Why Everyone Should Read (Or Teach) “The Merchant Of Venice.”

I am disgusted by the recent violence in Charlottesville VA. The fact that in 2017, White supremacists threatened, hurt, and killed innocent Americans is despicable and truly disheartening. I won’t go into my political views here since this tragedy transcends politics and forces everyone in this country to re-examine who we are and what we stand for as a people, and do our part to help prevent this kind of mindless hatred.

I’m not a politician, I’m not a policeman. My area of expertise is Shakespeare, so I am going to try to make a case for why the study of Shakespeare can help people, (especially young people), learn about the world, examine new points of view, and try to improve the world.  I will then add a list of resources for teachers and students to deepen your understanding of the play.

My first argument for the play is that Merchant has two of the best speeches about intolerance ever written.

      You’ve probably heard of this speech, (spoken by the Jewish moneylender Shylock), and I’m also well aware of the fact that, in context, it is not entirely about peaceful coexistence and tolerance, but it nevertheless establishes Shakespeare’s argument that condemns bigotry and violence, particularly against Jews:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. Merchant, Act III, Scene i.

img_5431Al Pacino when he did this speech said that it has the eloquence and power of Dr. Martin Luther King. Patrick Stewart initially had the same reaction, but later realized that Shylock turns midway through and the speech becomes a justification for revenge. What’s clever here is that Shakespeare manages to give Shylock two good arguments against bigotry; by emphasizing how Jews are no different than any other racial or religious group, and also warning that oppressing a people will only result in more retribution and pain on both sides. This is what he means when he says: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.” We’re seeing this sort of reaction right now with the recent surge of violence by both white supremacists and the Antifa; without tolerance and common decency, chaos and bloodshed reins.

Another speech, much less well-known, is this speech of the Prince Of Morocco, one of Shakespeare’s only black characters. The speech below is the first time he speaks while attempting to woo the heroine Portia:

Prince of Morocco. Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene i.

People often forget that this speech condemns pre-judging a person based on the color of their skin. Morocco tells Portia, (who in all probability has never seen a black man before), to not judge him by his appearance. His tone is gentle, but it is not apologetic. He says he won’t change his skin color for anything, (except maybe if it would win her heart). The Prince is a dignified and proud representative of his country and his race.

My second argument for reading or teaching this play is that it reveals how bigotry and racism is usually tied to money and profit. In Act IV, Scene i, Shylock points out the hypocrisy of his Christian brethren in keeping slaves, which they justify by saying that they are not people, but property:

  • Shylock. You have among you many a purchased slave, Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts, Because you bought them: shall I say to you, Let them be free, marry them to your heirs? Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds Be made as soft as yours and let their palates Be season’d with such viands? You will answer ‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you: The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law! There is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it? Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.

Shylock turns this hypocrisy back on the Christians by saying basically, “How can you call me and human when you  debase and subjugate your fellow creatures?” The answer to both questions of course, is that it is economically convenient. Shylock earns his money by lending money at interest, and threatens dear penalties if not repaid on time. Similarly, the Christians revile Shylock because their religious practices forbid them from lending money, so they have to go to him instead of other Christians. We see echoes of this unfortunate tendency today: the white supremacists in Charlottesville were chanting: “Jews will not replace us,” which clearly exposes their fear of losing political and economic influence to minorities. In addition, our country has refused countless immigrants from poor, war-torn countries which we justify to ourselves by saying the cost of letting them in is too great.

The play’s comic sub-plot also has many lessons for today’s world. The hero Bassanio undergoes  dramatic transformation from a spoiled prodigal son to enlightened married man. At the play’s beginning, he has a close friendship with the merchant Antonio, that might be played as a one sided homosexual relationship. Antonio is very affectionate to Bassanio, and lends him a large amount of money without any expectation of repayment, which has sometimes been interpreted as a hinting of Antonio’s unrequited love for Bassanio. Though Basanio doesn’t reciprocate any romantic feelings,  he eventually saves Antonio’s life, and at least tries to repay him for his kindness.

robert-alexander-hillingford-the-three-caskets--the-merchant-of-venice,-act-iii,-scene-ii
Robert Alexander-Hillingford: The Three Caskets, The Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Sceneii
Bassanio also takes a very feminist attitude towards the play’s heroine Portia- he understands that being married means making your spouse a partner, and giving her an equal say. At the beginning of the play, he sails to an island called Belmont, to try to win Portia’s hand, by correctly solving a riddle. You may have heard of the three caskets, gold, silver, and lead. If Bassanio guesses right, he wins Portia and her fortune. Bassanio chooses the correct casket, but halts afterwards, and does something unexpected; he asks Portia herself if she wants to marry him. He doesn’t treat her as his prize, and throughout the play asks her opinion, and her permission before he acts, just as a good husband should.

Fair lady, by your leave;
I come by note, to give and to receive.
Like one of two contending in a prize,
That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether these pearls of praise be his or no;
So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;
As doubtful whether what I see be true,
Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Scene ii

I would argue that, although Portia is a far more important character, Bassanio is the moral center of the play. He is the only person who treats Shylock like a human being, by trying to reason with him and pay Antonio’s debt, instead of spitting in Shylock’s face like Antonio, or forcing him to convert like the characters at the end of the play. Bassanio also is one of the only characters who call Shylock by name, everyone else just calls him “Jew.” Thus, audiences and students can learn from this kind of person; the kind of person Christ said could be saved and become a true Christian, because he acknowledges his sins and tries to correct them. Bassanio is the prodigal son in this play, and we benefit from the parable of his life.

 By contrast, some of the other characters, Christian and Jewish, are examples of the kind of morality that we all wish to discourage in our children, and society in general. Though they are outwardly pious, the Christians like Antonio and Portia, are capable of vindictive, cruel, and definitely impious behavior. Portia, (probably due to her sheltered life on Belmont), can be deeply racist and prejudicial. She is prejudiced against the Prince of Morocco because of his race, hoping that “All of his complexion,” will fail to win her love. In addition, when she poses as a judge presiding over the court case between Antonio and Shylock, she throws vengeance at Shylock, even though she barely knows either of them. She strips Shylock of his property and nearly gets him sentenced to death, even though she preaches mercy to him in her most famous speech. If you look at the contrast between her words and actions, she is a deeply hypocritical person. Shakespeare shows how toxic it can be to raise a child in an isolated environment.  Portia’s isolation makes it harder for Portia to relate to and understand different types of people, and it planted her predjudices within her heart.

Antonio for his part, seems to define himself by how “un-Jewish” he is, believing that generosity and mercy are anathema to all Jews, particularly when Shylock confronts Antonio in the courtroom:

I pray you, think you question with the Jew:
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard,
As seek to soften that—than which what’s harder?—
His Jewish heart: therefore, I do beseech you,
Make no more offers, use no farther means, Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.

Although Jesus preached loving ones neighbor, and being the Good Samaritan to other religions, Antonio seems to think that being a true Christian, means being Anti-Jew. He is a counter example of piety that audiences and students can learn to mollify and avoid within themselves.

My final example of religious counter examples, Shylock himself, shows how prejudice can destroy a man if he lets it. At the beginning of the play, Shylock has had to endure losing his wife, having Antonio spit on him, mock him, encourage his enemies, and call him a host of dehuminizing names. That’s not even taking into account the horrible Venetian ghettos of the 1590s, in which Shylock would have been forced to live were he a real Venetian Jew. One quote that helps explain his behavior comes from Henry Norman Hudson in 1882:

[In Shylock] “we see the remains of a great and noble nature, out of which all the genial sap of humanity has been pressed by accumulated injuries.” – Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, H. N. Hudson, Ginn and Company, Boston, p. 291. “

Scholars and actors have emphasized ever since the end of the Second World War, that, although Shylock is still guilty of reprehensible acts, his cruelty is a reaction to the cruelty he has had to endure, or as he puts it: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.

img_5433
Maurycy Gottlieb: “Shylock and Jessica,” 1876
Shylock’s lack of joy and love manifests itself by the way he treats everyone in the play. He keeps his daughter locked away from anyone, which later inspires her to run away with the Christian Lorenzo, (while stealing a huge amount of Shylock’s money). Shylock then rages against the citizens of Venice, especially Antonio, whom he blames for his losses, and concocts a plan to kill him by taking a pound of flesh away from his heart.

Shylock’s pain and hardships have turned him into the kind of bloodthirsty Jewish stereotype his enemies have always assumed to be. At the same time, he constantly points out the cruelty and hypocrisy of Christians, calling them no better than himself. In the end though, through Portia and the Duke sentencing Shylock to will his money to Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity, Shylock has to become what he hates, and surround himself with people who will never accept him; an ending that fills the audience with pity and maybe even remorse.

Now, there are compelling arguments that teaching this play can actually encourage stereotypes, which it can, and has in ages past. I read several articles that debate this issue in various ways. I’d like to discuss two articles written within one year of each other that are particularly fascinating. The first one was an article from The New Yorker by Professor Steven Greenblatt, who claimed that Merchant is “Shakespeare’s Cure For Xenophobia.” The other was a Washington Post article that argues that in the interest of keeping negative Jewish stereotypes from perpetuating themselves,  this play should be ignored altogether. 

On the other hand, as Professor Greenblatt says, the genius of the play is that it shows stereotypes, but it also shows the people under them. If you compare Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, to other contemporary Jewish characters like Barrabas in Marlowe’s Jew Of Malta, he is a much more compelling, complete, interesting, and at times moving character. Love him or hate him, Shylock inevitably gets under your skin. He’s a man who strips the varnish off our culture and exposes the hypocrisy, greed, and prejudice that lurk just beneath the waters of the Rialto, (as well as the modern Potomac and the Hudson). The saving grace of this play is that it forces us to examine ourselves- how do we treat people, how do we see people who are different than us? What makes our points of view good and bad, and what can we do to heal our misunderstandings? Though this play cannot answer these questions, it encourages us to confront them, to open a dialogue, and hopefully, open avenues for change.

Artwork: For a wonderful selection of pictures of Portia, please visit: http://themerchantofveniceportia.weebly.com/fair-portias-counterfeit.html 

Elizabeth Shuh: “Merchant Of Venice.” Reprinted with permission from Immortal Longings.com
Portrait of Edmund Keene as Shylock, circa 1815
Portrait of Jessica by Luke Fildes, 1888
Music: Where is fancy bred?

Resources

  1. Schmoop.com Summary of The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.shmoop.com/merchant-of-venice/summary.htmlhttps://www.shmoop.com/merchant-of-venice/summary.html
  2. Shakespearehelp.com- lesson plans for teachers on The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.shakespearehelp.com/the-merchant-of-venice-lesson-plans/
  3. Teaching English.org: Lesson Plans for Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/Mercy%20in%20Shakespeare’s%20The%20Merchant%20of%20Venice%20Lesson%20Plan.pdf
  4. Thug Notes: Merchant Of Venice (explicit language) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw9q2P2N028
  5. Varsity Tutors: Merchant Of Venicehttps://www.varsitytutors.com/englishteacher/merchant
  6. Intermediate Worksheets: Merchant Of Venice: http://www.macmillanreaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/The-Merchant-of-Venice-Worksheet.pdf
  7. Prestwick House: Worksheets for Students: Merchant Of Venice: https://www.prestwickhouse.com/samples/200958.pdf
  8. Shakespeare In the Schools: The Merchant Of Venice- Evaluating Values:  https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ca3e6c02-0eb6-436f-b605-f741673dd399/evaluating-values-merchant-of-venice/https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ca3e6c02-0eb6-436f-b605-f741673dd399/evaluating-values-merchant-of-venice/
  9. Internet Shakespeare Editions: The Merchant Of Venice- http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/m/lifetimes/plays/the%20merchant%20of%20venice/
  10. RSC Production History: The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-merchant-of-venice/about-the-play/stage-history
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Trump Family Attacks Shakespeare- Julius Caesar Protest

Donald Trump Jr tweeted two questions after the Julius Caesar play protest I posted over the weekend:

“When does art become political speech, and does it change things?”

 I would like to try to answer these questions and by doing so, see if I can explain this fascinating moment in Shakespearean performance history.

Though this production raised new questions about art, and has raised passion from many people, it is not as radical as the protesters might think. Here is a list of historical points of reference to show you the many similarities between this protest and others throughout the history of Shakespearean performance:
1. This is not the first time a Shakespeare play has been seen as a spur to violence: In February of 1601, The Earl of Essex commissioned Shakespeare’s company to perform a scene of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second one day before he attempted to overthrow queen Elizabeth, and make himself head of the English government. 

Deposition by Augustine Phillips (one of Shakespeare’s actors), pleading that his company was innocent of treason.

Shakespeare’s company was exonerated, but Essex himself was tried convicted, and executed for high treason. Similarly, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, he had previously performed in Julius Caesar, and reportedly complained, (while on the run from the law),  that “I am being hunted for what Brutus did so freely” 

Source: New York Times Review. Now in both cases it is worth noting that Shakespeare’s company was not responsible for the death of a political figure, it was the people who interpreted his work that bear the responsibility themselves.

2. This play is also not the first time a director has portrayed Caesar as a contemporary president-

An Obama-like Caesar is murdered in The Acting Company’s 2012 production of “Caesar”

As many people have pointed out, in 2012 The Acting Company put on a production of Caesar with an Obama-esque version of the title character. No protests came from the left or right, though Caesar died in the exact same way- bloodily stabbed onstage. I would argue that these shows demonstrate that portraying Caesar as a contemporary figure does not itself incite violence. The audience knows that the  figure of Caesar is simply meant as a link between Shakespeare and contemporary politics. This is how the director Oskar Eustis of the Shakespeare in the Park production defended himself against criticism of his staging: https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/theater/donald-trump-julius-caesar-oskar-eustis.amp.html

I frankly also find the disproportionate reaction to these two Caesars rather insulting. When Obama was in office, he got plenty of negative criticism that sometimes extended to threats of violence. If you click here you can see a threat by country music singer Ted Nugent who threatens to shoot the president with a machine gun. The double standard that threatening a president on the left has no consequences, but threatening a Republican president is worthy of scorn, derision, and its backers pulling their support, deeply hypocritical.

3. Thirdly, this is not the first time a Shakespeare play has depicted Trump negatively. If you look at the comments of my Trump villain post, a director mentioned his production of Henry the Sixth Part Two, in which an actor portrayed the character Jack Cade as Trump. Like Caesar, Cade also murdered in the course of the play. Clearly, portraying Donal Trump as a Shakespearean character is not what is unique here.

4. Though it is certainly true that the play depicts violence and the overthrow of a regime, it doesn’t endorse violence, and is not intended to glorify the murder of a president or even a demagogue like Caesar. As I will later discuss, this play can’t be an  endorsement of violence, since everyone who commits violence is duly punished.

So why has this particular production, that uses a Caesar that resembles this president, gotten such a big reaction? Part of the issue admittedly is the timing. The protest specifically mentions the attempted murder of a GOP senator, which happened last week. It is only natural that, given this recent threat of violence, some would fear that this production might incite others to violence. Yet, as I said before, a thorough analysis of the play shows that it does not condone violence against a political leader.

Additionally, given today’s divisive political environment, it is understandable why an audience of right wing protesters might be concerned about this scene in which Caesar is murdered on stage. They may vey well think the play is wish fulfillment for those  on the left, who might enjoy watching the bloody assassination of someone who is vey unpopular right now. However, let me emphatically point out that first of all, no one on the left has endorsed violence against Trump. If you look at the backlash to Kathy Griffin’s picture of herself holding a bloody makeshift Trump head, you can see that no one left or right has endorsed support for such a treasonous un-American act. Secondly, with regards to Caesar, the  play’s message is actually nonviolent. When Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, it starts a violent uprising that leads to anarchy. Precisely the outcome the two Roman senators hoped to avoid. Seeing their designs fail which certainly discourage anyone attempting violence against a sitting authority figure. 

Perhaps the best way I can prove this point is to remind everyone that Shakespeare himself lived in a monarchy. His theatre was strictly controlled by the government. If anyone in 1599 believed that Julius Caesar seemed to support the killing of queen Elizabeth, the play would have been burned and Shakespeare and his whole company would have been arrested and hanged.

https://youtu.be/Y7BtKlGGFKs

Also, people have criticized the murder of Caesar as “too realistic,” again believing that the gore is intended to glorify violence. In reality the violence of the murder is intended to incite revulsion and disgust. Look at Mark Antony’s reaction when he shows Caesar’s body to the crowd. https://youtu.be/tRceRJAz6_Q

I frankly think that the main reason why this production is getting bad press is  because it’s a portrayal of President Trump, not Obama, not the historical Caesar, not Hitler, not even Trump before he was president, but the current president, that a group of people elected, and who believe support their values.

I believe that the main reason Trump’s  supporters are angry at this production is they feel an attack on him is an attack on them. The president’s supporters have shown repeatedly that they are willing to overlook almost anything to show their support of him. And I imagine that they have no desire to see him as an autocrat and dictator, let alone entertain the notion that he might ever be taken down by his opponents. 

The irony is that the real Caesar was a man of the people who died because his opponents thought he was an autocrat. The real Caesar helped create the modern calendar, gave money to the entire city, and according to Marc Antony, “When the poor hath cried, Caesar hath wept.” Trump is the exact opposite; he is a self-centered con artist who pretends to be a man of the people. As I predicted, after his inauguration, he has vowed to cut taxes on businesses like his, he put his family in positions of power, used diplomatic meetings and press conferences to sell his products, and obstructed justice when his FBI director tried to investigate him. With this in mind, it seems bizarre to claim that this production is designed to ridicule the right, since Trump is neither Julius Caesar, nor is he an embodiment of the political right. He only stands for his own interests. Therefore an attack on Trump is not an attack on conservative values. 

So to go back to the beginning point, “When does art become political speech?” I would argue art always becomes political when it comments about our world, and this quality of art is essential for our society to function. We need a healthy dose of satire and critical thinking, and art can provide it to us. However, there is a difference between disagreeing with a play and openly shunning it onstage.

To address Mr. Trump’s second question, art  doesn’t change things, people change things, so we need to temper our reactions, including to art pieces like Julius Caesar. Remember, Caesar only died because people said he wanted to be king. Cinna the poet died because the mob said he should. This play warns us all to be careful and remain critical thinkers, or mob rule will result. 

References

What depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump really means – CBS News

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/530037/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/theater/julius-caesar-shakespeare-donald-trump.amp.html

https://apple.news/AW6FmlDY3TEe4C97AG7UI4Q

Ted Nugent once said Obama should ‘suck on my machine gun.’ Now he wants to tone down ‘hateful rhetoric.’
– The Washington Post

View story at Medium.com

https://apple.news/AE9eeH-L6TxeY1qJwq4Ur8w

Shakespeare’s Perfect Halloween Play

With just a few days left until Halloween, many of us will be anxious to put the candy bowl away, dim the lights, and watch a scary movie. I’d like to recommend my pic for the single best Shakespeare play for Halloween, and you might be surprised to learn which one it is:

It’s not Macbeth, despite its ghosts and witches, it’s not Hamlet, though it has a famous scene in a graveyard. In my opinion, the scariest, most horrific, most disturbing Shakespearean play is the ancient Roman revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus!

Titus Who?

Titus is the most violent, most outrageous play in the Shakespearean cannon and features murder, mutilation, cannibalism, (and even featured the first recorded trick or treating). It was also his first tragedy ever, written around 1590. Back in this period, Shakespeare’s theater was also the site of public executions and blood sports like Bear-baiting, so Shakespeare knew that gore sells. He also knew that people were reading the bloody tragedies of the Roman poet Seneca, so he created a play that out-does the Roman master of bloody violence!

So why have you not heard of it?

  • Too violent for school For most people, their first encounters with Shakespeare is in the classroom, and because of the violence in this play it’s definitely not appropriate for high school. The most famous atrocity in the play happens to Titus’ daughter, who is raped offstage. Then, to keep her from incriminating the men who raped her, the rapists cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Quite a departure from the “Honey tongued” Shakespeare we see in the comedies and sonnets.
  • It’s vulgar: T.S. Eliot declared that Titus Andronicus is “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” For people who expect Shakespeare to be poetic and romantic, this play is a sad dissapointment.
  • It’s Over the top- People don’t just die in this play, they get butchered horror movie style! Some get stabbed and thrown in a pit, some get their limbs chopped off, one character is buried alive! Many scholars say that after one atrocity after another, the only way you can react to the horror onstage is to laugh. Look at this scene where the villain of the play, Aaron the Moor, confesses to a laundry list of hideous atrocities which he did just for the pleasure of being evil:

Scholars often compare the dark comedy of Titus to the films of Quentin Tarantino, who will murder his characters in grotesque, but funny ways. I won’t even give away the surprise ending where Titus and his daughter gets their revenge, but let’s just say that they would certainly agree with Tarantino that revenge is a dish, best served cold!

  • It might be racist As I mentioned in the clip above, the main villain of the play is a black man. Aaron, like Richard III is completely evil and unapologetic about it.  When I was studying Shakespeare in college, James Earl Jones, (Darth Vader himself) came to my school to talk about Shakespeare’s racially diverse characters. He argued though that nobody treats Aaron any differently until they learn about his heinous crimes and that the person who seems to hate Aaron’s blackness the most is himself. Look at this passage and see if you agree:

AARON

I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand

Look by and by to have thy sons with thee.
Aside Their heads, I mean.

O, how this villany
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace.
Aaron will have his soul black like his face (Titus, Act III, Scene 1).

Now the question to ask about Aaron and most of Shakespeare’s villains, is are they bad because they’re different (different race, differently abled, illegitimate birth), or did they become bad from people treating them badly?

Serious note– Even though productions often dramatize the violence and rape in Titus as over-the-top black comedy, this kind of rape and violence happens in real life, every day, particularly violence against women like Lavinia. One reason why this play is gaining popularity is sadly, that this kind of violence is more common in our current society with the shocking number of rapes committed in this country (1 in 5 women, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center), and the brutal murders in this play suggest many real-life atrocities such as Abu ghraib,

Plot summary and more at Schmoop.com

More at http://www.gradesaver.com/titus-andronicus/study-guide/summary

Review of Julie Taymor’s Titus

If you can’t get to the theater this Halloween and want to watch a production of Titus, you’re in luck: In 1999, Julie Taymor, famed director of the Broadway production of The Lion King, directed a film adaptation of Titus which I consider the single greatest Shakespearean film of all time. The movie captures the grotesque comedy of the play, while also visually showing the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. It also doesn’t get hung up on historical accuracy just because the play is set in Rome. Best of all, the cast in incredible: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Langue, Alan Cumming, Harry Lennox and more. This cast knows how to do Shakespeare for the movies and their work shows in every scene. Interesting side note: Hopkins actually considered making this movie the last movie of his career, which explains his amazing glee and energy in the role of Titus. Below is a nice in-depth analysis of the film

Another good review comes from the French Shakespeare Society: https://shakespeare.revues.org/1558

And finally, a review from Roger Ebert: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/titus-2000

So that’s my two cents on Titus Andronicus. Happy Halloween everybody!

What was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?

Well, Christmas is almost here; soon many of us will be traveling home to celebrate the  holidays with our families, enjoying parties, presents, carols, and decorations. However, our modern traditions weren’t always the norm for people who celebrate Christmas. In the interest of historical curiosity, we here at Shakespearean Student would like to talk a little bit about how William Shakespeare might’ve celebrated Christmas!

As with everything in Shakespeare’s life, many times scholars have nothing but “what if’s” to go on, because few records exist, there were no photos from the period, and very few documents survive related to Shakespeare. He also kept no journals or diaries to record what his life might’ve been like. However, based in the holiday traditions of England that have lingered on to this day, we can surmise what Christmas might’ve been like in the late 16th century.

Part 1: Stratford

Shakespeare was born in 1564, in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire England. As I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare would not have known many of our modern Christmas traditions. The Christmas Tree as we know it didn’t come into being until Queen Victoria’s reign, (and she certainly didn’t light hers with electric lights). Victoria also invented the idea of putting presents under the tree. I’m not an expert on Christmas, but my research would indicate that probably Elizabethans like Shakespeare didn’t even give out presents on Christmas Day! Instead, in country towns like Stratford in Tudor times, Christmas was a time of feasting, singing, caroling, and theatre!

 

The Shakespeare family home at Christmas
Candleglow%20PR%20small[1]

The Christmas season in Shakespeare’s day usually extended from Christmas Eve to the twelfth night after Christmas also known as Twelfth Night or Epithany. Common people usually decorated their homes with holly and ivy, and celebrated Christmas Eve by lighting their homes with candles and by burning the Yule log, an ancient tradition dating back over 1,000 years when the Vikings controlled most of England. It was a symbol of light and warmth in the darkest time of the year.

 

Replica of Shakespeare’s kitchen.
Feasting- 

Roast goose was a staple of the common man’s feast at Christmas. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth commanded the whole country to consume geese to commemorate England’s victory over the Spanish Armada. Other traditional fare included plum porridge, beer or ale, and the most celebrated Christmas beverage of all: Wassail!

Wasailing-

The old tradition of caroling comes from an ancient pagan holiday tradition of showing charity to the poor at the winter solstice. People would go door to door asking for alms and occasionally a warm beverage. This ancient practice evolved into caroling and Wasailing!

The word “wassail” is an old Celtic word that means “lambswool,” it refers to the  fact that the drink is covered with a thin foam that looks kind of like the wool of a sheep. It is also derived from the Anglo-Saxon “wassail,” which means “be in health,” so it is simultaneously a drink, a toast, and an explanation of what the drink looks like. 

 Like our modern-day caroling, people would sing and dance going door to door asking for a traditional glass of wassail or a mince pie. A mince pie is a traditional meat pie that is often filled with 12 different ingredients to symbolize the 12 days of Christmas. 
Mince pies were popular  with both peasants and kings, and contains both fruit and different types of meat including rabbit chicken duck and hare.
 Wasailing  also has its roots in ancient pagan holidays and that’s why it’s often accompanied  with a traditional Morris dance, where the dancers are waving handkerchiefs, knocking sticks together and dancing with brightly colored ribbons. This was a great tradition back in the small towns and shires of England and continues to this very day. Below you’ll find a video where you can make some wassail yourself! I Just a note that in this recipe, the cook has left out the alcohol and has also left out the egg which is necessary to create the foamy lambswool. Nonetheless I think it’s a very good recipe and I welcome you to try it for yourself.

Plays

As the mayor’s son, young William had a VIP pass to see all traveling actors who came to town. Shakespeare’s dad would’ve decided who got to perform at the guild halls and local inns, so he and his son would’ve watched private performances of all the shows first. After that, John Shakespeare decided who got to perform, and who would be sent away. In addition to professional troupes at Christmas, craftsmen in Will’s hometown people in Warwickshire would come together and put on a show! These amateur dramatic pieces were known as Mystery Plays.

Mystery Plays got their name from the old meaning of mystery: a trade or skill. Much like modern nativity plays or community theaters, every year all the craftsmen from the town would put on a series of short shows derived from Bible stories at Christmas time, and showcase their crafts as well as their acting talents. For example the goldsmiths were in charge of the Three Wise Men story.

We know that Shakespeare liked these plays because he refers to one in particular many, many times: The play of King Herod. in the Bible, Herod The Great is fearful of the baby Jesus and sends his soldiers to kill any young baby that they can find in the city of Jerusalem. Very often when Shakespeare refers to any of his villainous characters he describes them as Herod-like.

The Mysteries were printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and people in York, Coventry, and Wakefield England still perform them today! Here’s a video of a little girl who performed in the York Mystery play last year:

I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn into the ancient traditions of the common folk back in Shakespeare’s England. This coming week, I’ll talk about how the queen and court celebrated the Yuletide.

Till next time!

-The Shakespearean Student

Sources:

  1. Historic UK: A Tudor Christmas: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Tudor-Christmas/
  2. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Christmas At Shakespeare’s Houses: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit-the-houses/whats-on.html/christmas-holidays.html
  3. The Anne Bolyn Files: A Tudor Christmas: http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/resources/tudor-life/tudor-christmas/
  4. Wassailing and Mumming: http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/wassailing.shtml

The Witches Of Macbeth

Happy Halloween everybody!

Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.

1. Who are they?

Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?

I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.

"Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches," Théodore Chassériau, 1854.
“Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches,” Théodore Chassériau, 1854.
Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters.  This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.

What Do They Look Like?

Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.

BANQUO
What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.


MACBETH
Speak, if you can: what are you? (
Act I, Scene iii).

The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:

“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).

and

Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.

Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).

For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:

The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.

Witches and mythology

Illustration from William Blake's  "Europe a Prophecy," 1794.
Illustration from William Blake’s “Europe a Prophecy,” 1794.
1. During the reign of King James,  the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.

2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!

Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.

Hecate.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”

"The Triple Hecate," by William Blake, 1794.
“The Triple Hecate,” by William Blake, 1794.
For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).

In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.

Visions Of Lady Macbeth

One of the greatest icons of female villainy, Lady Macbeth has been portrayed onstage by our greatest actresses, and immortalized in many alluring and terrifying works of art. Here are some of my favorites:

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02053
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906. Tate Modern Gallery: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02053. More Info Here.
For commentary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/ideal-portrait-of-lady-macbeth-97937
An Ideal Portrait of Lady Macbeth by John Francis Dicksee, 1870. View gallery information here: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=190776
FMI: http://en.wahooart.com/@@/8Y3AD3-Henry-Fuseli-(Johann-Heinrich-F%C3%BCssli)-Lady-Macbeth-with-the-Daggers
“Lady Macbeth and the Daggers” by Henry Fuseli, 1812. Tate Modern Gallery: 

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fuseli-lady-macbeth-seizing-the-daggers-t00733 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1068192/lady-macbeth-watercolour-cattermole-george/
Lady Macbeth observes King Duncan  by George Cattermole, 1850. Victoria and Albert Museum: 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1068192/lady-macbeth-watercolour-cattermole-george/

http://www.louvre.fr/oeuvre-notices/lady-macbeth-somnambule
Johann Heinrich Fuseili, “Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking Scene.”(1741). Louve Museum in Paris: 

http://www.louvre.fr/oeuvre-notices/lady-macbeth-somnambule

http://aworldelsewhere-finn.blogspot.com/2012/03/dante-gabriel-rossetti-death-of-lady.html
The Death of Lady Macbeth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c. 1875). Gallery info here: 

http://aworldelsewhere-finn.blogspot.com/2012/03/dante-gabriel-rossetti-death-of-lady.html