For my upcoming play Of the Month page I am examining the influence of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in popular culture. Many people have compared the play to Breaking Bad, so I was delighted when I found this trailer on YouTube that perfectly illustrates the common threads in these two works.
I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story. Today I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!
Part I: Story
Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:
Shakespeare wrote four plays about a civil war over control of a kingdom. His three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.
Part II: Themes
Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.
The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.
King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.
The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Gloucester places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.
No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.
Martin wove a rich tapestry of real medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare.
Part III: Characters
Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.
Ned Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II
◦ Ned is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Winterfell is a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.
Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.
Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman characters. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.
King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, whom Shakespeare adapted into Saturnine.
Saturnine from Titus fits all these characteristics. When we first meet him, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, who helped him win a war and win his crown, just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.
King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.
◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.
Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.
Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard”
In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.
He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet , he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.
-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513
There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London.
I’m not actually the first person to mention this connection between Robert Baratheon and Edward IV. In the British newspaper, The Guardian, the author compares several characters from Game Of Thrones, to historical English events: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/0/game-of-thrones-vs-history-which-real-characters-and-events-insp/robert-baratheon-and-edward-iv/
Little Finger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life government he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.
John Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.
◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:
He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”
◦ Unlike Jon Snow, Edmond in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:
Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.
Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.
🦁 Tyrian Lannister –
Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004. In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.
◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.
◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.
◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books
◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble night, who died in a battle that he survived, by pretending to be dead:
“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.
My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.
🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth
◦ Sexuality and cruelty. Tamara is compared to a tiger 🐅, while Circe’s house sign is a lion 🦁
◦ Martin likely derived her name from the witch from the Odyssey, who turned men into animals.
◦ Men fear what she will do to them
◦ Lust for power for herself and her family.
Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺
◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.
🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline
◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.
🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!
◦ Crafty and beautiful
◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection
◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.
Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.
In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:
“This is a wedding too.”
The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”
This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.
Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.
After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!
There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of
Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:
In conclusion, these two works prove that Shakespeare has a timeless appeal that has inspired countless writers to adapt his stories and characters.
We’ve discussed a little bit about how to create sonnets, now let’s talk about the creator of 154 of the greatest sonnets the world has ever known.
The sonnets are some of the most mysterious pieces of writing Shakespeare ever created. We don’t know when he wrote them, we don’t really know in what order he wrote them, we don’t know for whom he wrote them, and we certainly don’t know whom they are about. That hasn’t stopped many conspiracy theorists and many, many, many, writers from coming up with imaginative stories about these often tantalizing and mysterious pieces of writing.
the only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare sonnets is that they were first published in 1609, as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Never Before Imprinted.” A lot of scholars believe that the sonnets were actually published without Shakespeare’s permission. The main evidence for this comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Meres who referred to them as Shakespeare sonnets “distributed by his among his friends.” Scholars theorize that someone got a hold of these poems that Shakespeare meant to keep private, and published them without his consent or even his knowledge. All we know for a fact is that some of them already existed before 1609.
The Mysterious Young Man.
Scholar Steven Greenblatt in his wonderful book Will In the World, presents a more straightforward theory about where the sonnets came from: Shakespeare wrote them for some quick cash. As a writer, Shakespeare couldn’t always rely on the theater to make a living, especially since the theaters were often closed during times of plague, and religious holidays.
Greenblatt believes that in order to pay his bills in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare wrote poetry for Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. We know that The Bard dedicated two long poems to Southampton, Venus and Adonis, and TheRape Of Lucreece and the language Shakespeare uses on the dedication is very personal, even slightly flirty. Greenblatt believes that most if not all of the early sonnets were also written for Southampton. Greenblatt points out that Wriothesley was expected to get married and produce an heir, but he was in his late 20s and had not yet chosen a wife.
Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare was hired by someone in the Southampton family to write a series of love poems that would encourage the Earl to hurry up and get hitched. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets refer to a young, good looking blonde- haired man who has tragically remained single.
This theory works for most, but not all of the early sonnets Sonnet 33 seems to refer to a dead child. Many scholars believe that this sonnet was composed specifically for the death of Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of just eight years old. Obviously since Hamnet is so similar to Hamlet, Shakespeare might have given him a much more fitting tribute a few years later.
My favorite interpretation of the young man of the sonnets comes from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Since the love expressed in the sonnets between the speaker and the Fair Young Man seems to be somewhat sexual in nature, it kind of lends itself to the notion that Shakespeare might’ve been homosexual. What I find amusing is that in the film, since his lady love is his disguised as a boy, ( like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines ), the film answers the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or straight by having the young Shakespeare fall in love with a blonde woman disguised as a male actor, In the scene below, Shakespeare watches his mistress perform in disguise as Romeo, then dedicates a sonnet to her, while still referring to her as male in the sonnet! https://youtu.be/xpyTl3OMWrU
In the next group of sonnets, the speaker refers to a woman that the speaker calls his mistress. We have no clues from the sonnets as to who she might be, except that her skin is dark. Many many people have wondered who this young woman might be. My favorite theory comes from scholar Michael Wood in his documentary In Search Of Shakespeare. Wood theorizes that it might’ve been in Emilia Lanier, who was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. One of her descendants, Peter Bassano, has put forth the notion that Shakespeare could have been involved with Mrs. Lanier.
Of course, it also seems likely that The Dark Lady just could’ve been a literary exercise for Shakespeare, who was also writing Anthony and Cleopatra at the time. https://youtu.be/u0W9v9jVp04
Other candidates for The Dark Lady have included the mother of celebrated 18th century playwright and actor, William Davenant. Sir William himself claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and his parent’s tavern is midway between Stratford and London, so it’s not entirely impossible that Shakespeare at least knew the boy’s mother. The apocryphal story comes from John Audley’s biography of Shakespeare from 1693. Here is what he says about Shakespeare and Davenant:
Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house [the Crown] in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected… Now Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends–e.g. Sam Butler, author of Hudibras, etc., say, that it seemed to him that he writ with the very spirit that did Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a Whore.
My favorite interpretation of the Dark Lady Myth comes from Doctor Who, in an episode called The Shakespeare Code where The Doctor s companion Martha Jones, (who is black), meet Shakespeare and he immediately is smitten with her.
It is supremely naïve to assume that anybody can pin down a definitive Dark Lady. Adultery was just a serious back then as it is now, and admitting to it, even in a play or poem would have been suicide for Shakespeare, which is why the sonnets are vague enough so that they never conclusively point to any specific party, which helps keep this tantalizing mystery alive to this day.
With Mother’s Day coming up, I thought I would take a little time to showcase some of Shakespeare’s great mother characters. Some of these women are models of selflessness, compassion, and devotion to the children they take care of. Other ones… not so much. Just for fun, I also made some suggestions for Mother’s Day gifts if you had one of these mother’s on the list.
The Good Mothers
- Countess of Roussilion from Alls Well That Ends Well
Though she is technically not the heroine Helena’s mother, the Countess is still a fantastic example of selflessness, support, and love. As she says “you never oppressed me with a mothers groans but I expressed to you mothers care.” She also encourages her foster daughter Helena to play doctor and save the King Of France from a deadly illness, giving her a job and a bright future!
Mother’s Day Gift: either some French Wine and cheese, or a Doc McStuffins for her future grandchild.
2. Hermione in The Winters Tale
Her husband arrests her for infidelity with no proof at all, while she’s still pregnant! Then she stands up in front of the entire court, having just given birth in prison, just to prove her child is a legitimate heir to the throne. Hermione is a mighty example of grace and courage under fire, as beautiful and strong as the statue she looks like at the end of the play. What more needs to be said!?
Mother’s Day Gift: Statue polish
3. Queen Elizabeth in Richard the Third
As you can see in my description, Elizabeth started out as a poor widow trying to get a better future for her children. Then she becomes the queen and takes a lot of crap from lords like Richard for her marriage, and her sons.
As Richard schemes to get the throne, Elizabeth is the only one who sees how dangerous he is, and how he will certainly try to kill her two sons to get it. To protect them from Richard, Elizabeth hides her sons in a church and tries her best to keep him away from them. The only problem is her husband made Richard Lord Protector, and responsible for everything connected to crowning the new king, (terrible judgment on his part).
Once her husband the king dies, Richard proclaims Elizabeth’s sons as bastards and makes himself king. He then has them secretly murdered in the Tower Of London. Even though Elizabeth can’t defend her sons for long, she identified the threat, and did her best to stop him. In this clip from the TV Series “The White Queen,” Elizabeth tries to get her sons released from the Tower, while her brother is oblivious to the danger they are in: https://youtu.be/5Y3qYeq0ok4
Though Elizabeth fails to protect her sons, she succeeds in saving her daughter. Richard knows that if his enemy Henry Tudor marries Elizabeth’s daughter (who is also named Elizabeth), he can lay claim to the throne and destroy Richard. The wicked king tries therefore, to marry his niece himself! Elizabeth refuses to pimp her daughter to the king and curses him for all of his heinous murders. Click here to see the epic battle of these two great characters in a scene from Ian McKellen’s movie version of Richard III. Look at the power and wit Elizabeth (Annette Benning), displays as she refuses to wed her daughter to Richard, (Ian McKellen).
At the end of the scene, Elizabeth says she will persuade her daughter to marry the king, but she secretly marries the young princess to Henry Tudor, who becomes King Henry the Seventh after defeating Richard in battle. So Elizabeth succeeds in protecting her daughter and helped to start a dynasty of monarchs, including her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
Mothers Day Gift : Sweaters for her sons to wear in the tower.
Alternative Mother’s Day Gift: A baby monitor that works within the Tower Of London, so she won’t have to worry about her kids being slaughtered.
Queen Margaret in King Henry the Sixth Part III.
Though her methods are questionable, and her blood thirstiness legendary, Margaret still fights bravely to defend her son’s rightful claim to the English throne.
Video bio of Queen Margaret: https://youtu.be/hJnspEh99h4
Mother’s Day Gift: A dozen Red roses.
CleopatraThe quintessential queen of Egypt is similar to Margaret in “the ends justify the means” category of mothers. Cleopatra will hook up with any powerful man to protect her son and heir to the throne. Cleopatra’s son, Cesarean is the love child that she had with Julius Caesar. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony, Caesar’s friend and a consul of Rome. Also, according to some historians, Cleo found a way to hide her son after Octavius Caesar tried to kill Cesarean and his mother. She reportedly sent him into hiding through secret tunnels underneath the city of Alexandria.
Mother’s Day Gift: A snake- proof brassiere.
1. Thaisa in Pericles. A lot like her husband Pericles on my OK Dads list, Thaisa’s problem is that, though she clearly loves her children, she doesn’t see them for nearly 20 years. Granted, she doesn’t really know that they’re there they’re still alive but nonetheless, you would think that a good mother would at least check.
2. Constance in King John. I wasn’t sure where to put her on this list, even though she demonstrates great love and affection for her son, (whom King John just murdered), the truth is that Constance doesn’t really do much for her son that we see during the play. https://youtu.be/fpAZju8RbiI
What Constance mainly has going for her is her supremely agonizing expressions of grief over her son’s death. Steven Greenblatt in his book Will in the World, suggests that her speeches might’ve been Shakespeare’s own horror and grief at the loss of his son, who died around the same time King John was supposedly written. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/06/is-the-globe-right-to-revive-shakespeares-king-john/
Mother’s Day Gift: barbershop coupon, have you seen that hair, honey?
Also on the ok mom list, Mistress Page in Merry Wives, and Lady Capulet In Romeo and Juliet.
1. Tamara in Titus Andronicus. She’s called a ravenous tiger in the play, and it’s easy to see why. She encourages her own sons to rape a girl, (Titus’s daughter Lavinia), then murder Lavinia’s husband! As if that wasn’t enough, Tamara tells the boys to cut out Lavinia’s tongue and cut her hands off, so she can’t accuse them of their crimes. Later Tamara tells her lover Aaron to murder their illegitimate baby, so her husband the emperor won’t find out about the affair. Worst of all, Tamara leaves her sons alone with her mortal enemy, Titus which allows Titus to (spoiler alert )…….. kill her sons, chop them up in a pie and serve them to her. She accidentally eats her own sons!
Mothers Day Gift: a parenting book! Or if you’re really sick, a bib with a picture of her kids on it.
2. Dionyza In Pericles- This Queen is a show mom of the worst kind- She’s a Queen from a far off kingdom, tasked with raising her own children and King Pericles’ daughter Mariana. When Dionyza sees that Mariana is a better singer/ dancer/weaver, etc than her own daughter, she tries to kill her! https://youtu.be/z9UW-p7iEk
Mother’s Day Gift:ITonya on DVD,Tanya Harding’s mom and Dionyza should compare notes.
3. Queen in Cymbeline Similar kind of deal. She’s a wicked stepmother who wants to kill the heroine Imogen and make her own son Cloten the heir to the throne. Shakespeare didn’t give her a name, she’s that wicked!
The Queen in Cymbeline, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2013 http://www.stageandcinema.com/2013/08/06/cymbeline-oregon-shakespeare/
Mother’s Day Gift: A name.
Gertrude in Hamlet This one is very ambiguous. On the one hand, she loves her son, and tries to protect him from his wicked uncle Claudius. On the other hand, she married Claudius less than two months after her first husband died in mysterious circumstances . It’s never revealed in the play whether Gertrude was complicit in the old king’s murder, but when Hamlet Confronts her about the marriage, she is full of remorse.
To be honest, this list was easier to put together than my Fathers Day list, because there are fewer choices. In 9 Of Shakespeare’s plays, there are no mother characters at all:
Love’s Labor’s Lost
Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Comedy Of Errors
Two Gentlemen Of Verona
Measure For Measure
As You Like It
Merchant Of Venice
It’s hard to know how much Shakespeare knew about motherhood. From what we know about his life, he probably wasn’t around to see his wife Anne raise his two daughters in Stratford, since he spent most of his time in London writing and acting in his plays.
In any case, the thing that comes across in all the mother’s in Shakespeare’s plays is the level of sacrifice and selflessness that so many mothers demonstrate. Being a parent is tough, but the rewards are greater than even the Bard could ever explain.
Happy Mother’s Day Everyone!
Today I’m going to do an analysis of one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare: Antony’s Funeral Speech in Act III, Scene ii of Julius Caesar, commonly known as the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech.
I. Given Circumstances
Antony is already in a very precarious position. His best friend Julius Caesar was murdered by the senators of Rome. Antony wants vengeance, but he can’t do so by himself. He’s also surrounded by a mob, and Brutus just got them on his side with a very convincing speech. They already hate Antony and Caesar. His goal- win them back. Here is a clip of Brutus (James Mason) speaking to the crowd from the Joseph Mankewitz movie version of Julius Caesar:
So the stakes are very high for Antony: If he succeeds, the crowd will avenge Caesar, and Antony will take control of Rome. If he fails, he will be lynched by an angry mob.
II. Textual Clues
If you notice in the text of the speech below, Antony never overtly says: “Brutus was a liar and a traitor, and Caesar must be avenged,” but that is exactly what he gets the crowd to do. So how does he get them to do so, right after Brutus got them on his side?
Antony. You gentle Romans,— 1615
Citizens. Peace, ho! let us hear him.
Antony. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones; 1620
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest— 1625
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious; 1630
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: 1635
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown, 1640
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know. 1645
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, 1650
And I must pause till it come back to me.
First Citizen. Methinks there is much reason in his sayings. Julius Caesar Act III, Scene ii.
The two main methods Shakespeare uses to infuse Antony’s speech with powerful persuasive energy are the way he writes the verse, and his command of rhetoric.
The greatest gift Shakespeare ever gave his actors was to write his plays in blank verse. It not only tells you which words are important to stress, it gives you clues about the character’s emotional journey; just as a person’s heartbeat can indicate their changes in mood, a subtle change in verse often betrays the character’s pulse and state of mind. Antony uses his own emotions and his powers of persuasion to manipulate the crowd, so his verse helps show how he changes the pulse of the Roman mob.
I could write a whole post on the verse in this page, which I don’t need to do, since The Shakespeare Resource Center did it for me: http://www.bardweb.net/content/readings/caesar/lines.html What I will do is draw attention to some major changes in the verse and put my own interpretations on how Antony is using the verse to persuade the crowd:
- The first line of the speech grabs your attention. It is not a standard iambic pentameter line, which makes it rhythmically more interesting. In the movie version, Marlin Brando as Antony shouts each word to demand the crowd to just lend him their attention for a little while. He uses the verse to emphasize Antony’s frustration.
- “The Evil that men do, lives after them”- Notice that the words evil and men are in the stressed position. Antony might be making a subconscious attempt to say Brutus and the other evil men who took the life of Caesar are living, when they deserve to die.
- “If it were so..” Again, Antony might be making a subtle jab at the conspirators. Brutus said Caesar was ambitious and Antony agrees that ambition is worthy of death, but he also adds an If, to plant the seeds of doubt in the crowd’s minds. To drive it home, the word if is in the stressed position, making it impossible for the crowd to not consider the possibility that Caesar wasn’t ambitious, and thus, didn’t deserve to be murdered.
One reason why this speech is so famous is its clever use of rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking. Back in ancient Rome, aristocrats like Antony were groomed since birth in the art of persuasive speech. Shakespeare himself studied rhetoric at school, so he knew how to write powerful persuasive speeches. Here’s a basic breakdown of the tactics Antony and Shakespeare use in the speech:
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
The three basic ingredients of any persuasive speech are Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Ethos is an appeal to the audience based on the speaker’s authority. Pathos is an appeal to the emotions of the crowd, and Logos is an appeal to facts and or reason. Both Brutus and Antony employ these three rhetorical tactics, but Antony doesn’t just appeal to his audience, he manipulates them to commit mutiny and mob rule.
Logos Antony has very few facts or logical information in his speech. His major argument is that again, since Caesar wasn’t ambitious, (which is very hard to prove), his death was a crime. Antony cites as proof the time Cæsar refused a crown at the Lupercal, but since that was a public performance, it’s hardly a reliable indication of Caesar’s true feelings.
You see logos as a rhetorical technique all the time whenever you watch a commercial citing leading medical studies, or a political debate where one person uses facts to justify his or her position. If you look at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Presidental Debate, she frequently cited statistics to back up her political positions
Ethos is an argument based on the speaker’s authority. Brutus’ main tactic in his speech is to establish himself as Caesar’s friend and Rome’s. He says that he didn’t kill Caesar out of malice, but because he cared more about the people of Rome.
BRUTUS: If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. JC, III.ii.
Antony employs the exact same tactics, establishing himself as Caesar’s friend and telling the crowd that, as Caesar’s friend, Antony believes that Caesar did not deserve his murder. His use of Ethos therefore, helps Antony refute Brutus’ main claim.
Again, the 2016 debate is another excellent way of showing ethos in action. Hillary Clinton and Brutus frequently cited their political experience and their strength of character to justify their views. There’s an excellent article that examines Hillary’s use of Ethos in her political rhetoric: https://eidolon.pub/hillary-clintons-rhetorical-persona-9af06a3c4b03
Pathos is the most frequently used rhetorical tactic: the appeal to emotion. Donald Trump uses this constantly, as you can see in this clip from the 2016 debate:
Pathos is bit more of a dirty trick than Ethos and Logos, which is why Brutus doesn’t use it much. As scholar Andy Gurr writes:
Brutus is a stern philosopher and thinker. His faith in reason fails to secure the crowd from Antony’s disingenuous appeal to their affections, which uses sharp sarcasm and some twisted facts.
Antony’s major appeals to emotion:
- His grief over losing Caesar
- His painting of Cæsar as a generous, faithful friend
- Shaming the crowd for not mourning Caesar’s death
- Appeal to piety by showing the body funeral reverence.
- His use of Caesar’s bloody body and mantle to provoke outrage from the citizens.
- His use of Caesar’s will to make the crowd grateful to Caesar, and furious at Brutus.
If Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are the strategies of rhetorical arguments, rhetorical devices are the artillery. If you check out the website Silva Rhetoricae, (The Forest Of Rhetoric), you can read about the hundreds of individual rhetorical devices that politicians have used in speeches and debates since ancient history. I will summarize here the main ones Antony uses over and over again in “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” For another more compete analysis, click here: https://eavice.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/jv-rhetorical-devices-in-antonys-funerary-speech-from-shakespeares-julius-caesar/
- Irony The way Antony keeps repeating “Brutus is an honorable man,” is a particularly sinister form of irony, which here means to imply the opposite of what you have said to mock or discredit your opponent. The irony is that the more Antony repeats this idea that Brutus is honorable, the more the crowd will question it. If Brutus were truly honorable, he would not need Antony to remind them. Of course, Brutus can still be honorable whether Anthony mentions it or not, but this repetition, coupled with Antony’s subtle rebuttals Of Brutus’ arguments, manages to shatter both Brutus’ motives, and his good name, at least in the eyes of his countrymen.
- Antimetabole is the clever use of the same word in two different ways. Antony manages to work it in twice in this speech:
- “If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
- And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.”
- “You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?”
- Rhetorical question This is the most famous rhetorical device which by the way in Antony’s day would have been known as Erotema. Antony asks a series of questions designed to refute the notion that Caesar was ambitious, from his mercy to his captives, to Caesar’s tenderness to the poor, and of course his refusal to take the crown during the Lupercal. Each question calls Brutus’ claims into question and seeds doubt in the crowd.
Performance Notes with link to Globe performance
Unlike most Shakespearean plays, with Julius Caesar, we have an eyewitness account of how the play was originally performed. Swiss student Thomas Platter wrote a long description of watching the play at the original Globe Theatre in 1599. This is a translation that I found on The Shakespeare Blog:
On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar, with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women…
Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.
The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.
The actors are most expensively costumed for it is the English usage for eminent Lords or Knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them for sale for a small sum of money to the actors.
Thomas Platter, 1599, reprinted from: http://theshakespeareblog.com/2012/09/thomas-platters-visit-to-shakespeares-theatre/
So the conclusions we can draw based on Platter’s account include that Antony was standing on a mostly bare stage with a thatched roof, raised slightly off the ground. We can also guess that, since the merchants were selling beer, fruits, and ale, that the audience might have been drunk or throwing things at the actors.
As Platter notes, and this page from Shakespeare’s First Folio confirms, there were only 15 actors in the original cast, so Shakespeare’s company didn’t have a huge cast to play the gigantic crowd in the Roman street. In all probability, the audience is the mob, and Antony is talking right to them when he calls them “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” I believe that the audience was probably encouraged to shout, chant, boo, cheer, and become a part of the performance which is important to emphasize when talking about how to portray this scene onstage. A director can choose whether or not to make the audience part of the action in a production of Julius Caesar, which can allow the audience to get a visceral understanding of the persuasive power of politicians like Brutus and Antony, or the director can choose instead to have actors play the crowd, and allow the audience to scrutinize the crowd as well as the politicians.
In conclusion, the reason this speech is famous is Shakespeare did an excellent job of encapsulating the power of persuassive speech that the real Antony must have had, as he in no small way used that power to spur the Roman crowd to mutiny and vengeance, and began to turn his country from a dying republic into a mighty empire.
For a fascinating look at how a modern cast of actors helps to create this scene, check out this documentary: Unlocking the Scene from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in 2012, with Patterson Joseph as Brutus, and Ray Fearon as Antony:
◦ Interview with Patterson Joseph and Ray Fearon RSC: https://youtu.be/v5UTRSzuajo
And here is a clip of the final scene as it was performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company:
1. Annotated Julius Caesar: https://sites.google.com/site/annotatedjuliuscaesar/act-3/3-2-57-109
2. Folger Shakespeare Library: Julius Caesar Lesson Plan: https://teachingshakespeareblog.folger.edu/2014/04/29/friends-romans-teachers-send-me-your-speeches/
3. Silva Rhetoric http://rhetoric.byu.edu/
3. Rhetoric in Marc Antony Speech
4. Shakespeare Resource Center: http://www.bardweb.net/content/readings/caesar/lines.html
Was Shakespeare racist? When reading Othello by William Shakespeare, the only play he wrote where the hero is explicitly black, I truly feel like the Shakespearean student as opposed to the Shakespearean teacher. it’s a play that I find very difficult to get into, and very difficult to understand. Above all, the question I have is whether Othello is a positive or negative portrayal of a black man. So I am going to analyze the play, the prevailing views about race from Shakespeare’s time, and try to draw some conclusions about the play and its creator.
Disclaimer: I don’t advocate trying to speculate about how Shakespeare felt about anything. My real point in this post is to determine if the play Othello and its portrayal of people of color, has merit in today’s society, which is important to establish given the culture in which Shakespeare wrote it.
Part I: Black People And Shakespeare
By our standards, Shakespeare was probably racist. If you look at the ways black people are mentioned in documents of the period, the writers frequently describe black people with an air of otherness and superiority that shows little interest in the humanity of other races. In fact, one reason why the word “moor” is so problematic is that it basically referred to anyone not born in Europe. It could refer to people from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Spain. Clearly, Europeans at the time weren’t interested in the particulars of their non-Caucasian neighbors’ culture and herritage.
This is not to say that Shakespeare never knew any black people. Michael Wood in his book In Search Of Shakespeare estimates that there might have been several thousand black people in London alone. City registers mentions not only black people employed in the city, but even some of the first inter-racial marriages. Therefore, the notion of Othello marrying Desdemona would not have been unheard of even in 1601.
As an important note, the black people living in Europe at the time weren’t slaves. The transatlantic slave trade didn’t really get started in and America until the 1650s, and slavery was illegal in England at the time. Wood mentions that there were black dancers, black servants, and other free black people living in and around London (Wood 25). Dr. Matthieu Chapman wrote an excellent thesis back in 2010 about the possibility that some black people might even have been actors in Shakespeare’s company. Furthermore, scholars have wondered for centuries if the Dark Lady of the sonnets was Shakespeare’snon-Caucasian mistress.
In any case, it is likely based on what we know about the growing multiculturalism of England in the 17th century, that Shakespeare knew some black people, and might have worked along side them. Though Shakespeare probably knew black people though, it is impossible to know if they influenced his play Othello.
Though black people were allowed to live and work without bondage, their lives were highly precarious, and far from easy. In 1601, Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief counselor, presented a plan to explel all black people from England (Wood 251). The Cecil Papers at Hatfield House details that:
The queen is discontented at the great numbers of ‘n—‘ and ‘blackamoores’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her highness and the King Of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people.
Cecil mentions that a great deal of black people living in London were former slaves freed from captured Spanish ships. Spain of course was Catholic and their king Phillip II had sent a vast armada against the English which helps underscore a major reason for the hostility against these formerly Spanish moors; the fear that, even though these people were baptized English Christians, they might secretly be traitors, sympathetic to the Spanish or to the great numbers of Muslims living in Spain. The English weren’t the only ones concerned. In 1609, the Spanish king expelled the Moors from Spain entirely, probably due to the high levels of Muslims in Spain. With this in mind, you can see how topical Othello was for its time, since it touched on many contemporary issues of race and politics.
One important thing to remember about Othello is that he is not only a black man in a predominantly white country, he is in all probability a converted Muslim who helps the Venetian army fight Muslim Turks. With this in mind, you can imagine how hard it must be for the people of Venice to trust him, and how hard it makes it for Othello to feel like a true Venetian.
A very high profile example of the mixture of admiration and anxiety towards Moors comes from 1600. Ambassador Abdul Guahid from Morocco, (himself a Moor), came to visit London to discuss a military plan to take the East and West Indes away from the Spanish. He stayed at the court for several months during which time, Shakespeare’s company performed for him and the court. To commemorate the visit, a writer called Leo the African presented the ambassador with a book called A Geographical History Of Africa, and he himself posed for a portrait, shown below.
Most scholars cite Guahid as one of the likely inspirations for Othello’s character. Some even suggest that Othello’s original costume and appearance might have been taken from Guahid. Although he was honored publicly, according to the documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, in private, courtiers were whispering about Guahid, hoping that he would leave England soon. Whether Guahid was Shakespeare’s inspiration for Othello, it is worth noting the admiration and anxiety that he put into the hearts of the English courtiers he visited, including probably, Shakespeare.
So when Shakespeare wrote Othello, the black population was growing, a noble moor was getting attention at court, and he might have been living and working around black people in his company, so he might have been trying to present a black character in a positive light based on his experiences. So what does the text of Othello say about black people, and what Shakespeare might have thought about them?
The dilemma anyone reading or performing Othello faces is the fact that he is both a noble general who loves his wife, and also a jealous savage murderer. As I have mentioned, Shakespeare might have known black actors and some claim that he had a mistress of color, but that doesn’t guarantee that he was aware of the oppression and degradation of the African people. So why did he choose to make the character black in the first place?
Part II: What does the play say about race?
Shakespeare’s source for Othello was an Italian short story by Giovanni Battista Giraldi. It has some small differences in plot, but Othello’s character is identical to Shakespeare’s, though he is never referred to by name; instead he is only called “The Moor.” Still, Giraldi mentions The Moor’s bravery, skill in battle, and initial reluctance to believe the devilish ensign who deceived him. Therefore Shakespeare emphasized all the positive qualities of his original source.
Othello is not presented as a savage person; we see him as somebody who comes from somewhere else. It is impossible to pin down exactly where he comes from because his descriptions of his past are very vague and sometimes seemingly contradictory. As they mentioned in the TV documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, what we do know is that he definitely assimilated into Venetian culture, presumably converted to Christianity from whatever religion he had, and rose through the ranks by fighting the Ottoman Turks. This means Othello is waging war against Muslims. What I am trying to construct here is to determine based on what we know about black people from Shakespeare’s time and what we know about stereotypes of foreigners and others and the journey of Othello, is his murderous jealous behavior, as a result of nurture, (which is to say Iago‘s devilish manipulation), or by nature. In other words, did Shakespeare write a racist play that condemns interracial marriages due to the barbarous nature of Moors?
Othello is not the only jealous character in the Shakespearean cannon; Claudio in Much Ado, Postumous in Cymbeline, and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale all accuse their wives of infidelity and all of them threatened to kill those unfortunate (and innocent women). This means that Shakespeare is not implying that jealousy is inherently connected to race. Looking at the text of Othello, one interpretation I can offer is that it is less about black people and more about how white people perceive them. Just like in Shakespeare’s source, very few people in the play call Othello by his name, they call him a term that defines him by his race. In addition, though Othello never talks explicitly about his race and is very cryptic about his life, plenty of characters make assumptions about what being a moor means:
[Brabantio speaking to Othello] “To the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou — to fear, not to delight” (1.2.70-71).
One reason Iago is able to manipulate the people close to Othello is because he can manipulate the prejudices that they have about black people. He knows that they will believe anything he says, as long as it falls in line with their preconceptions. In addition, since Othello isn’t a native Venetian, Iago can manipulate Othello’s inexperience with Venetian society:
197 Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio;
201 I know our country disposition well;
202 In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
203 They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
204 Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.
205 Dost thou say so?
206 She did deceive her father, marrying you;
207 And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,
208 She loved them most.
208 And so she did.
208. go to: An expression of impatience.
208 Why, go to then;
209. seeming: false appearance.
209 She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,
210. seal: blind. (A term from falconry). oak: A close-grained wood.
210 To seel her father’s eyes up close as oak,
211 He thought ’twas witchcraft—but I am much to blame;
212 I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
213 For too much loving you.
213. bound: indebted.
213 I am bound to thee for ever.
214 I see this hath a little dash’d your spirits. Othello, Act III, Scene iii.
Plenty of actors, scholars, and directors have made the case that Shakespeare’s plays aren’t racist, but they do have racist elements. In Othello’s case, the racism of other people destroys an otherwise honorable man.
The Murder: As a counter argument, though Othello is not the only jealous hero in Shakespeare, he is the only black one, and he is the only one who kills his wife onstage. Therefore, even if Othello is a positive black figure at first, his behavior at the end of the play does give an impression of a man who has become a savage murderer, and it is important for the audience to question how watching a white woman being murdered in her bed by a black man makes them feel, especially when everyone else in the play has said he is a barbaric, lustful, foreign beast.
Part III Production History
Although there’s a decent argument that Othello isn’t a racist play, it’s production history has been harrowed with racism. For 250 years the role wasn’t even played by black actors. Even on film, the first black man to play Othello was Laurence Fishburne in 1995.
Going further back, the first genuine black actor to play Othello was Ira Adrige, an African American who moved to England in the mid 1800s. Above is a copy of the playbill for his celebrated touring performance of Othello in 1851, which inspired very powerful and polarized reactions: https://youtu.be/92Z-4eJj7Wo
Audiences have had incredibly powerful reactions to seeing real black actors in the role. Some have expressed disgust and racist hatred, (especially in the scenes with Desdemona), some have expressed praise, sometimes they have ignored the race issues entirely. Reportedly Joseph Stalin loved the play and participated enjoyed Othello’s strength and stoicism (Wood 254). Ultimately the context of a production often determines more of the audience reaction than the actors’ performances.
To end where I began, I’m well aware that it’s impossible to truly tell whether Shakespeare was racist, and it’s equally futile trying to pin down what he was saying about race when he wrote the part of Othello, but it is worth considering how the part is connected to changing views of race and racial relations. Ultimately it is up to the actors and director to decide whether Othello is a good man, a racist stereotype, or anything else. That is the beauty of Shakespeare’s complicated and compelling characters, they can translate beyond time, and maybe even race.
For an excellent discussion of this complex topic, click the link below: https://youtu.be/puMpPNtYxuw
TV:Shakespeare Uncovered: Othello
BBC News: Britain’s first black community in Elizabethan London. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18903391
In the spirit of black history month, enjoy this excellent documentary about Shakespeare’s only black hero: www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/uncategorized/othello-david-harewood-full-episode/
Here’s a classroom guide that you can use with your students: Othello Classroom Guide
In doing my research for Twelfth Night, I came across a fantastic production from Shakespeare’s Globe in 2002. It used what is known as “original practices,” meaning that the actors tried to replicate everything we know about the way Shakespeare’s actors performed.
The play was performed in the great Globe Theater, which is itself a replica of Shakespeare’s original playhouse, which means that it was outdoors, using mostly natural lighting, and minimal sets. https://youtu.be/qtoUeVjP_rs
In addition, all the women’s roles were played by men, and the actors played multiple parts, which were all accurate stage practices from Shakespeare’s era. Most exciting of all, the actors all wore authentic 17th century costumes designed by veteran costume designer, Jenny Tiramani:
Few things determine how an actor moves or looks more than the clothes he or she wears, and watching these actors wear doublet and hose and real Jacobean dresses really fires up my imagine and makes me feel that I’ve truly been transported through time. The production is available on DVD, as well as several clips on YouTube, and I urge you to take a look at it. In the meantime, I’d like to comment a little on how the costumes from this production inform the audience about the characters that wear them.
Some Info On 17th century fashion
- Tight pants or hose, and stockings designed to show off the legs
- Tight jackets made of wool or leather called doublets
- By the 17th century, starched ruffs were being replaced with lace collars.
- Starched collars called ruffs around the neck.
Longer skirts, often embroidered with elaborate patterns
* Servants- Servants like Cesario (who is actually the Duke’s daughter Viola in disguise), would typically wear matching uniforms called liveries, a sign of who they worked for and their master’s trust in their abilities. People judged the aristocracy by how well they trained and controlled their servants, so wearing your master’s livery meant he trusted you to represent his house.
In her first scene as Cesario, a servant named Curio remarks to her that Orsino has shown favor to “him” from the very beginning. This might explain the rich garments that Viola wears in this production, which resemble a noble gentleman more than a servant.
3. Character notes:
* What are they wearing?
* Why are they wearing it?
* How do the clothes inform the movement?
1. Viola (Eddie Redmane) Viola, the star of the show, begins the show as the daughter of a duke, who has just been shipwrecked in a foreign country, so her clothes must look bedraggled and worn, yet appropriate to her status. As I said before though, for the majority of the play, Viola is disguised as the servant Cesario
2. Malvolio (Steven Fry)
- Malvolio wears dark colors since he’s a Puritanical servant.
- He mentions that he has a watch. The first ever wristwatches ever came into being around this time.
- Most productions give Malvolio a Gold chain and/ or a staff of office to show his status, and his prideful nature.
- In Act III, Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow stockings with cross garters.
3. Maria the Countess Olivia’s maid, (who has an appetite for tricks and pranks), Maria’s job is to dress and help Olivia with her daily routine. This might include tying up her corset, putting on her makeup, and helping her with the elaborate gowns that nobles wore during this period. In the video below, you can watch a dresser help get an actress into an elaborate costume for another Globe theatre production. Just think of the amount of time and hard work it would take for a servant like Maria to dress Olivia every day!
In the play, Viola momentarily mistakes Maria for her mistress because she wears a veil. This also suggests that, rather than wearing a livery like Cesario, maybe Olivia let Maria wear some of her older clothes, which was a common practice for high level servants. A lot of the costumes Shakespeare’s company wore were probably hand me downs from their aristocratic patrons.
4. Olivia (Mark Rylance)
In this production, the countess and all the female roles were performed by men, just as they were in Shakespeare’s Day. Mark Rylance, who played Olivia, was also the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre.
- Olivia is mourning her lost brother, which is why she’s traditionally dressed in a black dress and veil
- The dress is black silk with elaborate embroidery, as you can see from this actual sampler of the real fabric used in the show. You will also notice the threads holding the fabric together with metal points at the end. Olivia’s gown was hand sewn into many different pieces and tied together with these points. One nickname Shakespeare gave servants like Maria was “One who ties [her] points.”
- The dress is large and has a long train, making it hard for the actor to move: https://youtu.be/dcSNTspXGYk
Costumes like these offer a tantalizing glimpse into history. Just as Shakespeare’s words help an actor bring to life the thoughts and feelings of his age, The type of clothes his company wore helps the actor embody the moiré’s and desires of Shakespeare’s society, whether a mournful countess, a dazzling gentleman, or a reserved Puritan.
“Q&A: Mark Rylance on Shakespeare, Twelfth Night and Richard III” Time Out Magazine. Posted: Tuesday November 12 2013