Scene by Scene by Shakespeare:

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Jacobean Shakespeare (1)

Jacobean Shakespeare (1)


At the peak of his powers, Shakespeare produces two of his greatest Tragedies – ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth’ – in a little over a single year. But once again Shakespeare seems to court danger away from the theatre as rumoured connections between himself and the Gunpowder Plot (1605) suggest.

Table of Contents

Betrayal in Shakespeare

Betrayal for power or sex is among Shakespeare’s most prominent themes. When power is the spur, it’s often trusted family members who are to blame: Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ is ousted from his Dukedom by his brother Sebastian, while in ‘As You Like It’, Duke Senior is betrayed by his brother Frederick.  Both survive to recover their thrones – in contrast with Hamlet’s father, murdered by his brother Claudius, or Duncan, slain by his ‘kinsman’ Macbeth.  Lear, abandoned to his fate by once-trusted daughters, is a further victim.

Sex presents an equally irresistible motive: Proteus, one of the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, attempts a sexual assault on Silvia, the lover of his best friend Valentine; similarly, in ‘Titus Andronicus’, Chiron and Demetrius ravish Lavinia, then mutilate her body in a gruesome sequence.  ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, a long poem set in Ancient Rome, explores similar themes.  Cressida’s betrayal of Troilus seems modest in comparison.

Finally, there is a handful of betrayals which might be called ‘motiveless’. Most notorious is Iago’s betrayal of Othello: his motives may be power, or sex, or they may be simply the thrill of destruction.  Don John’s motives in trying to destroy Hero in ‘Much Ado’ may be just as elusive, while the Queen’s schemes to kill Imogen in ‘Cymbeline’ are equally opaque.  Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s most instinctive betrayer, Falstaff, is betrayed in turn by the newly-crowned Prince Hal: ‘I know thee not, old man’. 

Sumptuary Laws

Clothing in Shakespeare’s England was regulated by Sumptuary laws, which dictated what members of a given class might wear.  For example, ermine and velvet were permitted for Lords and Knights, but not for the lower orders of society.  The aim was to restrict extravagance as well as to underline class distinctions, and these laws were intermittently reinforced by fines. 

Under Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s theatre troupe was known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men but with the accession of King James in 1603, they were renamed the King’s Men, and were subsequently dubbed ‘grooms of the chamber’, entitled to wear red doublet and hose, with cloak to match. 

The Sumptuary laws may be the background to Macbeth’s comment when he is promoted thane of Cawdor: ‘The thane of Cawdor lives’, he protests.  ‘Why do you dress me / In borrow’d robes?’ 

The Sumptuary Laws were abandoned in the seventeenth century.

Characters’ Names in ‘King Lear’ (1605)

Many of Shakespeare’s plots belong to history or legend, so the author inherits his characters’ names – Henry V, after all, is Henry V.  The History plays are one example of this, the major Tragedies another.  ‘King Lear’ for example is based on a myth of Ancient Britain in which the country is governed by a king named Leir.

Minor characters, however, offer more freedom with choices of names and titles, and ‘King Lear’ presents a curious example.  Regan and Goneril, the sisters who abandon their aged father after he renounces the throne, are well-matched in their villainous husbands, given by the author the titles the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany.

‘King Lear’ was written three years into the reign of James I, so it is a curious co-incidence that the new King’s eldest son (and heir to the throne) had become Duke of Cornwall in 1603, while his second son, the future Charles I, had been created Duke of Albany in 1600. 

Parenting in Shakespeare

Shakespeare was famously absent from home for much of his children’s upbringing, so we must assume that in writing about parenting, his fecund imagination was hard at work. His habitual absence from Stratford may also explain why parents are rarely seen working in harness in his plays.

Mothers in Shakespeare’s plays are often given marginal or ineffectual roles.  Who is the most prominent or powerful mother in Shakespeare?  Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’? The nameless Queen in ‘Cymbeline’? Constance in ‘King John’? Sycorax in ‘The Tempest’, mentioned in passing but long dead? Othello’s late mother whose handkerchief causes such confusion? Or Romeo’s mother, who is given two short speeches, 28 words in all? 

Fathers, by contrast, are commonplace: some are hard to please (Duke Frederick in ‘As You Like It’, or Egeus in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) while others might be thought interfering (Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ or Minola in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’).  Some are too detached, like Cymbeline, or Shylock, or Prospero, while others seem not to know their own children: Lear for example, or Gloucester.  Meanwhile others are military types, who lead their children into danger, as Titus Andronicus does, or Talbot in ‘Henry I Part One’.

One conclusion to be drawn is that few if any of Shakespeare’s younger characters are well-parented.  Perhaps this explains the tendency to seek out parental substitutes like Friar Lawrence in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or Falstaff.  Not that either of those two is a great success in the role.

Shakespeare’s Forests

Forests in Shakespeare’s plays are often contrasted with urban society, with all its ambiguous consolations and questionable virtues. 

In ‘As You Like It’ the Forest of Arden is a refuge, a place of freedom away from the corruption of the court, while in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, it is a locus for mystery, magic and romance.  Similarly, for Timon in ‘Timon of Athens’, the forest is a place to escape from the tensions and disappointments of society.

Meanwhile other plays discern a darker side to the forest.  In ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, the forest is lawless and perilous, a refuge for villains – an insight confirmed by Falstaff and his cronies in ‘Henry IV Part One’ when they hold up a group of pilgrims en route to Canterbury, and rob them of their valuables. 

By contrast, in ‘Macbeth’ the forest is merely the source of camouflage for an assault on the Scottish tyrant’s stronghold at Dunsinane.

The Passage of Time in Shakespeare

Time is famously elastic in Shakespeare’s plays.  The events of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for example take place over less than a week, while those of ‘Othello’ are similarly condensed into a matter of days.

In later plays, Shakespeare operates through longer perspectives – in ‘Pericles’ for example a Prologue introduces four of the five acts to explain the passing of time, and in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ a Chorus is used from the start to fill in the background. 

A similar time-lapse is covered in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ by Time, personified as the Chorus: ‘I, that please some, try all’, (s)he acknowledges – though in the end characters and audiences will be pleased – not tried – by that play’s conclusion.

Act Five of ‘King Lear’ (1605)

The concluding fifth act of ‘King Lear’ offers the audience no consolation after the bracing events of the previous four: any hopes Lear himself may still harbour that his declining years will be passed in the company of his one remaining daughter Cordelia are abruptly dashed when she dies in his arms.  But it’s fair to say that those contemporary audiences who know the play well are prepared to some extent for this disappointment. 

This contrasts with the experience of the play’s first audiences in 1605 – 6, who may well have known the original version of the play, current in the 1580s, a generation before.  This version, entitled ‘King Leir’, reaches a happy ending with Cordelia’s survival.  The audience’s bitter disappointment at Shakespeare’s revised version – against all expectations – can only be imagined.

Sexual Agency in Shakespeare

It is striking how often Shakespeare invests sexual agency in the hands of his female characters.  The template for this was perhaps the early narrative poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593 – 4), in which the unstoppable force of Venus’s sexual desire meets the immovable object of Adonis’s preference for hunting. 

Similar frustration arises for Lady Percy in ‘Henry IV Part One’ as she questions why her husband Hotspur has ‘given my treasures and my rights of thee / To thick-eyed musing’.  In ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ Helena finds her way into Bertram’s bed and thereby secures his hand in marriage, while Cressida in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is quick to abandon her pledge of fidelity to Troilus once she joins the Greek camp, and Goneril and Regan in ‘King Lear’ compete for Edmund’s sexual favours to their mutual disadvantage. 

Hamlet, meanwhile, is unambiguous in his revulsion at his mother’s sexuality, accusing her of choosing ‘the rank sweat of an enseamed bed / Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love’.  

Death in Shakespeare

‘Webster was much possessed by death’ wrote T.S. Eliot of John Webster (1580 – 1632), Shakespeare’s collaborator and successor as playwright to the King’s Men. 

No doubt the apprentice learned from the master: among the many bizarre deaths that punctuate Shakespeare’s forty-odd plays, the most memorable include a character buried up to his neck and left to die (Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus’), a character bitten by a snake (Cleopatra), one smothered in her bed (Desdemona), one who eats hot coals (Portia in ‘Julius Caesar’) and one stabbed and drowned in a butt of malmsey (Clarence in ‘Richard III’). 

Perhaps the prize for the most bizarre should be shared between Chiron and Demetrius, baked in a pie served to their mother in ‘Titus Andronicus’, and Antigonus in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, for whom was written Shakespeare’s best-known stage direction: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’.

Prisons and Prisoners in Shakespeare’s Plays

Many of Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights were no strangers to criminal investigation.  Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593) was arrested for atheism, a capital offence, while Thomas Kyd (1558 – 1594) was tortured on suspicion of ‘treasonous activity’.  A later friend and rival Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) was forced on one occasion to plead guilty to manslaughter, and narrowly escaped with his life.

Is this why prisons loom so large in Shakespeare’s plays?  After castles, prisons are quite possibly the most common buildings in his plays.  Examples include ‘Richard II’ (with Richard himself incarcerated), ‘Richard III’ (Clarence), ‘Measure for Measure’ (Claudio), ‘The Comedy of Errors’ (Egeon), ‘Cymbeline’ (Posthumus), ‘King Lear’ (Lear himself), ‘Timon of Athens’ (Ventidius), Arcite and Palamon in ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ – and in one sense Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’.

The spirit of the age, perhaps.

Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot (1605)

Robert Catesby, the chief conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, had known Shakespeare since childhood: their fathers had been close friends. Like Catesby, many of the plotters had been raised in Warwickshire, a centre of Catholic recusancy. 

Shakespeare’s connections to the plotters do not end there: in London he frequented the Mermaid Tavern, where the conspirators met to plan their attack on parliament.  Many critics believe that he wrote the ultra-loyalist ‘Macbeth’ (1606) specifically to allay any questions about his affiliations. 

Meanwhile, King James struck a medal to celebrate his narrow escape, depicting a snake concealed by a flower, thus recalling Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband before the murder of the King: ‘Look like the innocent flower’, she tells him, ‘But be the serpent under’t’.

Avian Imagery in ‘Macbeth’ (1606)

A striking feature of ‘Macbeth’ is its recurrent avian imagery.  When Macbeth defeats the invading Norwegians he is compared to an eagle, while Lady Macbeth invokes the raven at Duncan’s entrance to their castle.  An owl hoots when Duncan is killed (‘It was the owl that shriek’d’, observes Lady Macbeth), while a ‘mousing owl’ is later supposed to have killed a falcon in flight – a symbolic inversion of the natural order – and Macbeth imagines how ‘the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood’.

Later, Lady Macduff contrasts her husband’s flight with the courage of the ‘the poor wren’, while her husband, hearing of their massacre, compares Macbeth to a ‘hell-kite’ for having murdered his ‘pretty chickens’.  Conversely, when Macbeth speaks sympathetically to his wife, she is ‘dearest chuck’ [= chicken].  A rare moment of intimacy between them. 

Banquo’s Ghost

The appearance of Banquo’s ghost in Act Three of ‘Macbeth’ (1606) must leave a director with a difficult conundrum: whether to present the ghost on the stage in person. 

To do so is to replicate what Macbeth experiences: the ghost is physical, visible, palpable.  More effective, however, might be to represent the experience of the nobles and Lady Macbeth, and leave Macbeth to rant at thin air: after all, as Lady Macbeth tells her husband, ‘when all’s done, / You look but on a stool.’ 

Shakespeare’s stage directions suggest he intends the ghost to appear (‘The GHOST OF BANQUO enters’) and then disappear (‘GHOST OF BANQUO vanishes’).  Thus it is Macbeth’s perspective – rather than that of his wife and his nobles – that prevails.

The Sex Lives of Shakespeare’s Villains

It’s striking how many of Shakespeare’s villains are invested by the author with distinctive if unappealing sexual characteristics. 

Richard III, sexually insecure and frustrated, argues that because he is ‘not shaped for sportive tricks’, and therefore ‘cannot prove a lover’, by way of compensation is ‘determined to prove a villain’; by contrast Angelo, deputising for Vincentio as governor of Vienna in ‘Measure for Measure’, will grant Isabella’s request to save her brother from the scaffold only on condition that she sleeps with him. 

Meanwhile, the odious Edmund in ‘King Lear’ is involved in a destructive ‘love triangle’ with Goneril and Regan as they compete to share his bed, while Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ targets Hero’s forthcoming wedding as the moment to confect accusations of infidelity. 

And so to Iago, for whom the word ‘sleazy’ might have been coined, who claims to believe that Othello has slept with his wife Emilia, and nurses improbable fantasies about reciprocating with Desdemona.

Male Friendship in Shakespeare

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, close relationships between males prove enduring and reliable.  In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ for example, Antonio and Bassanio have a rich (if somewhat one-sided) friendship, as do the Prince and Horatio in ‘Hamlet’ and Sir Andrew and Sir Toby in ‘Twelfth Night’ – not to mention Sebastian and Antonio in the same play.

But male friendship in Shakespeare’s eyes is often a capricious affair, and it is more common for former friends to fall out, often with devastating consequences: Leontes and Polyxenes in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, for example, Valentine and Proteus in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, Prince Hal and Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part Two’, Cassius and Brutus in ‘Julius Caesar’ – even Macbeth and Banquo. 

The archetype is perhaps provided by ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, a play in which, on the arrival of four young women, the four male friends’ pledges of fraternal companionship and asceticism are hurriedly abandoned.

The Theatre as a Metaphor in Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s plays routinely use the theatre itself as an analogy or metaphor.  In ‘King John’, for example, Philip compares soldiers on battlements to spectators at a play, while in ‘Julius Caesar’, the crowd’s response to a speech by Caesar is similarly compared to the reaction of a theatre audience.

Langley in ‘Richard II’ extends the analogy, comparing the king’s loss of power to the moment when ‘a well-graced actor leaves the stage’, while in ‘As You Like It’, the Duke describes the world in general as a ‘wide and universal theatre’.

Famously, two complete plays-within-a-play are acted out on Shakespeare’s stage: ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ in ‘Hamlet’. Meanwhile, the early play ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ opens with Christopher Sly, a spectator for the play, taking his confused seat for the performance.

Last word to Fabian in ‘Twelfth Night’: ‘If this were played upon a stage now’, he speculates, ‘I could condemn it as an improbable fiction’.  Ah well, all the world’s a stage, as somebody once said.

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