Scene by Scene by Shakespeare:

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Jacobean Shakespeare (2)

Jacobean Shakespeare (2)


Signs of anger among some of Shakespeare’s leading characters at this time (Coriolanus, for example, and Timon) are not reflected in the increasing success of his company, which opens a new indoor theatre at Blackfriars in 1608, expanding the possibilities for Shakespeare’s work as well as the income for his company.

Table of Contents

Shakespeare’s Locations

Shakespeare’s locations are a curious mix. Outside the Histories, only one play is set in England – ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ – while around a third are set in Italy, including ‘Othello’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’. 

Plays like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ seem to have English settings, but are located respectively in Athens and Illyria – across the Adriatic from Italy. 

England was at war with Spain for most of Shakespeare’s writing career – a peace treaty was finally signed in 1604 – and none of his plays is set there, though ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ is set in Navarre, then independent, now part of mainland Spain.  Meanwhile, ‘Measure for Measure’ has a cast of Romance names – Vincentio, Angelo, Isabella, Claudio, etc. – but is set in Vienna.

‘Thou’ and ‘You’ in Sixteenth-Century English

We’re often led to believe that ‘thou’ and ‘you’ are more or less interchangeable.  But in Shakespeare’s England, this is very far from true.  Rather, ‘you’ is the formal and respectful form, whereas ‘thou’ is informal and familiar, even at times contemptuous. 

The way Lady Macbeth addresses her husband is one among many examples: whereas early in the play she uses both forms of the pronoun (‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor’, but also ‘My hands are of your colour’), once he has become King, she uses only the formal and respectful ‘You’, perhaps a reflection of his authority, or her sense of her own weakness.

By contrast, Sir Toby thinks that Maria’s letter in ‘Twelfth Night’ should be thoroughly insulting to Malvolio: ‘if thou thou’st him some thrice’, he tells her, ‘it shall not be amiss’.

Dying of Grief in Shakespeare

Death has many causes in Shakespeare’s plays: grief may be one of the more improbable.  Yet it is responsible for the death of Romeo’s mother, as Montague himself reports: ‘my wife is dead tonight’, he tells the Prince. ‘Grief of my son’s exile hath stopp’d her breath’. 

A similar fate awaits another long-suffering Shakespearean parent when Desdemona’s father Brabantio is reported to have died of the same cause: ‘pure grief’, reports Gratiano, ‘Shore [broke] his old thread in twain’. 

It seems that Enobarbus in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ also dies of grief – or perhaps guilt – as he berates himself for switching sides and betraying his former master: ‘O Antony! O Antony!’ he exclaims, before the author’s unambiguous stage direction: ‘Dies’.

Clothes in Shakespeare’s Plays

Clothes of various kinds play a surprisingly prominent role in Shakespeare’s canon.  They may be used as a means of disguise (as when Henry V borrows Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak to conceal his identity before he goes to test the mettle of his troops), or as symbols of change (for example when Prospero lays down his mantle at the close of ‘The Tempest’).

Clothes may also be used as instruments of confusion or deceit.  When in ‘Cymbeline’ Imogen finds Cloten’s headless body dressed in the clothes of her lover Posthumus, she draws the obvious (but wrong) conclusion.  By contrast, when Malvolio appears in ‘Twelfth Night’ sporting yellow stockings, it is clear that Maria’s practical joke has succeeded.

But the most common references to clothes are probably as the means of enabling female characters to present as male and liberate themselves from society’s more restrictive conventions.  Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Julia in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ are two among many leading female characters to dress themselves (as Macbeth puts it) in ‘borrow’d robes’.

An ‘Act to Restrain Abuses of Players’ (1606)

It seems strange that the age of Shakespeare, preoccupied with religious observance, should have been so tolerant of profanity: ‘God’s blood’ (or ‘sblood) appears a dozen times in his plays, ‘God’s wounds’ (or ‘zounds) 21 times. In practice, however, blasphemy of this type is confined to his earlier work – for example, the Histories of the 1590s – and is significantly less prominent in the later plays.  

The explanation lies in an act of Parliament – namely an ‘Act to Restrain Abuses of Players’ – passed in 1606, which outlawed blasphemy on the stage. The Act not only affected new productions like ‘The Tempest’, but also triggered a race to clean up new editions of older scripts like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (in which blasphemy is surprisingly pervasive) and ‘Othello’. 

The penalty for infringements was £10 – a considerable forfeit at a time when the price of entry to the theatre could be as low as one penny.

Characters’ Repeat Appearances

Which of Shakespeare’s characters appears most often in his plays?  The answer is that three characters appear in four plays each.  Two of these, interestingly enough, are women: Mistress Quickly, who appears in the ‘Henry IV’ tetralogy, and Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. The third is Bardolph, also in the ‘Henry IV’ plays, the male character with the most appearances.

Characters with three separate appearances include Falstaff and Prince Hal, along with Henry IV and Richard III – each of whom has one play written around him, and appears in two others.  Meanwhile a character named Balthasar turns up in four separate plays – ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  But they’re not the same Balthasar.

Social Class in Shakespeare

The lower social classes are depicted in ambiguous ways in Shakespeare, as if to imply a certain ambivalence on the playwright’s part.  Humour is a central feature of one half of the picture that Shakespeare constructs: characters like Gobbo in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Dogberry in ‘Much Ado’ and Launce in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ are memorably entertaining and easy to warm to.  Stephano and Trinculo in ‘The Tempest’ and the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are cut from the same cloth.

Yet when Shakespeare presents the lower classes en masse, a spirit of menace enters the picture.  The mob in ‘Julius Caesar’, hunting for Cinna the conspirator, are happy to murder Cinna the poet on the grounds that he shares the name of their intended victim; the mob in ‘Henry VI Part Two’ are equally threatening, murdering the Clerk of Chatham for the crime of being literate.

Small wonder, perhaps, that Coriolanus, no friend of the mob, is unimpressed by ideas of democratic governance: ‘let me use my sword’, he exclaims, ‘I’ll make a quarry / With thousands of these quarter’d slaves …’.

The Place of Animals in Shakespeare

Animals play a somewhat self-effacing role in Shakespeare’s plays.  Other than Crab the dog in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, the bear that devours Antigonus in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the asp that sees off Cleopatra, the animal kingdom is perhaps most notable for its absence.

Nonetheless, reports of animal activity are fairly routine: the butterfly that young Coriolanus is said to torture, the lioness that (says Calpurnia) ‘whelped in the streets’ in ‘Julius Caesar’, the marmosets that Caliban recalls teaching Prospero to ‘snare’, the horses said to have eaten each other when Duncan was murdered (not to mention the mousing-owl that killed the falcon), the lioness reported as having protected Orlando’s brother from a snake in ‘As You Like It’ and the horse that Richard III demands in exchange for his kingdom – talk about animals is relatively common.

Why are animals so often mentioned but so rarely seen in Shakespeare’s plays?  Disappointingly, the practical answer seems to be the most likely.  Nonetheless, among the props itemised by Philip Henslowe as belonging to the Admiral’s Men in late sixteenth-century London are listed, inter alia, one bull’s head, one lion, two lion heads and ‘one great horse with his legs’. 

The Plague and the Puritans

The plague was a constant presence in London during Shakespeare’s working life, resulting in repeated lockdowns as comprehensive as anything experienced during the recent covid-19 pandemic. 

The Puritan tendency in society – then gathering in strength – believed that the plague reflected the judgement of God on a sinful society.  One very prominent expression of that sinfulness, they believed, was the theatres.  So to tackle the plague, the theatres must close.

In fact, the plague was spread, not by God, but by close contact with infected people.  In that sense too it resembles covid-19.  So closing the theatres and restricting the incidence of face-to-face contact made very good sense.  The theatres were closed either way.

The Puritans would have liked them to stay closed.  But by this stage the theatre industry in London was flourishing, with friends in high places.  Whenever it was possible to do so, then, the authorities re-opened the theatres, much to the Puritans’ displeasure. 

The Puritans finally achieved their objective in 1642.

William Davenant (1606 – 1668)

Davenant was something of a literary prodigy, being appointed Poet Laureate at the age of 32 in succession to Ben Jonson.  Thereafter his life developed in dramatic ways. Having sided with the Royalists during the English Civil War, he was sentenced to death on their demise – a fate only forestalled by the intervention of the poet John Milton.

Davenant spent a year in the Tower of London in 1651, and was imprisoned a second time in 1659. But with the Restoration in 1660, the theatres were reopened, leaving him free to resume his career as poet and playwright, and to promote various Shakespeare plays including ‘Hamlet’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Henry VIII’, before his death in 1668.

Davenant was born in Oxford, a town midway between London and Stratford. His parents owned The Crown Inn, where Shakespeare himself was an annual guest.  Shakespeare was Davenant’s godfather, and it is said that he was happy for it to be understood that he was also his biological father.

Staging War

It’s striking how, as his career progresses, Shakespeare becomes less and less inclined to present battles on stage.  Earlier – for example in ‘Henry VI Part Three’ (c. 1591) – on-stage battles are routine, four in that play alone:  Wakefield, St Albans, Towton, Tewkesbury. 

In later plays – for example ‘Macbeth’ – the conflict is more likely to be reported than presented: one thinks of the sergeant in the first act who (in Duncan’s words) ‘can report … / of the revolt / The newest state’, and proceeds to deliver a vivid description of Macbeth’s heroic performance in the heat of battle. 

Similarly remote is the progress of the battle in the closing act, which presents the build-up and then the outcome of Malcolm’s campaign to regain his birth right.  The explanation appears to have been the practical difficulty of presenting battles on stage without people (actors, audience members) getting hurt.

The Sea in Shakespeare

Did Shakespeare ever go to sea?  Is this how he spent his ‘lost years’?  Unlikely, perhaps – it is quite possible that he never even saw the sea – yet in around a quarter of his plays, the sea is given a prominent role.  At times it merely connects the two locations of the play – ‘The Winter’s Tale’ for example, or ‘The Comedy of Errors’.  At others it is the lair of pirates who play a decisive role in events: ‘Henry VI Part Two’, for instance, or ‘Hamlet’. 

At least three of his plays open with a shipwreck – ‘Twelfth Night’ and his late plays ‘Pericles’ and ‘The Tempest’ – while in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the wreck of Antonio’s ships provokes the crisis with Shylock.  Meanwhile the fate of Antony and Cleopatra turns on the decisive sea battle of Actium, and in ‘Othello’, it is a storm (rather than the revered general himself) that defeats the Turkish fleet – much as it had been a storm, a decade earlier, that accounted for the Spanish Armada.  

Caution should be exercised over Shakespeare’s geography, however: in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, the infant Perdita is depicted sailing to Bohemia, a landlocked middle European country.

Dying Queens in Shakespeare

Given the sensitivity of the subject, one might imagine that the theme of dying queens might have been treated with some caution by Shakespeare: after all, for most of his career as a playwright, Queen Elizabeth I was either approaching death or, after 1603, being mourned. 

Nonetheless, queens in Shakespeare seem as a rule to die unlamented: Lady Macbeth’s demise is dismissed by her husband with a casual ‘She should have died hereafter’; Hamlet greets his mother’s death with a contemptuous ‘Wretched queen, adieu!’; and in ‘Cymbeline’, news of the queen’s death is accompanied by a litany of her crimes, moving the King to denounce her as a ‘fiend’ and to regret the ‘folly in me’ that made him marry her. 

Most contempt is perhaps reserved for Tamora, Queen of the Goths in ‘Titus Andronicus’, who is denounced by Lucius on her death as a ‘heinous tiger’, with orders that her body be thrown to ‘beasts and birds of prey’. 

Blackfriars Theatre (1608)

Shakespeare’s name is indelibly associated with the Globe, but late in his career the King’s Men acquired a second theatre in the Blackfriars, a former monastery re-purposed following the Reformation.  This indoor arena, which had actually been in the company’s possession for a decade, enabled them to put on plays in all weathers and at all times of day, as well as to experiment with special effects and more complex stage directions.

Examples of these effects include the appearance of Jupiter in ‘Cymbeline’ (1609), suspended above the stage, and the highly elaborate masque in ‘The Tempest’ (1611).  It is surely no coincidence that the trial of Catherine of Aragon in ‘Henry VIII’ (1613) is set in the Blackfriars – some seventy years before it became a theatre. 

Sexually Transmitted Infections in Shakespeare

References to STIs are surprisingly common in Shakespeare’s work. ‘Troilus and Cressida’ has so many references to these infections it is sometimes called ‘the pox play’, and it features a conclusion in which Pandarus, dying of syphilis, is left only to ‘sweat and seek about for eases’.

One such ‘ease’ is referenced in ‘Henry V’, when Pistol describes his ‘Doll’ as seeking treatment in ‘the powdering tub of infamy’ – a reference to mercury vapour treatment – while Mistress Overdone in ‘Measure for Measure’, once a ‘fresh whore’, has now become a ‘powdered bawd’.

Was Anthony Burgess right when he suggested that Shakespeare had first-hand experience of these infections?  If so, perhaps he shared the revulsion of Timon in ‘Timon of Athens’ (1608), who, disillusioned with human society, enjoins two prostitutes to destroy the city with sexual infection, a declaration of his cynicism and disillusion. 

Shakespeare’s Italian Settings

Did Shakespeare ever visit Italy – for example, during the ‘lost years’ between the birth of his children and his arrival in London?  Perhaps only in his imagination.

Nevertheless, it is a striking fact that around one third of his plays are set in Italy.  From ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Verona, Mantua), from ‘Othello’ to ‘Julius Caesar’, from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (Messina, Sicily) to ‘Titus Andronicus’ (Rome), from ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ (Verona, Milan, Mantua) to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (Padua), the home of the Renaissance seems to have been a default location for Shakespeare‘s writing. 

By contrast, France is visited in these plays mainly to recall the Hundred Years’ War with England.  Spain, England’s existential enemy in Shakespeare’s lifetime, is not visited at all.

Shakespeare’s Collaborations

The notion that a play, poem or novel has a single identifiable author is relatively modern.  It cannot be applied accurately to Shakespeare’s work in the Elizabethan / Jacobean theatre, where collaboration with other writers was routine – in much the same way as contemporary films are often the work of a group of writers working together.

With the aid of computer analysis, present-day scholars feel increasingly confident that a number of Shakespeare’s plays draw on this authorship model.  Examples include ‘Henry VI Part One’ (possibly with Thomas Nashe), ‘Titus Andronicus’ (possibly with George Peele), ‘Sir Thomas More’ (with various others), ‘Edward III’ (possibly with Thomas Kyd), ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Timon of Athens’ (with Thomas Middleton), ‘Pericles’ (with George Wilkins), ‘Henry VIII’ (with John Fletcher) and ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ (also with Fletcher). 

The image of the playwright alone in his garret does not tell the whole story.

Shakespeare on Sex

We don’t instinctively think of Shakespeare’s plays as having a strong sexual dimension.  Perhaps we should.  Around half his plays focus on his characters’ sexuality in one way or another.

Whether writing about rape (‘Titus Andronicus’) or celibacy (‘Pericles’), idealistic young love (‘Romeo and Juliet’) or cynical sexual exploitation (‘Measure for Measure’), the sex-lives of parents (‘Hamlet’) or of children (‘The Tempest’), sexual infections (‘Timon of Athens’) or masturbation (Sonnet 129), Shakespeare returns to the subject of sex with striking regularity. 

The reference to Sonnet 129 is a reminder that the Sonnets in general have a strongly sexual narrative, culminating in acts of infidelity and feelings of insecurity and jealousy.

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