How Game Of Thrones is like a Shakespearean Play

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.

https://m.imdb.com/video/vi1149616665/?playlistId=tt11198334?ref_=ext_shr_lnk

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

game-of-thrones

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.

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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.

Joffrey

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.

Baratheon Stag

King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.

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◦ 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.

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P. 53

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 [1], 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.

wilton diptych

I’m not actually the first person to mention this connection between Robert Baratheon and Edward IV. In the British newspaper, The Guardian, the author compares several characters from Game Of Thrones, to historical English events: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/0/game-of-thrones-vs-history-which-real-characters-and-events-insp/robert-baratheon-and-edward-iv/

littlefinger

Little Finger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from 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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Tyrion

◦ 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.

FALSTAFF

‘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

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Circe

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

Catelyn-

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Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺

◦ Pious

◦ 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.

Spoiler Alert

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.

CLEOPATRA

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:

http://philwillmott.org/play-of-thrones-shakespeare-that-inspired-game-of-thrones.html

In conclusion, these two works prove that Shakespeare has a timeless appeal that has inspired countless writers to adapt his stories and characters.

The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy and Conspiracy Theories

“There is a tendency for us to view Shakespeare as this unquestionable monolithic genius. But there is also in us all that iconoclast that wants to tear him off his pillar or plinth.”

Dr. Katrina Marchant

There are few things that will drive a Shaespeaeran scholar more skull-shatteringly livid than when someone asks them if Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. There are dozens of YouTube rants, bile-dripping academic papers, tinfoil-hat Tweets, and of course, centuries of anti-academic book bashing and counter-bashing research on the subject. So I won’t try to settle this debate, but I think the debate itself is worth looking at.

The authorship controversy is essentially a conspiracy theory- Was some unknown writer sending scripts to Shakespeare’s company and using the actor from Stratford as a patsy, or a pen name? Is there a massive cover-up to disguise the author of the most celebrated works in the English language? If so, why? How? and what else are they hiding?

The Malleus Malefecarum, “The Witch’s Hammer,” a 15th century book that posits that there is a vast conspiracy of witches living among us.

Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years is that it’s extremely rare to change anyone’s mind about any kind of conspiracy theory, and there are hundreds! Ancient Aliens, Bill Gates, Covid vaccine microchips, Elvis isn’t dead, The Illuminati, Kennedy Assassination, Pizzagate, Q-Anon, Trump’s Russia connections, the list goes on. Several recent studies show that the majority of Americans have heard at least one conspiracy theory, and many of us believe these theories to varying degrees. Sadly, the internet, which was designed to share information, is extremely good at sending misinformation as well.

So as an en educator and a father, I want to focus on the Shakespeare conspiracy not just because it gets my dander up, but also because, compared to these other theories, it is actually one of the least harmful. Conspiracies like the Plandemic hoax are extremely dangerous because they dissuade people from getting a life-saving treatment, and allow this pandemic to continue. By contrast, ultimately it doesn’t really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, so I think this kind of exercise is useful for educators to challenge students to think critically about this low-stakes theory, and then applying the same skill to others to become better-informed thinkers.

How to break down the Shakespeare conspiracy theory

First, let’s summarize the most compelling points of the theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. This is a video by director Roland Emmerich, which he made to help promote his film “Anonymous.” Emmerich dramatizes the controversy by portraying the Earl of Oxford writing the plays of Shakespeare anonymously, and sending them to Shakespeare’s company, giving the man from Stratford credit for writing them.

There’s an old saying in science that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” and, aside from the fact that the Earl of Oxford wrote poems, there is no evidence that Oxford ever even spoke to Shakespeare’s company. In fact, almost none of this video is supported by any historical evidence. Now it would be a lot of work to refute each argument of this video point by point right? And surely I have better things to do than do a point-by-point refutation, but…

A Point-by Point refutation of the Roland Emmerich video:

– Shakespeare did leave evidence of his handwriting, just not evidence of his dramatic writing. The fact that his correspondence didn’t survive doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. The kind of cheap parchment that writers of the period used dissolved very easily, especially when they used ink with high iron content. The examples we have of Shakespeare’s writing are mainly legal records and books that were designed to last. In short, there’s no conspiracy to hide Shakespeare’s manuscripts, they simply didn’t survive.

The dedication page of the 1623 First Folio.

We don’t know for sure that his parents were illiterate, or that his daughters were. That is based on an urban legend, not actual proof. Also, plays were not written to be read, that’s why TV viewers are viewers and the grounding are called an audience.

A. Shakespeare wrote about aristocratic people because they were paying his rent. His company was literally named “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” One reason why Shakespeare was more successful than Ben Johnson was that he was deferential and obsequious to the English aristocracy; he had to sing their praises to stay in business.

Dedication page of Venus and Adonis, which Shakespeare wrote to the Earl Of Southampton.

B. Every character that Emmerich mentions is not an aristocrat- Bottom is a lower-class weaver, Mistress Overdon is an inn-keeper. The only aristocrats Shakespeare ever insults are Polonius (who isn’t real), and Sir John Oldcastle in the early draft of King Henry IV, which he immediately changed to Sir John Falstaff once Oldcastle’s family members complained about it to Shakespeare’s company. Emmerich is flat-out lying when he says Shakespeare mocks the English upper class like an equal.

C. There’s a very simple explanation of how Shakespeare was able to write about the manners and lives of the English aristocratic class: he didn’t. All of Shakespeare’s comedies (except for Merry Wives which has the aforementioned Falstaff as a character), and tragedies take place in other countries like Italy, France, Sicily, or Greece. His History plays are set in England, but they dramatize events that happened 100-200 years before Shakespeare was born, meaning that he didn’t need to know too much about contemporary court politics. Furthermore, the majority of the plots he used were recycled from history books, poems, and prose romances.

It’s useful to think of Shakespeare not as a novelist like Dickens or Tolstoy and more like a TV or film screenwriter like George Lucas or Aaron Sorkin. He didn’t write based on real-life experiences or conjure new ideas out of thin air. He was a popular dramatist who adapted existing works of literature to be dramatized onstage. This is why I created my YouTube comedy series “If Shakespeare worked for Disney.” Emmerich, like many Anti-Stratfordians, is assuming that Shakespeare couldn’t have written plays about the nobility without being one himself, but that’s not what Elizabethan dramatists did- they adapted pre-existing work to fit on the public stage, which means anyone with a good education and knowledge of the theater could have written them, regardless of his or her upbringing.

If you are wondering how I could possibly know Shakespeare’s writing process,, the answer is simple: All of Shakespeare’s sources have survived, which means that I can prove that his plays are adaptations. This is a common problem with most conspiracy theories- they never take the straightforward way to explain something. Instead, they take a theory and twist facts to suit that theory. In this case, they twisted the facts about the Earl of Oxford’s life to make him look like Hamlet and based on that, they made him look like the true author of Shakespeare.

D. Honestly the handwriting is the weakest point- yes Shakespeare spelled his name differently in documents but this was before standard English spelling. The first English dictionary was at least 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. This point is clearly designed to discredit Shakespeare and make him seem uneducated. But again, this point is irrelevant when you consider that Shakespeare wrote for theater, where standard spelling is completely unnecessary.

By the way, Ben Johnson spelled his name differently in his manuscripts.

The Debate- Feelings vs. Facts. Modern vs. early modern

When I was in high school, taking my first class on Shakespeare, I watched this documentary which almost convinced me that Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare. The researcher they interviewed seemed so passionate and I wanted to believe what he said was true. But that was before I started reading about Shakespeare’s life for myself, and looked at the evidence myself.

How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory

https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/conspiracy-theory-handbook/

The common traits of Conspiracy Theories from the Conspiracy Theory Handbook

If you look at many different conspiracy theories, they often exist in a form outside of normal reality, to the point where the believers have no interest in any kind of contrary evidence, logic, or any person who even questions it. Essentially the conspiracy becomes their identity, and they will virulently defend this conspiracy from anyone and anything that opposes it. Below is an explanation of the basic parts of a Conspiracy theory, with some points on how they all apply to the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

Contradictory Beliefs:

Believers in conspiracies are motivated by feelings, not facts, and they don’t care how inconsistent those theories are. For example, the same people who believe Joe Biden lost the presidential election, also believe that the president (Joe Biden) is also being played by an actor. This might explain why many people believe that people like Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare, despite the fact that he died 9 years before Shakespeare started writing.

Overriding suspicion:

Again, since the believer is motivated by feelings, they are naturally suspicious of any contrary evidence and just assume anyone who contradicts them is in on the conspiracy. This is called self-sealing the conspiracy.

Nefarious intent:

One question that inevitably comes up with the Shakespeare Authorship debate is: “Who cares?” Usually, this means “Does it really matter who wrote the plays?” However, I want to use this question in this context: “Why go through the trouble to conceal who wrote these plays?” As I mentioned earlier, though Shakespeare is very famous and culturally important now, he certainly wasn’t back in his lifetime. Playwriting was not a venerated profession, and socioeconomically, Shakespeare was little better than a tailor. Why would it be worth it to conceal who wrote a few, fairly popular plays in 1616?

It would take an enormous amount of effort to conceal who wrote these plays for 400 years- you’d have to pay off publishers, fake court records (like the one I showed you above), keep an entire court quiet, and make sure nobody ever wrote down the truth for 400 years. Why would it be worth it? This kind of logic is why the Moon Landing and the Flat Earth conspiracies don’t hold up to rational thought- there’s simply no reason to go through the effort of concealing the alleged truth. The truth itself is just easier to defend.

Something Must be wrong:

As the name implies, Anti-Stratfordians don’t so much believe in Bacon, Pembroke, Oxford, etc, so much as they actively choose not to believe in William Shakespeare of Stratford. This means they will use every bit of their energy trying to prove that theory, and won’t stop until they find something, no matter how nonsensical, to prove their Shakespeare is the real Shakespeare.

Persecuted victim:

Let me be blunt- a conspiracy is very simmilar to a delusion, and any attempt to shatter that delusion is a form of persecution for the conspiracist. The most infamous example of how conspiracy theorists can feel persecuted and empowered at the same time is the way it permeated Nazi Germany and neo-Nazi units. Hitler came to power by spreading the theory that the Jews were secretly controlling the world and Germany was persecuted, while at the same time, Germany was destined to control the world in the eyes of the Nazis. I mention this not because I think Anti-Stratfordians are Nazis (how could I watch I Claudius otherwise?), but that conspiracy theories are potentially very dangerous because they foster a self-serving victim mentality where people are constantly looking for someone to blame for their problems and they will sometimes become violent against anyone who challenges them.

Immune to Evidence

One of the most important concepts in law is the notion that someone is ixznnocent until proven guilty. Along those lines, the prima facie, the accepted truth is accepted as truth, until new evidence contradicts it. If you look at the Supreme Court mock trial for the Authorship question back in 1987, that was the conclusion they came to in the end. Though little historical evidence for Shakespeare has survived, there is NO PHYSICAL evidence that contradicts it, so in the interest of prima facie evidence, they ruled for Shakespeare.

Now real conspiracy believers never believe in the merits of contrary evidence. They will just assume it is manufactured or faulty; part of the attempts of those nefarious truth concealers to pull the wool over their eyes.

Re-Interpreting Randomness

I’ve seen many people claim that the evidence for conspiracies is not found in documents or in scientific explanation, it’s in some kind of code or cipher or series of clues that only the believers understand. As you’ll see below, some of the most famous Anti-Stratfordians claimed to find hidden codes and ciphers in Shakespeare’s plays that prove that he was concealing his true identity. They will also cite coincidental details like the fact that the crest of Edward DeVere was an eagle shaking a spear, and claim this proves his identity as the true author of the plays. When you see a theory like like this, remember, correlation is not causation. Just because a few bad things happened when a few people said “Macbeth,” does not mean Macbeth is cursed. Some things actually are coincidences and not everything has a dramatic or sinister cause. This brings me to my next point:

The real enemy of conspiracies: Disappointing facts (Spoilers ahead for the movie “Coco”)

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s imagine that you were Miguel from Disney’s Coco, and you discovered that your hero Ernesto Dela Cruz murdered your grandfather Hector, but (unlike in the movie), he actually DID write the songs he said he did. How would you feel about Hector? Would you hope and pray that Ernesto lied and your virtuous grandfather was the real author? Might you even concoct a conspiracy theory to rewrite Ernesto’s history and get Hector celebrated as the real author of “Remember Me?”

I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare is guilty of murder, or any other crime (apart from usury, hoarding grain, and a few minor tax violations). What I’m trying to do is to draw parallels between two men who are icons that are beloved by their hometowns, who created work that resonates with a lot of people.

We all have a tendency to take people we admire and put them on pedestals, (like the quote at the beginning mentions), and many people try to identify with their heroes. This is really easy with Shakespeare because most of the personal details of his life have vanished, so we can imbue him with our own sensibilities. Case in point- when Mya Angelou read Shakespeare’s sonnets as a little girl, she initially thought that he was a black girl. Likewise, Eugene O’Neill and other Irish and Irish American writers have thought he might be been Irish.

Some of the most outrageous anti-Stratfordians clearly have an axe to grind because they have a family connection (real or imagined) to the man they believe to be Shakespeare. In the 19th century, Delia Bacon wanted to prove that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays was the 17th-century poet, philosopher, and essayist, SIR FRANCIS BACON. Ms. Bacon hated Shakespeare because she thought he was an illiterate sheep-poaching commoner. She, therefore, used her theory to hoist Shakespeare off his literary pedestal, and therefore elevate herself because she believed she was descended from Sir Francis (though in reality, she wasn’t).

Rather than using any kind of historical evidence to prove her theory, Ms. Bacon claimed there was an elaborate code hidden in the iambic pentameter. Subsequent literary pseudo-scholars have attempted to hack the code and prove that they can prove that Sir Francis was the real author of the plays. In the late 1800s, American politician and author Ignatius Donnelly appropriated Ms. Bacon’s theory and claimed he had found the code, which rested on the pagination of the First Folio.

Donnelly had a knack for spreading conspiracy theories; as the title page of his book shows, he also authored a book where he claimed he correctly identified the location of the lost city of Atlantis. He also hated Shakespeare because Donnelly believed he was nothing more than a businessman, exploiting the talent of others, so like Bacon, he cooked up these ‘facts’ to suit his theory in order to take Shakespeare down.

Like many conspiracy theories, Anti-Stratfordians don’t have any factual basis for the ideas they hold, they are responding to an emotional need or desire. Donnelly and Bacon wanted fame, recognition, and revenge against a man they hated. J. Thomas Looney, who proposed that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare, wanted a ‘fairy prince’ that is, a semi-mythical Bard who would lead England into a golden age. All these people were dissatisfied with the man from Stratford, so they created a Shakespeare of their own, and tried to justify his existence.

Title page of the 1623 Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays.
Title page of the 1623 Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

To briefly sum up why the Bacon/ Donnelly theory is false, it hinges on the page numbers of the Folio, but Shakespeare didn’t print the first Folio. If you look at the title page, it was assembled by two actors from Shakespeare’s company- Henry Condell and John Hemmings, and it was printed by Isaac Jaggard, the same man who printed Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. Writers had no say in how their work was printed and in fact Jaggard actually printed the sonnets without Shakespeare’s permission! The notion that Jaggard had any interest in properly printing a secret code in the pages of his posthumous book seems to me, incredibly unlikely at best.

Lesson plan

I’ve adapted a lesson plan about conspiracy theories to include a discussion of the Shakespeare authorship question. I’ll also include a worksheet that you can use in your classroom to distribute among your students if you choose to use it as well. I think it’s a good way to foster critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and historical curiosity, and if it prevents more people from joining Q-Anon, so much the better!

This lesson plan makes use of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, and it has great, easy to read activities about how to spot a conspiracy theory, how to talk to a conspiracy theorist, and how to avoid being taken in by a conspiracy.

Sources:

https://www.americanprogress.org/press/release/2020/10/13/491521/release-new-survey-shows-conspiracy-theories-thriving-u-s-election-nears/:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/rainerzitelmann/2020/06/29/how-many-americans-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/?sh=62b9725d5e94

https://www.c-span.org/video/?618-1/shakespeare-author-pseudonym#

My Favorite Sonnets

Since Valentines Day is next week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s love poems. Every year I try to study a sonnet or two and write one of my own for my wife and my family. So here’s some insight into the sonnets and I hope that this inspires you to read and craft your own love poems.

My mini-lecture on Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

What Is A Sonnet?

Shakespeare wrote 154 short poems called sonnets.
They are 14 lines long
Each line has 10 syllables, generally in iambic pentameter

12 of the 14 lines are grouped into 3 groups of 4 lines called quatrains
The final two lines are called a rhyming couplet

A little History


The first collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was published in 1609, but NOT BY SHAKESPEARE.

We don’t know if this is the order he intended, we don’t know if he intended them to be published, and we DEFINITELY DON”T KNOW IF THEY ARE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.

Themes and Ideas

A lot of the sonnets use extended metaphors where the speaker describes his feelings by describing himself as another person, place, or thing. In some sonnets, he’s a painter or looking in a mirror, or an astronomer looking through a telescope or outdoors in nature and something reminds him of the beloved. Most follow a similar theme:
You’re beautiful like… [or] I’m trying to write about you but…
You wil age and die.

TIme and the sonnets


The most pervasive idea in the sonnet is a fight against Time. Time is often personified in the sonnets as being jealous, cruel, cold, unfeeling or petty. Time is also associated with the concept of Death. Like the Grim Reaper, he is the enemy of romantic love because he makes young lovers age and die.

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,

And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;

Sonnet 19

THe BIG BUT..

In most of the sonnets there’s a “But” around the third quatrain (lines 9-12 or thereabouts), which challenges the power of time or Death. For example, the first 8 sonnets basically say: “You will age BUT… you will become immortal if you have children.”
Couplet

The Young Man sonnets (1-126)

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory:

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 1
Henry Wriosley, Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare’s patron.


The first 126 sonnets (roughly) are about a young man with blonde hair. Though there is no evidence that the sonnets were autobiographical, many scholars have speculated that he might have been partially inspired by Henry Wriosley, the Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare dedicated two poems to Henry: The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, which you can see the title page of here:

Title page to the 1593 edition of Venus and Adonis

Sonnet 12

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
     And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
     Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence

I love this sonnet for its use of alliteration, the use of words that sound the same: “count,” “clock” “tells,” “time,” “green,” “girdled,” etc. The use of “count,” and “clock” in particular makes you imagine the sound of a clock in your head. The sonnet makes you keenly aware of the passage of time, first from the seconds of a ticking clock, then to the changing of the seasons, then at last to the span of a lifetime. This sonnet might not inspire much in terms of feelings, but its technical construction literally works ‘like clockwork.’ If you’re interested in r Elizabethan clocks and other timekeeping instruments, click here for a fascinating blog: https://www.cassidycash.com/did-shakespeare-have-a-clock-part-1-of-5/

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


I go into detail explaining sonnet 18 in my class: “Love Poetry Shakespeare Style,” but to put it succinctly, this sonnet is famous for talking about the ways the beloved is Better than a summer’s day.

Sonnet 27- “Weary With Toil…

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body's work's expired:
For then my thoughts--from far where I abide--
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
   Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
   For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

Not to seem crass, but this sonnet is literally panting with sexual desire. The speaker is exhausted but cannot sleep, with the image of his beloved haunting his thoughts. There are also a few religious allusions too where the speaker calls himself a “pilgrim,” much like Romeo and Juliet in their first meeting in Act I, Scene v. It almost seems like the beloved is both an angel that the speaker wants to bless him, and a succubus or vampire draining him of love and life.

XXIX “When In disgrace…”

Sonnet 29: “When in disgrace With Fortune and men’s eyes

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
   For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
   That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Sonnet 29

Sonnet 118- The “Marriage” Sonnet

Opening line  from Shakespeare's "Marriage Sonnet," Sonnet 29.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.

– Shakespeare, Sonnet 29

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error and upon me proved,
     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
This sonnet is one of the most famous poems in all of English literature all. In fact, it's quite personally important to me, because my wife recited it to me on my wedding day. It is full of powerful metaphors about how married love is stronger and more resilent than simple lust or infatuation. On my wedding day it was a powerful affirmation that my wife and I will endure age, change, Time, and eventually death, but our love will remain the same.

The Dark Lady Sonnets 127-152

Sonnets 127-152 seem to be collectively addressed to a woman with dark hair, dark skin, and musical talent, who seems to be in a love triangle with the speaker of the sonnets, and someone else. As you can see in this video, many theories have come up to try and expose who she really was, but again, he have no proof that these sonnets were in any way autobiographical.

As far as we know, the Dark Lady sonnets might simply have been a writing exercise for Shakespeare while he was writing Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. I’m not interested in the Dark Lady conspiracy, except for its usefulness for historians to highlight important Elizabethan women. I have to admit that I wouldn’t have known about Emilia Lanier, or the Countess of Pembroke if they hadn’t been roped into the Dark Lady theory. Otherwise, I’m only interested in the Dark Lady sonnets for their poetry and the interesting stories they tell.

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
   Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
   That every tongue says beauty should look so.


I admit this is a retroactive reading, but Shakespeare has been guilty of equating fair skin with beauty, so it’s nice to see this sonnet, which lends itself to a refutation of that notion. Much like how “Hath not a Jew eyes…” has been appropriated as a plea for tolerance, I hope this sonnet gains popularity as a source of pride for POC.

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Sonnet 128
How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Sonnet 130

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare
.

I ended with this sonnet, because unlike the previous ones, Shakespeare beautifully shows the frankness and honesty in true love. Shakespeare doesn’t use extravagant praise or pretty metaphors, but instead just says he loves his mistress for who she is. I wish that all of you reading this will find a love that you can enjoy without false comparison, (but then again, what is life without a little poetry in it)?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

How Accurate Is Hamnet?

“She’s got…it, hasn’t she? The pestilence?” (O’Farrell, 105).
As this quote, (and the subtitle) suggests, Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet: A Novel About the Plague, focuses on the terror surrounding the plague and its devastating consequences on families. I really respect this book for its historical authenticity, it’s clever prose, and O’Farrell’s command of style, but I should warn you that this novel is definitely not for breezy summer reading.

If you are looking for a novel about William Shakespeare, this isn’t it; the Bard only appears in flashbacks. The action mainly concerns his wife and children. While Will was living and working in London for most of the year, his family lived in Stratford Upon Avon, along with the playwright’s mother and father. The novel has follows the characters across two times: 1582, when Shakespeare and his wife first met, courted and married, and around 1595, during an outbreak of plague that would (Spoiler Alert) eventually claim the life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet.

Drawing of Shakespeare and his family. Hamlet and Judith are on his right, his other daughter Susanna and his wife Anne are on his left.

The novel has a very dour tone, but that is by design. The author herself writes that the premise of the book was to create a realistic (albeit fictional) account of the Shakespeare family as their only son fell sick and died.

Burial records for the town of Stratford Upon Avon for 1596. On August 11, it records the death of Hamnet Shakespeare, William’s only son

The premise is intriguing from a historical point of view. We have no diaries or correspondence that express how the Shakespeares dealt with this catastrophic loss, but many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was a direct homage to his son, since in Elizabethan England the names Hamlet and Hamnet were used interchangeably. Still, it must have effected Will in other ways, and it had to have had an effect on Hamnet’s mother and sisters, and that was O’Farrell’s focus when adapting this story as a novel.

I would describe the novel’s tone as ‘haunting,’ which is appropriate since it’s based around how a child’s death effected his family. It reminds me of a passage Shakespeare himself wrote about the death of a young boy in his play King John:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! King John Act III, Scene iv.



Like Constance in the quote above,, All the characters in Hamnet are haunted.
[Hamnet is pursued by plague. Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway are haunted by their abusive parents. Will’s father John by the loss of his business and social standing, and of course, everyone is haunted by Hamnet’s death.

https://youtu.be/kj240pJPpB8

Artist’s restored version of a Elizabethan woman, believed to be Anne Hathaway.
Lucentio and Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2007)

Although the novel is mainly about Hamnet’s decline and death, my favorite parts of the book are flashbacks to the courtship and marriage of Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about their real courtship, so O’Farrell borrows the plot from Shakespeare’s Taming Of the Shrew. Like Lucentio in Shrew,
The 18 year old William Shakespeare is a Latin tutor, (having not yet become a writer), who woos a misunderstood woman whom the town calls a shrew. In the book, Anne Hathaway is known as Agnes and (like many unmarried women of the period), is looked on as odd and somewhat wild. Many single women of this period would likely face discrimination, and sometimes. In this video, you can see how cunning women like Anne had an uneasy relationship with the local community; some saw them as an asset to the community, but others believed their abilities came from The Devil. For more information on Anne’s life, click here.

The History Guy- Witch Trials in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Anne is further isolated because of her strange abilities- in the book she owns a falcon, not a ladylike hobby for 1580s England. She is also skilled with medicinal plants and knows how to read palms. In essence, though the town ostracizes Anne, Shakespeare admires her cleverness, and the book implies that Shakespeare would later use her skills in characters like Kate from Shrew, Friar Lawrence (the skilled potion master), and maybe even the witches from Macbeth.

The reusing of Shakespeare’s plots doesn’t stop there- Before Anne and Will get married they are handfasted- that is they make a mutual promise to get married in front of witnesses. Anne knows that her family will not consent to their marriage given Shakespeare’s low economic prospects, so she convinces Will to get her pregnant. This mirrors Claudio and Juliet in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, who are publicly shamed and arrested for fornication, even though their only crime was not waiting until they had given a dowry to the groom’s parents before consumating the marriage.


One final master stroke of O’Farrel’s historical fictive tapestry is how she engineers the father son conflict between Will Shakespeare and his father John. Shakespeare loves to explore the power dynamic between boys on the cusp of manhood, and their already powerful fathers. In the case of John Shakespeare, O’ Farrell depicts him as a man who has worked, schemed, scammed, and clawed his way to the highest wealth his birth can allow him, but is now falling from grace, who has nothing but contempt for his son who seems like a worthless dreamer, incapable of hard work. This most closely echoes Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and King Henry, a son who must prove his fitness to be king to his father and to his nation. Watch this exchange from “The Hollow Crown” where the sick and aging John of Gaunt (Patrick Stuart), chastises his weak, effeminate nephew, King Richard II:

Historical Notes:

Infant mortality in Elizabethan England:

Even before Hamnet is born, his mother and mother in law are painfully aware that he might die young. Sadly this is very historically accurate. Infant mortality rates were high in Elizabethan England. According to Ian Mortimer in his book The Time Traveler’s Guide To Elizabethan England, mothers had to keep their children at arms length and not get too attached. Being a mother in this time meant dealing with the constant knowledge that your child might not survive:

In Stratford in the 1560s, there are on average, sixty-three children baptized every year- and forty-three children buried.

Mortimer, 27.

John Shakespeare’s fall John Shakespeare was more than a glover- he held a position in the Stratford Guild Hall- basically a city council position. He was in charge of hiring constables, keeping the peace, overseeing the brewing of ale, and approving theatrical entertainments for civic events. Probably John got his son interested in theater by letting him tag along to the sort of private performances he would have watched to determine whether a play or troupe was good enough for, for instance, the visit of a peer. However, by the 1580s, John was losing his business and selling off his land assets. Scholars suspect that either John was a closet Catholic, forced to pay fines every time he failed to attend protestant church, or he was avoiding church and his alderman council meetings because he knew his creditors would be there. In any case, O Farell takes this historical tidbit and turns John Shakespeare into a bitter, broken, abusive man whom Shakespeare can’t wait to get away from. Shakespeare and his wife bond over their abusive parents and dream of succeeding financially so they can get away from their parent’s influence.
Malt and wool The novel hints at John Shakespeare’s secret side business selling wool and malt, but never explicitly states that this practice was illegal. All wool was controlled by the Elizabethan government so it was illegal to sell it without special permission, and in 1570, John Shakespeare was caught selling wool illegally. He was also found guilty of money-lending, hoarding grain, and selling malt. This is why he tells his son to forget the wool he saw in the attic.

An Alderman in his official robe, the same kind John Shakespeare would have worn.

Historical Events Mentioned in Hamnet

  1. 1556 Anne Hathaway born. She’s referred to as Agnes in other court documents. Her father Richard owned a sheep farm in Hewland. At some point, her mother died and her father Richard married a woman named Joan, whom the novel portays as a bitter, controlling witch.

1564– Will Shakespeare born, third of 8 children. His father started out as a local glover, who quickly rose through the ranks of local government to become the mayor of the town. They owned a house in Henley street, which also doubled as the glove workshop. For more informaition on this fascinating building, visit the Shakespeare Birthplace trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/

The Shakespeare’s house on Henley Street in Stratford Upon Avon, where Will, his wife, children, and parents lived until 1597.
Recreation of the Shakespeare’s dinner table.


1581– Anne’s father Richard dies,  bequeathing her “£6 13s 4d ‘atte the day of her maryage’.” Richard Hathaway owned a farmhouse in Shottery that still stands today! For more info, please visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. June 2014.
Interior and exterior images of Ann Hathaways cottage, Shottery, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire.


1582– On November 27th, 1582, William married Anne Hathaway. He was 18, she was 26. It must have been a hasty and stressful situation. Shakespeare had no job, and based on the timeline, Anne was already pregnant with their daughter Susanna. For more information on marriage in the period, please visit my website on Elizabethan society:

The Shakespeares were granted a marriage licence by the Bishop of Worcester. They were married at Temple Grafton, a village approximately five miles (8 km) from Stratford.

Notes On Shakespeare’s Wedding Day:

  • We know that Anne’s family paid a dowry to Shakespeare’s family, which annoys Shakespeare in the book. He feels furious that his father uses the marriage to help his business interests.
  • According to Michael Wood, the priest left out the reading of the banns, and suspected the marriage was intentionally catholic. The book also makes it clear that this was a catholic ceremony, deep into the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
Robert Bearman, “The Shakespeare marriage bond,” Shakespeare Documented, https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/resource/document/shakespeare-marriage-bond

May 26, 1583– Susanna Shakespeare is baptized, which means she was probably born three days earlier.

February 2nd, 1585– Hamnet and Judith are baptized.The twins were named after two very close friends of William and Anne, the baker Hamnet Sadler and his wife, Judith. The Sadlers became the godparents of the twins and, in 1589, they in turn named their own son William.

1586– John Shakespeare is booted off the Stratford board of Aldermen for not attending meetings. Michael Wood suggests that John might have been avoiding the meetings because he was in debt, and the creditors knew where to find him. The novel seems to agree with this theory- the first time that we meet John Shakespeare, he is on the verge of beating his own grandson for sneaking up on him. If he was hiding from his creditors, he’d have a reason to be jumpy.
1592 – Shakespeare makes it in London?
1593 Outbreak of Bubonic Plague- 15,000 people died in London alone. O Farrell does a great job of portraying the visceral terror people must have felt during an outbreak, the same terrified panic that gripped our world in 2020. As I’ve written before, not only did the disease itself instill fear, but also the Draconian measures of quarantines, and the grotesque and ineffective methods for treating the plague. To see how you might be treated for plague in the 1590s, take my quiz: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/1xzNm37sGbHsQJgsnx4irZHJVp9YscVVJ/edit?authuser=2

Because of the contagious nature of the disease, the theatres were closed, which forced Shakespeare to write poems instead of plays. Around this time he also probably wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis

1596 Hamnet dies

C. 1599– William Shakespeare writes Hamlet, his longest play, widely regarded as the greatest play ever written in the English language.

I hope this post helped increase your understanding and enjoyment of the book, and Elizabethan History in general.

For a fascinating look at the life of an Elizabethan woman, check out this documentary about Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, created by scholar Michael Wood:

Summer Shakespeare Academy!

I’m working this summer with the good people at Outschool, an online learning platform for kids ages 3-18. I’m designing a series of Shakespeare classes that you can sign up for. We’ll be doing acting exercises, reading Shakespeare’s text, and making Shakespeare props Cost is $3 per child.

The course is ala carte, that is, you can sign up for as many courses as you like. Each course builds on the last one, but you don’t have to have taken the previous ones to enjoy any one particular course Let me know in the comments which class(es) you are interested in, and/or what suggestions you might have. I can’t wait to hear what you think about these summer Shakespeare courses, and I hope to see you online soon!

1. Introduction to Shakespeare- (enrollment here: https://outschool.com/classes/introduction-to-shakespeare-or-how-i-learned-to-love-the-bard-UoHH5fes?sectionUid=973060db-f857-461a-a23a-f1476203a544&showDetails=true) We’ll talk about why Shakespeare is so famous and learn about his life and career. Then we’ll do some fun quizzes that you can earn prizes based on how well you pay attention!
2. How to write ✍ like Shakespeare (Enrollment here: https://outschool.com/classes/how-to-write-like-shakespeare-0HuPq1Cg?sectionUid=4243af25-ba41-4724-82a2-61bd7c7d862e&showDetails=true) Have you ever wanted to woo your sweetheart or write the next bestselling play? Well, this course will cover the secrets of Shakespeare’s writing. We’ll cover how to write romantic poems, the structure of Shakespeare’s plays, and you’ll get to write your own Shakespearean speeches!
3. Intro to Shakespearean acting Practical tips and tricks for your next Shakespeare audition.
4. Shakespeare’s villains
We’ll look at the darkest and creepiest Shakespearean characters and see why they still fascinate us today!
5. The Violent Rhetoric Of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Registration Here: https://outschool.com/classes/the-violent-rhetoric-of-julius-caesar-fkMLbAtA?sectionUid=1f9220cd-8c28-438d-9799-8479494353a4&showDetails=true#usMaRDyJ13) In this one-time course, students will analyze the rhetoric and persuasive power in two speeches from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
6. Intro to Romeo and Juliet – Get a leg up on your next English class with this fun, frenetic look through the characters, themes, and story of Shakespeare’s most popular, and most-taught play.
7. Basics Of Stage Combat (Registration here: https://outschool.com/classes/1120ada2-047d-4b0f-84f6-5eb4b0f7dc66/schedule#usMaRDyJ13 I’ll teach the kids about Elizabethan street fighting, and the basics of stage combat.
8. The Balcony Scene of Romeo and Juliet– It’s been called the greatest love scene of all time, but why? I’ll explain the imagery, the poetic language, and give you a chance to make your own love poetry!
9. Insults and Shakespeare You’ll craft your own Shakespeare insults and engage in a (respectful), beat down with your classmates! Along the way, we’ll talk about how insults escalate to violence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
10. The Iconic imagery of Romeo and Juliet We’ll look at some beautiful paintings, songs, and other works of art that build on Shakespeare’s poetic imagery.
11. Romeo and Juliet and pedagogy Shakespeare is uniquely challenging to get kids to engage with. I’ll give you some of my resources, games, and activities to help you delve into the play in your next class.

If you like these courses, let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’re interested in signing up, visit my teacher profile page: https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student. New classes will be added every week, and I’ll work around your schedule when planning the dates and times. Hopefully this will be a great chance for me to share my expertise with a young group of future Shakespearean students!

Just in Time For Back To School: “Romeo and Juliet” Summaries For Your Viewing/ Reading Pleasure!

Well folks, it’s a new month, and that means a new play, and since August is also the beginning of the new school year, I’ve decided to make August’s Play of the Month—- Romeo and Juliet! Many of us study this play in school, a lot of us write papers, and some of us even perform in it, so I’m going to give you Romeo and Juliet commentary, artwork, analysis, and comedy ALL MONTH LONG! So to start, let me take this opportunity to help familiarize you with the plot.

Here’s a very kid-friendly summary of the play: http://www.kidzworld.com/article/4866-kidz-notes-romeo-and-juliet 

Here are a few videos that sum up the story of the play:

1. Crash Course: Romeo and Juliet Summary presented by Paper Towns author, John Greene:

2. Shakespeare For Kids: Romeo and Juliet:

3. A retelling of Romeo and Juliet from my favorite children’s TV program: Wishbone!

4. Thug Notes: Romeo and Juliet (PG-13 Language ahead)

Remember, nearly everyone knows this story, and we don’t want to end up like these people: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121975740

Which Shakespeare Edition is Right For You?

What’s the best Shakespeare edition to read? You may not know it, but all of Shakespeare’s plays are contained in just one little book that has been printed and re-printed for 400 years. Today you can find thousands of different versions of Shakespeare for your needs as a student, scholar, or just regular Shakespeare fan, and today I’m here to guide you through some of the most popular! Let’s take a look!

A Little Background:

Shakespeare's First Folio
The original printed edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he wrote his plays just for his company to perform. The scripts were distributed among the cast as little rolls of paper that had each actor’s part written on it (this is why an actor’s part is sometimes called his “role”). Sometimes the plays were published when the company wanted to make a little extra money, but they weren’t exactly best-sellers. After Shakespeare died, two actors from his company, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, decided to preserve Shakespeare’s work for all time, printing his plays in a beautiful book called Shakespeare’s First Folio in the year 1623. This book helped preserve 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, 17 of which were never printed before, and would have been lost forever if Hemmings and Condell hadn’t preserved them.

Today some purists say that the only way to read Shakespeare is by reading a facsimile of the First Folio, because it preserves Shakespeare’s original spelling, his stage directions, and the natural integrity of the verse form because of the way it’s printed on the page. To be honest, I see the merit in this, but only for actors and scholars who often need every clue in the text to inspire them to construct creative and inventive interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. However, for first time readers I recommend a modern edition, since the Folio has very few stage directions, and no standard spelling or punctuation, making it very hard to understand. Shakespeare is hard enough to read without love being spelled “loove” all the time.

imgres-1Shakespeare in modern type by Neil Freeman. These editions are the kind i urlmentioned earlier, the ones for Shakespeare Fundamentalists. These are the people who believe Shakespeare left clues for performance in every line, every punctuation mark, and every change in verse. I don’t dispute this view, but I also can’t fully support it because it encourages actors and directors to become slaves to iambic and to never deviate from the rigid construction of Shakespeare’s verse, even if they have a creative reason not to. Even classical musicians must be allowed some form of improvisation. Actors should have the same liberty to interpret the text as they see fit. You can rent or purchase individual versions of the Freeman Folio texts, or purchase the full version of the First Folio in modern type. For sample pages, click here: https://books.google.com/books?.

Editions of T
Editions of The Arden Shakespreare

The Arden Shakespeare– For over 100 years, this edition has been a favorite of scholars and actors alike. It focuses on the world of Shakespeare to help you understand the characters by detailing the interpretations directors have favored for the last 400 years. The Arden edition has excellent notes and is great for college students and honors high schoolers. http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/academic/academic-subjects/drama-and-performance-studies/the-arden-shakespeare/

The Norton Shakespeare

The Norton Shakespeare- This version is a more academic version with great notes by the venerated Robert Greenblatt of Harvard University. It focuses on the world of Shakespeare with notes about Elizabethan society, history, poetry, and mythology. I would recommend it for college students and adult readers.

Click here to sample some of this edition: https://books.google.com/books?id=2

Folger Shakespeare Library Edition of Hamlet
Folger Shakespeare Library Edition of Hamlet

The Folger Shakespeare- Edited by the premiere Shakespeare scholarship institution in America: The Folger Shakespeare Libary, this version has very clear and simple explanations for what the characters are saying, and has lots of pictures and notes. This version is excellent for high schoolers and is one of the standards in most school districts. Click here to sample some of their work. Be sure to also check out the Folger’s website! http://www.folger.edu/

Penguin Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale
Penguin Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale

The Penguin Shakespeare– this is probably the cheapest version of Shakespeare. It has a glossary and a few notes, but not as many pictures and clever editor’s notes as the Folger. http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=shakespeare+penguin+books&tag=googhydr-

No Fear Shakespeare: Macbeth
No Fear Shakespeare: Macbeth

No-Fear Shakespeare- As I’ve said before, this edition is fundamentally flawed, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. It purports itself to be a “translation” of Shakespeare, when in fact it’s just a loose paraphrase. I don’t agree with most of the choices that the editors put in these editions, and I think it dumbs down Shakespeare too much. In addition, I reject the concept that the plays need a translation- they were written in English, and purporting that a student needs a translation of Shakespeare just makes him or her dependent on this edition and still assume that they cannot understand Shakespeare’s text. So once again, I don’t recommend this version, but if you’d like to check it out, here’s a link below: https://books.google.com/books?

Sourcebook Shakespeare: Macbeth
Sourcebook Shakespeare: Macbeth

The Sourcebook Shakespeare– This is my favorite version of Shakespeare to study. They are probably too expensive to use in a classroom, but they really are worth it for a Shakespeare appreciation class. Not only do they have tons of notes and a really reader-friendly layout, each edition also contains a CD with up to 30 scenes and speeches from Shakespearean productions dating back 100 years! These editions focus specifically on how directors and actors have taken the same plays and interpreted them in new and interesting ways. In my view, this combination of reading and listening is one of the purest ways to demonstrate Shakespeare’s versatility, and why we keep reading him today. The same company is also developing versions for iPad to make the experience even more interactive: http://www.sourcebooks.com/blog/

Filthy ShakespeareFilthy Shakespeare- To be honest, this version is really more of a dictionary of naughty topics Shakespeare explored about in his plays, and is really just for entertainment purposes, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. I should of course mention that this version is not for children since it has lots of adult language. Click here for a sample: https://books.google.com/books?id=E523EogqB84C

Thanks for reading this post. If you’d like to learn more about the issues of editing and adapting Shakespeare, check out The Struggle For Shakespeare’s Text by Gabriel Egan. Let me know how you liked this post! I’m also planning on creating a series of audio interpretations of Shakespeare. Stay tuned!