How Accurate Is Hamnet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

https://youtu.be/kj240pJPpB8

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

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

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

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

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


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

Historical Notes:

Infant mortality in Elizabethan England:

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

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

Mortimer, 27.

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

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

Historical Events Mentioned in Hamnet

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Notes On Shakespeare’s Wedding Day:

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

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

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

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

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

1596 Hamnet dies

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

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

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

Is Shakespeare Being Canceled?

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:

The infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions (Romney, c. 1791-1792)

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.

“A Discovery Of the Bermudas,” 1610. Thought by many scholars to be Shakespeare’s inspiration for “The Tempest”

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.

Caliban, Prospero’s slave from “The Tempest”

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).

1583/5 – ANNIBALE CARRACCI, PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN HOLDING A CLOCK

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:

There’s No Escaping Shakespeare: New York Times, 2016.

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.

Deifying the First President in 'The Apotheosis of Washington' – Brewminate
The Apotheosis of Washington  Constantino Brumidi, 1865 .

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?

What to do?

[  ]Give a cultural context to the play you study. A culture that is the direct ancestor of our own, but one that was frought with Colonialism, Casual racism, (especially in language), Sexism, Patriarchy, and Homosexual oppression. Not to toot my own horn, but this is what I tried to do with my Romeo and Juliet Website: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/12GhgKdJr63wmTcm6TTvkZ-ROmUnALKQi/edit

-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.
BOOKS : THE LOVERS, AFGHANISTAN'S ROMEO AND JULIET — Home | Afghan Culture  Unveiled
Book cover for “The Lovers,” the real-life story of Ali and Zakia, teenagers from Afghanastan, who fell in love in spite of their parent’s religious hatreds.

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.

Dedication by Ben Johnson in Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623.

What Does Shakespeare Say About Ireland 🇮🇪?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The Emerald Isle has long been a source of illumination for poet’s pens and Shakespeare was no exception. The Bard of Avon is indebted to Mother Ireland not only for the inspiration he took, but sadly for the pain he gave her back.

None of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Ireland, but he freely adapted elements from Irish folklore. English poet Edmund Spencer visited Ireland in the 1590s and adapted the folklore he picked up into his opera The Fairy Queen, which Shakespeare adapted into A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Irish created and continue to tell many of the fairy legends and stories that we retell and adapt today. If you go to Lullymore park in Ireland, you can see a place that is essentially a “Fairy preserve.”

Types of fairies you can “spot” at the Lullymore Park in Ireland:

The old stories tell that Fairies are magical creatures who live in hollow places in the earth. Some are benevolent and help give rain and pleasant weather to the Earth, Like the king and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania:

And the mazed world,
By their [the tides] increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

— Titania, (Queen of the Faries), A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II, Scene i.

Titania in this speech shows great concern for nature, humanity, and the planet. She believes it is the responsibility of fairies, particularly herself and her husband Oberon, to control the elements and keep humans and fairies safe. Some fairies, however, are cruel and enjoy playing tricks on mortals, just like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet.

.

This is a short analysis I created of the tricks Puck plays on people in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of my acting course on Ouschool.com. Note the different ways Puck is portrayed in photos as a satyr, a rotund elf, and sometimes as an almost- demon like figure.

Cringe-worthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s only Irish character, captain mcmorris in “Henry V”

When Shakespeare is racially insensitive towards people of color, the cringe-worthy writing is mercifully few and far between. With the exception of Aaron the Moor and Don Armada, there are only a few sporadic derogatory references to non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Sadly though, Shakespeare might have permanently harmed the Irish through his character the Irish captain Macmorris in Henry the Fifth, his only Irish character.

According to The Irish Times, there is a longstanding stereotype that still exists in the British Isles that Irish people are violent, short-tempered, and essentially savages and Shakespeare might have invented this stereotype (or at least popularized it) when he wrote this scene from Henry the Fifth, Act III, Scene ii:

FLUELLEN
To the mines! tell you the duke, it is not so good
to come to the mines; for, look you, the mines is
not according to the disciplines of the war: the
concavities of it is not sufficient; for, look you,
the athversary, you may discuss unto the duke, look
you, is digt himself four yard under the
countermines: by Cheshu, I think a' will plough up
all, if there is not better directions.
GOWER
The Duke of Gloucester, to whom the order of the
siege is given, is altogether directed by an
Irishman, a very valiant gentleman, i' faith.
FLUELLEN
It is Captain Macmorris, is it not?
GOWER
I think it be.
FLUELLEN
By Cheshu, he is an ass, as in the world: I will
verify as much in his beard: be has no more
directions in the true disciplines of the wars, look
you, of the Roman disciplines, than is a puppy-dog.
Enter MACMORRIS and Captain JAMY
GOWER
Here a' comes; and the Scots captain, Captain Jamy, with him.
FLUELLEN
Captain Jamy is a marvellous falourous gentleman,
that is certain; and of great expedition and
knowledge in th' aunchient wars, upon my particular
knowledge of his directions: by Cheshu, he will
maintain his argument as well as any military man in
the world, in the disciplines of the pristine wars
of the Romans.
JAMY
I say gud-day, Captain Fluellen.
FLUELLEN
God-den to your worship, good Captain James.
GOWER
How now, Captain Macmorris! have you quit the
mines? have the pioneers given o'er?
MACMORRIS
By Chrish, la! tish ill done: the work ish give
over, the trompet sound the retreat. By my hand, I
swear, and my father's soul, the work ish ill done;
it ish give over: I would have blowed up the town, so
Chrish save me, la! in an hour: O, tish ill done,
tish ill done; by my hand, tish ill done!
FLUELLEN
Captain Macmorris, I beseech you now, will you
voutsafe me, look you, a few disputations with you,
as partly touching or concerning the disciplines of
the war, the Roman wars, in the way of argument,
look you, and friendly communication; partly to
satisfy my opinion, and partly for the satisfaction,
look you, of my mind, as touching the direction of
the military discipline; that is the point.
JAMY
It sall be vary gud, gud feith, gud captains bath:
and I sall quit you with gud leve, as I may pick
occasion; that sall I, marry.
MACMORRIS
It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me: the
day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the
king, and the dukes: it is no time to discourse. The
town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the
breach; and we talk, and, be Chrish, do nothing:
'tis shame for us all: so God sa' me, 'tis shame to
stand still; it is shame, by my hand: and there is
throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there
ish nothing done, so Chrish sa' me, la!
JAMY
By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves
to slomber, ay'll de gud service, or ay'll lig i'
the grund for it; ay, or go to death; and ay'll pay
't as valourously as I may, that sall I suerly do,
that is the breff and the long. Marry, I wad full
fain hear some question 'tween you tway.
FLUELLEN
Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your
correction, there is not many of your nation--
MACMORRIS
Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation? Who talks of my nation?
FLUELLEN
Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is
meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think
you do not use me with that affability as in
discretion you ought to use me, look you: being as
good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of
war, and in the derivation of my birth, and in
other particularities.
MACMORRIS
I do not know you so good a man as myself: so
Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.
GOWER
Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other.
JAMY
A! that's a foul fault.
A parley sounded
GOWER
The town sounds a parley.
FLUELLEN
Captain Macmorris, when there is more better
opportunity to be required, look you, I will be so
bold as to tell you I know the disciplines of war;
and there is an end.
Exeunt

Irish History and Shakespeare: The tempestous relationship between england and Ireland

The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,

Henry V, Act V Chorus

National Portrait Gallery painting of Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Wikimedia Commons.
Robert Devereax, 2nd Earl of Essex (National Portrait Gallery)
Hugh, O’Neill, Earl of Tyronne

James Shapiro in his excellent book, A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599, posits that contemporary affairs in Ireland might have inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays in including Richard II, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. In 1594 the Earl of Tyrone began a rebellion in Ireland against the English, and in 1599, Queen Elizabeth dispatched the ambitious and chivalrous Earl of Essex to quell it. As you can see in the quote above, Shakespeare mentions Essex’s fight in his play of Henry V, which probably premiered at around the same time Essex was in Ireland.

The audience may have been watching Henry conquer France, but many would have been thinking about Elizabeth’s struggle to conquer Ireland.

BBC Radio 4 Extra – Shakespeare’s Restless World, Ireland: Failures in the Present – Transcript – Shakespeare’s Restless World – Programme 7

Though King Henry successfully conquered and united England and France, Essex failed spectacularly, and Elizabeth was deeply embarrassed by the whole scenario. She was also deeply alarmed by the popularity of Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard II, which shows onstage the deposing and killing of a king who had no children and failed to quell a rebellion in Ireland.

Elizabeth was worried about her subjects but she was also very worried about Essex overseas. Everyone, (including Shakespeare), remembered that 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar went from him the Senate’s Consul General to dictator by amassing an army, then threatening to invade Rome under the pretense of helping to quell a foreign invasion. Caesar made his name by subjugating tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), and the Senate was worried that he would come home and use his army for a military coup. Look at the expressions on the faces of Cicero and Brutus when they see Caesar coming home in triumph in this scene from the HBO series Rome.

Elizabeth repeatedly attempted to curb Essex’s power while he was fighting in Ireland; she refused to give the Earl more troops for fear that he might be staging a potential coup. Her fears would later be proven right when in 1602, Essex attempted to head a rebellion and take the Crown for himself, but not before one of Essex’s friends commissioned Shakespeare’s company to portray the deposing and killing of King Richard II. Essex was trying to turn himself from a failed Henry V to a victorious Henry IV, and his queen into Richard II.

Left- deposition form the interrogation of Augustine Phillips, one of the actors in Shakespeare’s company about his company’s potential involvement with the Essex rebellion. Right- the hanging of Cinna the poet from Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare might have been inspired to write Julius Caesar after being an unwitting pawn in the political drama between Essex and the queen, and might have even created the character of Cinna the Poet as an analog for Shakespeare himself. In the play, Cinna the poet is mistaken for one of the conspirators by an angry mob and is murdered in the street. Perhaps Shakespeare created Cinna the Poet as a way of coping with the fear he must have had that people might mistake him for a radical, after his play Richard II briefly made him a walking target for those opposed to Essex’s rebellion. In any case, Julius Caesar eloquently documents the kind of anxiety of not knowing who could be trusted when it comes to politics, whether it be a populist warrior like Julius Caesar or Essex, or the Queen, privy council, or indeed Roman senate, and the whole thing started from a failed attempt to quell a rebellion in Ireland.

In summation, even though Shakespeare sets no plays in Ireland, Irish history and Irish culture are everywhere in his plays. England and Ireland are I are indeed separate islands but the cultural exchange between England and Ireland has inspired Shakespeare and many other great writers for centuries. After all Shakespeare’s most famous honorific, ‘the Bard of Avon’ comes from an ancient Irish tradition of semi-mystical poets, who in Irish folklore, were able to see the future and glimpse worlds that are unseen to ordinary mortals. What Shakespeare really felt about Ireland we don’t know but we do him but he does owe the Irish people a lot of thanks, and on this  Saint Patrick’s day, I honor their contribution to him and to him all the world

References:

Shapiro, James. A Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599. Chapter 6: Things Dying and Things Reborn.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3fLDRSY7r9rJhrVFWy99Mly/transcript-shakespeares-restless-world-programme-7

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/is-shakespeare-responsible-for-the-stage-irishman-34638347.html

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/what-ish-my-nation-shakespeare-s-irish-connections-1.2619173

Shakespeare On Epidemics

My purpose with this post is to provide some hope and comfort by showing how Shakespeare and other Elizabethans dealt with epidemics and survived. The thing to remember is, although we are dealing with a pandemic, we are still far better prepared for it than any time in history. Furthermore, I want to draw on lessons from the past to offer hope and wisdom for people going through an epidemic.

Side note: Shakespeare refers to several diseases in his plays including “The plague,” (Bubonic Plague), “The Pox,” (syphilis), “Dropsy,” (edema), and “Falling sickness,” (epilepsy). I will mainly focus on the plague because of its strong connection to both Shakespeare’s life and career, as well as the continuing anxiety it causes to this day. I am also focusing on the plague to try and make parallels with Covid 19, a disease that, while less lethal and harder to detect, is still a pandemic that like the plague has transformed much of daily life since its inception, and could continue to grow, abate, and revive if we as a society aren’t careful.


Shakespeare’s plays also frequently allude to plagues and plague imagery, especially his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet.

First of all plague is an important plot element; an outbreak of plague prevents Romeo from getting the message that Juliet is alive, so plague inadvertently kills them both.

Plague also serves as a motif for the destructive forces that lead to the play’s tragic conclusion. After Mercutio curses “A plague on both your houses,” his death sets the events in motion that kills most of the principal the characters, as if his curse somehow infected all of them with a deadly virus.

Immortal Longings Artwork for “Romeo and Juliet” by Elizabeth Schuh, used with permission.

https://www.slideshare.net/mobile/PaulHricik/the-universe-of-romeo-and-juliet-by-paul-hricik



Shakespeare exploited a unique cultural knowledge of plagues to help his audience engage with Romeo and Juliet. If you click on the link to my presentation above, you’ll see that Elizabethans believed that four liquids called humors controlled health and behavior. A humorous man was someone who was out of ballance with the humours and thus was ridiculous for failing to control his emotions. The humor choler was associated with anger and in dangerous imbalances was thought to cause terrible fevers and even plague. Hence, when characters like Romeo and Tybalt get angry, his audience knew that one way or another, that anger will kill them.

Medieval illustration of the four humours. Top left to bottom right; Phlegm, Blood (Sanguine), Melancholy, (black bile), and choler (yellow bile).



Shakespeare also uses plague as a metaphor for the hate of the two families that infects and kills the young lovers, as well as Tybalt, Paris, and Mercutio.

The play was first published in 1595, two years after a plague outbreak so bad that the theaters were all closed, so Shakespeare’s audience had a visceral reaction to this plague imagery when they saw it in the theater, especially after a year of being quarantined away from the theaters because of that exact same disease!

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

“Scourge and Minister”

Some of Shakespeare’s plays mention plague indirectly in relation to its perceived nature as a divine punishment. Since the very beginning of the plague,, writers, clergy, and many others perceived the plague as a divine punishment, designed to destroy the wicked, like the 10th plague in the Bible that decimated the enslaving Egyptians.

To “scourge oneself” is also a verb for whipping. In the 14th century, a group a people called the flaggelants, who voluntarily scourged themselves in the hope that God would end the disease as a result of their suffering.

Woodcut of flagellants (Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493).


Shakespeare uses both meanings of scourge in many of his plays. In Henry IV, the king is filled with remorse for usurping the throne from King Richard, and worries that his future progeny will become a scourge upon him:

I know not whether God will have it so,

For some displeasing service I have done,

That, in his secret doom, out of my blood

He’ll breed revengement and a scourge for me;

King Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene ii.

Sometimes a scourge is a person sent to destroy a sinful person or group of people Shakespeare refers to the character of Richard III several times as a scourge upon the familieswhofoughtintheWars Of The Roses. In Shakespeare’s first cycle of four history plays, we see the families of York and Lancaster take turns usurping the throne, and committing numerous acts of murder, treason, and blasphemy. In the play that bears his name, Richard kills the Yorkist royal family and then is murdered himself by Henry Tudor, systematically destroying the families of York and Lancaster. Thus, in Shakespeare’s propaganda version of history, he depicts Richard as a scourge who purges the throne of usurper and traitors, and paves the way for the “virtuous,” Henry Tudor and his dynasty.

The Real Plague
The black death, also known as Bubonic Plague, was first documented in 1347. Like Covid 19 it was first discovered in China, though it might not have originated there. Some historians argue that the Huns might have carried the plague into China and trade routes from the East carried it into Europe. By 1349 it reached England.


Everyone knew what to look for from those infected with the plague: first came fevers and chills. The next stage was the appearance of small red boils on the neck, in the armpit or groin. These lumps, were called buboes, (hence the term Bubonic Plague)

The buboes grew larger and darker in colour as the disease grew worse. From there the victim would begin to spit blood, which also contaminated with plague germs, making anyone able to spread the disease by coughing. The final stage of the illness was small, red spots on the stomach and other parts of the body caused by internal bleeding, and finally death.

We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me for the shilling in the armpit. . . It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.-Jevan Gethin, poet who died from plague in 1349.

Detail from The Temptation of St Anthony, 1512. Note the swollen buboes on the stomach, arms, and legs.

John Flynn, an Irish Friar described the plague in apocalyptic terms, writing a journal for posterity, but expressed doubt that ” Any of the race of Adam would even survive.” With the horrifying spread of the epidemic, it is not hard to understand why Flynn felt that way: In 1348, there were 100,000 people living in London, but after the plague spread, the city lost 300 people every day!

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/news/quarantine-black-death-medievalContainment/ “treatments”Plague carts like in Monty Python (Dreary) carried plague bodies out of the city and burned them.
• In France, bodies were thrown in rivers (Deary)

  • Quarentines: The word quarantine is Italian for 40 days. It refers to the Venetian practice of taking suspected plague victims to an island for 40 days before allowing them to enter Venice or other populated areas. The rationale was that in the Bible, the number 40 occurs many times when a person or group of people require some form of purification; the 40 days of flooding in Genesis, the 40 years that the Jews journey to the promised land, and the 40 days of fasting Christ endured before he began his ministry to name a few examples. Bubonic plague has an incubation period of less than 40 days so the quarantine actually worked- people would go to the island, then the disease would run its course and not spread out as long as it was contained. The problem was that these quarantines were also essentially leper colonies and without treatment, the infected were basically sent to die.

Social distancing in Elizabethan England

By 1564, the year Shakespeare was born, there had been several outbreaks, but also a system designated to contain the disease. The rich went to the country. Plague bodies were burned. Theaters were closed to keep the disease from spreading. There were also body inspectors, (similar to coroner’s or death investigators today,) who inspected the bodies to look for the cause, then burned them and the clothes. Funerals for plague victims were held at night, to discourage crowds from attending, similar to our own practice of encouraging people to shop and go outside during non-peak hours.

Treating” it: The biggest comfort I can give here is to remind people that although like the plague, we are dealing with a disease with no known cure, we still have a much better understanding of how to treat viruses than our Elizabethan forebears. Some of the “cures,” from Shakespeare’s day are downright silly, when they aren’t expensive, dangerous, and above all, ineffective.

Real plague “cures”
• Kill cats and dogs
• A poultice made of Marigold flowers and eggs
• Arsenic powder (which is highly toxic)
• Crushed emerald powder.
• Pluck a chicken and place its butt on the patient’s buboes.

To bring the aftermath of the plague into a modern context, I’d like to allude to some comments from the news. Recently a few Republicans have alluded that the cost of people staying home from work would cause irreparable harm to the American economy, and alluded to the notion that a few deaths might actually benefit the economy as a whole, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Republican pundit Glenn Beck.
Now at first glance these comments are gruesome and heartless, but they have a veneer of historical precedent: some people did prosper because of the black death. Laborers could charge more from their landlords simply because most of them had died, and some younger men managed to skirt the laws of primogeniture and inherit their families’ wealth because of the death of their oldest siblings. Shakespeare himself was the third child of Mary and John Shakespeare, but his elder siblings both perished due to plague. Again, to be fair to these Republicans, there is a historical facet to their arguments, however this is a very narrow and very incomplete version of history.


https://youtu.be/QNo-r20wqqg
Looking forward from the first century after the Black Death, the loss of life and resources was devastating for the workforce and caused a series of catastrophes for centuries to come. Though some peasants benefited from the lack of serfs, the depleted workforce meant work became harder and more expensive, and the coming centuries were plagued again by revolts, wars, and famine.

Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants Revolt, rides out to negotiate with King Richard’s army.

Just 30 years after the first outbreak of plague in England, the peasants rose in revolt against their lords for the first time in 300 years, in no small part, due to the hardships caused by the plague. The king who

Portrait of King Richard the Second

The king who punished the peasants was Richard Richard the Second, whom Shakespeare famously dramatized as an arrogant, egomaniacal, incompetent man-child who was eventually deposed and executed in the Tower of London. I think certain people who are tempted to “make sacrifices,” to protect the American economy would do well to look at this historical tragedy and avoid the political consequences of this kind of thinking.

In conclusion, though we are dealing with a frightening pandemic that we currently don’t know how to treat, we can take comfort from the fact that our forebears faced far worse diseases and survived. History has shown that social distancing works and that basic sanitation and the tireless work of healers and scientists can slow a disease, cause it to ebb, and eventually irradicate it. But until science discovers a treatment for Covid-19, it is up to all of us to flatten the curve for the sake of our country, world, and our future.

Like I have said, the working poor as a whole, suffered greatly because of the plague, especially since they were denied the means to avoid it. They lived in tightly packed, unsanitary environments and were unable to leave them without their lord’s permission, whereas we have a choice. This why it is crucial that we all do our part by staying away from crowds, observing proper hygiene, and offering support to our healthcare workers who are on the front lines of this war against coronavirus, and for whom we all pray for to stay healthy in turn.

Continue reading

Crafting a Character: Brutus

Happy Ides of March every one. I hope you have enjoyed all the posts for my Roman week. If I have time, I will try to post a few more, since I have not touched on Cymbaline or Titus Andronicus.This will not be an in depth character analysis. I won’t go into every scene and speech of Brutus’. My goal is to look at the history and the actions of Brutus in the play to show why he is such an amazing and ambigous character.

Marcus Brutus was born in 85 BC. Shakespeare’s source for the play, Plutarch’s lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, mentions that his desire to kill Caesar might have been tied to his family: Brutus’ ancestor was Lucius Junius Brutus, the man who drove out the last king of Rome, and first consul. Below is the famous painting of Lucius foiling a plot to restore the monarchy, but to do so, he had to sentence his own sons to death:

Jaques Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789.

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/v/david-the-lictors-returning-to-brutus-the-bodies-of-his-sons-1789

This was how seriously the Brutus family took defending the Roman Republic, they valued it even beyond their own family.

Brutus’ mother was Servilia, half sister of Caesar’s longtime critic, the senator Cato. He even married Cato’s daughter Portia! So you can see that once Caesar starts acting like a king, Brutus must have felt a tremendous amount of pressure from his Family to stay true to his Republican ideology. On the other hand, Servillia was actually Caesar’s mistress and Brutus owed his life to Caesar. After Brutus fought against Casesar, they reconciled after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC:

Most of those who were taken alive Caesar incorporated in his legions, and to many men of prominence he granted immunity. One of these was Brutus, who afterwards slew him. Caesar was distressed, we are told, when Brutus was not to be found, but when he was brought into his presence safe and sound, was pleased beyond measure- Plutarch, retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html

Despite his close ties to Caesar, Brutus chose to betray and assassinate him, so the question remains, why?

In the play and in Plutarch, Brutus is persuaded by Cassius Longinus, his brother in law and colleague in the Roman Senate. As you remember from my post on “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” there are three basic kinds of persuasive speech, and Cassius uses all three:

1. Ethos “If you do know that I do fawn on men, and hold them hard, and after scandal them… then hold me dangerous.”

2. Logos- Cassius points out a series of embarrassing stories about Caesar that set up the following argument:

• Caesar is weak and frail

• Gods cannot be frail

• Why is Caesar treated like a god?

3. Pathos

• The people

• Fear of tyranny

• Brutus’ family honor- this is the real knife that kills any doubt Brutus had. Cassius reminds Brutus of his ancestor Lucius and how he would rather die than see a king in Rome again.

The soliloquy

Brutus. It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

• This speech is a direct predecessor for “To be or not to be,” and Macbeth’s “If it were done,” soliloquy. https://youtu.be/IoDwXjKIenI

  • All three speakers are talking about murder and can’t bring themselves to say either the word murder, nor mention the name of the man who will die.

• All references to murder are in passive voice, as if Brutus wishes a lightning bolt would kill Caesar, so he doesn’t have to accept the responsibility of killing.

•Compared to Hamlet and Macbeth, Brutus’ text is flat, The speech depends on the actor to show the torment in his soul.

  • One question that the actor must answer for himself is, is Brutus really concerned for the well being of Rome, or does he want Caesar dead for another reason?

After the soliloquy, Brutus throws himself into the role of head conspirator: https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU

You can see in this video that Brutus speaks eloquently about how just the cause is and how only Caesar will die. This illustrates that Brutus is well spoken but not pragmatic. As we all know, Marc Anthony eventually gets the crowd to turn on Brutus and will become part of the army that hunts him and Cassius down. The dramatic irony is what helps the argument that Brutus is the real tragic hero of this play.

The murder and its aftermath

The rest as they say, is history. On March 15th, 44 BC, Brutus and the conspirators stabbed Caesar 17 times. In the play, before Caesar dies, he utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!”

The line stands out because it is the only time anyone in this Roman play speaks in Latin. Now, I have heard a compelling argument from Professor J. Rufus Fears, that this might actually be a misquote, and what Caesar really said will amaze you. As I have mentioned, Brutus’ mother was Caesar’s mistress and the two of them were very close. At the time of Caesar’s death he was 40, while Caesar was 16 years his senior. Why did Caesar forgive Brutus fighing against him? Is it not possible that what he actually said was: “Et tu, son?” That’s a question for directors and actors, but it does heighten Brutus’ emotional conflic. Much like his ancestor Lucius, Marcus Brutus is caught between his ideals and his family.

During the funeral, Brutus has a very well crafted speech where he lays out his reasons for killing Caesar. He sets himself up as the friend of Rome. This video from the Royal Shakespeare Company explores the techniques that Brutus uses to get the crowd on his side: https://youtu.be/nyPlvuv8SSk

After Antony makes his speech however, the mob burns Brutus’ house and even slaughters a man just because he shares a name with one of the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius take their armies and flee Rome, and prepare to take on Antony and Octavian. The adversity Cassius and Brutus go through pushes them together and they behave like brothers; they fight and reconcile constantly: https://youtu.be/K9EAxjVC22M

In a way, these men are two sides of the same coin: Cassius is fiery but pragmatic while Brutus is stoic and idealistic. It’s like a tragedy in and of itself that these men weren’t melded into one man with Brutus’ heart and Cassius’ mind.

Is Brutus A Traitor?

Unlike Macbeth, Shakespeare’s text leaves it ambiguous as to whether Brutus was right or wrong to kill Caesar. Even Antony, who leads an army against him, ends the play by calling Brutus “The noblest Roman of them all.” Shakespeare also gives us few clues to Brutus’ motivations other than the speech I quoted earlier. Mainly we have to go on Brutus’ actions and their consequences.

One moment that I think perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of Brutus’ actions is the moment where he’s visited by Caesar’s ghost. In other tragedies like Macbeth and Richard III, the villain is tormented by the ghost or ghosts of people he murdered. The ghost serves as a manifestation of the murderer’s guilty conscience and torments him before his death. When Brutus sees Caesar, he does not follow this trope. He isn’t horrified, not struck by guilt, in fact, he wishes that the ghost would stay longer.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar book cover

MENU

In Act 4, why does Caesar’s ghost appear? I don’t understand why Caesar’s ghost shows up. I dont understand the significance of that scene.

Expert Answers info

JUANAMAC

eNotes educator

| CERTIFIED EDUCATOR

Shakespeare, as other Elizabethan writers, uses the idea of ghosts in his plays usually as a foreshadowing of events to come. In “Hamlet,” Hamlet has to deal with working out what to do with his father’s request for revenge, and also, whether the ghost is indeed his father. In “Macbeth“, Macbeth has to deal with the Ghost of Banquo showing up to dinner, literally haunting him. In “Richard III“, Richard deals with the ghosts of the men he has wronged right at the start of the play.

This haunting is significant also in “Julius Caesar“. The Ghost of Julius arrives on the eve of battle to literally haunt Brutus. Brutus had hoped that by killing Caesar he would enact change in Rome, however, the Roman Empire goes on, as does the reign of Caesar (albeit, a new Caesar).

As Brutus goes into battle, and the battle doesn’t go his way, he again turns to Julius Caesar, blaming him for the outcome of the battle,

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3.94–96)

Shakespeare’s ghosts are visible to one person (as well as the audience, clearly) so those who react to the ghost are the ones who are supposed to learn from the arrival of the ghost, heeding the message from beyond the grave.

Enter the Ghost of CAESAR

How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

GHOST

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

BRUTUS

Why comest thou?

GHOST

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Well; then I shall see thee again?

GHOST

Ay, at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit Ghost

Now I have taken heart thou vanishest.
Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee.

The ghost itself also resists the clearcut definition as a sign of a guilty conscience. It doesn’t accuse Brutus of murder, it doesn’t curse in fact, all the ghost says is that Brutus will see him at Philippi. Unlike Richard III or Macbeth, the ghost utters no curses or scare Brutus out of his mind.

The only conclusion that Brutus gleans is that his end is near. According to Dr. John Langdon, many Elizabethan ghosts serve as a shorthand to indicate that the play’s denouement is on its way. Brutus seems aware of this as well- he knows that if he sees a ghost, he’s likely to be one soon. Yet the reality of his impending death doesnt change Brutus; he doesn’t express remorse like Richard III or hopelessness like Macbeth, if anything his stocism and seeming world weariness makes him seem more like a hero like Hamlet during his “Not a whit, we defy augery,” speech. This passive embrace of fate is at the core Brutus and it illustrates how hard it is to truly decide if he is a villain or a hero.

Though Shakespeare wrote the character of Brutus as ambiguous, over the centuries many artists and cultures have passed judgment on Brutus. Dante in his book Inferno example places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell, who along with Judas Iscariot, are being forever devoured by Satan himself, imagined below in a medieval illustration as a three-headed beast. You can see the name Brut in the head on the right.

By contrast, during the French Revolution, many statesmen referred to Brutus as a hero for his noble attempt to destroy a corrupt monarchy.

One day men will be astonished by the fact that humanity in the eighteenth century was less advanced than in the time of Caesar. Then a tyrant was slain in the midst of the Senate with no formalities but thirty blows of a dagger and with no other law save the liberty of Rome Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, November 13th, 1792, (2 months before the execution of Louis XVI).

As I have written before, in the 20th and 21st centuries, America has a somewhat more complex relationship with the character of Brutus. On the one hand, America was founded on the principle of resisting tyranny; it’s even on the state flag of Virginia, which is why some early productions of the play make Brutus a hero. On the other hand, as you see above, rebels and traitors like John Wilkes Booth have also taken inspiration from Brutus. His father and brother’s middle name was Brutus and all three brothers performed in the play one year before John turned theater performance into American tragedy.

Like Brutus, Booth seemed amazed with the world’s reaction to his deed, for after he assassinated the president, he wrote this in his journal:

[W]ith every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

John Wilkes Booth, April 21, 1865.

The most recent controversy over Brutus’ actions is the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Caesar directed by Oscar Eustis. As I wrote before, when portraying Caesar as an American president, it tends to anger the political party of his supporters, but the play shows how unplanned political violence can destabilize a country. In these productions, Brutus seems a bit of a well meaning dupe or an naive patsy acting out of fear. On the other hand in cultures that have suffered many violent uprisings, Brutus is a figure that is all to common in places like Uganda, Iran, and the Taliban controlled world: https://youtu.be/5HU8SA33j2w

Brutus is a great character because Shakespeare keeps enough of his motives in the dark to allow for new interpretations, but also showing a man with relatable desires and fears get swept up in a dangerous and unpredictable time.

The Witches Of Macbeth

Happy Halloween everybody!

Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.

1. Who are they?

Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?

I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.

“Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches,” Théodore Chassériau, 1854.

Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters. This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.

What Do They Look Like?

Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.

BANQUO
What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

MACBETH
Speak, if you can: what are you? (Act I, Scene iii).

The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:

“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).

and

Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.

Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).

For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:

The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.

Witches and mythology

Illustration from William Blake's
Illustration from William Blake’s “Europe a Prophecy,” 1794.

1. During the reign of King James, the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.

2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!

Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.

3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.

Hecate.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”

“The Triple Hecate,” by William Blake, 1794.

For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).

In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this posting, please consider signing up for my online class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I tell you the story of Macbeth and you get to play through an escape room, where you must solve the witches’ puzzles or be added to their Cauldron!

Shakespeare Spooky Stories 2: The Voodoo Macbeth

In 1936, famed director Orson Welles, (known for his iconic film Citizen Kane), produced an equally memorable production of Macbeth. At the time, Welles was a theater director, working with a government-funded theater group called The Federal Theater Project. The goal of the FTP was to help support the theater during the Great Depression. Welles also found a way to have his production help black actors by, and casting exclusively African Americans.

Opening night of Orson Welles' "Macbeth" outside the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, 1936.
Opening night of Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” outside the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, 1936.

Although Welles kept Shakespeare’s text, he changed the setting to a tribe in Haiti instead of medieval Scotland, and changed the witches into Voodoo priestesses. Below is the only surviving footage of the production, the final scene in which (spoiler alert), Macduff carries Macbeth’s head and sets it on a pole, proclaiming Malcolm the new king. You can see the witches taking a wicked joy when Macbeth’s cursed head is impaled, implying that Welle’s witches had vengeance on their mind when they drove him to kill Duncan.

Eric Burroughs as Hecate.
Eric Burroughs as Hecate.

Notice also the actor who screams “Peace, the charm’s wound up,” at the end of the play. He is playing the part of Hecate, the goddess of magic who appears before Macbeth in Act IV. According to legend, Actor Eric Burroughs was a real Voodoo priest, as were the drummers Welles used to spectacular effect during the show. Many critics called the frenetic drumming that occurred during the show and in scene changes an experience that they’d never forget.

Welles’ innovations helped black actors and theater in general survive during the Depression, but not everyone praised his efforts. Journalist Percy Hammond criticized the merits of the performance, arguing that the government shouldn’t pay for artistic projects. The next day when he returned to the theater, he was greeted by a rhythmic thumping underneath the stage that intensified until the critic abandoned his seat and left the theater. The next day, he fell suddenly ill and died! Was his illness a voodoo curse? We may never know, but this story clearly illustrates the effectiveness of Welles’ staging, and the dark occult appeal that lurks beneath the text in any production of Macbeth.

Macbeth meets the witches around their cauldron, (Act IV, Scene i).
Macbeth meets the witches around their cauldron, (Act IV, Scene i).

Works Cited:

1.     Dunton-Downer Leslie and Alan Riding.The Essential Shakespeare Handbook: Macbeth p.367. New York: DK Publising Inc, 2004.

2.    Rippy, Marguerite. Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective pp 75-76. Retrieved 10/21/15 from Google Books.

3.  Smith, Wendy. The Play That Electrified Harlem. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/ftsmth00.html

4. Digital Public Library: The Show Must Go On! American Theater In the Great Depression: Impact On African American  Theater. Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://dp.la/exhibitions/exhibits/show/the-show/african-american-theatre-impac 

5. The Juggler (online publication): “The Voodoo Macbeth.” Retrieved 10/21/15 from http://culture.pagannewswirecollective.com/2011/04/orson-welles-and-the-voodoo-macbeth/