Shakespeare on Riots

Today is the first day of the January 6th hearings. January 6th is a day that history still bewares, because of the infamous day when armed, violent conspirators went to the Senate and attempted to overthrow elected rulers. For obvious reasons, this put me in mind of the heinous actions of another group of conspirators stormed another Senate and tried, to overthrow a stable republic.

January 6th, 2021 (which, coincidently, was Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare-themed holidays), was a tragedy for multiple reasons. The protestors broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia that week.


Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.

How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:

Example 1: Julius Caesar

George Ed Robertson Antony
(c) Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:

https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeare-learning-zone/julius-caesar/story/timeline

What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.

Example 2: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part ii.

Henry VI is the only king in English history to be crowned twice, deposed twice, and buried twice (Saccio 91). As the play begins, King Henry has already lost France, lost his mind, and lost the respect of his people. Around 1455, John Hardyng wrote a contrast between Henry’s father and himself. He laments that Henry the Fifth died so soon and then exhorts Henry to keep the quarrelsome lords in his government from warring among themselves.

Withstand, good lord, the outbreak of debates.
And chastise well also the rioters
Who in each shire are now confederates
Against your peace, and all their maintainers
For truly else will fall the fairest flowers
Of your great crown and noble monarchy
Which God defend and keep through his mercy.

(Excerpt from Harding’s Chronicle, English Historical Documents, 274).

Henry’s political ineptness was why Richard of York challenged his claim to the throne. Though Richard had little legal claim as king, he believed himself to be better than Henry.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part ii, York tries to get the people’s support by engineering a crisis that he can easily solve. York dupes a man named Jack Cade to start a riot in London and demand that the magistrates crown Cade as the true king.

Biography of Richard, Duke of York, who challenged King Henry VI for his right to be king.

York and Cade start a conspiracy theory that Cade is the true heir to the throne and the royal family suppressed his claim and lied about his identity. Cade starts calling himself John Mortimer, a distant uncle of the king whom York himself admits is long dead:

The Royal National Theater’s production of Henry VI, Parts II, and 7. Jack Cade appears at about the 7-minute mark.
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the title of John Mortimer.

Just like Cade and his rebels, the January 6th rioters were motivated by lies and conspiracies designed to crush their faith in their legitimate ruler. Even more disturbing, these rioters are pawns in the master plan of a corrupt political group. York doesn’t care that Cade isn’t the real king; he just wants to use Cade’s violence as an excuse to raise an army, one that he can eventually use against King Henry himself.

15th century woodcut from the War Of the Roses.

Similar to York’s lies and conspiracy-mongering, many Republicans have refused to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and some are actual proponents of Q Anon conspiracies!

A lot of Republicans deserve blame for fanning the flames of rebellion on January 6th, but arguably former President Trump deserves most of the blame. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted that Trump spread a huge amount of conspiracy theories without believing in any of them. He does this because he wants Americans to be afraid of imaginary threats that he claims he can solve. What’s easier to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist? Much like York, Trump tried to hold onto power by pressuring his supporters to pressure the Capital, feeding them lies about election fraud, and a secret democratic Satanic cult. Thus radicalized, they resolved to do what Cade’s mob did: “Kill all the lawyers.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in the Senate.

As Dick the Butcher points out, most people don’t actually believe Cade is truly John Mortimer, they are just so angry at the king and the oppressive English government, that they are willing to follow him in a violent mob to take their vengeance upon the monarchy. This is why they try Lord Saye and execute him just for the crime of reading and writing! Similarly, the mob attacking the capital was made up of die-hard conspiracy adherents, and people just angry at the Democratic Party.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/20/qanon-trump-era-ends/

Like I said before, Cade and his mob is just a pawn in the machinations of York. Eventually the king’s enforcer, Lord Clifford convinces most of them to abandon Cade, and Cade himself dies a humiliating death- on the run from the law and starving, Cade is murdered by a farmer after trying to steal some food. After Joe Biden became the 46th President, many of the conspiracy group Q-Anon, who had many prominent members in the January 6th riot, began to disbelieve and abandon the conspiracies of the group. However, as this news story shows, some Q-Anon supporters are die-hard adherents and will never abandon their conspiracy theories, and some, like York’s supporters, are being recruited by other extreme groups. Sadly, as York shows, sometimes a riot is a rehearsal for another riot. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III, York finally amasses an army and challenges the Lancastrians in all-out war. Hopefully, the US government will hunt down and arrest these violent insurrectionists before they have the chance to do the same.

Example 3: Sir Thomas More

In the unfinished play “Sir Thomas More, a racist mob again attempts to attack London. This time they have no political pretenses; they want to lynch immigrants who they believe are taking English jobs. As I said in my “Who Would Shakespeare Vote For?” post, More’s speech is a perfect explanation of why this behavior cheapens and denigrated a country’s image, and weakens its ability to command respect from the rest of the world. Last time I posted a video of Sir Ian McKellen speaking this speech, but this time.. well just watch:

Graphic Novel Review: The Manga Shakespeare: “The Merchant of Venice.”

Shakespeare Review

In this section, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing.

  1. Name: The Manga Shakespeare– “Merchant Of Venice,” Illustrated by Faye Yong.
  2. Media: Graphic Novel compilation, with accompanying website https://www.mangashakespeare.com/titles/merchant.html
  3. Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language, and the subject matter touches on racism and anti-Semitism, so it shouldn’t be read by really young kids.
  4. Premise: Like the Midsummer Night’s Dream edition I already reviewed, this is the full play with Manga inspired illustrations. However, unlike Midsummer, this book is more conceptual. It reinterprets all the characters as either fairies, aliens, mermaids or merman, or some other fantasy characters. It is literally a fairy tale, which I find a fascinating concept for a number of reasons. That said, like any interpretation of Merchant, this choice is somewhat controversial for reasons I will get into below.

“A friend of mine said she got married in Venice and described it as like being in an RPG.”

Faye Yong, Illustrator for “The Manga Shakespeare: Merchant Of Venice.”


What Does Role-Playing Game (RPG) Mean?
A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world.

Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements.

Traditional role-playing video games shared five basic elements:

The ability to improve your character over the course of the game by increasing his statistics or levels.

A menu-based combat system with several choices of skills, spells, and active powers as well as an active inventory system with wearable equipment such as armors and weapons.

A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline and additional (and usually optional) side quests.

The ability to interact with elements of the environment or storyline through additional abilities (e.g. lockpicking, disarming traps, communication skills, etc.)

The existence of certain character classes that define the characteristics, skills, abilities, and spells of a character (e.g. wizard, thief, warrior, etc.)

-“RPG” Technopedia

   My reaction: I honestly don’t know what to think about the way the comic depicts races. In the interview above, illustrator Faye Yong explains how she chose a fantasy aesthetic for the graphic novel.

She read the script and represented the characters like the Prince of Aaragon, the Prince of Morocco, and re-interpreted them as fantasy characters. A good example is the Prince of Aragon. As you can see in this scene from the 2004 movie, Shakespeare portrays Aaragon as a vain, shallow person. Incidently, Aaragon is a province of Spain, over which the English just won a major naval victory, so Shakespeare makes this character a mockable popinjay since the Spanish were still the mortal enemies of the English:

Fay Yong wanted to heighten Aaragon’s vanity, so she made him a beautiful creature with long, flowing hair.

This is telling: Yong immersed herself with Shakespeare’s text, but she didn’t really delve into the real world context. She wasn’t interested in the real cultures of Aaragon, Morrocco, or even Venice, but to take Shakespeare’s impression of these cultures, and use Japanese style animation to tell Shakespeare’s story.
For most of the play, this approach works quite well. After all, Shakespeare depicts Portia and her home in Belmont as an almost ethereal place, where men come from far and wide to see this magical kingdom, and Portias father gets a prophetic vision on his death bed that makes him alter his will so that only someone who can decipher his riddle will get to marry Portia and inherit her estate. Like I said, the scenes in Belmont work very well as a Manga comic, particularly Bassanio’s Zelda-style fetch quest where he has to choose the right casket to marry Portia. I hope someone someday turns this idea into a real game.

Faye Yong (the illustrator of “Merchant,” shows how she designed and drew the character Portia).

However, the scenes in Venice don’t work as well because Shakespeare wrote them with a clear understanding of the real Venice, and the tensions between the Jewish and Christian communities. Details like Antonio’s anti-Semitism, Shylock’s fury at his daughter marrying a Christian, and Portia’s own racism and anti-Semitism is frankly erased when you view it out of the context of the real Venice.

Another example of questionable racial re-interpretation is theThe Prince of Morrocco, who like Aaragon, is a suitor to Portia who likewise fails to choose the proper casket and win Portia.

In Yong’s version, Morocco has green, rather than brown skin now, (sort of like Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z), which is problematic because we associate green with sickliness and that makes this speech of Morocco’s even more problematic:

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

Not surprisingly, the most controversial illustration choices center around Shylock the Jewish moneylender. As I’ve written before, Shylock has always been a controversial figure, and this comic interprets him in a way I find simultaneously simplistic and highly thought-provoking.

Faye Yong has stated that she wanted to make Shylock look the same as the Christian characters, but that his garb would reflect a sort of “dark elf” aesthetic. She describes him as the sort of fantasy character that worships the moon, rather than the sun. On the one hand, I applaud her for not giving into the old Jewish stereotypes like red hair, hook noses, etc. I also have to admit that Shylock is sort of a dark vengeful figure (he is after all, the villain), so making him a dark elf works on the surface.

On the other hand, again, without the context of anti-Semetism, and the complex relationship between Jews and Christians in the 16th century, much of the Shakespearean text is devoid of meaning. Perhaps this is an attempt to make the play more easily accessible to young readers like teenagers, and I applaud that, but as I wrote in my post about why everyone should read or teach this play, learning about the historical context of real Jews is this play’s great gift, and that is lost in this version.

On the other hand, depicting Shylock like some kind of dark elf or warlock actually brings to life a very real aspect of anti-Semetic prejudice that many people overlook today: for most of western history, many of our stereotypes of Jews were interlinked with our stereotypes about witches!

Jewish Stereotypes and the Occult

So, ironically, much the same way Ian McKellen’s Richard III helped modernize the complex medieval politics of the 15th century, seeing Shylock as a semi-mystical, possibly occult figure, actually brings to light some of the prejudices that real Jews in the 16th century faced!

In conclusion, Merchant Of Venice is extremely hard to adapt in a comic book context, and some aspects are a little lost in translation. That said, it is gorgeous to look at, and it has a great visual shorthand that enlivens Shakespeare’s text in a unique and appealing way.

Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!

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Grade: 3 Shakespeare globes.

  • Official Website:

Graphic Novel Review: The Manga Shakespeare: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Shakespeare Review

In this section, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing.

  1. Name: The Manga Shakespeare: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  2. Media: Graphic Novel compilation, with accompanying website https://www.mangashakespeare.com/titles/midsummer.html
  3. Ages: Pre Teen- Adult. No violence or explicit imagery, but the visual format might be confusing for younger viewers.
  4. Premise:

   My reaction:

Basic Details:

Sometimes the over-the top nature of manga drawings works well with this play. When Helena is mooning over Demetrius, we can see highlights in her eyes that work very well within the big-eyed, expressive style of Manga. By contrast, some other characters like Oberon are drawn very sharply, making him appear stern and even grim.

Another thing the style of pictures does is to literally illustrate the poetic passages of the For example, when Titania delivers her “These are the forgeries of jealousy,” speech, the images of the text compliment

Critique

Recommendation: This book is a good resource for classrooms exploring the text of

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Grade: 4 Shakespeare globes.

What is a Soldiers Due?

On this Memorial Day, I’m inspired by a quote to ponder what it really means to “Support Our Troops,” living and dead. The quote comes from an epilogue written for a 1778 performance of Shakespeare’s obscure Roman Tragedy, “Coriolanus:”

The most interesting thing about the play is how modern it is. One of his few plays that deals directly with the drama of democracy. And more than that, it deals with the seemingly modern phenomenon of officials undone by public opinion. So many of Shakespeare’s characters have to answer to their God or their king, or (as Coriolanus does), his family. Only rarely, do they answer to the people.

Kyle Kallgren: “Coriolanus- Universal Soldier” (2016)

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-coriolanus

Play Summary

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s strangest and most controversial plays. Its principal figure is a warrior, exemplary in his courage and single-minded dedication, who finds it difficult to adjust to life away from the battlefield. Refusing to compromise and contemptuous of anyone who does not live up to his exacting standards, Coriolanus, not long after being nominated for the high political office of consul, is cast into exile, accused of treason and ends up leading an army to invade and destroy Rome.

Warren Chernaik, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London

What do we not owe soldiers?

Throughout the play, Coriolanus shows nothing but contempt for popular rule. This certainly suggests that he is aristocratic in his political views, but arguably he is much more militaristic. Remember that to be a Consul or any kind of high ranking position in the Senate, the senators all served in the army for a set term. Coriolanus respects the Senate more than the Assembly because the former is full of his fellow comrades in arms.

Coriolanus is first and last a soldier and he represents a society run by the war machine. For centuries, authoritarian who rule through a cult of personality have propped up Caius Martius as an ideal of a military society. After all, it was Mussoluini who organized his fascist dictatorship around the Roman Empire, and the play Coriolanus was taught in literature classes during the Third Reich. They probably looked like Starship Troopers.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/mar/05/coriolanus-shakespeare-laurence-olivier-ralph-fiennes-ian-mckellan

So to recap, though we owe soldiers a lot for their courage and sacrifice, nobody owes them Blind obedience, because that is the roots of fascism. Look at this actual excerpt from a literary textbook about Coriolanus that was given to children in Nazi Germany.

The poet deals with the problem of the peaople and its leader, he depicts the ture nature of the leader in contrast to the aimless masses; he shows a people led in a false manner, a false democracy, whose exponents yield to the wishes of the people for egotistical reasons. Above these weaklings towers the figure of the true hero and leader, Coriolanus, who would like ot guide the deceived people to its health in the same way as, in our days, Adolf Hitler would do with our beloved German Fatherland.

Martin Brunkhorst, “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in Deutscher Bearbeitung. Quoted from Weida

.So now that I’ve established what we don’t owe our soldiers, what do we owe them?

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What do we owe our soldiers?

[  ] Honesty- why are you fighting? Is dying for one’s country worth it? Unlike Henry V, in which Shakespeare makes it very clear why the king is trying to conquer France, we don’t really understand why Rome wants to destroy the Volskies, and it seems somewhat arbitrary. I think one of the ways we sympathize with Coriolanus is that he never “asks the reason why; his is but to do and die,” as Tennyson puts it. He has one speech where he rallies the troops, but it just seems flat and hollow without a clear reason why the soldiers should risk their lives.


[  ] A chance to heal When he comes home to run for Consul, Coriolanus is required to show his battle scars to the people, and refuses to stay in the room when people talk about them. This could be interepreted as more arrogance where he is disgusted to be in the same room as common men, but I think there’s another aspect. I think Coriolanus has PTSD, and every time he sees or hears about his scars, his repressed memories bubble up to the surface and drown him in fear. His story is partially a story of how all soldiers need help to deal with the trauma they endure on a regular basis.


] Love for their courage and sacrifice. Whether the conflict is right or wrong men and women risked their lives for it, and that is worth compassion.
[  ] Good leaders. Coriolanus is a play where arguably nobody cares about the people. Coriolanus and the Patricians look down on them, and the tribunes see them as a means to gain power. With all this political in fighting who is really trying to make life better? Better for the starving Romans? Better for soldiers like Coriolanus? In a republican society like Rome, we owe it to our soldiers to participate in politics so men like Coriolanus aren’t sent to die on a whim. If we don’t use our voices, we are the common cry of curs that Coriolanus characterizes us as:

Compassion– in John Osborne’s version the title character goes mad from his trauma and of course, in Shakespeare’s version, he’s driven out of Rome and then killed by Aufidius. Even today, many soldiers suffer from poverty, sickness, life-altering injuries, and of course, PTSD. This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help ease the lives of the men and women who have suffered for us.

Sources:

SHAKESPEARE AND BRITISH OCCUPATION POLICY IN GERMANY, 1945-1949 by Katherine Elizabeth Weida B.A. (Washington College) 2011

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/an-introduction-to-coriolanus

Graphic Novel Review: “Kill Shakespeare: VOl 2.” a Dark and angsty Shakespeare fanfic.

Cover Art: Kill Shakespeare Vol. 2

Shakespeare Review

  • Kill Shakespeare Comic

In this section, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing.

  1. Name: Kill Shakespeare (Vol. 2) by Connor McCreery and Anthony Del Col
  2. Media: Graphic Novel compilation, with accompanying website https://www.killshakespeare.com/ 
  3. Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language and a lot of fighting and gore, so it’s not really for kids
  4. Premise: William Shakespeare is more than just a simple playwright- he has a magic quill that brings his characters to life. Some of the characters worship him like a god or like a father. Unfortunately, others (namely, the villain characters), are unhappy with their stories and want revenge, causing a civil war led by Richard III, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Iago (who is once again, betraying Othello). Our heroes include Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, Hamlet, and Captain Cesario (who is actually Viola from Twelfth Night in disguise). Can the heroes defeat the villains? Can Shakespeare save his precious creations from destroying each other before it’s too late?

   My reaction: In essence, this graphic novel is like Season 4 of one of my favorite TV shows, Once Upon A Time. The premise is that an ordinary writer is given the power to create living characters, some good and some evil. In fact, in Once Upon A Time Lore, Shakespeare WAS one of the Authors in the OUAT universe

Basic Details:

The main difference between Once Upon A Time and Kill Shakespeare is that the action is far more violent, and the characters have one main quality- ANGST. As I said, the villains are not happy with Shakespeare, which makes perfect sense. Macbeth famously called his life a “Tale told by an idiot,” and Richard III loves to blame his problems on either God, or his mother, since one or both of them cursed him with deformity and love of wickedness. It makes complete sense that these characters would rage against their creators. The heroes (especially the tragic ones) are also struggling with their sad pasts and trying to reconcile their feelings for Shakespeare. Is he their god? Is he their father? If so, is he a good one or a bad one?

What I like the most about this graphic novel is that the characters are consistent with how the real Shakespeare wrote him, yet they make different choices in the graphic novel. They also grow and play off each other in many interesting ways. Here are some examples:

Juliet in this version is much more of a fighter than a lover. She is a general of all the heroic Shakespearean characters and uses her hope and her wits to rally the troops. That said, she still misses Romeo, who died from the poison just like in Shakespeare’s version, and still has love in her heart. I won’t give anything away but, let’s just say that this time she climbs someone else’s balcony.

Falstaff This might be my favorite change in this version. Falstaff is still witty and gluttonous, but in this version, he’s on a bit of a redemption arc. He commits himself to fight with the rebels and even has faith in Shakespeare and the people around him. Plus, just like his moments with Prince Hal, Falstaff forms a father-son bond with Hamlet in this version, which is really fun to watch. It’s like they took everything bad about Falstaff and metaphorically ‘trimmed the fat.’

Hamlet (AKA The Shadow King in this version), is still brooding over the loss of his father, his murder of Polonius, and his loss of Ophelia. He has once again been thrust into a quest that he’s not sure he can complete- fighting King Richard, finding Shakespeare, and convincing him to help the heroes. That said, he is still capable of warmth, humor, and even romance (no spoilers).

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

William Shakespeare

In Volume 2, Shakespeare is a jaded mentor figure who has retreated to an enchanted forest after failing to protect his creations. His arc is very similar to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, in that he made a major mistake, failed to live up to the impossibly high standards people had for him, and hides away at the bottom of a bottle. He now has to choose whether to take responsibility for his creations or stay hidden away alone. I love this arc, I love the scene where he talks to Hamlet, and I love the way they develop his character.

Critique

It’s a small point, but with the exception of Falstaff and Viola, the comic characters in Shakespeare (at least in Volume 2), don’t have much to do. Feste and Sir Toby Belch appear as traveling players but they barely interact with the tragic leads. I think this was to keep the tone of the novel consistent, but honestly, I do kind of wish they had broken up some of the tragedy with some more comedy.

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Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!

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Grade: 4 Shakespeare globes.

  • Official Website:
  1. www.killshakespeare.com

Heaven and Hell through Shakespeare’s Eyes

Since Easter, and Passover are coming up, (and we are already in the middle of Rhamadan), I thought I’d examine Shakespeare’s depiction of other worlds both celestial and infernal. As the quote above says, philosophers and poets often wonder what greets us in the hereafter, so let me be your guide through Shakespeare’s poetic renderings of heaven and he’ll, accompanied by some gorgeous artwork from HC Selous, William Blake, and others.

The whitewashed images of Shakespeare’s childhood

Fisher, Thomas (1781? -1836), “Chapel of the Trinity at Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire” [1804?]. ART Vol. d58 nos.1, 3.

Shakespeare was no doubt interested in religion. He quotes from and alludes to the Bible many times in his plays. More importantly, he lived in a time when the national religion changed three times in just 4 years! When Henry VIII changed England to a protestant country, the religious identity of England completely changed:

This change was not just felt in monestaries, but in all English churches. King Henry decreed that certain Catholic traditions like Purgatory, indulgences, and praying to saints were idolatrous, and were therefore banned in the Church of England. So, when Shakespeare’s father was called to destroy the “idolatrous” images of the Last Judgement in the Guild Chapel of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, he had no choice but to comply. If you click on the link below, you can see a detailed description of the images that Shakespeare no doubt knew well in his family’s church, until his father was forced to literally whitewash them.

https://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/exhibition/exhibition/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel/object/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel-thomas-fishers-lithograph-of-the-doom-painting

Purgatory and the harrowing of hell

Like the images on the Stratford Guild chapel, the ideas of Catholic England didn’t disappear, they were merely hidden from view. Shakespeare refers to these Catholic ideas many times in his plays, especially in Hamlet, a play where a young scholar, who goes to the same school as Martin Luther, is wrestling with the idea of whether the ghost he has seen is a real ghost from purgatory, or a demon from hell, (as protestant churches preached in Shakespeare’s life).

I’ve written before that the ghost of Hamlet’s father teases us with the possibility that he might be a soul in purgatory, the Catholic afterlife realm for those not evil enough for Hell, nor good enough for Heaven. At the height of their powers, monks and bishops sold prayers called indulgences that supposedly allowed a soul’s loved ones to buy them time out of purgatory, thus making them able to ascend to Heaven quicker. The image above is an illustration from Purgatorio, part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he visits the soul of
Buonconte da Montefeltro, who is languishing because he doesn’t yet have the strength to get out of purgatory and enter Heaven.

Of course, the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I abolished indulgences and proclaimed that purgatory itself didn’t exist, but ideas can’t die, and I feel that Shakespeare was at least inspired by the notion of purgatory, even if he didn’t believe in it himself.

“It Harrows me with fear and wonder.”

(Horatio) Hamlet, Act I, Scene i.

Lucifer and the vice of kings

As a young boy, William Shakespeare was entertained by medieval Mystery plays; amateur theater pieces performed by local artisans that dramatized great stories from the Bible. We know this because he refers to many of the characters in these mystery plays in his own work, especially the villains. King Herod is mentioned in Hamlet and many other plays in and many of Shakespeare’s villains seem to be inspired by the biblical Lucifer, as portrayed in Medieval Mystery Plays.

In this short video of the Yorkshire Mystery play “The Rise and Fall of Lucifer,” we see God (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart), creating Lucifer as a beautiful angel, who then, dissatisfied with his place in God’s kingdom, is transformed into an ugly devil. At first, Lucifer mourns losing his place in Paradise, but then finds comfort by becomming God’s great antagonist.

Compare this character arc with Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester, who also blames his unhappiness on God, (since he feels his disability and deformity are a result of God’s curse). Richard is angry with God, nature, and society, so he wages against them all to become king.

“Then since the heavens hath shaped my body so, let Hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.”

Richard of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.

“All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.”

Lucifer― John Milton, Paradise Lost

Journeys into Hell

ClaudioAy, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!

—Measure For Measure, Act III, Scene i

Inferno: Traitors
José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), Charon’s Boat

“Methought I crossed the meloncholy flood with that grim ferryman the poets write of, into the kingdom of perpetual night.”

— Richard III, Act I, Scene iv.
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! - Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene iii.

Sources:

https://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/exhibition/exhibition/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel/object/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel-thomas-fishers-lithograph-of-the-doom-painting

https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Idolatry:_Icons_and_Iconoclasm



Today in history: End of the American Civil War

Shakespeare and the Civil War are forever linked. All the major players had a connection to the Bard, and some might surprise you:

1. Did you know US Grant played a woman in a Shakespeare play!

US Grant as a US army colonel in the Mexican American War, c. 1846

We rarely see images of the future general and future president without his well-kept beard, but if this apocryphal tale is true, Grant might have grown a beard after he was embarrassed by the reaction of his fellow soldiers during a performance of Othello, where Grant rehearsed the part of Desdemona:

That December, officers decided to stage “Othello.” They looked for someone to play the beautiful Desdemona. Grant was urged to try out for the part. He had a trim figure and almost girlish good looks; his friends called him “Beauty.” Though the costume fit perfectly, the officer playing the Moor couldn’t look at Grant without laughing. They sent to New Orleans for a professional actress to play Desdemona. After that, Grant grew a beard to hide his girlish good looks. He was “Beauty” no more.

Civilwartalk.com

#2. President Lincoln, Shakespearean Gentleman

A copy of Shakespeare’s Plays, c. 1865. In the top-right corner, written in pencil is inscribed “A. Lincoln.”

I’ve talked before about how, to the South, President Lincoln was as big a tyrant as Julius Caesar, and how John Wilkes Booth was determined to cast himself as a real life Brutus

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-american-presidents-and-shakespeare

What you might not know is that Lincoln’s favorite Shakespeare play was Macbeth. I find a more fitting character for the compassionate and eloquent president would be the good King Duncan from Macbeth. According to Whitehousehistory.org. Lincoln quoted some lines about the good king’s death, a few days before his own:

On Sunday, April 9, 1865, with the war over, he was returning to Washington on the River Queen from City Point, Virginia, where he had visited the front, and he talked Shakespeare to his companions, read aloud to them, and recited his favorite passages from memory. He spent most of his time on Macbeth. “The lines after the murder of King Duncan. Lincoln’s companions were struck by the slow, quiet way he read the lines:

“Duncan is in his grave;

After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well,

Treason has done his worst; not steel, nor poison,

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing can touch

him farther.”

When Lincoln finished, he paused for a moment, and then read the lines slowly over again. “I then wondered,” reflected one of his friends, “whether he felt a presentiment of his impending fate.”

Whitehousehistory.org.

If you choose to sign up for my Outschool class: The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar, I compare Antony’s speech, (which essentially started a civil war in Rome), with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I also discuss John Wilkes Booth and his obsession with the character Brutus.

Title image for my Outschool class: “The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar.

#3: Ex Confederates hid out in Shakespeare’s home town!

Ex-Confederate soldiers gathered in Royal Leamington Spa in England, c. 1865.

I was pretty shocked to learn this one, and it took a while before I found a decent amount of evidence to justify reporting on it here, but apparently a few ex confederates fled to England after the war, and took refuge at inns and houses in and around Stratford, including Royal Leamington Spa, which is a town just 12 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

I had scarcely become domesticated before the visits of the Confederates began, & we have now quite a little Southern Society. Mr & Mrs Fry of N. York, & Mrs Leigh reside very near us. Mr & Mrs Westfeldt also; but just now they are absent. Mr & Mrs Dugan, Mr & Mrs & the Misses
Stewart, Mrs Hanna & Miss Reynolds, Mr & Mrs Clements, Mr & Mrs Skinner, Capt Flinn, & various others who are here, off & on, compose the little nest of Confederates in Leamington.

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, US Consul, 1861

England was anti Slavery in the 1860s but they were also partners with the Confederates in the lucrative cotton trade. CSA president Jefferson Davis dispatched a number of ambassadors and negotiators to hopefully gain support from the English to help them fight the US in the Civil War.

Once President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, England politely declined to aid the confederacy militarily, but Davis’ visits opened the door for Confederates in England, and that is why they wound up living in Leamington Spa.

While they were there, some purchased English warships to become part of the Confederate Navy. Some even got married!

Sources:

1. Shakespeare and US Presidents: Whitehouse History.com

2. Civilwartalk.com

3. New York Times: John Wilkes Booth

4. Leamington History: “A Confederate Nest in Leamington.”

Roman Women Week!

Since International Women’s Day is tomorrow, I’m devoting this week to talking about the awesome female characters in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: Titus, Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus

First, here’s my post and an accompanying podcast on Roman women, which includes an analysis of Lavinia, Portia, Valumnia, and Cleopatra:

Here’s a fascinating video about the lives of Roman girls:

And here’s a special section about Cleopatra:

Comedy sketches about Cleopatra from “Horrible Histories” BBC, 2015.
cleopatra facts infographics in 2021 | Cleopatra facts, Ancient history  facts, Cleopatra history
A Lady-Gaga-esque song about Cleopatra from “Horrible Histories,” 2014
Infographic from an article about Cleopatra’s beauty regimen. Source: http://socialdiary.pk/

Othello and toxic masculinity

I apologize for not spending enough time on black history month this February.

 If I do prove her haggard,

Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,

I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,

To pray at fortune. Haply, for I am black

Or for I am declined

Into the vale of years,—yet that’s not much—

She’s gone. I am abused; and my relief

Must be to loathe her.

Othello, Act III, Scene iii.

Psychologists say some men expect the worst of everyone, especially women. I would argue that Othello is an example of a man who has been threatened so often, he expects the worst of everyone, especially his wife, and this is why it’s so easy for Iago to manipulate him.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in 21st century America let alone the trauma of Othello’s life, which was riddled with hardship such as being sold into Slavery, encountering Cannibals, and rising through the ranks of an army that doesn’t quite trust him. But based on the psychology of people who undergo trauma, the text of the play, and some details about Venetian life, I think looking at Othello through the perspective of trauma and toxic masculinity is an illuminating interpretation of the play.

I want to be clear that I am not saying domestic violence is condonable, or that being black has anything to do with abuse. What I am trying to say is that Othello is a play that in my view sheds a light on trauma, PTSD, toxic masculinity, and systemic oppression.

In the book Beyond Anger, psychologist Thomas J. Harbin illustrates just how easily a man can deceive himself with jealousy brought on by his own insecurities.

Angry men often believe that others do not approve of them, or think highly of them so more than likely when you assume you know what another is thinking you will assume that person is thinking negative thoughts about you more garbage yen when you For example and whenever [Othello] notices that his wife is not in a good mood, he asks “What’s wrong with you?” his wife usually says that nothing is wrong but [Othello] assumes that she is not telling the truth, and that she is actually angry with him. He then gets angry because he assumes she is blaming him for something that he didn’t do; the ‘garbage out’ mind reading is also frustrating to those around you friends coworkers and family can see that you are getting angry with them, but they have no idea why.

J. Thomas Harbin, “Beyond Anger,” 2018.

Why might Othello be insecure and angry?

Actor Adrian Lester doesn’t think that the play is about race, but about the trauma of military society and according to Aryanna Thompson of George Washington University, he hoped the audience would see Othello as a soldier, not a black man, when he played the role at the National Theater in 2003, when England and America were engaged in military interventions in Iraq.

Though this interpretation works, I would argue that the exploitation of people of color is very much what the play is about, not just on stage but also in places like the military. “The play’s military context is short-lived, serving mainly as a framework for the intense private wars that follow.  And in this emotional arena, Othello is far less secure.” Maybe Othello’s toxic insecurities come from being seen as disposable by the Venetian upper crust. Like Shylock before him, Othello is an alien in his own country and if he offends anyone, he will be crushed. He is then put in a dangerous situation where the troops have to hurry up and wait for the danger to find them, which is always a recipe for disaster as the clip above shows.

Maybe a lot of black people felt this feeling of cultural disposibility in the 1600s: listen to professor Thompson talk about the way black people were exploited in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era:

If you watched this clip, you might notice that for most of the history of the play, the draw has been seeing white actors ‘rise to the challenge’ of playing a black man. Sadly, Othello the character is not only exploited by characters in his own play,  the role has been exploited as a novelty by theater companies for centuries. My point here is that I see merit to the question of whether or not this play deserves to be performed since from the beginning, it was designed to exploit blackness and the stereotypes of blackness by white actors.


Trauma makes abuse understandable but it doesn’t make it right. The cycle must be broken. Shakespeare’s gift here is to show how toxic masculinity is ultimately self destructive. Plus racial oppression and sexual repression leads everyone into tragedy.