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.
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. 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:
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.
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.
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:
If you have two ears, you’re probably familiar with the Broadway Musical Hamilton. It swept the Tonys, has opened up touring productions across the country, and there’s already talk of a movie.
This historic American musical was the brainchild of writer Lin Manuel Miranda, who also originated the role of Alexander Hamilton.
The show is incredibly smart, creative, and delves into the seminal moments of American history.
What’s really exciting to me is that Hamilton also has a depth and complexity that mirrors some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, specifically the history plays.
Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote 10 plays about the lives of English kings, from the vain Richard the Second to the heroic Henry the Fifth, to the diabolical Richard the Third. Here is a list of Shakespearean history plays, with links to online study guides, listed in chronological order by reign, not publication date.
Are these Shakespearean history plays historically accurate by our standards? No, not by a long shot, though Shakespeare is only partially to blame for that. While Lin Manuel-Miranda had Hamilton’s own essays, his letters from friends and loved ones, and of course, every American history book at his disposal, Shakespeare’s sources were few, and mostly propaganda. They were, (to paraphrase Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin), “A series of lies, composed by winners, to excuse their hanging of the losers.”
Shakespeare’s genius however, was to turn these two-dimensional propaganda stories into three dimensional characters with which we can all identify. Miranda did the same thing in reverse- distilling his wealth of historical information into a universal story of a man’s quest for the American Dream. Hamilton went from being an immigrant, to a soldier, to a pioneer in American law, government, and finance and the musical reflects his struggle to achieve his dreams through each stage of his life. It is also a love song from America to a man who dreamed of a future for America, one not dissimilar to the ode Shakespeare wrote to his “Star of England,” Henry the Fifth. The greatest compliment I can give Miranda is to say that he created an American musical, with the scale and breadth of Shakespeare.
Part I: War and Peace
In Shakespeare’s histories, particularly the first tetracycle of plays that include Richard the Second, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard, III, there is a constant shift between war and peace, as scholar Robert Hunter observes. These plays cover the 200 year period of Wars of the Roses, and the end of the Hundred Years War. In all of these plays there are some very violent and very opportunistic young men who see war as an opportunity to rise above their stations. In war, they win glory in death, honor, respect, and status in life. However, in peacetime, they have “no delight to pass away the time,” as Richard III observes, and they struggle to survive in the political landscape of peace.
Hamilton is a man of this same mold: When we first meet him, he is a poor immigrant from the West Indies with no title or money to improve his status. He spends the first third of the musical wishing he could become a commander in the Revolutionary War, especially in the song: “My Shot”
Once Hamilton joins the revolution, his fortunes start to improve; he becomes George Washington’s aide-de-camp, then becomes a war hero in the Battle of Yorktown, and marries Eliza Schyler, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America.
Hamilton in war bears similarities to Shakespearean characters like Hotspur, Richard Duke of York, and even Richard III; people who see war as a chance to either die in glory, or become honored, wealthy, and powerful.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, he fares less well once the war ends. Even though he becomes Washington’s first Secretary Of the Treasury, his success and closeness to now-President Washington makes him a walking target to his political adversaries. Even worse, his ambition and inability to compromise makes Hamilton equally vulnerable to people who see him as a loudmouth, an elitist, and a would-be demagogue who wants to control America’s finances and live like a king, similar to the way the British Prime Minister controls England’s finances.
The character Hamilton resembles most in peacetime is Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
I happen to know a lot about this character since I played him back in 2008. Wolsey controlled Henry VIII’s finances and was hated by most of Henry’s court because he was the son of a poor butcher in Essex, and became the king’s right-hand man. Just look at the faces of the people of the court in this painting of the king and Wolsey by Laslett John Pott; they are clearly jealous of Wolsey’s closeness to the king.
In both plays, Washington and King Henry are treated like gods- invulnerable, aloof, and completely above reproach.
In both plays, whenever anything bad happens, the legislature blames Wolsey and Hamilton, not the King or the President. Also, once Henry or Washington no longer supports their right-hand-man, each one falls from grace and is destroyed by his enemies.
Wolsey and Hamilton both fall because of their position as the financial advisor, which makes them a target to their enemies. Both are accused of using their country’s finances to enhance their personal wealth, which leads him to scandal and disgrace.
In Henry the Eighth , Wolsey is certainly guilty of conspiring to use his country’s wealth to line his own pockets- he pays the cardinals in Rome to influence their vote in the hopes that he will become the next Pope!
What should this mean?
What sudden anger’s this? how have I reap’d it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leap’d from his eyes: so looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall’d him
Then makes him nothing. I must read this paper;
I fear, the story of his anger. ‘Tis so;
This paper has undone me: ’tis the account
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends; indeed, to gain the popedom,
And fee my friends in Rome. O negligence!
Fit for a fool to fall by: what cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the king? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again. What’s this? ‘To the Pope!’
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to’s holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more. Henry the Eighth Act III, Scene ii.
Again, though Wolsey is guilty, like Hamilton he also used his financial genius to bring England into a new age of prosperity after centuries of war. The Tudors were some of the richest and most powerful monarchs in British history, and Wolsey helped establish their dynasty, but thanks to his enemies, he is turned out of court in disgrace:
O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. Henry VIII, Act III, Scene ii.
Hamilton is also accused of embezzling his wealth by his enemies, including James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson
Hamilton’s enemies argue that his banking system benefits New York, where Hamilton was part of the House Of Representatives, as well as the Constitutional Convention. The main difference between Wolsey and Hamilton is that he didn’t embezzle America’s money, he is actually guilty of a far worse sin- adultery. Hamilton is accused of having an affair, and embezzling funds to keep it quiet, which he denies in a spectacular fashion:
In both plays, the moment where the main character begins to fall is dramatized in a stirring, metaphor-rich soliloquy. Wolsey compares himself to the Sun, who, once he reaches the zenith of the sky, has nowhere to go but down to the west, and set into night.
Hurricane From “Hamilton: An American Musical. Reposted from Deviant Art.com
Hamilton compares his situation to being in the eye of a hurricane, a particularly apt metaphor, since the real Alexander Hamilton’s house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1772. In addition, Lin Manuel Miranda‘s parents come from Puerto Rico an island that has, (and continues to be,) ravaged by hurricanes.
In the song, “Hurricane,” Hamilton remembers that when he lost everything as a boy in 1772, he beat the hurricane by writing a letter which was published in the newspaper, and inspired so much pity that the residents of the island raised enough money to send Alexander to America.
Later in the song, Hamilton decides to try to soothe the political hurricane that has engulfed him by writing a pamphlet, admitting the affair, but denying any embezzlement. Eventually the scandal destroys Hamilton’s career, but it doesn’t destroy his life; for that we have to look at the Shakespearean rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Part II- The Duel: Hamilton and Burr V Henry and Hotspur.
Aaron Burr and Hamilton keep meeting at important moments in the show, as if their fates are intertwined like gods in some kind of Greek tragedy.
Hamilton and Burr appear as polar opposites in the musical. Hamilton is fiery, opinionated, uncompromising, and highly principled. He ruffles feathers, but his supporters know where he stands. Burr is the opposite. He keeps his views to himself, and waits for the most opportune time to act on anything. Throughout the play, Hamilton and Burr hate and admire different things about each other. Hamilton admits that Burr’s cool practicality helps him to practice the law and succeed in politics, while Burr admires Hamilton’s energy and his ability to work and write as if his life depends on it, especially in the song “The Room Where It Happens.”
After Hamilton endorses Jefferson in the election of 1800, Burr loses the race, and the job of Vice President. In the musical, he blames Hamilton, and their grievance grows into a deadly conflict.
The rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr mirrors many characters in Shakespeare, but the two I want to focus on here are Hotspur and Prince Hal from Henry the Fourth Part One
As this video from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows, these two combatants meet only once in the play, but they are constantly compared to each other by the other characters, who talk about them as if they were twins, (they even have the same first name)! Even the king remarks that his son could have been switched at birth with Hotspur.
Prince Henry (known as Hal in the play), is the heir to the throne. Like Burr in Hamilton, Hal is methodical, cool, keeps his feelings to himself, and is known by some as a Machiavellian politician. Hotspur, (or Henry Percy), is his opposite. Like Hamilton he is fiery, eloquent, and not afraid to die for his cause, which in Hotspur’s case is to supplant the royal family and correct what he believes is an unjust usurpation by Hal’s father, King Henry the Fourth.
In the scene below, the two men seem hungry to not only kill one another, but to win honor and fame as the man who killed the valiant Henry. Whether it’s Henry Percy, or Prince Henry who will die, is something they can only find out by dueling to the death.
If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
Why, then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.
Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come
To end the one of us; and would to God
Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!
I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee;
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.
I can no longer brook thy vanities.
They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for– Dies.
Hamilton’s duel is also a matter of honor; Alexander wants to defend his statements against Burr, while Burr wants to stop Hamilton from frustrating his political career. Here is how their duel plays out in the musical Hamilton:
Just like Burr, Prince Hal feels remorse after killing his worthy adversary.
For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I’ll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave. Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene iv.
III. The Times
In both Hamilton and all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the characters know that they are living during important events and their actions will become part of the history of their country, and none more than Washington. In the song, “History has its eyes on you,” he warns Hamilton that, try as one might, a man’s history and destiny is to some extent, out of his control, which echoes one of King Henry the Fourth’s most bleak realizations:
Henry IV. O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and die. Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene i.
Washington is keenly aware of his legacy and does his best to protect it. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV,the king also lies awake trying to figure out how to deal with the problems of his kingdom, which is why Shakespeare gives him the famous line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Likewise, Richard II, makes a famous speech where he mentions how many kings have a gruesome legacy of dying violently:
As we see the whole story of Hamilton’s life progresses, his fate changes constantly and his legacy shifts in every scene of the show: immigrant, war-hero, celebrated writer, Secretary of the Treasury, but then, once he published The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton went from famous to infamous. After After Burr murdered him in the duel, Hamilton might have been utterly forgotten, in spite of all his great accomplishments. This is a key theme in all history and tragedies, the universal desire of every man to transcend mortality by trying to create a lasting legacy for himself.
The women who tell the story
Fortunately for Hamilton, the women of his story also help to preserve it. Historically, most of Hamilton’s archives were preserved by his wife Eliza Schyler, and she and her sisters help shape the story from the beginning to the end of the show. Hamilton’s sister in law Angelica sets up this theme by literally rewinding the scene of her first meeting with Alexander, and then retells how she and Hamilton met from her own point of view.
Once Eliza decides to marry Hamilton, she asks to “be part of the narrative.” She knows she married a important man and that his life will someday become part of American history. Eliza wants to be a part of that historic narrative.
When Hamilton commits adultery and writes the Reynolds pamphlet though, Eliza is so hurt and scandalized that she rescinds her requests. In the song “Burn,” she destroys her love letters from before the affair, and all correspondence she had with Alexander when he revealed it. Lin Manuel Miranda explained that he wrote the song this way because no records during this period survived, so he invents the notion of Eliza destroying them as a dramatic device, to heighten her estrangement from her husband. Though this is a contrivance, it does re-enforce how, when part of the story is lost, it twists and destroys part of our impression of a person. Henry Tudor went to great lengths to destroy the legacy of his predecessor Richard the Third, and literally repainted him as a deformed tyrant, which haunts Richard’s legacy to this day.
At the end of the play though, Eliza changes her mind yet again, as the final song I placed earlier shows, Eliza spends the last 50 years of her life to preserving and protecting her husband’s name, as well as Washington, all the founding fathers, and children who can grow up knowing that story at her orphanage. This song illustrates clearly that in the end, a man’s story is defined by the people who tell it, and Hamilton is fortunate to have such a creative, energetic and talented writer/ actor in Lin Manuel Miranda, and the cast of Hamilton, to preserve the story in such a Shakespearean way.
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.
Al 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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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,
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
I was going to review this movie, but I’m quite impressed by Mr. Galgren of Channel Awesome’s take on it. I think this review is a great summary of how this movie cleverly adapts Shakespeare’s play in a 20th century context, and how incredible Sir Ian’s performance is! Enjoy the review, and see the movie if you get the chance!
Back in 2009, I had the opportunity to play the lead in a touring production of “Macbeth.” It was the first time I’d ever played a titular Shakespearean character and I was really excited to play this part. I feel that playing one of these parts gives you an insight into the character that no other research can, so I’d like to share the steps of my process, with some pictures and videos from other famous Macbeths to give you an idea of what I learned.
As I said in one of my earliest posts, if you’re auditioning for a Shakespeare play, Read the whole play, not just a monologue book. Monologue books won’t give you a sense of the whole story and you’ll miss a lot of details about who your character is by not hearing what he/she says, and what other people say about him/her. Fortunately for me, I first read the play when I was 17 and remembered the story pretty well. Unfortunately, my first reading of the part was a disaster. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth didn’t feel like a part I could play; he seemed like this huge Scottish warrior who everyone loved until he turned into a psycho killer. I’m not a warrior, not a psycho, and (like most actors), often feel a lot of doubt and loneliness about my self. Ironically, that was what helped me get into the heart of the character!
Figure out what’s the hard part. When directors cast, they need to make sure you can handle the part. If your character has to sing, you better be able to carry a tune. If your character needs to be able to contort into a pretzel and talk to dolphins, he or she will probably make that part of the audition. My advice to anyone auditioning for a specific part in a play (Shakespeare or not), is to think like a director and try and figure out what the hardest thing that your character will have to do, and try to prepare for that. For me, the hardest part of playing Macbeth, was the famous Dagger Speech.
Perform your monologue for someone first. I was fortunate that while I was prepping for the audition, the great Shakespearean director Rob Claire was doing a workshop and he helped me work on Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act I, where he decides whether or not to murder Duncan.
Table work is the point in the process where the actors sit around and read the play, trying to get an idea of the character’s journey from beginning to end. To me is the most exciting time in rehearsals because it’s just the actor and Shakespeare’s words- you can imagine how the play will go, discover how the lines make you feel, and form a bond with your character and fellow actors.
Macbeth’s Motive- During the table read, I decided on Macbeth’s motivation: to prove himself to his wife. In the play, Lady Macbeth frequently criticizes him and seems to define true manhood as taking what you want, regardless of fear or ethics. Take a look at this horrific passage where she first critiques Macbeth’s manhood, then says she would rather bash her baby’s head in rather than give up on murdering the king!
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.
What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
If we should fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii).
One interesting contradiction in the play, although Lady M mentions that she’s nursed a baby, later on in the play Macduff says that Macbeth has no children. I therefore decided that Lady Macbeth has lost a child, and this has caused unimaginable pain for the couple. Therefore, Macbeth is willing to do anything to win his wife’s affection again, even murder.
Study the verse– Another point I’d advise when you’re doing table work is pay attention to Shakespeare’s verse because it provides clues to help you keep your hand on the pulse of your character. Just like a heartbeat, when a line of verse changes or fragments it usually signals an emotional or mental change in the character. Here is a quick analysis of the verse in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Click here to find some great books about how to study Shakespeare’s verse.
Voice and Body
When creating any character, you have to decide how (s)he walks and talks. Most Macbeth’s I’ve seen are big, heroic guys, and I’m not big and imposing. I talked to one of my mentors at American Shakespeare Center and he suggested that maybe Macbeth has a bit of a Napoleonic Complex. This made a lot of sense to me. I thought about how Macbeth gets honored at the beginning of the play; what if he just got lucky killing the Norwegians? What if deep down, he doesn’t feel he deserves to be honored just for killing in war? That kind of self hatred and desire for approval could easily lead to violent behavior. I therefore based my physical choices on alternately shrinking and sulking when Macbeth feels low, and trying very hard to look big and imposing for the rest of the play.
I worked on my arms for the sword work and my back because I believe that’s where Macbeth caries himself. When I wanted to appear like a king I would stand straight and puff out my chest, however in moments like the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, I shrank and turned my head away.
I didn’t try to do a voice for Macbeth, I just tried to let my voice go through the changes. When Macbeth is paranoid or afraid, my voice went up, when he feels in control, I kept it at a low, strong register.
The one time I shouted was at the end, when Macduff demands that
Macbeth surrender. I snarled and barked the line: “I WILL NOT YIELD!” At the end of the play, when Macbeth gets to fight Macduff, I feel he finally feels brave and strong, challenging Macduff even though he knows he will lose. At last he can feel like a valliant hero, even though everyone else sees him as a villain. I gleefully assumed a fighting stance and put all the power in my body into my limbs, ready to attack!
The Speeches. All of Shakespeare’s great characters have fabulous speeches that allow the audience to peer into their hearts. With Macbeth, we see a good man’s journey into becoming a demented, paranoid tyrant through the following speeches.
“If It Were Done,” Act I, Scene vii. This speech was my favorite. It’s basically Macbeth’s version of “To Be Or Not To Be.” In both speeches, the character is contemplating murder, without saying the word “murder.” This is the “IT” Macbeth refers to; killing the king to get his crown. Macbeth is tortured by his ambition and his desire, and you get to see him wrack his brain and body over what to do. Below is Sir Ian McKellen’s interpretation of the speech in a 1979 RSC production.
The Dagger Speech Act II, Scene i. The night of the murder,
Macbeth sees a bloody dagger that points his way to the king. It’s up to the actor to determine where and what the dagger is: if it is the Witches’ magic, his own psychosis, or a hellish prophesy. Does Macbeth love or fear the dagger? Does it stay in one place or move? Answering these questions and keeping track of the answers makes the speech very hard to do. Here is Sir Antony Sher’s kinetic and frantic version of the Dagger Speech:
“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” Act V, Scene v. This speech is often quoted out of context, given that it has a nearly perfect metaphor for the futility of life: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage… it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Since this is the most famous speech in the play, I had to do something different than other Macbeths. What many people forget is that Macbeth says all this when he’s trying to command his army, and gets word that his wife is dead.
I chose to play the speech as a fight within Macbeth to not give into despair. At first he’s furious when he hears the news; he didn’t need this news, especially not today! He tries to suppress his grief, delaying it until tomorrow, but he can’t; now that he knows his wife is dead, his life seems completely pointless, including the battle he was trying to fight. I then gave Macbeth an epithany near the end of the speech: If life is pointless, fighting a battle and dying would be a glorious way to end it! Why not die, after all, life is just “a tale told by an idiot?” At last, Macbeth has a reason to fight again, and he concludes the speech as a call to his soldiers to fight without fear of death. Now, you may disagree with my interpretation, but the point is that it’s mine. I wasn’t trying to imitate Antony Sher, or Laurence Olivier, or Patrick Stewart when they played the part. I was doing my Macbeth, and that’s what made it worth watching.
I hope you enjoyed this look into the process of creating this complex and fascinating character. If you’ve played this character before, leave me a comment about your interpretation, or tell me which Macbeth you liked best and why. Finally, below are links to two full-length productions of Macbeth for your viewing pleasure.