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?
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.
– 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shakespeare Week Is Coming at Outschool.com
Outschool.com will be honoring the contributions of Shakespeare during the very first Shakespeare Week on March 21-27th.
I’m honored to take part in this celebration, and I’m offering several aclasses which relate to Shakespeare in an engaging way. Here’s the schedule below:
If you want to sign up for one of my classes, please visit my Outschool page:
Hope to see you during Shakespeare Week!
Denzel Washington talks Shakespeare. Mourns the loss of Sidney Poitier
If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.
Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.
Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.
Special Discounts on my Outschool Classes!
From now to January 13th, I’m offering a $5 discount for any class that is $10 or more! You can take my Shakespeare classes for as little as $4! Go to my Outschool.com class and enter the coupon code: HTHESNIF6B5 at checkout!
If you’re new to Outschool, use the referral code below when you sign up. You’ll automatically get $20 USD off as a thank you to use on future classes! My referral code is: MaRDyJ13
Hope to see you on my Outschool page!
Activities for Students and Teachers: Macbeth Escape Room
I made a digital escape room for Macbeth, as part of my Outschool.com class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Educational Experience,” which you can register for at a discount this week only. I’m presenting this digital escape room as an activity for teachers to teach their student’s knowledge of the plot of the play and use their observation and research skills to escape from a “cursed castle.”
What Is a digital escape room?
In a normal escape room, you are locked in a room and have to follow clues and solve puzzles in order to find a series of keys, codes, and combinations to unlock the door and get out of the room. In a digital escape room, you solve online puzzles and use passwords and key codes to unlock some kind of digital content.
My escape room is designed to test your knowledge of the play, give you a chance to learn about the history behind it. Most escape rooms use the a variety of locks such as:
- Standard combination locks
- Direction locks (where the lock has arrows taht you have to push in the correct direction, in the right order).
- Color locks (where we put different colors in a sequence.
A digital escape room uses these concepts and adapts them to work within the context of a website or other digital experience. For example, I made a direction lock based on the direction a dagger points and made a short animation of a dagger with the text of Macbeth’s famous dagger speech.
The student has to surf through five webpages to find the answers to the puzzles, then imputs the answer in a Google form. Once he or she unlocks all six puzzles, they are permitted to leave the witches’ castle. Here’s a preview of the puzzles:
Part I: The Gate
There’s a website called Flippity which allows you to make little online puzzles so I embedded it on one page of my website. In this case, it has six locks that you have to unlock by typing answers to trivia questions related to “Macbeth,” such as “What object appeared to Macbeth before he killed the king?” The final lock requires you to read a short article on the curse of Macbeth, so you can enter it on the website.
Part II: The Magic Mirror
There’s a website called a magic mirror, which if you click on the mirror, it hyperlinks to an image that spells out the next answer for the Google form.
Part III: Birnam Wood
I wanted to teach the students about verse scantion and what an iambic pentamer iine is. I wanted to get the class to learn the pattern of unaccented beats (which Shakespeare scholars mark with a U), and accented beats marked with a /, as in the couplet below:
To get the students to practice making an iambic pentameter line, I embedded a Google Slides presentation in the website which has pictures of unarmed and armed soldiers. A key indicates that you are to count the soldiers and input the U/U/ pattern into the Google Form:
So, there’s a preview of the Digital Escape Room I hope this inspires you to try this type of activity in your class. If you want to use this activity, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a teacher’s guide. Please also consider signing up for my Outschool.com class!
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!
Close Reading: To Be Or Not To Be
For Shakespeare’s Birthday, I thought I would discuss his most famous speech what is arguably his greatest play. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was written in 1600, the pinnacle/ middle of Shakespeare’s career, after Julius Caesar but before Macbeth.
To Be Or Not To Be has intrigued and mystified people for centuries. It is full of ambiguous imagery, haunting images, and solemn contemplative ideas. I’m going to try and break the speech down first like an intellectual argument, but I will also give you some of my interpretation of Hamlet’s thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare’s genius is creating a speech that gives plenty for the reader to interpret,, but it’s up to the reader to decide what’s happening in the speech.
Just a refresher of the plot:
1. The king has died and been seen as a ghost
2. He tells his son Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius, who killed him to become king and marry Hamlets mother, Gertrude.
Hamlet is trying to determine if the ghost is telling the truth and if so, how can Hamlet revenge the death of his father?
The speech occurs right in the middle of the play. Hamlet has been acting strange and the king is worried. He hides behind a tapestry right before Hamlet enters. He then delivers this famous and highly cryptic speech:
Ham. To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? 'Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish'd. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there's the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shufflel'd off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time,
The Oppressors wrong, the poore mans Contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd Loue, the Lawes delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurnes
That patient merit of the vnworthy takes,
When he himselfe might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of vs all,
And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution
Is sicklied o're, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turne away,
And loose the name of Action. Soft you now,
Now before I talk about the context of the speech, I want to deconstruct it as an intellectual argument. Hamlet is grappling with something huge, and he is weighing the consequences of his potential actions. Remember, Hamlet is a prince, but he is also a college student, so he turns his choice into an intellectual argument.
- If you look at the speech as an argument, it hinges on two points- to be or not to be.
- One is passive and one is active
- Both actions are potentially lethal, as evidenced by the two metaphors Hamlet describes later.
Contrary to popular belief, I believe that this speech is not just about suicide. It’s about the choice between suicide and murder, (in this case killing Claudius).
Three Speeches- Macbeth, and Hamlet
Lets discuss the two central images at the start of this speech. One is active- fighting (“taking arms”), and one is passive (“to suffer…”). Both choices have a similar outcome- death. No one can fight the sea, and arrows are just as lethal.
Let’s look at the speech again, and turn it into a series of beats using the conjunctions “and, but, and or,” The speech has 6 beats. What he’s thinking about or feeling is open to interpretation, but the argument definitely changes at these points. First the thesis:
- This beat sets up the two options (murder and suicide). Why do I think this? Because it’s similar to two other speeches: https://youtu.be/nq3hcs1yFKw
It’s worth noting that about the same time, Shakespeare wrote three great soliloquis; Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be,” Macbeth’s “If It Were Done,” and Brutus’ “It must be by his death.” All three speeches have some notable commonalities:
- All three speeches are in passive voice; the would be murderer wishes he didn’t have to kill someone, but wants the victim dead nonetheless.
- Refuse to mention the name of the man who will die.
- Refuse to say ‘murder’
- Personify death in abstract terms.
When I noticed the commonalities between the speeches, I came to realize that all of them are about murder, not just suicide. I think Hamlet alone contemplates suicide as well as murder, possibly because unlike Brutus and Macbeth, Hamlet is not at all sure he’s doing the right thing.
Beat 1 The Nerve: Hamlet is working himself up for something; either murder or suicide. It’s ambiguous which one he starts with, and largely depends upon the actor’s interpretation.
Beat 2 The Consequences
Whether Hamlet kills the king or himself, either way he could die and when he does, his soul will have to answer for his actions. This is similar to Macbeth, who worries that his foul murder will be exposed and judged by “Heaven’s cherubim, horses upon the sightless couriers of the air.”
“There’s the rub”- there’s the catch.
“Coil” refers to a snake skin. The line characterizes death as shedding an earthly body, something that seems all too easy to do. It’s an uncomfortable image because it makes death look all too easy. It also calls to mind the story of Gilgamesh, who had a flower that would grant him immortality, but a snake stole it, which is why snakes cam shed their skin, seemingly growing young again forever.
Beat 3: Smothering In Surmise: https://youtu.be/gFG91lXgNcs
This beat is where Hamlet seems smothered in his frustrations with life.. Rather than making a decision, he’s sidetracked with a laundry list of universal problems. His energy seems up, but it’s unclear why.
When I performed this portion of the speech, I realized that everything Hamlet refers to, Claudius has done: he has oppressed and wronged the kingdom, he has delayed the law, and he has hindered Hamlet’s love for Ophelia by letting Polonius deny Hamlet’s access to her. Perhaps the laundry list is designed to psych him up- listing all the reasons Claudius deserves to die, (without tipping him off).
Beat 4: The Downward Spiral
Once again Hamlet is thwarted by the concept of Death and divine judgment. He seems to imply that everyone is scared into compliance with the threat of death.
Hamlet’s conclusion is that he has no conclusion. He can’t kill himself because his conscience tells him that God is against it, and he cannot kill Claudius because of fear of death or damnation.
When he says “The native hue of resolution,” he means red, (as in blood), is curtailed, cut off by the very thought of Deaths pale scythe.
Mel Gibson plays Hamlet as a sort of man in mourning. He is as close to the action movie hero as Hamlet gets with his large, imposing physique and brutal looking medieval sword:
Speaking of action heroes, the whole movie Last Action Hero has a reoccurring motif of nodding to Hamlet. The avenging hero archetype is the prototype for every action movie, every superhero, (and most kung fu), and it began with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is why it’s hilarious that Schwarzeneger portrays him in Last Action Hero- the movie is a loving parody of every single action star since the original- Hamlet.
Why Else might Hamlet be so cryptic?
Not all versions are about suicide or murder
Lawrence Olivier believed that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex, and therefore has an unconscious desire to murder his father and sleep with this mother, which is why he considered himself unworthy to avenge his father’s death. In Olivier’s To Be, you can almost see his Hamlet aroused by his own Oedipal fantasies and then recoiling with disgust right before he says the line: “Perchance to dream.”
Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet centers around court intrigue. In contrast with Oliver’s Gothic Elsinore, his is bright and baroque, but it’s full of two way mirrors. Half the film is either large shots with lots of people watching public performances or POV shots of people being watched.
Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be,” focuses on the possibility that Hamlet knows that Claudius is watching him through the two way mirror- he frightens him, puzzles, him, but in the end, never gives Claudius a clue as to his true intentions.
Murder or suicide?
the speech is not only famous for its universality but its evocative imagery, clear (albeit cryptic) construction, and heightened circumstances.
Shakespeare is able to give us a complete character without giving everything away, which allows anyone to reinterpret the character their own way. That is why Shakespeare’s characters endure.
Shakespeare on Riots
Today is March 15th, a day that history still bewares, because of the infamous day when armed, violent conspirators went to the Senate and attempted to overthrow elected rulers. For obvious reasons, this put me in mind of the heinous actions of another group of conspirators stormed another Senate and tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow democracy.
January 6th, 2021 (which, coincidently, was Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare-themed holidays), was a tragedy for multiple reasons. The protestors broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia that week.
Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.
How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:
Example 1: Julius Caesar
As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:
What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.
Example 2: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part ii.
Henry VI is the only king in English history to be crowned twice, deposed twice, and buried twice (Saccio 91). As the play begins, King Henry has already lost France, lost his mind, and lost the respect of his people. Around 1455, John Hardyng wrote a contrast between Henry’s father and himself. He laments that Henry the Fifth died so soon and then exhorts Henry to keep the quarrelsome lords in his government from warring among themselves.
Withstand, good lord, the outbreak of debates.
And chastise well also the rioters
Who in each shire are now confederates
Against your peace, and all their maintainers
For truly else will fall the fairest flowers
Of your great crown and noble monarchy
Which God defend and keep through his mercy.
(Excerpt from Harding’s Chronicle, English Historical Documents, 274).
Henry’s political ineptness was why Richard of York challenged his claim to the throne. Though Richard had little legal claim as king, he believed himself to be better than Henry.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part ii, York tries to get the people’s support by engineering a crisis that he can easily solve. York dupes a man named Jack Cade to start a riot in London and demand that the magistrates crown Cade as the true king.
York and Cade start a conspiracy theory that Cade is the true heir to the throne and the royal family suppressed his claim and lied about his identity. Cade starts calling himself John Mortimer, a distant uncle of the king whom York himself admits is long dead:
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the title of John Mortimer.
Just like Cade and his rebels, the January 6th rioters were motivated by lies and conspiracies designed to crush their faith in their legitimate ruler. Even more disturbing, these rioters are pawns in the master plan of a corrupt political group. York doesn’t care that Cade isn’t the real king; he just wants to use Cade’s violence as an excuse to raise an army, one that he can eventually use against King Henry himself.
Similar to York’s lies and conspiracy-mongering, many Republicans have refused to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and some are actual proponents of Q Anon conspiracies!
A lot of Republicans deserve blame for fanning the flames of rebellion on January 6th, but arguably former President Trump deserves most of the blame. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted that Trump spread a huge amount of conspiracy theories without believing in any of them. He does this because he wants Americans to be afraid of imaginary threats that he claims he can solve. What’s easier to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist? Much like York, Trump tried to hold onto power by pressuring his supporters to pressure the Capital, feeding them lies about election fraud, and a secret democratic Satanic cult. Thus radicalized, they resolved to do what Cade’s mob did: “Kill all the lawyers.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in the Senate.
As Dick the Butcher points out, most people don’t actually believe Cade is truly John Mortimer, they are just so angry at the king and the oppressive English government, that they are willing to follow him in a violent mob to take their vengeance upon the monarchy. This is why they try Lord Saye and execute him just for the crime of reading and writing! Similarly, the mob attacking the capital was made up of die-hard conspiracy adherents, and people just angry at the Democratic Party.
Like I said before, Cade and his mob is just a pawn in the machinations of York. Eventually the king’s enforcer, Lord Clifford convinces most of them to abandon Cade, and Cade himself dies a humiliating death- on the run from the law and starving, Cade is murdered by a farmer after trying to steal some food. After Joe Biden became the 46th President, many of the conspiracy group Q-Anon, who had many prominent members in the January 6th riot, began to disbelieve and abandon the conspiracies of the group. However, as this news story shows, some Q-Anon supporters are die-hard adherents and will never abandon their conspiracy theories, and some, like York’s supporters, are being recruited by other extreme groups. Sadly, as York shows, sometimes a riot is a rehearsal for another riot. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III, York finally amasses an army and challenges the Lancastrians in all-out war. Hopefully, the US government will hunt down and arrest these violent insurrectionists before they have the chance to do the same.
Example 3: Sir Thomas More
In the unfinished play “Sir Thomas More, a racist mob again attempts to attack London. This time they have no political pretenses; they want to lynch immigrants who they believe are taking English jobs. As I said in my “Who Would Shakespeare Vote For?” post, More’s speech is a perfect explanation of why this behavior cheapens and denigrated a country’s image, and weakens its ability to command respect from the rest of the world. Last time I posted a video of Sir Ian McKellen speaking this speech, but this time.. well just watch: