Sunday, March 27, 2011

Required Work: Hamlet

While Hamlet does make it on my top 5 list of favorite Shakespeare plays, it is by no means a fun and quick read. It is incredibly long (Shakespeare’s longest), and can be quite complicated. Sure, it has fun parts in between all of the madness, corruption, and death (and sometimes those are the fun parts), but for the most part it is a struggle, and there are a billion interpretations. I will do my best to keep it simple.


One word: tragedy. So many dead bodies on the stage at the end of this play. Then there are the four that died before – one onstage and three off, five if you count old King Hamlet. Nothing really happy about it


The play explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption. While most of these pertain to King Claudius, he isn’t the only one susceptible to them. Obviously his ultimate treachery is killing his brother and marrying the widow to become king. He then plots to kill Prince Hamlet once he believes that Hamlet knows the truth. His treachery even spreads to Polonius and his son Laertes, and also Hamlet’s good friends, but somewhat obscure characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The revenge of course mostly applies to Hamlet’s attempts to expose his uncle and then kill him, but we can’t forget Laertes, who joins in with King Claudius in a plot to kill Hamlet after the prince kills Polonius, albeit by accident. The incest as far as I can tell only applies to King Claudius marrying and sleeping with his now dead brother’s wife. And the moral corruption runs rampant amongst pretty much everyone, and very few of the characters are innocent of it. One ongoing debate has been whether or not Queen Gertrude is completely innocent. And as soon as we meet King Hamlet’s ghost, it becomes apparent that he wasn’t completely innocent during his life as he knows as soon as he is done with his business on earth he will be given over to “sulph’rous and tormenting flames” for the “foul crimes done in [his] days of nature.” Ophelia may be the only one who was completely innocent. But of course, even *that* comes into question when the gravediggers are digging her grave. Because she threw herself into the water and consequently drowned, the gravediggers are not sure if she deserves a Christian burial since she committed suicide. So when it comes down to it, everyone can be accused of something.

Another theme that comes up is that of religion. The play appears to be alternately Catholic and Protestant. King Hamlet’s ghost appears to be in purgatory, and Ophelia’s burial ceremony is characteristically Catholic. The play takes place in Denmark, which was then (and still is now) predominantly Protestant. Also, Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all attend Wittenberg, where Martin Luther first began ushering in the Protestant Reformation.

Another theme that cannot be ignored is that if language. Hamlet is the most skilled at rhetoric, and much of his language is courtly. He uses highly developed metaphors and puns to both reveal his thoughts and conceal them at the same time. King Claudius’s high status is reinforced by his language, and it is also full of rhetorical figures as is Hamlet’s and sometimes Ophelia’s. Meanwhile, the language of Horatio, the guards, and the gravediggers is much simpler.


Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest and often believed to be most powerful and influential tragedy. During his lifetime it was one of his most popular works. People really took to the ghost and the vivid dramatization of melancholy and insanity.

It was written at a time of religious upheaval and in the wake of the English Reformation: the series of events in which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Also, much of Hamlet’s courtly language follows the recommendation of Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 etiquette guide, The Courtier. And as far as history goes, that is really all I got…

Next week, I will cover Pearl by the Gawain Poet as we are scheduled to discuss it in class. Hopefully, the discussion will be as helpful shedding light on Pearl as it was shedding light on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Optional Work: Twelfth Night

The following post is about another fun quick read of a play. Twelfth Night is probably my #3 favorite play of Shakespeare’s, after Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. The plot is creative, and the characters are fun, ridiculous, and rarely serious. I recommend it to anyone whose introduction into Shakespeare consisted of Romeo and Juliet and only selected scenes of Julius Caesar, therefore causing them to cast off Shakespeare before they have even really begun to get know him.


Twelfth Night is unashamedly comedic. No one onstage dies (people probably did die during the shipwreck that causes Viola and Sebastian to arrive on the shores on Illyria, but they aren’t of any importance to the audience), and the play ends in marriages…plural.


The play has a general jovial feel of festivities and partying and general self-indulgence. The subtitle What You Will implies that the audience is also involved in the merry feeling found in the characters in the play. Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, is probably the most obvious example of this merry feeling throughout the play as he is almost always drunk and constantly being entertained or creating his own entertainment by manipulating those around him.

Another prominent theme throughout the play is that of mistaken identity, as it is what the entire plot stems from. Viola dresses up as a guy and calls herself Cesario, which causes Orsino to take her/him into his confidence, and Olivia to fall in love with him, not realizing he is really a she. While dressed as Cesario, Antonio, a new friend of Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, mistakes Viola as her brother and is hurt when Viola/Cesario doesn’t recognize her. Then Sebastian meets Olivia, who believes him to be Cesario, and because Sebastian is actually attracted to Olivia, unlike Cesario, the two end up getting married. And if all of that wasn’t enough, there is somewhat of a subplot when Sir Andrew Aguecheek challenges Cesario to a duel when he realizes that Olivia, whom he is attracted to, cares for him. This of course creates a problem since Cesario is really a woman and cannot fight. Later, Sir Andrew meets up with Sebastian, believing him to be Cesario, and because Sebastian can fight, Sir Andrew is consequently wounded in the scuffle. Twins are fun!


The title of Twelfth Night was actually an afterthought after John Marston premiered a play title What You Will, which is what Shakespeare wanted to title the play. Since the play was written as Twelfth Night’s entertainment for the close of the Christmas season, the new title is incredibly appropriate. “Twelfth Night” refers to the twelfth night after Christmas Day, known as the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany. Originally a Catholic holiday, by Shakespeare’s day it had become a day of revelry. And the fact that men would dress up as women and servants as their masters served as a cultural source of the plays confusion. Also, I always find it interesting to note that the actor who played Viola in Shakespeare would have been a man dressed as woman, who would then be pretending to be a man. This is happens when women aren’t allowed to perform…just saying.

Since next week is Spring Break, I haven’t decided whether or not I will be posting on anything, or if I do post, what work it will be on. Options include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or nothing. Ah Spring Break…

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Required Work: The Tempest

Thanks to my handy Shakespeare app on my iPhone, I was able to finish reading The Tempest by way of short installments during my lunch hour. Compared to the history plays and some of Shakespeare’s other longer plays (Hamlet, I am looking in your direction), this one was a surprisingly quick read. It definitely has to be the shortest of the three required plays on the list. However, that does not take away from the entertainment value.


The Tempest is often discussed as a problem play because it doesn’t quite fit in any of the three main categories usually applied to Shakespeare’s plays: comedy, tragedy, or history. Although, if we were to follow the formula where in comedies people get married, and in tragedies people die, then The Tempest could be explained as a comedy. But of course, that would be incredibly short-sighted. For the purpose of this blog post, I will categorize this play as a romance. The Tempest was originally listed as a comedy in the First Folio. Later, editors chose to label it as a Shakespearean romance, with influences from the genre of tragicomedy. The Tempest is a fictitious narrative set far away from ordinary life. Like a romance, it involves the supernatural with elements of wandering and discovery. It is even set in a coastal region. Also, the themes I will discuss in the section below also add to the supporting evidence for labeling this play as a romance.


Most of the themes that cause The Tempest to lend itself to the romance genre apply to Prospero’s situation – themes such as transgression and redemption, loss and retrieval, exile and reunion. He is the one who has suffered the injustice which he succeeds in setting right. He is also the one who lost his title as Duke due to his scheming brother and the corrupt king. And because his brother, Antonio’s schemes were successful, he suffered exile, but is later reunited with Antonio and, as the audience is led to believe, his homeland. Of course, Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian all experience their own redemption at the end of the play when Prospero forgives them. Also, Alonso believes his son, Ferdinand, to be dead as the result of the shipwreck, but they are reunited at the end after Prospero has succeeded in having Ferdinand fall in love with his daughter, Miranda.

Another major theme that comes from the romance genre is that of magic, which comes from both Prospero and his sprite, Ariel. But this theme would be better explored in the history section.


Magic was an extremely controversial subject in Shakespeare’s day. These were the days when people were still burnt at the stake for dabbling too much in the occult and letting the wrong people find out about it. Even outside of the Catholic world, in Protestant England, magic was pretty taboo, although not all of it was considered evil. Henricus Cornelius Agrippa published his De Occulta Philosophia, which included his observations on divine magic. He described a kind of magic very similar to what we see Prospero practicing in The Tempest, one based in rationality and divinity rather than the occult. He was more interested in discovering the workings of unusual phenomena than on casting spells.

Shakespeare does distinguish Prospero as a rational as opposed to an occultist by providing the reader with the history of Sycorax, a character that is long gone by the time of this play. Sycorax is said to have worshiped the devil and whose magic was too dark to control the delicate Ariel, a being who Prospero is able to control. Sycorax’ magic is described as destructive and terrible, while Prospero’s brand of magic is said to be wondrous and beautiful. Something else that puts a positive light on Prospero’s magic is the fact that through it, he attempts to set things right, and even denounces it at the end of the play once he has achieved his means. Oh yeah, I guess I should also mention the Sycorax is the mother of the deformed and savage Caliban. Fun stuff…

See, how fun is this play? Next week I will tackle another fun play and one of my top five favorite Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night.