Thursday, 29 November 2012

Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim or One of Shakespeare's Spunky Gals?

Is Desdemona's decision to protect Othello a
sign of weakness? | Alexander Cabanel's
portrait of Desdemona
Desdemona is one of Shakespeare's most interesting female characters. Unlike Katharina, she isn't an obvious rebel, but in her own quieter way, she radically defies the convention of her age.

The first time I read Othello, I found Desdemona to be a disappointingly 'wet' character - ridiculously obedient to a crazed husband, even to the point of protecting him with her dying breath. I believed this to be a sign of great weakness, but I was young and foolish. 

Since then, I've realised that there's much more to Desdemona. And, in fact, far from being wet, she's one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters.

Shakespeare's Source for Desdemona


Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s source material, Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio, ‘Disdamona’(sic), taken from the Greek for ‘unfortunate’, is the only named character. The others are only known by their rank or position. For example, ‘The Moor’ (Othello), ‘The ensign’ (Iago) and ‘The ensign’s wife’ (Emilia).

Why is this interesting? Well, it suggests that Cinthio, like Shakespeare, saw Desdemona's role as important - important enough to give her a name, albeit one that suggests her rather untimely demise.

Desdemona as an Independent Woman


Is Desdemona's biggest mistake marrying for
love? | Irene Jacob and Laurence Fishburne,
Othello (1995)
In many ways, Desdemona is a typical woman of her age. However, she is also an atypical woman of her age. 

According to the conformities of 17th century Europe, Desdemona is considered to be the property of her father. This is illustrated in Iago’s line “…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”(I.i) The word ‘your' indicating Brabantio’s ownership of his daughter.

Desdemona rebels against the conventions of Venetian society, both patriarchal and sexual, to elope with Othello. Her decision to marry her choice of husband is an act of defiance that is easily overlooked, because it is the norm in modern society. However, during the 17th century, almost all women, but particularly those of noble birth, married men of their fathers’ choosing.

Of course, not only is she strong enough to discard her father’s wishes, but she has the fortitude to defend this choice before the Duke and other prominent men of Venetian society, including Brabantio.

Desdemona as a Wife


Is Desdemona's fate sealed from the very beginning of the
play? |  'Othello and Desdemona' by Alexandre-Marie Colin
However, it would be a mistake to think that Desdemona only married Othello to break with convention and separate herself from her father. 

Although she is young, her decision to marry appears to be solely motivated by love; there doesn't seem to be a desire to distress her father. This is made clear in her heartfelt statement, "I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/And to his honours and his valiant parts/Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."(I.iii)

Nevertheless, it becomes clear throughout the play that Othello knows relatively little about Desdemona. What he does know is that she has betrayed her father and it is perhaps this streak of independence in her nature that worries him. 

After all, it is reasonable to assume that Iago’s accusations alone would not be enough to cause such jealousy in Othello. Iago’s calculated plan involves playing on Othello’s, already present, insecurities. More on that can be read here.

The Tragic Role of Desdemona


As mentioned above, the name Desdemona comes from Greek for ‘unfortunate’ or ‘ill-fated’. This notion of Desdemona’s tragic fate is also suggested in Othello’s “O ill-starred wench…”(V.ii) 

Is Desdemona a helpless victim or one of Shakespeare's
strong women? | Suzanne  Clotier in Othello (1952)
Of course, during the play’s first performances, it may have been argued that it was Desdemona’s betrayal of her father or her choice to marry outside her race that made her death an inevitability. 

Just as Macbeth brought about his grisly end by acting against the will of God and committing regicide, Desdemona acts against patriarchal convention and nature (apparently). Therefore, she is doomed to perish.

However, there is something very tragic and poignant in the fact that her death is the result of a simple desire to love freely. 

Her final tautological words, “Nobody, I myself.”(V.ii) can be, and often are, interpreted as her protecting Othello with her dying breath. On the other hand, perhaps she realizes that it was her own actions; her wish to be liberated, that led to her death.

What do you think of Desdemona? Is she a victim, just a pawn in Iago's game? Did she bring about her own death or was she simply subject to fate?

This post was original published on Suite101 by the author

Monday, 26 November 2012

Modern Movie Retellings of Macbeth


Proof, if proof were needed, that Macbeth is an enduring and timeless play, there have been a huge number of adaptations over the years. 

These films place the action of the play in various weird and wonderful corners of the world and in a variety of eras. Here is just a handful of the most popular:


Scotland, PA is a dark comedy
adaptation of Macbeth

Scotland, PA (2001)


Set in 1970s Scotland, Pennsylvania, the film is a dark comedy take on Macbeth, which centres around a greasy spoon called Duncan’s Café. 

Joe ‘Mac’ McBeth (Macbeth) works at the fast food restaurant and is passed over for promotion by his boss Norm Duncan (Duncan) in favour of Douglas McKenna (Macdonwald), who is embezzling money from the restaurant.

Three hippies (the witches) claim to be able to see the future and predict that Joe will be manager of a drive-thru style restaurant.

Joe and his wife, Pat (Lady Macbeth), reveal McKenna’s dodgy bookkeeping practices and Joe is swiftly promoted to manager. Joe and Pat then concoct a plan to kill Norm in a faked robbery. 

Throne of Blood | Macbeth
with Samurai warriors

Throne of Blood (1957)


A Japanese film, Kumonosu-jō literally translates as Spider Web Castle. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood takes Shakespeare’s play and shifts it to feudal Japan.

Macbeth is Washizu, a Samurai general under Lord Tsuzuki. Washizu encounters a spirit who foretells his future.

When he hears that he will become lord, Washizu and his wife kill Tsuzuki, and Washuki gains the title.

But, just like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Washizu’s troubles are only just beginning. 

Joe Macbeth sets Shakespeare's masterpiece in
1930s America

Joe Macbeth (1955)


Directed by Ken Hughes and starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman, Joe Macbeth is a gangster movie, set in 1930s America.

The ‘gangster’ genre is, I would argue, an ideal setting for Macbeth as it is a perfect modern slant on the dog-eat-dog world of 11th century monarchy.

In this adaptation, Joe Macbeth is convinced by his wife, Lilly, to murder the reigning kingpin and take charge himself.

The plan works like a dream, until Lennie (Macduff), a fellow mobster whose wife and children have been murdered by Joe, catches up with the new ‘king’.

Macbeth is in da club! Rave Macbeth

Rave Macbeth (2001)


Rave Macbeth is a German production, which is a much looser adaptation than those already mentioned. That said, the premise is unmistakably Macbeth.

Set in the world of dance music and raves, Marcus, played by Michael Rosenbaum (of Smallville fame), is fighting for superiority among a gang of drug dealers.

Things come to a head when Marcus’ girlfriend, Lidia, helps him gain the upper hand.

Men of Respect gives us a Macbeth of
the 90s, who listens to the insights
of a spiritualist. 

Men of Respect (1990)


Directed and written by William Reilly, Men of Respect is another gangsteresque Macbeth and centres around a hitman, Mike Battaglia (played by the very talented John Turturro), who listens to the prophecies of a spiritualist.

The spiritualist foresees that Mike will become the head of his ‘family’, so he sets about killing to get there, being sure to shift the blame elsewhere.

He eventually rises to a position of power, but soon realises there are consequences.

~

For me, it is fascinating to watch these adaptations and compare them to Shakespeare’s original. However, if you’re studying Macbeth, it is not advisable to see a modern interpretation and nothing else. While it might give you a feel for the play, many aspects will differ. 

Moreover, you’re missing out on the wonderful language of Shakespeare, which is, let’s be honest, what has made him such an enduring figure in drama and literature. Shakespeare’s storylines were good, but the way he told those stories was even better.

If you'd like to learn more about Macbeth, be sure to take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Did the Death of Shakespeare's Son Affect his Work?

How did Shakespeare cope with the death of his young son?
Hamnet Shakespeare, the playwright's only son, died in August 1596 at the age of eleven. 

There have been many theories about how his young son's death may have influenced Shakespeare's work - principally Hamlet.

However, I think it's unlikely that Shakespeare exorcised his grief in just one play.

Therefore, Hamnet's death probably affected much of the Bard's work.

The Problem with Biographical Theories


There is, of course, no way to categorically know what was going on in Shakespeare's mind at the time of writing any of his works. We can make assertions, based on what was happening in his life (and the world) at any given time, but we can never say with certainty what drove Shakespeare to write a specific work. 

Therefore, biographical theories are just that: theories. As such, there has been, and always will be, a difference of opinion. For some, Hamlet is the play in which Hamnet's 'ghost' looms largest. For others, themes in several of Shakespeare's plays focus on loss (especially of a child), grief and, as in Twelfth Night, a fantasy scenario in which all ends happily.

How did Shakespeare Respond to The Death of His Son?


Does Hamlet depict Shakespeare's grief
over his son's death?
There is one other thing to consider, before looking at the plays: Hamnet's death, although tragic, was not something that would have made headlines at the time. In fact, a third of children under the age of ten died during the latter part of the sixteenth century.

Therefore, Shakespeare was far from the only parent to experience this type of loss. Sadly, it was all too commonplace.

Did high child mortality rates mean Hamnet's death was a matter-of-fact part of life that Shakespeare was able to deal with?

Unlike Ben Jonson, whose son also died, Shakespeare certainly did not write anything specifically focused on the loss of his child.

Exactly how the Bard dealt with the untimely demise of his son, we'll never know. However, there is some evidence in his work to suggest that it wasn't an event he was ever able to banish from his mind.

Hamlet and Hamnet 


Given the similarity in name and the gritty, dark content of Hamlet, it's easy to see why people assume that the play is Shakespeare's great outpouring of grief over his son's death. It is one of the Bard's most nihilistic plays - capturing the hopelessness, depression and, sometimes, insanity of one who has suddenly lost a beloved family member. 

But, of course, Hamlet wasn't a creation of Shakespeare's imagination. The story stems from Scandinavian legend, although this does not negate the possibility that Shakespeare's grief is at the root of the play.

However, Hamlet probably wasn't penned until around 1600, some four years after Hamnet's death. Of course, it's quite possible that Shakespeare would delay writing the work that mourns his son, but I think it's unlikely. I also think that there are very clear hints of Hamnet in earlier works - and I'm not alone.

Grief in Shakespeare's Comedies

Twelfth Night has a happier outcome for the twins
who thought each other dead
At the time of Hamnet's passing, Shakespeare was predominantly working on comedies. So, you'd think there would be no room for references to death, but far from it. Twelfth Night, which features the supposed death of a twin (Hamnet and Shakespeare's youngest daughter, Judith, were fraternal twins) and the miraculous reunion of Viola and Sebastian. 

In addition, Professor Richard Wheeler of the University of Illinois asserts that the theme of cross-dressing in many of Shakespeare's comedies: Twelfth Night, As Well That Ends Well, Merchant of Venice is indicative of Shakespeare's hopes for his son passing to his daughters. I'm not entirely convinced by the theory, but it's possible.

Author Bill Bryson wonders if Constance's "Grief fills the room up of my absent child" speech from  King John is in response to Hamnet's demise. However, it's not clear whether this was written before or after the young boy's death.

Other Possible References to Hamnet


Grief over a child's death is a feature of many
Shakespearean plays
There are many other events and themes in Shakespeare's plays that we could suppose are reference to the playwright's son, for example the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Lear's heart-wrenching response to Cordelia's murder, and Julius Caesar adopting Marc Anthony, because his own son is deceased.

Consequently, I don't think we should be looking for Hamnet in a specific Shakespeare play, but in the overall tone of the man's work.

It's clear that Shakespeare improved his craft. Over the years, his writing became more mature, and the depth of his characters' emotions more profound. I suspect it was life experiences, including Hamnet's death, that enabled him to write words that still speak so eloquently of the pain of loss.

Perhaps, just like Richard II, the vast majority of Shakespeare's sorrow was kept from view.

"My grief lies all within; 
And these external manners of laments 
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief 
That swells with silence in the tortured soul."