Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been on the air for over 20 years. The show originally aired in 1988 on KTMA TV in Eden Prairie MN. Since then it’s spawned over 13 seasons, (still going strong on Netflix), a huge cult following, and countless parodies in many versions of pop culture.The premise is that three guys watch bad movies and make sarcastic comments about the acting, sets, costumes, etc. The show thrives on meta-commentary, obscure references, and satirizing anything and anyone.
Full circle for the show
Kevin Murphy, one of the show’s creators actually had reservations of even doing the episode, as he is a big Shakespeare fan. This makes sense as I would argue that the very premise of the show lies in Shakespeare, and in particular, Hamlet. As I said in the last paragraph, the show thrives on reference humor, meta-commentary, and satire, and one person who loves that kind of humor is in fact, Shakespeare’s own drama critic- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
In Act III, Scene ii of Hamlet, there is a play within a play, where Hamlet sits back and makes sarcastic comments about how bad the production is:
Hamlet. We shall know by this fellow. The players cannot keep counsel; they’ll tell all. Ophelia. Will he tell us what this show meant?2035 Hamlet. Ay, or any show that you’ll show him. Be not you asham’d to show, he’ll not shame to tell you what it means. Ophelia. You are naught, you are naught! I’ll mark the play. Pro. For us, and for our tragedy, Here stooping to your clemency, We beg your hearing patiently. [Exit.] Hamlet. Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring? Ophelia. ‘Tis brief, my lord. Hamlet. As woman’s love.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii
If Hamlet had two robot companions, he’d essentially be doing an episode of the show!
Begin Murderer! Pox! Leave thy damnable faces and begin!
Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.
So it’s an interesting kind of irony that after 13 years, MST3K finally got around to review the very source of their humor. Not only is Hamlet highly meta and satirical, Many educators, myself included, say that teaching Shakespeare with a healthy dose of irreverence is a good way to draw in new students and get them interested in the play:
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s “Hamlet ” episode reveals a common reaction to Hamlet that often goes unspoken by high school and college students too afraid to sound anti-intellectual. Despite this irreverent tone, however, this unique appropriation of Shakespeare adds to our understanding of a play that today very few read and even fewer see performed. As an author who reveled in making serious, yet sometimes playful, fun at human weakness, I think this respectful irreverence would have delighted the Bard were able to see it.
Dan Mills. “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Shakespeare, and Postmodern Canonization,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 17.2 (2015): 206-227.
3. Divisive episode
This episode is somewhat controversial among the MST3K fandom. While almost everyone agrees it was a good idea for Mike and the bots to do Shakespeare, many fans question the choice to do this Shakespeare. The 1961 film was produced for German TV, and starred Maximillian Schell, (who would later win an Oscar for his performance in “Judgement at Nuremberg).”
First of all, the film is very slow and badly paced with no distinctive production choices. The sets and costumes are generic, (except for the Liberace-looking ghost), and the cinematography is competent but dull. Finally it’s Hamlet; the play that even Mike Nelson called “The greatest work of fiction ever written.” Even with the dreary set, the bad dubbing, and nonexistent pacing, it’s still a good story with magnificent dialogue, and the cast is still pretty good. Perhaps the ultimate backhanded compliment Mike Nelson and company could have handled is that even the worst production of Hamlet is very difficult to riff. Still, when the jokes land, they hit extremely well. Here are some of my favorites:
C’mon, man. We’ve seen like eight ghosts, none of ’em have been even close to my dad. MIKE NELSON
Rap artist, The Notorious K.I.N.G.”
Hamlet: To die: to sleep. Crow: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing right now, Bub.
Hamlet: TO BE OR NOT TO BE…. and lose the name of action.
Mike: So I’m a chicken for not stabbing myself—that’s all you needed to say!
[Having stabbed an intruder behind Gertrude’s tapestry, Hamlet discovers it is not the King, but Polonius.] Hamlet: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool! Crow [as Polonius]: Oh, right, it’s my fault you killed me.
On the one hand, it’s great to watch the MST3K guys look at a piece of classic theater, especially since the show owes a lot to Shakespeare. That said, they never acknowledge this, not even during the play within a play scene. In addition, the critics are right that the film is so dreary it’s hard to make fun of. I would love to see how the bots and Mike riff on Branaugh or Gibson! Finally, maybe part of the problem was that Hamlet has already been riffed and mocked before. As the clip above from The Reduced Shakespeare Company shows, gently ribbing on the plot and characters of Hamlet has been done before. Once something becomes famous as the best or the worst, it becomes a target for mockery. I was hoping that my favorite riffers would have more fun riffing on the play that helped create their art form. That said, this show is a classic comedy series, and this episode always makes me smile.
It’s hard for me to be objective about this film. I watched it when I was 16, and it started my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare. For the vast majority of people, I feel this movie will not appeal- it’s Shakespeare, it’s set in the past, and it’s FOUR HOURS LONG! That said, I ADORE this movie, and I probably always will.
There is a long tradition of actors directing and starring in Hamlet from Irving to Garrick to Olivier and Guilgud. It’s very much an actor’s play and since the lead part also orchestrates much of the action, it’s understandable that he or she would also want to direct.
Once Kenneth Branaugh started filming this film, he had already played the part onstage and as a radio play. Branaugh’s director, Derek Jacobi, was himself a celebrated and acclaimed Hamlet of the 1970s, and Branaugh would later cast him as Claudius in the film. So, once he approached making the film, Branaugh had lots of experience behind him.
Much like Antony Sher, Branaugh was aware that any film he made, would probably be compared to Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film. Sir Laurence’s film was dark, gothic, focused on dark, Freudian psychological disorders, and was mostly a star vehicle for Olivier himself.
Branaugh’s concept was to do an inverse of Olivier- his castle Elsinore is bright, more modern, set in a sort of Napoleonic era, with cannons, muskets, and soldiers with mutton chops. While Oliver’s film was a contemplative look at the protagonist’s mind, Branaugh’s film focuses on intrigue and court drama. One of my favorite features of the film is Branaugh’s use of a hall of doors that contain two-way mirrors. In this castle, you never know who’s watching you.
While most of the castle was shot at Shepperdon Studious in England, Branaugh filmed most of the exterior shots at Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough, and Sir Winston Churchill:
Unlike every other Shakespeare movie, Branaugh chose not to cut a single line of Hamlet, which is why his version is four hours long. He chose to use the text of the second Quarto of 1603, the longest edition of the play.
I am deeply conflicted about this choice. On the one hand, the long run time makes it nearly impossible to show the whole movie in a classroom or a theater. On the other time, like Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, what Branaugh has done is created an epic full of lush settings, gorgeous music, and incredible performances that will at least always be remembered as an incredible artistic achievement.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest part and has 40% of the dialogue, which means Branaugh has the majority of the screen time. Yet, Branaugh isn’t the biggest star in the film. His casting choices emphasize the notion that, since anyone can enjoy Shakespeare, anyone can perform it too. With only two exceptions, I love every performance in the film. Here are some of my favorites:
Nicholas Farell as Horatio
Horatio is a rather thankless part, since mostly what he does is give Hamlet someone to talk to. In one production I saw, they did away with the part entirely and made the audience Horatio. That said, Farell does a beautiful job portraying Horatio’s patience, boundless empathy, and his slow discovery of these “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.” Just watch how heartbroken he is as he watches Hamlet slowly die:
Brian Blessed As “The Ghost”
As I said in my review of “Henry V,” Branaugh usually assigns the core of his cast to his Renaissance Acting Troupe. Accordingly, Branagh cast Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Brian already is a physically imposing man (he’s actually climbed Mount Everest), and we see through flashbacks that when he was alive, the former king was a powerful, warlike ruler, yet tender to his wife and son.
As the ghost, however, Blessed seems shaken to his core, which might be due to the pain he suffered as a result of the murder, or (as I mentioned in my Shakespeare On Ghosts Post), he might also suffer in the afterlife because Claudius killed him while he was sleeping. Seeing such a powerful man worn to a whisper and full of pain and fear, is a great way to spur Hamlet to his revenge.
Charlton Heston as the player king
When the company of players arrive in the middle of Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet is filled with joy and treats the Player King like an old friend and surrogate father. I’ve seen productions where the same actor plays the Ghost and the Player King, which helps drive this point home.
In the play, the Player King inspires Hamlet with a passionate speech. Hamlet muses how, while the Player is able to conjure emotion and tears when talking about the fictional Queen Hecuba, Hamlet has done nothing yet to revenge the Ghost. Then, thinking about the Player’s performance gives Hamlet the idea to stage a play-within-a-play, to test whether or not Claudius is guilty:
About, my brain! Hum, I have heard That guilty creatures, sitting at a play, Have by the very cunning of the scene1665 Been struck so to the soul that presently They have proclaim'd their malefactions; For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ, I'll have these Players Play something like the murther of my father1670 Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks; I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench, I know my course. Act II, Scene ii, lines 1663-1674
With all this in mind, The Player King is very important to Hamlet’s journey and Heston’s mighty delivery is inspiring and full of passion.
Robin Williams as Osric
It seems like an insane idea; cast a stand-up comedian in a Shakespeare movie? Yet, in fact, the late Robin Williams was a classically-trained actor and studied at New York’s Julliard academy, so he must have done Shakespeare in the past.
Branaugh clearly loved working with Williams. Not only did he keep all of Osric’s lines (like all the other lines in the play), Branaugh gave Williams more to do, making him basically a second Horatio who cares for Laertes in the final act of the play.
Usually Osric is played as a classist-joke. He’s a sychophant, a social climber who, because he wasn’t born a noble, the nobles treat him as a suck-up and a fool. Williams gives Osric much more warmth and depth, in addition to his manic charm. Branaugh even gives him a tragic death, to make him stand out even more!
Kate Winslet as Ophelia
I summarize Ms. Winslet’s performance in one word: Heartbreaking. In Oliver’s version, she seems like an airhead, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the part as sort of a rebellious teenager. Winslet’s performance is just as if not even more tragic than Branaugh’s and it is truly heartbreaking to see her journey.
In the 1990 stage production of Hamlet, Jacobi decided to turn “To Be Or Not To Be” from a soliloquy into a speech that Hamlet says to Ophelia, which then plants into her mind the ideas of madness and suicide that she herself follows to their tragic conclusion. In Branaugh’s film, it seems very clear that he gave Winslet that same direction, (even though the speech is filmed like a soliloquy). Before “To Be” and the subsequent “Get Thee to A Nunnery” scene, Winslet’s Ophelia is happy, sweet, obedient to the men in her life, but still her own person. We see in flashbacks her sneaking off to be with Hamlet and she seems to enjoy her secret romance. Probably Branaugh pulled some ideas from her role in Titanic too. But Polonius and Laertes shut her down at every turn and keep her from being with Hamlet. Winslet shows beautifully Ophelia’s struggle to be an obedient daughter and Hamlet’s girlfriend.
In the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene,” it’s not clear whether Hamlet knows he’s being watched (at first), so when he speaks to her gently, he might be trying to get her to leave to protect her. But once Polonius audibly closes a door, Hamlet is full of mysogynistic fury. Again, he might be playing mad in order to deceive Claudius and Polonius, or he might be genuinely mad at Ophelia for going along with this attempt to spy on him, but in any case, It certainly breaks her heart, and Winslet plays that heartbreak with a great deal of skill and passion.
Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger
Again, it seems bizarre to cast an American comedian as a Shakespearean character, but Crystal did a great job making this 400 year old comic bit seem like he wrote it himself! Plus, Crystal listens very quietly and attentively during the “Alas Poor Yorrick” speech, and doesn’t pull focus.
Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet
Even though this was a four-hour Shakespeare movie of a play I had not yet read, at 16 I was hooked by Branaugh’s performance. Like Olivier before him, Branaugh knows Shakespeare’s reputation as being boring and out-of-touch, so his film is full of violence, sex, and manic energy. This also comes across in his own performance. Branaugh lost weight and dyed his hair to appear younger and attractive (since he knows Hamlet is supposed to be just out of college). He fills the mad scenes with a dark and silly sense of humor, and he plays the angst of Hamlet in Act One very much like a grieving teenager, lashing out at his stepfather and his mother.
That said, Branaugh is also capable of great depth and gravitas in the soliloquies. I particularly love his delivery of “How All Occasions Do Inform Against Me…” soliloquy in Act IV.
The long tracking shot makes it look like Hamlet is expanding his worldview as he contemplates his role in the play, after failing to avenge his father’s death. It’s almost like this young man is growing up in the course of the movie; from a confused and angsty little rich kid, to a man who would make a good king if his life wasn’t tragically cut short.
For a more sober audience, Branaugh’s energy could probably be seen as annoying and lacking subtlety, but for 16 year old me- I ate it right up.
Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be Or Not To Be.” Every actor who takes on Hamlet frets over the problem of how to make this speech engaging and fresh. Fortunately, Branaugh did a great job of staging and delivering this speech for the screen. He uses the two-way mirrors brilliantly creating an atmosphere of suspense where Claudius and Polonius are watching this speech, but it’s not quite clear whether Hamlet knows they’re there. His delivery is hushed but intense. It seems like he’s trying to unnerve Claudius without letting him know Hamlet plans to murder him. Everything from the performance, to the filming, to the setting is iconic, and no matter what people think of the film, this version of the speech should be remembered as an achievement in and of itself.
2. Kate Winslet In “The Mad Scene” Just as “To Be Or Not To Be” is the test for any Hamlet, Ophelia’s greatest challenge is the Mad Scene, Act IV, Scene v. After her brother leaves, and her boyfriend is banished for murdering her father, Ophelia has nothing left to lose, except her mind. Many actresses play the mad scene as a chance for Ophelia to let loose, and explode with all the pent-up emotions she’s been repressing- rage, sexual desire, grief, etc. Winslet plays all of them and is very distinct when and why they hit. She refuses to let the men in the court touch her, except for Laertes, and seems disgusted by Claudius. With her brother, she seems to regress into a childlike state, pretending to hold flowers to give to him. The only lucid moment she has is when she quotes songs (simmilar to the Fool in King Lear), where she expresses sorrow that Hamlet abandoned her, grief for her father, and a nihilistic sadness that her life no longer matters, much like the frustration Hamlet expresses in “To Be Or Not to Be.”
3. All of Act II, Scene ii. I found myself rewatching this scene, the longest scene in the play. It’s the scene where Polonius claims Hamlet is mad for Ophelia’s love, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy on Hamlet, the Player King delivers his aforementioned speech, and Hamlet has his “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy.
Every performance is fast-paced and entertaining. Even Don Warrington, as the often-cut character of Voltimand, who only gives one long speech about how Fortinbras is totally NOT GOING TO INVADE DENMARK, captivated my ear with his beautiful voice. The drama keeps coming as new characters keep coming in and interacting with Hamlet, and his mood changes drastically throughout the scene; he’s silly and condescending to Polonius, jovial to the players, guarded and brooding to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and tortured and full of grief and remorse once he’s finally alone.
Branaugh actually starts the soliloquy with Hamlet taking a series of huge, heaving breaths as if performing for all of these people is truly exhausting. It’s almost like a movie within a movie, and everyone is wonderful in it.
4. The Duel As I detailed in my post on the duel at the end of Hamlet, there are three separate bouts which each have a different feeling- ranging from a sporting fencing match to a deadly blood combat. Branaugh shows the character shift of the duel incredibly well, with his use of music, choreography, and costume. First, the combatants meet before the king, dressed in their white fencing uniforms. Their fight is quick and agressive, but not yet tense or lethal. Then, once Gertrude takes the poisoned cup, the action stops. Claudius is frozen and his voice is only a whisper. Laertes starts to ramp up the tension as he prepares to really attack Hamlet, which he does by slashing his uncovered shoulder!
From this moment in the duel, all Hell brakes loose. Branaugh chases Michael Maloney all around the castle, not stopping until he grabs Laertes’ sword. Meanwhile, Osric shouts for help as Gertrude is dying near the throne. A string quartet ramps the music up up to a wild, whilrling low-pitched tremulo, with the violins playing pizzicato on top. Plucking their strings like the lethal poison that plucks all the characters’ lives.
Even though this film is long, I adore every scene. Branaugh’s boundless energy and endless love of Shakespeare translate through his direction and performance. At the same time, he lets the other actors shine and takes to heart the lessons of Olivier, Gielgud, Jakobi, and others to create a Hamlet that is epic in scale, beautiful to the eye, and timeless in its handling of the material. Clearly, Branaugh wanted this film to be his masterpiece, and whether you like it or not, it certainly is that.
My advice is If you choose to watch it yourself, read a summary of the play first, then watch the film. Also, take some breaks in between the scenes and watch it in chunks. I actually taped it off of live TV so I could watch it in segments.
If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for my Outschool Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I also have a class on Shakespeare’s writing where I analyze “To Be Or Not to Be:”
I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story.
Since the prequel series “House Of The Dragons” premieres today, I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!
Part I: Story
Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:
Shakespeare’s three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.
Part II: Themes
Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.
The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.
King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.
The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Lear’s friend the Duke Of Gloucester, places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.
King Lear mourns Cordelia’s death by
James Barry, c. 1786.
No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. https://youtu.be/7acLWsal1FU
In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.
Part III: Characters
Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.
Ned Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II
Duke Humphrey is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Ned is Lord of Winterfell, a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age.
Portrait of the historical Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester from the National Portrait Gallery, artist unknown.
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.
Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.
Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.
King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, the real people whom Shakespeare adapted into the character of Emperor Saturnine in his play Titus Andronicus.
When we first meet Saturnine, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, (who helped him win a war and win his crown), just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.
King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.
◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.
Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.
Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard.
In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.
He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet , he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.
-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513
There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London. Below is a picture of the famous Wilton Diptych, (Richard the Second’s private alter piece), which depicts the king and all the angels in heaven wearing a badge with a white stag on it.
LittleFinger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from Pericles, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life governments, he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.
Jon Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.
◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:
He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”
◦ Shakespeare wrote several characters born out of wedlock such as Phillip Falconbridge in King John, and Edmund from King Lear.
Unlike Jon Snow, Edmund in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:
Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.
Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.
🦁 Tyrian Lannister –
Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004.
In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.
◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.
◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.
◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books
Both characters are, ahem, fond of drink. Falstaff even has a beer named after him:
◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble knight who was foolish enough to wear armor while crossing a river on a raft.
“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.
My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.
🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth
Just as her son Joffrey has the arrogance and sadistic cruelty of a Roman emperor, Circe is a mirror image of the cruel empress Tamara, Queen Of Goths in Titus Andronicus. Both women are attracted to power and motivated by revenge. Tamara wants revenge against General Titus, who executed her son in the war. After seducing and marrying the emperor, she uses her influence to execute two of Titus’ sons. She then uses her lover Aaron the Moor (with Whom she secretly has a child), to concoct a plot to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter. And if that weren’t enough, she tries to drive him mad by appearing at his home dressed as the Roman goddess Revenge. In short, Tamara is a classic femme fatale, who raises above the social oppression of her sex by seducing powerful men, and stabbing them in the back.
Circe is also a femme fatale, though Martin gives her more time to explain her motivations than Shakespeare gives Tamara. Like the Queen Of Goths, Circe marries King Robert Baratheon, while secretly having a taboo affair, this time with her brother Jamie. The difference is that Circe kills not strictly for vengeance, but mainly to conceal the fact that her son Joffrey is actually the product of her incest in order to protect him and eventually make him king. This is why Circe kills Ned Stark, Jon Aron, and consents to the murder of all or Robert Baratheon’s true born sons.
Circe does desire revenge, but not against anyone in particular. Instead, she wants to repay the patriarchy that keeps her down simply because she is a woman. Quote about Circe when she talks about how jealous she is of Jamie. In that chapter we get a great sense of who Circe really is. Because she’s a twin, she compares herself to her brother, observing how Jamie was given on her glory and respect when he became a knight and a member of the King’s Guard, while she was sold off to king Robert at the age of twelve like a slave or a common whore. Why, Circe asks, if she looks so much like him and acts so much like him, is she treated so differently just because she’s a woman? In a perverse sort of way, her incest might be a misguided attempt to claim part of Jamie’s honor and power through sexual conquest. Both Tamara and Circe show how an oppressive patriarchy can plant truly destructive thorns in the hearts of women, and these two queens reap that bitter harvest by cutting down the men in power one by one.
like camera Circe is driven by her love for her children and her desire and her pride and desire for vengeance. She spends the first half of the place seducing the emperor to gain his favor and then when she is made empress she uses her power to systematically destroy Titus and his family. Similarly, Circe marries king Robert and then when he dies she makes her son she then kills Ned Stark guy in prisons his daughter tries to kill the second of and
Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺
◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.
🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline
◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.
🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!
◦ Crafty and beautiful
◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection
◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.
Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.
In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:
“This is a wedding too.”
The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”
This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me: now no more The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip: Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself To praise my noble act; I hear him mock The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come: Now to that name my courage prove my title! I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall? If thou and nature can so gently part, The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still? If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.
Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.
After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!
There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of
Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:
I just got back from Las Vegas where I had a simulating, terrifying, and extremely engaging trip to the Meow Wolf Area 15! If you haven’t heard of them, Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment group which specializes in creating multimedia experiences, and their most popular and mysterious installation is their apocalyptic grocery store, Omega Mart.
Even if you’ve never been to Omega Mart, you might have seen their website, their ’employee training videos’, or the music videos that have been floating around the Internet. My journey began when I saw this video by the YouTube channel Food Theory. After seeing this video, I, like Matt Pat was compelled to go there myself and discover what Omega Mart was like.
“We take a lot from open world games [where] you can play the story lines or you can just mess around. We like giving people that optionality (sic). If you’re a 5 year old kid and you aren’t into reading a bunch of material, you just want to run around and treat it like a playground, and that’s totally fine.”
Vince Cadleback, CEO of Meow Wolf
A Note about the experience
Meow Wolf’s CEO has stated that the experience of Omega Mart is ultimately up to you. Similar to Sleep No More, this art installation (and it is an art installation) is much like an experiential theater experience in that there is no proscenium, and you do not sit down; it is not a passive watching experience but an active mystery. In Sleep No More, you followed various actors and watched them act out scenes in front of you. In Omega Mart, the story is more epistulary, meaning that there are no live performances, but you can unlock the story at your own pace through reading journal entries, corporate memos and websites, mini-games, and of course, actors performing in corporate videos, commercials, and even security footage. Like a modern video game, you can just walk around the open world and enjoy it, or you can unlock all the lore and piece together the mystery of Omega Mart yourself. This is story a story that is rife with greed, personal tragedy, family drama and maybe even murder. So of course my Shakespeare brain activated, and I wanted to see if I could find some Shakespearian tropes in the story of Omega Mart. I should mention that this kind of experience is often best when you let it become a surprise, so if you truly want to experience Omega Mart without spoilers, stop reading….
STOP RIGHT NOWSTOP RIGHT NOWSTOP RIGHT NOWSTOP RIGHT NOWSTOP RIGHT NOWSTOP RIGHT NOWSTOP RIGHT NOW RIGHT RiGHT St0p R$GHT N00000W!
OK well if you’ve continued reading grab your tattoo chicken, apply your whale song deodorant and let’s get going!
The drama of Omega Mart focuses on a single family, the Dram family: Walter, Charlie, Cecilia and Marin Dram. As you go through the various exibits in the Meow Wolf installation (not just the OmegaMart store), you begin to piece together what happened to them, how this family broke apart, and what Shakespearian tropes can we see within this story.
Charlie Dram: Sir John Falstaff The whole story begins with Charlie Dram; an old garage attendant who lives in the fictional town of Seven Monolith Villiage in Nevada. As you can see in the brochure I photographed above, Charlie runs a small tourist attraction where he guides tours allowing people to see The Forked Earth- a dimensional rift between our world and an alien planet, that is also the fount of a powerful and dangerous place called The Source Well. At some point, Charlie goes into business with his family, who eventually cut him out of their lives.
Henry V. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester! For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, That I have turn’d away my former self; So will I those that kept me company.
King Henry IV, Part II, Act V, Scene 5.
2. Walter Dram: King Lear. This being America of course it was inevitable that somebody would try to capitalize on the Source Well, specifically Walter dram Charlie's brother Walter. Mr. Dram, the CEO of Dramcorp found a way to harness the source and use it it's not explicitly stated but it's highly implied that he took the source to a place called plenty Valley and started using it to revitalize crops out in the Las Vegas desert. After harnessing The Source, Walter found that he was able to create produce that had unusual properties updates and creep and from there he opened his grocery store omega mart If you go to a megamart the product seem just a little off they all seem to have peculiar names seem to have peculiar properties and in some extreme cases they seem to have inhuman properties like like lemons that are alive! Charlie calls these creatures "mascots;" creatures that have that seem to be living cereal boxes. The source seems to have unpredictable and uncontrollable effects on effects on on natural products but because every Omegamart produce is doused with Additive S (which is Walter's addictive additive made from The Source), customers don't seem to care if they become addicted to any products that are laced with The Source. Walter finds himself extremely a rich and successful and opens up his corporation Dram Corp in 1977. Decades later in 2020, Walter and promises to make his daughter Cecilia Dram his sucessor when he retires yet he retires, but at some point he must have reneged on that promise and then mysteriously promising Kaz Matzumora the position of CEO. What happened toacilitate the fallout between Walter and Cecilia, we're not sure But it's quite possible that it has something to do with Cecilia's daughter Marin.
Better that thou hast not been born, then not to have pleased me better.
So we have a rich and successful man, who, now that he’s getting old, desires to pass his empire on to younger people, including his daughter. At the same time, he refuses to let go of power, and is willing to throw family under the bus to get his way, as he did with Charlie, and would have done with Marin, (more on that later). Let’s just say, it is very easy to spot the parallels between Walter Dram, and King Lear. Look at this video below where Walter seems to repent for his greed and abandoning his family, though it takes place in an ethereal prison.
Lear. Pray, do not mock me. I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant What place this is; and all the skill I have Remembers not these garments; nor I know not Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me; For (as I am a man) I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.
King Lear Act IV, Scene vii.
When I watched the Film Theory about Omega Mart, I thought Walter was like King Duncan in Macbeth, and his daughter Cecelia was Lady Macbeth, killing Walter to gain his power. The truth though, is much more complicated, and it centers around Walter’s granddaughter, Marin.
2. Marin Dram: Cordelia from King Lear, Miranda from The Tempest
if you look at the videos in Charlie’s office you can see Cecilia Dram (Walter’s daughter), drinking the Source. Within a minute she starts having cramps, and convulsions; she has been literally impregnated by the Source! Her daughter Marin was conceived by Cecilia Dram and the Source. But, there’s a catch; Marin, because she was created from the Source, cannot be too far from the Source Well. So, rather than living with her her mother and grandfather at Dramcorp, she’s forced to live in a yurt in Seven Monolith Village, very close to the Source Well.
Marin’s diary expresses a deep sense of loneliness and a desire to explore the world, not unlike Prospero’s daughter Miranda in The Tempest. She also expresses romantic feelings for Rose, a girl who lives in Seven Monolith, (who according to Charlie, is the granddaughter of a woman who successfully translated the language of the aliens who created the Source Well). The wonderful music video “Marin’s dream” playing below, shows cogent references to Marin having bisexual feelings for Rose and fear towards her mother. This is partly because, since Marin is connected to the Source and her family has been exploiting The Source for profit, she is fearful that her mother will exploit her for her Source-given powers .
We are such suff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep
Prospero- The Tempest
It is further revealed that Marin is capable of creating living creatures with her own mind because of her connection to the Source. Below is a drawing by Marin of a hampster These powers make her highly desirable to both of Cecilia and Walter. As Charlie mentions in the brochure, there are living product creatures called mascots and it seems likely that Marin is literally creating these creatures in her sleep!
At the end of the music video you can see Marin going through a portal in the wall. In Seven Monolith you can access numerous posters, emails, and phone calls that discuss and speculate about Marin’s disappearance. Some say she ran away from home, some say she was violently sucked into the portal, but the music video makes it very clear that Marin Dram chose to leave Seven Monolith Villiage, and to leave our universe as we know it. Why? It probably has to do with her mother, Cecilia Dram.
Cecelia Dram: Goneril and prosperO
Like I said before, I was expecting Cecelia to be the villain in the story- a power-hungry “thankless child,” (as King Lear puts it), who murdered her own father to take control of his empire. Now it’s possible that she did want to take the company at some point, but what also seems clear is that Cecelia is also seeking redemption for herself, and a reunion for her family.
Cecelia and Walter’s Disappearance
In a highly classified video that you can only access in the Dram Corp offices, Walter and Cecilia confront each other about Marin, and Walter seems to be intent on exploiting her gifts for profit. At this point, the video cuts out, but the audio tells us that Walter has fallen into the Source Well. It’s unclear whether he fell or if Cecilia or Marin pushed him, but what we do know is that Walter in every subsequent and email and communication with the board is referred to as “traveling.” When I first saw this, I thought that it meant that Cecilia had murdered Walter simply to gain control of the company, but it seems to be wilder than that; it seems that Cecilia might have thrown Walter into the source well to protect her daughter, but now wishes to get him back.
Once Walter falls into the Source Well, he actually absorbed so much Source that he no longer has a physical form; he seems to have ascended to a higher plane of existence and as you can see in this whiteboard, there’s a rumor that he is actually hiding somewhere in the Omega Mart facility. I won’t give away where he actually is though; you’ll have to discover it yourself.
Cecilia’s motives are the most interesting and ambiguous in the course of the Omegamart storyline. Her demeanor changes drastically after the disappearance of her father and daughter; it seems that she is trying to harness the power of the source not for profit but for but to cause her employees to “Ascend to a higher plan of existence.” Other members of the board in teleconferences seem frustrated with her, accusing her of no longer taking an interest in selling products anymore and that she seems to be coming down with strange cult-like behavior. Look at this highly confusing LED talk she gave one month after Walter’s disappearance:
So it’s ambiguous what Cecilia’s motives are- it could be that she’s attempting to create an army of Source-addicted zombies to do her bidding. It’s also possible that she is trying to figure out how to replicate the same experience as Walter and Marin. Maybe she wants to try and replicate what happened to them, so she can see them again.
Further evidence also supports that Cecelia is desperate to contact Marin and Walter by the fact that in addition to working on LAT, (her employee advancement program), Cecilia is also pushing her research team to create inter-dimensional portals. The clip above in which Cecilia talks to her DART scientists strongly implies what Cecilia really wants to do is to find her daughter in whatever dimension that she’s actually in. Notice that when the test subject mentions a teenage girl he sees in his dreams, Cecelia immediately drops everything to talk to him. Soon after that, DART starts working on DRAMNILATE, a technology that allows researchers to look inside people’s dreams, and test them on the exact same employee as before. Clearly Cecelia is hellbent on finding Marin anywhere, even in dreams!
Through the entire Omegamart storyline, it is ambiguous as to whether Cecilia is the hero or the villain. Her quest to find her family is noble, but she is hiding behind a mask of unbridled capitalism and exploiting a company that creates an addictive substance to do it. It seems almost Faustian that Cecelia has made a deal with the Devil to try and get her family back.
Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done. No harm.
I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art…
The Tempest , Act I, Scene ii.
So what does this have to do with Shakespeare? When I saw how Cecelia was protecting Marin I saw a king Lear trope; a greedy cruel old man who places his kingdom ahead of even his own family. Lear’s daughter Goneril lies to him and rejects him, but she does so to protect herself. Cecelia is alike a Goneril who protects Cordelia, the youngest and most innocent of Lear’s daughters, while Marin is like Cordelia herself.
This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou takest from me! When thou camest first, I loved thee And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle, Cursed be I that did so! All the charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! For I am all the subjects that you have, Which first was mine own king!
Caliban, Act I Scene ii.
Looking at the totality of the Omegamart story, there are several connections to the Tempest Calliban the creature that lives on Prospero’s island bears striking similarities to the Zenions. He is described as being man and fish, much like the Zenions. Further, Caliban is not a native inhabitant of the island; he was brought over by the witch Sycorax and Prospero exploited him after Sycorax died, much like how the Dram family, especially Walter, exploited The Zenion’s magical Source.
In both cases, the Prospero character has both noble and ingnoble goals- Prospero wants to get himself and his daughter home, but also to revenge his exile to the island. Walter and Cecilia seem like Prospero split in two: there is a light side that wishes to defend Marin and see her safely home,and the dark side that wishes to exploit The Source and addict unwitting consumers.
I won’t give away how the story of omegamart ends but let’s just say that Walter gets across the notion that he has repented for his greed, and wishes to free the Source from the factory, much like how Prospero frees Ariel at the end of The Tempest. In both cases, YOU are the necessary person to help free Walter. Both Walter and the Meow Wolf team have hinted that there are new areas of Omega Mart that guests haven’t unlocked yet. Perhaps you will be the one to unlock the secret to free Walter, and the Source!
Prospero. Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint: Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.
Prospero. Act V, Scene i
Thanks for reading this post. If you enjoyed reading it, leave a comment below. Please also relate any Omega Mart stories you had at Area 15!
Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight With hearts more proof than shields
Coriolanus, Act 1, Scene iv.
Shakespeare uses the word “shield” over 30 times, often as a verb meaning ‘to protect.’ However, there are a few very important references to this ancient tool of defense, and constructing one can teach you a lot about the history of a culture, and that culture’s methods of waging war.
A Brief History of Shields
The seven-fold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart
Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 14.
As the quote above from Antony and Cleopatra mentions, the shield has been around since the dawn of history, certainly since Roman times. The Romans prized their large shields called scuta, which they used in defensive formations as the soldiers crashed through their enemies’ defenses.
In medieval times, Anglo Saxons and Vikings used new and more sophisticated shield formations in some of the most important battles in early British history. This included the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ended the Anglo-Saxon era when the English abandoned the protection of their shield wall to chase the Norman invaders, who then annihilated their forces and proclaimed their leader William of Normandy, conqueror of all England.
In this excellent video, historian and fight choreographer Mike Loads traces the history of medieval shields and shows step-by-step how to make an authentic Anglo-Saxon shield!
[Enter SAMPSON and GREGORY, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and buckles]
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins with servants armed with swords and small shields called bucklers. These shields were designed to be used in single combat (duels) and were very light and agile. According to Mike Loads, young men would wear their swords and bucklers on their hips and make a loud racket as they walked through the streets. The shield proclaimed that they were armed and dangerous. This macho swaggering is the origin of the term “swashbuckling,” which is probably how these servants see themselves since they spend the first scene of the play trying to pick a fight.
What Is heraldry?
Just as the sound of a buckler announced to the world that a young man was armed and ready to fight, the design on a nobleman’s shield announced his status, his house, and his family motto. The popular historical consensus is that once the medieval knight arrived on the battlefield, they started using their shields and tabards as a colorful display; one that made it clear that they were noble. In war, a knight or other nobleman could collect a hefty ransom if they captured another knight alive, so if you belonged to a rich noble house, your brightly decorated shield could save your life on a battlefield in more ways than one.
Each heraldric design would be registered in the College Of Arms, and many of them are still on record today. In Shakespeare’s Pericles, a group of knights presents their shields to King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa right before a joust and she reads their mottos. The shields are like the knight’s ID tags and help the princess know whom to award the prize money once the jousting is over:
Simonides. Are the knights ready to begin the triumph?
First Lord. They are, my liege;
And stay your coming to present themselves.
Simonides. Return them, we are ready; and our daughter,
In honour of whose birth these triumphs are,
[To Thaisa] 'Tis now your honour, daughter, to explain
The labour of each knight in his device.
Thaisa. Which, to preserve mine honour, I'll perform.
[Enter a Knight; he passes over, and his Squire]
presents his shield to the Princess]
Simonides. Who is the first that doth prefer himself?
Thaisa. A knight of Sparta, my renowned father;
And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiope reaching at the sun
The word, 'Lux tua vita mihi.'
Simonides. He loves you well that holds his life of you. Pericles, Act II, Scene ii.
How to make your own shield!
Since shields are an important part of Shakespeare’s plays, here’s how you can make a shield activity at home or in the classroom.
Making the basic shape
If you want to make a buckler, you need a round surface a little bigger than a dinner plate. You should be able to hold it and move it like an extension of your fist. If you want to make a basic 14th-century type shield like the ones I have below, cut out the familiar, ‘state of Ohio’ shape below. I made mine about 11 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I used cardboard but you can also use paper or wood or metal if you have real craftsperson talent.
Choosing a color and design
I got a lot of good information on how people chose designs for their shields by visiting English Herritage.org’s Guide to Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry. The website has a lovely catalog of the colors and designs real knights and barons and lords used to make their shields/ coats of arms stand out. You can choose a simple background with a plant, animal, etc. in the foreground, or you can divide the shield into a cross, a diagonal line called a Fess, or into a triangle called a chevron.
The Personal Touch
You need not be constrained by historical precedent in coming up with your shield. Like any canvas, the only limits on your shield design are your imagination. Check out these designs I made with my kids!
Most mottos are single lines of text (usually in Latin), that illustrate what is important to the house that sports it. For example, Richard II’s motto was: “loyalté me lie,” (“Loyalty binds me.”). You could come up with a simple motto and Google Translate it into Latin or French, etc.
Now that you have your shield, with its own unique motto and design, it can be a useful tool to explain how people saw themselves in Shakespeare’s day. Nowadays we mainly see ourselves as individuals, but this kind of heraldry illustrates how knights, nobles and servants saw themselves mainly as part of a house, with its own values, its own traditions, and sometimes an us vs. them mentality against other houses.
This kind of household mentality is of course, at the core of Romeo and Juliet and the Wars of the Roses cycle of plays, and Shakespeare uses heraldry to illustrate this mentality. Look how the knights in the tournament scene from the 2013 film are dressed in their houses’ colors and the nobles and servants are also wearing those same colors:
Like sports fans who wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, shields and heraldry proclaim the allegiance of the servants and nobles who belong to powerful houses/ kingdoms. This kind of emblem can help students understand a piece of medieval and renaisance history, and how that history shapes our own mentalities today.