One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.
This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.
The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.
Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story
Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.
I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.
I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.
Part II: The women take wing
During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.
TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by
Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.
Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:
What do you think of when you think of “Shakespeare?” What do you think of when you think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
Ruffs and Tights?
Mostly white dudes?
Dark night and moon?
This production, directed by Michelle Terry, is gleefully throwing out every preconceived notion of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream can or should be. In terms of design, casting, music, and interpretation, it breaks all the rules, while still remaining true to the text. This allows the production to appeal to not only hard-core Shakespeare fans, but first time audiences and children too!
I would describe the concept behind the show as “Suggestive,” that is, it doesn’t belong to a literal time and place. Even though the play is set in Ancient Greece, the play refuses to be constrained by historical accuracy, which arguably, fits nicely with Shakespeare in particular, and the Globe itself; a modern building in a modern city, based on a 400-year-old building.
The music and costumes evoke a New Orleans Mardis Gras, a Pride parade, or a Spanish pinata with its bright colors, heavy use of fringes, and bright, energetic jazz music. The only people who don’t wear bright colors are the four lovers, which reflects their continuous frustration with being unable to marry the person they really want.
The show is also Color blind and gender blind, with women playing men’s parts and a cast with black, white, and mixed race actors. Terry’s direction also calls attention to the patriarchial, racist, and sexist elements of Athens which are often overlooked in other interpretations of Dream that I’ve seen or read about. Rather than being a hero, Theseus is a horny old man in a ludicrous pink uniform, looking like a cross between M. Bison and a Christmas nutcracker. To reinforce this point, the actor chose to perform one of Theseus’ most patriarchial speeches as a joke:
Theseus. What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:50 To you your father should be as a god; One that composed your beauties, yea, and one To whom you are but as a form in wax By him imprinted and within his power To leave the figure or disfigure it. -Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene i.
I’ve seen this speech heavily cut and played seriously, but never till now did I see it played to ridicule the ludicrous notion that women are in any way bound to worship their fathers.
In another nod to contemporary gender politics, the actress who plays Hippolyta and Titania chose to perform her role on crutches. As far as I can tell, this was a deliberate choice and not a result of real injury. There is a precedent for this: In 1984, Sir Antony Sher performed Richard iii on crutches because it highlighted the cruelty people with disabilities often suffer.
I could be wrong, but I think that the reason the actress was on crutches was a symbolic way of confronting the way gender politics can cripple women.
Many scholars have pointed out how Hippolyta rarely speaks despite the fact that she is supposed to be the powerful Queen of the Amazons, and Theseus’ fiance besides. Shakespeare makes it clear that their marriage was arranged as a political alliance after the Amazons lost to Athens in a war:
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, And won thy love, doing thee injuries;20 But I will wed thee in another key, With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.
With this in mind, it makes sense to have Hippolyta on crutches as a result of her injuries. Those injuries might also explain her silence; she has lost her agency now that she is essentially Theseus’ prisoner. One might think of any number of war atrocious where women have been sold to powerful men over the centuries. In short, by putting Hippolyta on crutches, we see a glimpse into her tragic story that most productions just gloss over- that she has lost a war, been separated from her people, and is now her enemies’ prisoner through marriage.
I’ve come to expect high quality acting from The Globe Theater Company and this cast did not disappoint. As we watched it together, my family concluded that this was one of the best acted productions of Dream that we’ve ever seen, which between us has to be over 30 plus productions.
The delivery is crisp and fast paced. Every actor has taken these words and made them their own. They speak them as if they were written yesterday. One thing I love about the Globe is that the directors encourage this kind of fast paced delivery; with no distracting special effects or sets, the actors have to captivate the audience with their delivery of Shakespeare’s text, without being melodramatic or self-indulgent. I’m pleased to say that this cast does a fantastic job of telling this magical story in a compelling and very modern way.
I’ve shown my recording to kids, teens, adults, and my family, and everyone has a different reaction to the show. Maybe this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but the concept is sound, the acting is high caliber, and it utilizes the Globe’s unique qualities extremely well.
I personally didn’t care for Bottom just because I felt the actress was playing a very energetic part with too much sarcasm and tongue in cheek, but that’s mostly personal preference. I did however love Peter Quince, Snout, Snug, and the rest of the Mechanicals. Peter Quince is a rather thankless part but it’s great to see someone balance being a straight man trying to reign in Bottom’s antics. and an idiot who has no idea how to direct a company of actors, which the actress playing Quince did very well.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Historical Events Mentioned in Hamnet
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/
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.
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:
Thanks to WordPress’ new interface, it’s easier for me to read what other bloggers have to say about the topics I write about. One trend I’ve noticed is the question that’s been boiling underneath the surface of a lot of people in our culture: “Should Shakespeare be ‘cancelled’?” It’s an interesting question and definitely merits discussion.
It is also a question that has some basis reality: Shakespeare was taken off the list of required reading of of schools in New Zealand. In 2007, The American Council Of Trustees and Allumni published a report called “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” about the number of colleges who no longer require English majors to take Shakespeare courses. If you read my post on Romeo and Juliet, you will recall that one of the main reasons why we have Shakespeare as a requirement in American high schools is that he is required reading in many colleges. So this could be part of a trend that extends to primary as well as secondary schools as well.
Many academics, (myself included), are wondering about Shakespeare’s status in education, and whether or not he will continue to be a staple of all English language curricula. So what I want to do with this essay is to ask the question, “Should Shakespeare be cancelled,” as well as”Should he not be cancelled? and “What even is cancelling and how does apply to somebody who is already long long dead now?”
First off, cards on the table: I am a white man, (with a beard), who has been studying Shakespeare for 20 years. I have a very clear bias; I would never advocate for Shakespeare being taken out of any schools. That said, I see merits to parts of the argument, and I do not believe that these teachers who are reexamining Shakespeare’s place in education are inherently wrong. Nor do I believe if that there is no merit to changing the way educators teach Shakespeare in our schools, (more on that later). My point is to write a thoughtful reflection about the nature of Shakespeare as a writer, his status within our culture, his status within the educational establishment, and how changing that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Part One: the arguments for cancelling Shakespeare
When I read the article “Why I am rethinking Teaching Shakespeare In My English Classroom,” by teacher Christina Torres, I noticed a lot of her arguments centered around diversity quotas and simply not having the class time to devote to Shakespeare. This is entirely understandable. Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, which means language has changed a lot since his heyday.
Shakespeare poses several unique challenges in education. He wrote in an obscure form of poetry that is no longer fashionable. You have to read footnotes. Although 95% of the words he used are still used today, they are used in a very unique syntax. Furthermore, I come to teaching Shakespeare from the perspective of somebody who studied theater, acting, Elizabethan history, and everything that that is required to teach Shakespeare, but many teachers do not. My point is I can understand why a teacher feels that he or she does not have the time, energy, or the learning required to give Shakespeare the space that he so clearly demands.
The question of Shakespeare’s status in our classrooms also raises subtle questions about diversity. Many curricula these days emphasize diverse writers and try to highlight the cultural contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and as far as we know, Shakespeare fit into none of these groups.
This educational initiative is a part of the anti racist initiative and I as an educator I am fully on board with this. I love to be in a classroom where Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lorraine Hansberry, Mary Shelley, and Truman Capote share the same shelf is William Shakespeare, but ever since the 18th century Shakespeare and cultural nationalism have been inexorably linked.
Almost since the beginning of Shakespearean scholarship, American and British critics have sought to venerate Shakespeare as the peak of British culture, and thus the peak of human culture as well. It’s not a coincidence that we celebrate National Poetry Month the same month as Shakespeare’s birth and death. Also, even though we don’t know for sure when Shakespeare was born, we celebrate it on April 23rd, St. George’s Day, thus forever linking England’s greatest poet, with its patron saint. George Bernard Shaw, (an Irishman), coined the term ‘bardolotry,’ to describe the treatment of Shakespeare by the English as if he were a god and the evidence is quite damning:
Just look at this painting where Shakespeare is portrayed as in the same pose and with the same reverence as the baby Jesus. This reverence carried over to poetry, music, festivals, and of course, to the classroom. As I wrote in My Romeo and Juliet post, since the beginning of American public education, Shakespeare was an indispensable fixture in American schools, and thus, prompting American writers like Mark Twain to grumpily refer to Shakespeare and other classics as “Something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.”
Countless textbooks refer to Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, and possibly the greatest writer ever. Ralph Waldo Emerson once preached that Shakespeare was: “Inconceivably wise.” The god-like aura around Shakespeare has made him nearly impervious to criticism and English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed Shakespeare as their gospel. Being an English speaker means having the God-Shakespeare on your side, and if you have God on your side historically speaking, you can justify anything.
The British were keen to elevate Shakespeare to this godlike status partially because it showed that their culture was superior to others. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest is about a man with book learning who goes off and colonizes an island whose inhabitants seem savage and uneducated. If our goal as educators with adding anti racist education is to show that all voices are valid, to highlight the contributions of every ethnic group, and to refute the notion that white culture is in any way superior to any other, then to a certain degree, we must knock Shakespeare off his literary pedestal.
We also should not a take a blind eye to the anti-POC and mysoginist language in some of Shakespeare’s plays. For instance one line I deeply despise in Romeo and Juliet is the line where Romeo refers to Juliet by saying she “Hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear” (A black woman wearing an earring).
This statement contrast beauty, specifically the beauty of white skin, with the “ugliness” of a black woman’s ear. Shakespeare uses this metaphor several times in several plays, establishing white as beauty and black as the aberration.
I bring this up not to say that Shakespeare should be cancelled and hated because of this racially insensitive language, because he’s not the only one who does it. All you have to do is Google “Who’s the fairest one of all?” to realize that for centuries, fair skin, beautiful skin, and white skin meant the same thing. As Dr. Grady says in the video above, having an honest discussion of Shakespeare’s language and his culture’s attitude towards race is an opportunity to teach critical race theory in the classroom, and to teach students to recognize and deplore dehumanizing language, which though poetic to white Elizabethans, is hurtful and dehumanizing to people of color. In short, banning or condemning Shakespeare is counter productive, but examining his language, culture, and politics with a critical eye is a very useful and important exercise.
Part 2 why Shakespeare doesn’t deserve to be cancelled
I’ve established that Shakespeare has connections with some very dark moments in a European history and he should not be celebrated merely because of he was white or because he was British. I believe that Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language as well as drama and the arts still makes him worthy of study by students. As this video from the New York Times shows, students need at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare to understand western culture:
I believe that, as long as we educators don’t indulge our bardolotrous tendancies, and keep Shakespeare in the context of the period in which he lived, we can still teach him in a way that will benefit our students.
One small way to put Shakespeare in context is very simple: STOP USING THE TERM “RENAISSANCE.” Most scholars now refer to Shakespeare’s time period as the Early Modern Period, not The Renaissance, which was an honorific term that people used during Shakespeare’s time period. The term RENAISSANCE, meaning the rebirth of classical learning and by extention the rebirth of sophisticated European culture, can give the impression that it was only a period of study and artistic achievement, leaving out colonization and racial and political tension. I find Early Modern Period a very useful descriptor because like it or not, Shakespeare’s culture influenced ours, therefore an understanding of him is very much understanding of where we came from. Learning from Shakespeare is like learning from history- we cannot shy away from the mistakes of the past, nor should we flat out reject its benefits.
it should be noted that a lot of the good scholarship in the last to the last 50 or 60 years has been tasked with putting Shakespeare back into his historical context and trying to reclaim his staus as a man of his time. Dr. Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University helped coin the term ‘new historicism’ which emphasizes learning about the culture of a writer’s time period. To New Historicists (such as myself), Shakespeare is no longer considered a great man of history, but a man shaped by the culture of his time, which is to say a man who had good parts and bad parts much like history itself. This is the approach that I think should be taught in American schools highlighting how Elizabethan culture shaped Shakespeare, and how he shaped our culture in turn.
Comparing Shakespeare to history, especially American history, is very useful in American schools. Like the founding fathers Shakespeare reached towards an ideal. He wrote plays about ideal kingship, even though kingship is a cruel and autocratic system of government. He wrote romances about young lovers who follow the wonderful idea of love at first sight, even though in reality that concept is somewhat rare, and very often fraught with peril. And like Shakespeare, people often ignore the flaws and human failings of the founding fathers too. Look at this mural painting of The Apotheosis of Washington, which still looks down on mortals from the US capital building in Washington DC.
Much like the founding fathers’ document that declares that all men are created equal, we can appreciate Shakespeare’s plays but also be aware of their flaws. Both documents were written by a flawed human being with a very narrow understanding of the wider culture and world in which he lived, but one who did his best to try and write works that would benefit all of mankind. As educators we can teach students to be inspired by this work, and seek to have a greater understanding of “The Great Globe Itself,” with the benefit of hindsight, so they may become enlightened citizens of the world, true Renaissance Men, Women, themselves.
So if I truly believe, (and I do), that Shakespeare is still relevant and has something to say to people regardless of their culture or cultural and racial backgrounds regardless of what time period they were born in and regardless of gender, how then can we teach him in classrooms in responsible and nuanced way?
-Give students the chance to rewrite or reword the more problematic elements, such as Romeo’s creepy stalking of Juliet,
-Highlight Shakespeare calling attention to patriarchial issues: Capulet in Act III, v, Friar Lawrence comparing love to gunpowder. Juliet raging against arranged marriage, etc.
Celebrate Shakespeare’s positive contributions to race relations: Othello was the first black hero on the London stage and the role helped generations of black actors get their start in theatre. There’s your modern bardolotry, Shakespeare not as “Inconceivably wise,” Inconceivably woke! You can also look at the proud tradition of color blind casting in Shakespeare’s performance history, such as Orson Wells’ “Voodoo Macbeth.”
Do some research on modern productions that translate the themes into a modern concept.
To sum up- cancelling Shakespeare doesn’t mean vilifying him. It means re-examining his role in our culture, and teaching students to appreciate the benefits, and try to correct the damages that his culture has brought to our own. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. As for Shakespeare himself, no amount of legitimate criticism will keep people like me from enjoying his plays. If anything, I appreciate even more the breadth and depth of his writing the more I learn about the culture in which he lived. I like to think that, if Shakespeare knew people would be talking about him in school, he’d echo the way Othello said he wanted to be remembered, to “Speak of me as I am, Nothing extenuate.” And that we heed the words of Ben Johnson in the dedication to the First Folio, when we think of treating Shakespeare as an icon.
I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.
So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.
For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.
My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.
Since it’s Women’s History Month, and we just had the Ides of March last week, I thought it might be a good idea to analyze some of Shakespeare’s female characters in his Roman plays. I’ve talked a lot about the men in Julius Caesar, Titus, Andronicus, and Coriolanus, but haven’t examined the female characters much, so that’s what I’m going do discuss today.
Examining these characters is important because many are based on real Roman women, and Shakespeare’s sources reveal what Roman culture thought about women’s roles. This is particularly relevant to those of you reading this in the west because Roman culture influenced the Elizabethans and they set the foundation for our culture today. Feminist criticism has been much maligned, (and I’m certainly not an expert on feminism), but I do know this: it exists to question the values and conventions of our culture, so we can identify what works and what needs to change to build a more egalitarian society.
When it comes to Shakespeare female characters in general, he challenges the status quo, but also reinforces it: There’s always a character who challenges traditional gender roles like Katherine and Beatrice, but, (with the exception of Twelfth Night), for every one of these there’s also a Bianca or a Hero; characters who embody traditional famine roles and virtues of chastity, meekness, and yes, marriage and childbirth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Shakespeare’s Roman plays where there are always two female characters and they usually embody opposite views of women’s roles and a woman’s duty to her country and the men in their lives
1. Tamara from Titus Andronicus
Titus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his first Roman play. As we shall see, as Shakespeare went through his career we see a more nuanced view of women’s roles and a greater appreciation for women who disdain or challenge patriarchal society. The characters Lavinia and Tamara are perfect examples and counterexamples respectively of traditional feminine roles.
When we first meet her, Tamara is the queen of the Goths- an enemy tribe that Rome has just conquered. Everything about Tamara from her foreign upbringing, to her personality, is a counter-example of what Romans prize in women. She is portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty, motivated by revenge against Titus, (who in the first scene of the play, kills her eldest son. Tamara responds by masterminding the murder of all of Titus’ children. She is also sexually liberated and uses her sexuality to further her revenge. Tamara seduces the Emperor to get him on her side, and gets the Emperor to condemn Titus’ sons to death. Her adultery with Aaron is another way she uses her sexuality to get revenge; she brings ruin the monarchy by cuckolding the Emperor. Thus Tamara’s sexuality and bold personality is framed in the play as an existential threat to Rome itself.
Tamara’s chief and only virtue is her love for her children, as you can plainly see in this scene from the play. Her love for her son Alarbus is why she begs Titus for his life, and afterwards, when he sacrifices Alarbus, Tamara’s love for her son turns into deadly hate to Titus. It is her motherly devotion that makes Tamara simultaneously human, and inhuman. As the play progresses however, Tamara is referred to in increasingly inhuman and savage terms. She dresses up as the goddess Revenge to torment Titus, and after she dies, Lucius, the new Emperor (and Titus’ only surviving son), calls her a “ravenous tiger,” and calls for her body to be thrown to beasts, since “Her life was beast-like.” Tamara is unquestionably the villain- a femme-fatale and a threat to all the Roman characters, but especially Titus’ daughter Lavinia.
2. Lavinia from Titus Andronicus
For the entire play, Lavinia embodies traditional Roman female virtues, in that she is defined by the men in her life, and her chastity. The Romans actually invented the term castitas to refer to the female virtues of modesty and chastity, that is, only having sex with the man you are married to. Lavinia fits this mold perfectly. She’s a devoted daughter, wife, and sister. When we first meet her, she is a model of duty- greeting her father and asking for his blessing when he returns to Rome, and shedding tears for her brothers that were slain in the war:
In the cruelest and most barbaric scene in all of Shakespeare, Lavinia is raped by Tamara’s sons. Then, to keep her from identifying her attackers, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. The mutilation is grotesque, but for Titus, the Romans, and for the Elizabethans Shakespeare was writing for, the cruelest loss for Lavinia was the loss of her chastity. Now that she isn’t a virgin, Lavinia is marked with the opposite of chastity, incestum, or infamy. Even though the rape was not her fault, Lavinia is marked with shame. The Romans took unchastity extremely seriously; they used to punish it by throwing the adulteress to her death off the Tarpeian Rock. As you can see in this video, when a woman who was supposed to live chaste is even suspected of adultery, her very life is now in jeopardy:
When she loses her virginity, Lavinia becomes a silent creature of sadness. She is no longer a person, but a motivation for Titus’ revenge. Even if she hadn’t lost her tongue, she would still have little agency in the plot. This is why Titus kills her; to remove her incestum, and end her suffering. Lavinia embodies the the cruel truth that women had to face in ancient Rome- once they lose their virginity, they are already dead in the eyes of most of Roman society.
3. Portia (Julius Caesar) If Shakespeare only wrote these two female characters, you might rightly assume that he was a vile sexist, who defines a women’s usefulness simply by her chastity or lack thereof, and who thinks the proper function of a woman is to be quiet, demure, chaste, and obedient. Thankfully Shakespeare created Portia in Julius Caesar, and she defies many of the stereotypes associated with women in Ancient Rome.
Portia marks a turning point in Shakespeare’s Roman female characters as we we go from more ‘traditional’ female characters, to ones who exemplify masculine virtues. Instead of women being subordinates to men’s affairs and keeping out of religion, politics, and the affairs of Roman society, Portia is a character who demands respect, and to share her husband’s dangers. Some ancient sources suggested possibly Portia might have been the one who inspired Brutus to kill Caesar, (more on that later), but in any case Portia is not a character who is subordinate to men, but who demands to be treated as a Roman citizen.
In one of the strangest passages of the play, Portia reveals that she has willingly injured herself by stabbing herself in the thigh. She does this as a way of establishing her tolerance for pain and her desire to be taken seriously by her husband:
Brutus. You are my true and honourable wife, As dear to me as are the ruddy drops That visit my sad heart Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret. I grant I am a woman; but withal920 A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife: I grant I am a woman; but withal A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter. Think you I am no stronger than my sex, Being so father'd and so husbanded?925 Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose 'em: I have made strong proof of my constancy, Giving myself a voluntary wound Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience. And not my husband's secrets?930 Brutus. O ye gods, Render me worthy of this noble wife!
Romans have always had a connection with blood. Blood is a connection to duty; we owe our lives and our blood to Rome; the Gladiator whose blood honours the dead, the sacrifice of the enemy soldiers in Titus Andronicus, and the blood of the Roman soldier shed in service of the country. Rome is almost a culture that is built on blood. Portia in this gesture makes it clear that she is willing to shed blood just as much as her husband, who of course, will shed blood, (just not his own). In a way, Portia’s wound makes her more heroic than Brutus, because she is willing to suffer for the good of Rome, while Brutus kills for the good of Rome.
Shakespeare’s Roman characters, (male and female), extol the questionable virtue of the noble death. Historically when a Roman conspiracy failed, the conspirators had a choice; they could be paraded back to Rome humiliated and disgraced, or they could kill themselves and show defiance in the face of their conquerors. In some cases suicide was actually encouraged by the conquerors, as it meant that the threat was neutralized. In response, the conquerors would go easy on the wife and children.
Portia kills herself after Brutus is on the run. There could be two equally important reasons why she does this. First, she might be attempting to gain favor with the triumvirate by killing herself, (since she is complicit in the assassination), in the hopes that Anthony and a and Octavian will take pity on a Brutus’ children. It’s also possible that Portia kills herself because with the tide of battle turning, she might be next. Portia might be showing the same sort of resolve their husband later shows when he commits suicide to appease Caesar’s ghost and to defy his enemies the honor of capturing him.
Since Portia has a lot of her husband’s same virtues, the inevitable question I come to is to wonder what if; what if Shakespeare’s Brutus had a listened to Portia more,what might he have done?
This painting by Jacques Louis David depicts Brutus’ ancestor Junius Brutus. We see that he is utterly removed and stoic him in the face of death. He has ordered the execution of his own sons for trying to bring back the monarchy. In the background, Brutus’s wife and daughters are mourning the death of their son and brothers. Men like Brutus, with their Republican ideals, take little stock in the consequence of their actions.
One can only wonder if Brutus had had confided in Portia, would she have condemned his actions, or could she have led him to a more constructive path, that might have a prevented Brutus’ death, and maybe even stopped the coming days of the Empire?
Valumnia (Coriolanus) In Shakespeare’s later Roman tragedyCoriolanus, we again see a young, chaste woman and an older mother figure, but unlike in Titus, the older Volumnia is much more heroic than the young maid Virgilia. Both show loyalty to Rome and devotion to Coriolanus, but Volumnia is not only a hero, she is in many ways a complete inversion of the Roman mother trope.
Volumnia is fanatically devoted to Rome and its army and like her son. She finds war more beautiful than symbols of peace, especially those associated with motherhood. In Act I, Scene iii, she says that the breasts of the Trojan Queen Hecuba were not as lovely as her son’s forehead when it spit blood in battle. She is an inversion of the traditional motherly character; because of her devotion to Rome and her son, she is more outspoken than other women and not afraid to talk back to anyone who questions Rome. In a way she is more of Coriolanus’ general or his father than a traditional mother. Her love of Rome is inextricably tied to her love of her son. She raises her son to be a warrior for the Senate and the people of Rome, exhorting him to either return in glory, or die. Observe this passage where she tells Coriolanus’ wife that she was never proudest than when she sent her son off to war:
Volumnia: I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honour would become such a person. that it was no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.
Although Virgilia fits the bill of the modest, chaste, and loyal Roman housewife, Volumnia is framed as much more heroic. She even uses her mighty stoicism to save Rome! After Coriolanus rebels against Rome and joins the Volscis, Volumnia gets him to agree to make peace with Rome. She does this by kneeling before her own son; humiliating herself for the good of Rome. This act of self-humiliation changes Coriolanus’ mind. Observe how shocked Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is when his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) kneels in this scene from the movie Coriolanus (directed by Ralph Fiennes in 2011).
4. Julia (Antony and Cleopatra) and with Cleopatra
With these final two examples, I’ve chosen two character who, (at face value), resemble Lavinia and Tamara. One is a dutiful, chaste Roman wife, related by blood to the Imperial family. Octavia was beloved throughout Rome for her chastity and kindness, and the citizens were outraged when her husband Marc Antony, abandoned her for Cleopatra, who was seen by many as a murderous, barbarous, lustful and an evil sorceress. However, Shakespeare paints a much more complex picture of Cleopatra, and though Octavia retains her chastity and is praised for her virtue, Cleopatra is unquestionably the star of the show, and ultimately commands more respect, awe, and even sympathy from the audience.
In Shakespeare’s play (and in real life), Cleopatra used her beauty as a propaganda tool. As I mentioned the Game of Thrones post, she deified herself in order to be taken seriously. In the 1st century AD, the system was very much rigged against female authority and so women had to resort to terrible measures in order to secure power for themselves.
If you look at the play again especially near the end, Cleopatra doesn’t come across as a femme fatale, she comes across as a woman who is trying to keep her Kingdom and her son Cesarian safe, and she will do anything to protect him. As the name suggests, Cesarean was Cleopatra’s love child of Julius Caesar, so the entire Roman world wanted him dead, because he was a threat to Octavian’s claim to the throne. To keep her son safe, Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony, hoping a powerful Roman alliance will keep her crown safe, and her son alive. Sadly for her, Octavian would stop at nothing to bring down all threats to his power, including Cesarian and Marc Antony. Arguably, the only reason he married Marc Antony to Octavia in the first place, was that he knew if Antony committed adultery, it would give Octavian the perfect excuse to raise an army and destroy Antony. Cleopatra got caught up in the political machinations of the most powerful and cunning man in the ancient world, and held him off as best she could.
Cleopatra struggles through the whole play to keep Antony, her people, and the situation in Rome under control. Antony never respects her as a queen and treats her like a jealous boyfriend, which is why they frequently get into fights.
However, after Antony’s suicide, the audience sees that Cleopatra also genuinely loved him back, and weeps for him as a wife, not an ally. Yet, quickly she regains her royal composure once Octavian threatens to take her back to Rome in chains. She decides to simultaneously deny Octavian the satisfaction, protect her son, and join her husband in the afterlife with her regal suicide:
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. So; have you done? Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips. Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell. [Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies] 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.
In conclusion, Shakespeare couldn’t go too far against the grain with challenging traditional patriarchal views of women, but in his Roman plays, we see characters who are simultaneously mothers and murderers, chaste and intelligent, citizens and devoted wives. I’m not trying to say that Shakespeare invented feminism, but I do believe his characters remind us that it is folly to try to box either gender into such stale old Roman categories as masculine or feminine. Perhaps we should all aspire to be like Cleopatra, whose infinite variety allowed her to succeed in a man’s world, while still being a wife, a mother, a lover, and a queen.