Rings in Shakespeare
Rings are used in Shakespeare’s plays variously as reminders of love or as badges of identity. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for example, Juliet asks the nurse to give her ring to Romeo as he is about to depart into exile in Mantua. Similar symbolism underwrites Imogen’s gift of a ring to Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline’ on the eve of his departure for Rome.
The ring Portia gives Bassanio in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ may have a similar function. Later, Bassanio is tricked by Portia in disguise to give it away: a generous or an unfaithful act, depending on one’s perspective. In ‘The Comedy of Errors’, the ring Antipholus of Ephesus gives to the courtesan is one among many springs of confusion and mistaken identity.
Meanwhile the ring given to Helena by the King in ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ is a further source of confusion, though ironically it clears up one uncertainty: Bertram will marry Helena.
Shakespeare was lucky in his actors, as they were lucky in him. He wrote for them individually in many cases, and it seems they brought his imagination to life.
Will Kemp, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s men from 1594 to 1599, is a good example, playing Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1595), Gobbo in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (1596), Falstaff in ‘Henry IV’ Parts I and II (1597) and Dogberry in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1598).
It was around 1599 that Kemp left the Chamberlain’s Men in circumstances that are unclear, though there may have been a falling out of some sort. He was replaced by the versatile Robert Armin, for whom parts as distinctive as the grave digger in ‘Hamlet’ were written.
Religion in Shakespeare’s Plays
The age of Shakespeare is an age of intense religious conflict. Ordinary people are prepared to endure savage punishment in defence of their religious convictions, while England is at war with Spain in an existential conflict driven largely by religious differences.
Yet Shakespeare refers to religion sparingly in his writing. True, conflict with Rome is occasionally a feature (‘King John’, ‘Cymbeline’) but it never focuses on the Protestant / Catholic divide, and though Catholic ministers may at times seem to come up short (Friar Lawrence, Archbishop Scroop), their religion is not to blame.
The closest Shakespeare comes to exploring religious affiliation is probably Othello’s closing speech, in which he illustrates his loyalty to Christianity over Islam – or else it is Shylock’s understandable reluctance to convert to Christianity from Judaism.
Either way, the Reformation is carefully side-stepped. Even ‘Henry VIII’, a play might be expected to address the Break with Rome, focuses instead on matters matrimonial before reaching a sycophantic conclusion in praise of Elizabeth.
Othering in Shakespeare
Is ‘othering’ a practice to be found in Shakespeare? In fact it may be reasonably common here. It seems to happen to Shylock in ‘Merchant of Venice’, essentially side-lined and abandoned after his defeat in the trial, and to Malvolio, who is ridiculed and then isolated for his various peccadillos.
Others to suffer social exclusion include Parolles in ‘All’s Well’, the victim of a practical joke not unlike Malvolio; Aaron the Moor in ‘Titus Andronicus’; even, perhaps, Falstaff himself at the end of ‘Henry IV Part Two’ – dismissed by the new king with his casual ‘I know thee not, old man’. Caliban may be a further case – abandoned to his fate at the close of ‘The Tempest’.
The common ground shared by Shylock, Aaron the Moor and Caliban does not perhaps need further elucidation.
Hamlet’s Advice to the Players
We know so little about Shakespeare, it is tempting to confuse the thoughts of a given character with those of the author himself. Needless to say, this is generally to be avoided, but in the case of Hamlet’s speech explaining to the actors how he wants them to perform, we may be justified in ‘reading across’ from character to playwright.
What advice does Hamlet give? First, act naturally, and avoid the temptation to declaim your lines as if you were ‘the town-crier’. Second, maintain a certain inner calm, no matter how emotionally fraught the part. At the same time, don’t underplay the dramatic intensity of your part: the aim is to be natural, to hold ‘the mirror up to nature’.
Fourth, avoid playing the part purely with an eye to entertaining the ‘unskilful’, or less discerning members of the audience. And finally, let the clown or fool deliver his lines and no more. His role is to act the part, not embellish or re-write it.
This fifth piece of advice may well have been of interest to Will Kemp, the accomplished clown in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who left the troupe around a year before ‘Hamlet’ was written, following a dispute.
Poison in ‘Hamlet’ (1600)
Given the pervasive regularity of murder in Shakespeare’s plays, we might expect poison to play a prominent role. In fact it rarely appears in these plays, though ‘Hamlet’ is a striking exception, containing no fewer than five deaths caused this way – six, if you include the poisoning of Gonzago by Lucianus in ‘The Mousetrap’.
First we are told by the ghost of Hamlet’s father that he was killed when ‘juice of cursed hebona’ was poured into his ear by his brother Claudius. Later, Claudius is again to blame for introducing poison into proceedings when he laces Laertes’s sword with it and pours it into a goblet of wine. Both Laertes and Hamlet are stabbed with the sword, while Gertrude drinks from the goblet. Hamlet avenges his own death and his father’s by killing Claudius with the poisoned sword.
Hebona, incidentally, is an invented poison.
The Death of Ophelia
In 1580, when Shakespeare was a young man fresh from Stratford Grammar School, he may have heard about the drowning of a young woman in the River Avon close to Stratford.
The episode needed to be investigated since, if this were a case of suicide, the young woman’s burial could not take place in consecrated ground. It seems that she slipped while drawing water from the river at a spot notable for its overhanging willow trees.
Many of these details recall the death of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’, where, again, the question of suicide is central to events. In both cases the authorities rule that the death occurred accidentally. The name of the young woman, incidentally, was Katherine Hamlett.
Stage directions in Shakespeare
It is said that Shakespeare keeps his stage directions to a minimum, most often integrating them into the dialogue. For example, when in ‘Macbeth’ he wants to inform his mid-afternoon audience at the Globe that it’s night-time on stage, he has Banquo ask his son: ‘How goes the night, boy?’ When he wants the audience to know it is night-time in Belmont in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, he has Lorenzo point out how ‘The moon shines bright …’, and there are six further references to night time in the two dozen lines that follow.
But after the Blackfriars Theatre becomes available to the King’s Men in 1608, stage directions become more detailed, reflecting the greater sophistication of the indoor theatre. Act 3 Scene 3 of ‘The Tempest’ (1611), for example: ‘Enter PROSPERO above, invisible. Enter several strange Shapes, bringing in a banquet; they dance about it with gentle actions of salutation; and inviting the King, &c. to eat, they depart’.
Most critics, asked to choose the most interesting stage direction in Shakespeare, mention Act 3 Scene 3 of ‘The Winter’s Tale’, in which Antigonus is said to ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. Odd as that is, any shortlist of eccentric stage directions in Shakespeare might also include one from Act 3 Scene 4 of ‘Hamlet’, in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears: ‘Enter the Ghost in his nightgown’, reads the text. His nightgown? Is it time for bed in Purgatory?
Shakespeare’s Binary Settings
A number of distinguished Shakespearean critics believe that Shakespeare’s mind was instinctively binary, drawn to contrasts, parallels, comparisons and juxtapositions. There may be some evidence for this analysis in the settings of his plays, since as many as a half of them are constructed around contrasting locations.
Two ‘types’ stand out immediately: on one side, plays in which urban society seems to be contrasted with life in the forest (‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘Timon of Athens’); on the other, History plays in which the action switches from England to France and back again (‘Edward III’, ‘Henry V’, ‘Henry VI Part One’).
Other contrasts underwrite ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (Egypt / Rome), ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Belmont / Venice), ‘Othello’ (Venice / Cyprus), ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Verona / Mantua), ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ (Verona / Milan) and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (Sicily and Bohemia). Further examples include the Trojan camp and the Greek camp in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ and Orsino’s palace and Olivia’s in ‘Twelfth Night’.
It may be worth remembering that for much of his life, Shakespeare divided his time between London and Stratford.
Money in Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s father John is reputed to have been more than merely a glove manufacturer and local worthy, apparently operating – not always successfully, or legally – in the wool trade and as a money lender.
Shakespeare himself was evidently a canny businessman, making a fortune from his association with the King’s Men. Strange, then, that his plays have precious little to say about money. True, it is the source of the troubles Shylock encounters in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and it provokes Timon’s decline from socialite to misanthrope in ‘Timon of Athens’.
Perhaps Timon should have taken Polonius’s advice about lenders and borrowers, or heeded the jailer in the condemned cell in ‘Cymbeline’, who comforts Posthumus with the reassuring thought that ‘you shall be called to no more payments, [and] fear no more tavern-bills’ – advice that the spendthrift, debt-ridden Falstaff might have appreciated.
The Execution of the Earl of Essex (1601)
Shakespeare enjoyed the good will of the Queen, even at times writing to order. But in early 1601, he came close to losing more than just his good reputation.
His theatre company were invited on behalf of the Earl of Essex to put on a private performance of ‘Richard II’, a play in which the King is deposed, replaced by Henry Bolingbroke, then murdered.
On the day after the performance, Essex mounted an attempted coup, calling on Londoners to rise up in support. But the call to arms was ignored, and the coup was put down by nightfall. Essex was beheaded on Tower Green a month later.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were invited to explain their part in the coup attempt, and only narrowly escaped punishment. The Queen herself took a close interest in events. ‘I am Richard II’, she observed. ‘Know ye not that?’
Night Time in Shakespeare
‘Moon’, ‘moon light’ or ‘moonshine’ are mentioned over fifty times in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Presumably the aim is to remind the mid-afternoon audience at the Globe that, on the stage, it’s night time. A similar strategy perhaps underwrites the opening scene in ‘Hamlet’, where Bernardo relieves Francisco of his guard-duty with the helpful advice that the clock has ‘now struck twelve’, before adding a cheery ‘Get thee to bed, Francisco’.
Night plays a prominent role in around half of Shakespeare’s plays, often with an emblematic function: it’s the time for murder (Duncan by Macbeth, Desdemona by Othello) but also for love and romance: Romeo and Juliet meet first under cover of darkness, and it’s at night that they meet for the last time.
Night is also, predictably perhaps, the time for deception: Don John’s attempt to destroy Hero in ‘Much Ado’ is a nocturnal subterfuge, exposed by the bumbling constable Dogberry. Co-incidentally, it is often also the time for revelation – for example the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost at Elsinore.
Practical Jokes in Shakespeare’s Plays
Shakespeare was said to be good company, though careful about sharing his time. To judge from his plays, he must have been fun to be with, especially given his weakness for practical jokes.
Most notorious, perhaps, is the joke played on Malvolio by Maria and her gang in ‘Twelfth Night’, convincing him that his mistress Olivia is in love with him. Falstaff is another victim, whether being robbed of the money he has stolen at Gadshill, or else insulting Prince Hal while the heir to the throne is standing behind him, disguised as a waiter.
Perhaps the most ingenious prank is that played on Parolles in ‘All’s Well’, persuaded like Falstaff to denounce his friends before the trick is exposed. ‘Every braggart shall be found an ass’, he reflects ruefully.
Mothers and Sons in Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s plays have much to say about the relationships fathers strike with daughters. They focus much less often on mothers and sons.
There are exceptions: Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude is famously ambivalent, informed by the Prince’s aversion to Claudius and his mother’s seeming reluctance to mourn her late husband. Still more detached, perhaps, is Lady Montague in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whose concern for her troubled son is limited to a single whimsical enquiry (‘O, where is Romeo? Saw you him today?’).
By contrast, Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, is instinctively protective of her son Prince Edward, though she cannot prevent his murder at Gloucester’s hands. A similar fate awaits Prince Arthur in ‘King John’, whose death elicits his mother’s affecting lament ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’.
Meanwhile (by contrast) Tamora in ‘Titus Andronicus’, Volumnia in ‘Coriolanus’ and the stepmother in ‘Cymbeline’ are all criminally supportive of their odious sons.
The Medieval Morality Plays, along with the Mystery and Miracle Plays, used Christian teaching to dramatize moral dilemmas for individual characters. Pedagogic in tone, the Morality Plays feature a hero whose personal shortcomings are challenged by a character who personifies sins like lust, anger or pride.
This character is known as ‘The Vice’, a representation of the devil whose role is to tempt otherwise innocent characters into sin. Shakespeare inherits this convention, not only in plainly evil characters like Iago (‘Othello’) and Don John (‘Much Ado’), but also in rogues like Sir Toby Belch (‘Twelfth Night’) and Falstaff (‘Henry IV’).
The Morality plays, relics of Catholic England, died out in the years before the secular theatre began to flourish in the last two decades of the sixteenth century. But many of their conventions seem to survive in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The Death of the Queen (1603)
Shakespeare lived for most of his life in a country governed by an absolute monarch with no heir. But the natural instinct to question what might happen in the event of the Queen’s death was curbed by legislative means, since in Elizabethan England, it was a capital offence even to imagine the death of the monarch.
To present such an event was therefore a hazardous enterprise – and to show an act of regicide on stage was surely to court the most extreme repercussions. It is notable that the murder of Duncan in ‘Macbeth’ (1605) takes place off stage, between Act Two Scene One and Act Two Scene Two: one moment Macbeth is wrestling with his conscience. The next, he has ‘done the deed’.
Even so, Shakespeare seems to have allowed himself one or two exceptions to this rule: for example, the murder of the deposed king in ‘Richard II’ (1595) in his prison cell is vividly presented, as is that in ‘Henry VI Part Three’ (1592). Among Shakespeare’s many virtues, we must clearly include courage.