to as the Fair Youth by scholars.
Even though the long poems proved the most financially successful of his literary output during the Bard’s lifetime, his 154 sonnets were not greatly admired when first published in 1609, as this form of poetry was starting to go out of fashion. But they have stood the test of time, and are now perhaps considered the apotheosis of his literary achievements.
The first 126 of the sonnets, labelled the ‘Fair Youth’ poems, are mostly expressions of romantic love, encompassing all the associated emotions such as jealousy, anxiety, mistrust, and they progress into an affair between the youth and the narrator’s ‘Dark Lady’, (who the next 26 sonnets are about, plus a few relating to a ‘rival poet’).
Many of the sonnets are addressed to a man, and they are among the most tender, passionate and downright erotic poems ever written, causing much heated debate and consternation over the centuries.
Was Shakespeare gay? Or at least bisexual, as he was married to Anne Hathaway. Attitudes towards sexuality would surely have differed to what they are today. Either way, what really matters is his legacy of literary gold dust. It is not clear if all 126 poems are addressed to the same man, like one great outpouring, or if they are to different friends and lovers over a number of years.
It has long been argued that the Fair Youth was Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. He was a good-looking and debonair chap if his portraits are anything to go by.
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton
Shakespeare scholar Jonathon Bate believes that Henry Wriothesley was indeed the fair youth, and that the sonnets were written for him in the quest for patronage.
However, there is no categorical proof that the poems are autobiographical. To over interpret them surely takes the focus away from their intrinsic beauty. This is the conclusion that James Shapiro came to by the middle of the 19th century: ‘The obsession with autobiographical titbits had all but displaced interest in the aesthetic pleasures of the poems themselves.’
Sonnet 130 is not complimentary to a particular lady, yet expresses genuine feeling in the last two couplets, in a slightly cynical, backhanded sort of way:
Another great British poet, William Wordsworth, was a firm proponent of the idea that Shakespeare revealed his true self in the sonnets.
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!
By William Wordsworth
To me the sonnets seem too intimate and poignant to be figments of Shakespeare’s imagination, they must have risen up from a deep well… It is not wise to interpret them too literally, but through them his life experiences have left their indelible mark.
The tantalisingly cryptic dedication written on the front was signed by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe (T.T.) and further fuelled ideas that the Fair Youth, possibly Henry Wriothesley, was also the dedicatee with his initials reversed:
One does rather go down a rabbit hole investigating all of this, (I’ll save the ‘Dark Lady’ for another day). A recent hypothesis is that the publisher’s dedication is to William Holme, which seems highly plausible to me.
A detailed exploration of the sonnets’ dedication. Oscar Wilde even wrote a fictional story, The Portrait of Mr. W.H. based on Thomas Tyrwhitt’s theory that the Fair Youth was named William Hughes, based on certain lines contained in Sonnet 20: “A man in hue, all Hues in his controlling”, in which the word Hues is both italicised and capitalised in the original edition.
In her brilliant foreward to the RSC edition of sonnets Fiona Shaw writes:
Shakespeare’s sonnets give us the impetus required for a meaningful analysis of our foolish selves in love and our difficulty in really communicating with one another.
He uses ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of all our conflicting thoughts and all in the pocketbook size of the sonnet. They are like literary entries in the diary of the human condition. We borrow his words and his rhythm, his hesitancy, his ease with conclusion, and it helps us to do more than merely navigate through the often fraught landscape of love and delight ourselves along the way.
We live in a time where being unable to utter our personal truth seems to hold more integrity. We have become suspicious of words. Shakespeare’s sonnets entice us back to a more precise rendering of emotional reality, and they do it with generous and extravagant language. In a sentence he captures the sound and the terror of feeling.
Sonnet 93 was the first of the sonnets to be subjected to biographical analysis by Edmond Malone in 1780, who proposed that the sonnet might reveal the unhappy state of Shakespeare’s marriage. Not such a big leap, when one considers the geographical distance between William and Anne for much of the time, in addition to scrutiny of the language.
Malone opened a scholar’s Pandora’s Box when he further suggested Shakespeare snubbed Anne Hathaway in his will, (to support his hypotheses), in bequeathing his wife his ‘second best bed’.
Men portraying women on stage
Women’s emancipation had a long way to go in Elizabethan England, when women were prohibited from acting on stage in public. Cue one of my favourite films, Shakespeare in Love. The heroine is Lady Viola de Lesseps, disguised as Thomas Kent for much of the movie, she is shipwrecked at the end of the film, a perfect prequel to Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is a tale of separation and rediscovery, set in motion by a storm at sea, a popular device used by Shakespeare, (shipwrecks also featured in varying plot degrees in The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale). Maybe there was an excess of nautical props lying around…
Viola’s character dresses up as a man, Cesario, in the employ of Count Orsino; in a comic romp of gender swaps and mistaken identity on the road to love.
Nuggets of Twelfth Night performances:
Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance lend comic genius to an all male cast in a Globe Theatre production:
I can imagine how they must have howled in the 16th century, and how ludicrous and funny it seems to us today when men play female parts. Especially the scenes with Viola, in which a boy pretends to be a girl pretending to be a boy!
This plot may even have put Will’s head in a spin…
As is said in the play: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I do believe Shakespeare to be in the second category, for he had no noble title at birth and secured his posthumous place in history through his wit, talent and hard work.
Much Ado About Nothing
The banter and brevity of Much Ado About Nothing meant it was a popular play in its day. The wrong done to Hero is technically the main plot line, but the sparring lovers, Beatrice and Benedick supply the most fun. Even King Charles II apparently wrote Benedick and Beatrice next to the play’s title in his personal copy of the Second Folio.
Sparks fly between Kenneth and Emma in Branagh’s wonderful film adaptation:
All is True
Kenneth Branagh talks about portraying Shakespeare in the twilight of his life in All is True:
I must see this film!
I think the fire scene at the end of the trailer might be depicting the unfortunate burning down of The Globe Theatre. It enjoyed much success from its opening in 1599 to its demise in 1613, after a stray spark from a stage cannon in a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatch roof. Thankfully there were no fatalities. It was rebuilt the following year with a closed tiled roof.
The original title of Henry VIII was All is True, hence the film’s title, and it was changed for the publication of the First Folio to The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth.
Steamy Southwark and Shoreditch were booming medieval theatre districts, home to not just The Globe, but also The Rose, The Curtain, The Swan and The Hope. What they lacked in sophisticated stage and scenery set-ups they made up for with lavish, colourful costumes and the use of animal organs and blood to lend authenticity to gruesome battle and death scenes.
Can you picture the atmosphere with 3,000 rowdy theatre goers packed tightly together?
The Puritans considered such theatres dens of iniquity and vice, (which they most probably were), and in 1642 they succeeded in closing them all down. The Globe was demolished two years later.
Today’s Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside (again in thatch but with the added benefit of modern water sprinklers), was built a mere 230 metres away from the first Globe’s location. It’s design however, was based on drawings of The Swan, made in 1596 by a Dutch tourist.
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question.”
~ William Shakespeare (The Two Noble Kinsmen)
The above quote, the last words in the play (except for the epilogue), are perhaps the very last words that Shakespeare wrote.
The Tempest was previously thought to be his last play, but The Two Noble Kinsmen, based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, is now generally accepted as Shakespeare’s final play; a collaboration with John Fletcher. Scholars believe that Shakespeare’s contributions are the writing of Act 1, two scenes in Act 3, and three in Act 5.
It may not be considered such a good swansong as The Tempest, but author Andrew Dickson says of the closing lines, ‘as a conclusion to his career these halting words… are infinitely more painful than anything voiced by Prospero’.