Friday, 27 June 2014

5 Interesting Facts About Hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in 1948
Written sometime between 1599 and 1602, Shakespeare's Hamlet has proven immensely popular, and it's little wonder with a play that has it all: jealousy, revenge, power, love, murder...and even moments of comedy.

Here are five interesting facts about one of Shakespeare's best-loved and most well known plays.

1. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play at 4,042 lines and with a running time of around 5 hours.


For obvious reasons, the play is often edited and shortened, but when Shakespeare's original audience saw it, that was a very long stretch of sitting...on wooden seats. 



The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet

2. Disney's The Lion King is based on Hamlet.


Simba is Hamlet: his father is murdered by his uncle and he, eventually, seeks vengeance. But while The Lion King has the tear-jerker dad's death scene, it also has a much happier ending! 

3. Hamlet is the second most filmed story in the world...coming second to Cinderella.


There have been over fifty screen adaptations of Hamlet. One of the first filmed versions was made well over a century ago, in 1908

Since then, notable versions have included Laurence Olivier's in 1948, Kenneth Branagh's in 1996, and Michael Almereyda's 2000 adaptation, with a modern twist, starring Ethan Hawke.

Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet is just one of the many
film versions of Shakespeare's work

4. Shakespeare probably used Saxo Grammaticus' legend of Amleth as a source for the play.


The folklore legend of Amleth was immortalised
by Shakespeare's Hamlet 
Amleth (Anglicised to 'Hamlet'), Prince of Denmark's father is killed by his own brother. 

In order to put his uncle on the back foot, Amleth "...chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety. 

"Every day he remained in his mother's house utterly listless and unclean, flinging himself on the ground and bespattering his person with foul and filthy dirt. His discoloured face and visage smutched with slime denoted foolish and grotesque madness." (Amleth, Prince of Denmark, from the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus, edited by D. L. Ashliman).
Sound familiar?

5. Hamlet was among Shakespeare's most popular works during his own lifetime...and has remained one of his most often performed plays.


From the play's very first performances, it was a hit. Over four centuries on, it's still one of Shakespeare's most popular and frequently performed plays - that's some longevity! 

Friday, 13 June 2014

Family Relationships in Shakespeare's Plays

Who knows how Shakespeare got on with his own family,
but the relationships in his play are rarely simple 
“A little more than kin, and less than kind.” - Hamlet, I.ii 

One of the most appealing aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is that every one of his characters is intriguing, complex, contradictory and different from the ones that came before.

There is no such thing as a stock Shakespearean father, sister, uncle or wife. 

Subsequently, the portrayal of family relationships in Shakespeare’s plays is as diverse as the portrayal of the characters themselves.

Variety is The Spice of Life


Shakespeare gives his audiences warring brothers, such as Oliver and Orlando in As You Like It; ungrateful daughters, in the shape of Goneril and Regan from King Lear; devoted siblings, like Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night; and disobedient daughters, such as Desdemona in Othello.

Brutus and Portia should have a relatively happy marriage,
but things are complicated
However, one thing that does seem universal in Shakespeare’s plays is that there is no such thing as a completely content family relationship. 

Even fairly happy family bonds are complicated by some outside force - for example, the marriage of Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar, which is strained by Brutus’ inability to confide in his wife about his part in the assassination plot.

Partly, this is in order to create conflict: the lifeblood of drama. However, it also adds realism to the texts, because, just as no human being is all good or all bad, no relationship can be perpetually happy. 

This is especially true of relationships between family members, because the emotions are, usually, so strong.

Shakespeare’s Sisters and Brothers


The most famous sisters in Shakespeare’s cannon are Viola (sister of Sebastian) and Olivia (sister of an unnamed, deceased brother) in Twelfth Night; Goneril, Regan and Cordelia in King Lear; and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. 

The likelihood is that the witches use the term ‘sisters’ in reference to a sisterhood of their craft, rather than an actual familial relationship. So that leaves Viola, Olivia and Lear’s girls.
Sisters in Shakespeare's plays:
Goneril and Regan


Viola, as mentioned above, is a devoted sister, who is grieving the loss of her brother. She and Olivia have much in common in that regard. The difference, of course, being that Olivia’s brother really is dead.

Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are a fascinating threesome. It can be argued that Cordelia, despite feeling that her sisters were wrong to profess so strong and obviously disingenuous love for their father, retains an affection for them. “I know you what you are;/And like a sister am most loath to call/Your faults as they are named.”(I.i) 

The relationship between Goneril and Regan, which seems to be cordial or, at the very least, single-minded, disintegrates when Edmund comes between the pair.

Often, there is a competitiveness between Shakespeare’s brothers, which spills over into bitterness and violence, as seen with the two sets of brothers in As You Like It. However, there are also loyal brothers, such as Marcus in Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s Children and Parents


As with sibling relationships, the relationships between children and their parents can vary dramatically. 

Shylock unquestionably loves Jessica
Interestingly, there are precious few mothers in Shakespeare’s plays, the most infamous being Gertrude from Hamlet

The relationship between Hamlet and his mother being a particularly interesting one, of course, was examined by Sigmund Freud.

Fathers, on the other hand, abound. Often fathers of girls are overprotective and controlling, as is the case for Jessica and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Subsequently, there is a theme of runaway daughters: Hermia, Juliet, Desdemona, and the aforementioned Jessica, to name a few.

Nevertheless, there are very positive father/daughter relationships, too: Cordelia and Lear, despite their rocky bond at the start of the play, and Lavinia and Titus, for example.

Shakespeare’s Marriages


There are precious few married couples portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays. The majority of the comedies end with multiple marriages, but whether these turn out to be happy unions is a matter of opinion. 

For example, it’s difficult to imagine Katharina and Petruchio in The Taming of The Shrew having a pleasant, content life together (despite her apparent change of heart at the end of the play).
Although they don't look it here, the
Macbeths are Shakespeare's happiest
married couple


Ironically, the happiest marriage in Shakespeare’s works is that of the Macbeths. 

At the beginning of the play, the pair are completely in love and devoted to one another. However, this doesn’t last, as guilt over the murder of Duncan drives a wedge between them.

Essentially, Shakespeare portrays family relationships in many, interesting, dramatic, humorous and/or dysfunctional ways. 

He presents us with a spectrum of bonds that range from loving and loyal, to bitter and hateful. 

Audiences, or readers, are shown acts of immense familial devotion and horrific betrayal. And, of course, everything in between.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Quick Overview of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

In many ways, The Merchant of Venice is a tale of love
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, thought to have been penned between 1596 and 1598. 

The play tells the story of Antonio, the wealthy merchant of the title, who offers to lend his friend, Bassanio, money so that he may travel to Belmont to woo the "fair Portia". 

Unfortunately, all of Antonio's current assets are at sea, but desperate and determined to help his friend, he goes to a usurer, Shylock, and asks for three thousand ducats. 

We discover, during their battering, that Shylock has been the victim of  Antonio's anti-Semitic abuse, and so he agrees to the deal on the understanding that, if Antonio cannot pay back the money within three months, Shylock will extract a pound of flesh as payment. 

Some time later, Antonio hears word that all his vessels are lost or wrecked.

Shylock can be played as a villain,
but is he really?

The Merchant of Venice as a Problem Play


Although The Merchant of Venice is classed as a comedy, and there are undoubtedly comic moments within it, it could also be described (at least in part) as a tragedy.

Therefore, it is often known as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays, meaning that it does not fit comfortably in one genre. 

It is worth mentioning that the word 'comedy' in Shakespearean (and earlier) terms was not necessarily used to indicate something which was funny, it simply meant that the play ended 'happily' - with one of more marriages.

The principal modern difficulty of the play is the character of Shylock, and there has been much debate about whether he is a sympathetic character, or the unmitigated villain of the piece. 

Part of the problem here is that the play is now so far out of the context of its own time. 

How do You Solve a Problem Like Shylock?


And, of course, the play was particularly sullied when it was used as Nazi propaganda. However, if we examine the context in which the play is set, it seems that Shakespeare has done something really quite extraordinary. 

Henry Goodman gave us a sympathetic Shylock
The only other theatrical representation of a Jew at that time would have been in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, in which Marlowe offers the fairly two-dimensional character of Barabas. 

Shylock, on the other hand, is clearly complex, multi-faceted and, I'd argue, not motivated by cruelty.

The portrayal of Shylock depends greatly on the choices made by both actors and directors. But, there is evidence in the text to indicate Shakespeare's intentions. 

For example, during the conversation about the proposed bond, Shylock states, "Signior Antonio, many a time and oft/In the Rialto you have rated me/About my moneys and my usances:/Still have I borne it with a patient shrug/You call me misbeliever, cut throat dog,/And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine"(I.iii)

This clearly depicts Shylock as a man who does not act out of unmotivated malice. Antonio even says, "I am as like to call thee so again,/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too."(I.iii) Therefore, it appears that Shylock's agreement to lend the money is, in of itself, a really rather decent gesture considering his treatment.

In addition, the 'pound of flesh' clause could simply be, as Shylock calls it, "a merry sport"(I.iii) 

Perhaps it is only after the Christians have wronged him again, by stealing his daughter and his assets, that he claims his revenge. As Shylock says, in one of the most famous Shakespearean speeches, "If you prick us do we not bleed?/If you tickle us, do we not laugh?/If you poison us, do we not die?/And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?/If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that/The villainy you teach me I will execute"(III.i)

Portia is another one of Shakespeare's
cross-dressing girls

The Women of The Merchant of Venice


Another particularly interesting part of this play is, as with almost all Shakespeare plays, the female characters.

The women of the play are not only fascinating, but also strong individuals - and, let's face it, forces to be reckoned with. 

Portia, in particular, is a woman of action and, like Antonio, leaps to Bassanio's aid when required. 

Furthermore, it could be said that she is the most intelligent character of the play, for it's she who discovers the loop-hole in Shylock's contract.

Two Worlds Collide


The Merchant of Venice is, essentially, a play of two halves and it is only towards the very end that the two worlds of Venice and Belmont converge. Belmont, where the women of the play spend most of their time, is similar to a fairy tale. For instance, we have suitors vying for Portia. And the three chests that the men have to pick from is very reminiscent of fairy tales.

Henry Goodman, Derbhle Crotty and Trevor Nunn
Furthermore, Belmont seems to be the world of romantic love. While Venice, on the other hand, occupies the world of money and commerce. 

Love and money, therefore, appear to be the main themes of the play, and it is interesting to note that they are both bartered for in a similar fashion. 

The contract of love between Bassanio and Portia is very like the bond drawn up between Shylock and Antonio, for example.

To enhance this didactic view of the play, Shakespeare gives us an odd parallel between Portia and Antonio. This is illustrated by their first lines, Antonia laments, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad."(I.i) In the meantime, over in Belmont Portia states, "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world."(I.ii) 

Neither, has an ostensible reason for a sadness that immediately draws a connection between the two. And, of course, the other thing they have in common is a great love for Bassanio. In fact, Antonio seems to believe that he has the greater love when he tells his friend, "Say how I lov'd you/when the tale is told, bid her be judge/Whether Bassanio had not once a love."(IV.i)

The Merchant of Venice's 'Happy' Ending


The play ends on a light note, with Bassanio and Gratiano discovering that they gave up the rings, which they promised to always keep, to Portia and Nerissa in disguise.

Shylock and Portia are two of only three
characters who stick to their 'bonds'
However, there is a sense of melancholy in the final scene. Portia claims that, "Nothing is good, I see, without respect"(V.i) She's referring to the music being played in the house, but it could indicate undertones of sadness over the events that took place in court.

The Merchant of Venice is a complex play in its constant questioning of morality. It also questions a world in which money is the highest commodity. 

It's a story which tells of great loss and sadness as well as joy and love. 

More importantly, it deals with the difficult issue of human principals and whether actions always mesh with those principals. For example, the play portrays Christian men behaving in a very unchristian way.

Ultimately, it seems, Shylock, Portia and Nerissa, are the only characters who actually uphold their bonds.

If you'd like to read more about The Merchant of Venice, check out The Casket Trial and Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What is Shakespeare's Sonnet 56 About? | Sweet Love Renew Thy Force

Shakespeare's not happy about
coming second in his fair youth's eyes
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 is part of the collection’s ‘Fair Youth’ sequence (sonnets 1 to 126), which is addressed to an unnamed male youth. 

The romantic nature of many of these poems has led some commentators and critics to suggest that the works are evidence of a homosexual relationship between Shakespeare and the young man. 

Others have implied that the sonnets are describing a platonic love, or affection akin to a father/son relationship.

Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 56


An analysis of Sonnet 56 differs depending upon the assumptions reached about the relationship between the poet and his subject. 

However, what is clear is the relationship (whatever its nature might be), is suddenly unstable, with Shakespeare expressing deep insecurity - this is a big shift from the mood of the previous Sonnet 55.

The poem opens with an address to “Sweet love”, which seems to be a direct plea to love itself, rather than the unnamed object of affection. Shakespeare implores ‘love’ to “renew [its] force,” so it cannot be claimed that “appetite” is stronger than a deep affection.
Henry Wriothesley may have been
Shakespeare's 'Fair Youth'

He points out that appetite, which is a euphemism for the temporary state of lust, may be sated today, only to return tomorrow, “sharpen'd in his former might.” 

This implies that Shakespeare’s ‘Fair Youth’ is either promiscuous or fickle (depending on what kind of love we believe he's referring to), and it's this impulsive, lustful nature that is threatening to ruin their relationship.

The poem suggests that Shakespeare is insecure about his place in the young man’s affections. 

He accepts that the youth has his peccadilloes, but asks that he remember their friendship. “ …although to-day thou fill/Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,/To-morrow see again.”

What is the 'Sad Interim' in Sonnet 56?


In verse (line) nine, Shakespeare refers to a “sad interim,” which he likens to an ocean that separates two lovers. 

In Sonnet 56 Shakespeare asks his
friend to remember the deep bond
they share
This ‘interim’ could, of course, refer to a literal separation - when the poet’s young friend is away from London. 

However, it could also suggest an emotional separation; a period of estrangement. This part of the poem is particularly interesting, because, until this point, there has been no suggestion of absence, merely a plea for “love” to outlast “appetite.”

He goes on to paint an image of two lovers, “contracted new” who have been separated by the ocean mentioned above. The pair comes to the shore to either literally see or, more likely, gaze in the direction of their loved one. 

This section of the poem has echoes of the myth of Hero and Leander, who are separated by the Dardanelles (Hellespont). Shakespeare claims that “when they see/Return of love, more blest may be the view.” 

Which can be roughly translated as ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder.’

In the final couplet, Shakespeare likens the “sad interim” of literal or emotional separation to the long period of winter, which, being filled with “care,” makes the summer “thrice more wish’d, more rare.”

However the relationship between poet and unnamed youth is construed in the here and now, in Sonnet 56 it is clear that Shakespeare feels his friendship (love), has been neglected by the young man and the poem is an attempt to reignite his flagging affections. 

This theme is continued in Sonnet 57, as Shakespeare’s concern over the lustful nature of his ‘Fair Youth’ intensifies.

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said 
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite, 
Which but to-day by feeding is allay'd, 
To-morrow sharpen'd in his former might: 
So, love, be thou; although to-day thou fill 
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill 
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be 
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see 
Return of love, more blest may be the view; 
Else call it winter, which being full of care 
Makes summer's welcome thrice more wish'd, more rare.

If you'd like to know more about Shakespeare's Sonnets, take a look at Who Was Shakespeare's Fair Youth?

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors in a Nutshell

When it comes to describing a Shakespeare play, most of them are quite complex with multiple plots woven together.

However, I've had some fun trying to boil the plays down to their essences. A Shakespeare play in a nutshell is, essentially, a logline - it may not tell you very much about the characters or the rising action, but it describes the most fundamental part/s of the story.

So, here's the turn of The Comedy of Errors.



Two sets of identical twins, who were separated at birth, find themselves in the same city. Unaware of their brothers' existences, they wreak unintended havoc among their friends and families. 


If you'd like to see other Shakespeare plays shoved into a nutshell, take a look at All's Well That Ends Well and As You Like It.

Friday, 6 June 2014

5 Things You Didn't Know About Richard III

Richard probably wasn't as villainous as
his successors wanted us to
believe - fancy that!
A fortnight ago, it was announced that King Richard III's remains will definitely stay in Leicester. I won't get into whether or not he should have been reinterred in York, but, suffice to say, I don't think the last Plantagenet king holds particularly fond memories of Leicestershire.

In any event, Leicester now looks forward (sometime in spring of 2015), to reburying Richard III in a slightly more dignified place than that in which he was found!

I've already written a few pieces on Shakespeare's representation of King Richard, but his recent mention in the news got me thinking about the sides of Richard that most of us aren't familiar with.

So, here are five things about Richard III that might surprise you.

1. Richard III was only eighteen years of age when he was placed in command of troops at Tewkesbury


Even if we consider that average life expectancy was much shorter then than it is now, eighteen is young to be in charge of an army. Nevertheless, in one of the major battles of the Wars of The Roses, the then titled Duke of Gloucester was commanding men who were outnumbered 3,500 to 6,000. Richard's performance at Tewkesbury secured his reputation as not just a brave young man, but also an effective and talented military leader.

By the time of Bosworth, Richard had already got plenty of experience
on the battlefield

2. Legal Aid was introduced by King Richard III


The white boar of Richard III
Although Henry VII wanted us to believe that Richard was some terrible dictator, he was, in fact, not a completely ruthless monarch. 

Responsible for several overhauls to the English legal system, Richard III created the Court of Requests, which, for the first time, enabled ordinary (penniless), folk to have their grievances heard in a court of law.

3. Jane Austen was a Ricardian


Pride and Plantagenets: Jane Austen
thought history had done Richard III wrong
There have been several supporters of Richard III throughout history; men and women who know the last Plantagenet king was 'done wrong' by his Tudor successors. One of these people was Jane Austen, who, at the age of just sixteen, wrote The History of England From the Reign of Henry IV to The Death of Charles I - nobody likes a show-off, Jane!

In the book she has this to say about Richard, "The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man...

"Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it."


4. The city of York did not share the Tudor/Shakespearean view of King Richard III


Should Richard III have been reinterred
at York Minster?
Yet more evidence that Richard was nowhere near as bad as he's been painted in Tudor propaganda can be found in the records of his death in York. 

"King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was thrugh grete treason of the ducof Northfolk and many othere that turned ayenst hyme, with many othre lordes and nobilies of this north parties, was pitiously siane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie, the names of whome foloweth hereafter. [sic]"

Even if we concede that every crazy, dictatorial ruler throughout history has had his sycophantic hangers-on, it still sounds as though Richard III was esteemed much more highly than some would have us believe.

5. Richard's brother, George, was drowned in a butt of wine - maybe


How was the Duke of Clarence killed?
The truth is we don't know exactly how the Duke of Clarence (Richard's brother, George) died. 

We do know that unlike Shakespeare's version of events, Clarence really was plotting against his brother, and was subsequently sentenced to death. We also know that contrary to the fashion of the day, he wasn't beheaded.

Legend has it that he was placed in a butt of Malmsey wine, which, fittingly, was his favourite beverage, and drowned. Well, if you've gotta go! 

What is possibly more interest than the method of George's death is the fact that, far from poisoning Edward with lies that would ensure his execution, Richard actually opposed George's arrest. 
If you'd like to know more about Richard III, take a look at 'The Psychology of Richard III'

Thursday, 5 June 2014

A Quick Overview of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's bloodiest play -
uncharacteristically violent perhaps
Titus Andronicus is certainly not considered one of Shakespeare's best, but it's interesting to examine the play as a phase in the playwright's development.

Titus Andronicus, written sometime between 1584 and 1590, was Shakespeare’s very first tragedy.

However, it’s inaccurate to say that he was new to the genre, because by this point he had written several of his history plays, many of which contain elements of tragedy.

Titus Andronicus and the Authorship Debate


The play is certainly the most violent of the Shakespearean canon, filled as it is with murder, rape, cannibalism and mutilation. So much so, that it seems uncharacteristic of Shakespeare compared with his other plays, which in turn has added fuel to authorship speculations.

Many wonder if Titus Andronicus was, at least in part, written by another playwright. Some have cited dramatist George Peel as the most likely collaborator.

Popularity of Titus Andronicus


Titus Andronicus was adapted for
the big screen in 1999
Unlike most of Shakespeare's work (which was experiencing a boom in the Victorian era), Titus Andronicus was abandoned by Victorian theatre makers, because the extreme gruesomeness of the piece was simply not in keeping with Victorian culture, or the strict sense of propriety that was commonplace during that era.

To this day, it is not one of Shakespeare’s most regularly performed plays.

However, it has made something of a revival - causing audiences to faint in Lucy Bailey's production currently running at The Globe (24th April - 13th of July, 2014). And it was transformed for the big screen in the 1999 film, Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role.

Titus Andronicus is certainly not considered to be one of Shakespeare’s 'great works'. It has often been criticised for its sensational use of violence, and its uncharacteristically pedestrian use of language.

However, it is intriguing to examine the play as part of Shakespeare’s growth as a playwright, and as an exploration of human capacity for brutality in pursuit of revenge.

The hideous mutilation, cruelty and violence is undoubtedly shocking, but perhaps what it demonstrates is that society has not really altered. Movies, such as Hostel, prove that, in over four hundred years, society’s appetite for gruesome entertainment has not waned.

And Titus Andronicus was, unsurprisingly, popular among the Elizabethans: it was the Saw of its day!

Brief Synopsis of Titus Andronicus


The play opens with the triumphant return of Titus to Rome after a ten-year campaign that saw him, and his armies, battling the Goths. Upon his return, Titus is declared the new Emperor, but, with a heavy heart he declines the offer, claiming that the deaths of his two sons in battle has saddened him too greatly to accept the honour.

Lamentable? You can say that again

The Roman army has brought back captive Goths: Queen Tamora and her sons. Titus decides to avenge his sons’ deaths by murdering Tamora’s eldest, Alarbus. Tamora is mortified and pleads with Titus to spare her son's life, but he is deaf to her entreaty.

This decision proves costly; not a woman to be meddled with, Tamora vows revenge. Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, becomes the tool with which the Queen of the Goths exacts her vengeance. But vengeance continues to beget vengeance, causing a hideous and brutal chain of events to unfurl.

Is Titus Andronicus Just Bloody Violence?


Despite the obviously sensational violence within Titus Andronicus and the intentional visual titillation, there is also some interesting characterisation.

Aaron seems like a total rotter...until he becomes a father
Aaron, in particular, is a fascinating character.

There is obviously much debate about racism, but it's worth pointing out that Shakespeare certainly does not make him an entirely two-dimensional character. He is complex, and made even more so by his protection and devotion to his new-born son.

It is also interesting to see how other Shakespeare plays developed from Titus Andronicus. There is a clear parallel, for example, to King Lear.

Both Lear and Titus are driven mad by grief, and there is also the bloody eye-gouging scene in King Lear, which is reminiscent of some of the violence in Titus Andronicus.

But is Titus a great piece of literature? Not so much.

If it were the only thing Shakespeare had produced, we probably wouldn't still be talking about him. But, I don't think he was intending to pen a great piece of literature; he wanted to write something that would be a box office smash - and there's no doubt he managed that.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

What is Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 About? | My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun

Mary Fitton might have been
Shakespeare's Dark Lady
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is part of the ‘dark lady’ series of poems (127-154). She is the poet’s mistress, although whether she was real or an imagined character is still not altogether clear. In either case, she is known as the ‘dark lady’, because she’s described as having black hair and a dull complexion.

The relationship between poet and mistress is a fraught one, with some poems in the series pointing out her flaws and the latter sonnets detailing her ultimate betrayal. 

However, in Sonnet 130, which is only the third of the ‘dark lady’ poems, Shakespeare describes his love for the woman. 

And he does so in a rather unusual way.

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red…”


The form of Shakespearean (or English) sonnets is modelled on the Petrarchan sonnet, which became popular in England in the latter sixteenth century. 

Petrarchan sonnets were almost exclusively love poems and were often grandiose, with the poet elevating his love to an unattainable standard of beauty. But that's not what we get here. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, all this is turned on its head.

Essentially, the poem is a parody of those over-the-top verses of love. So, whereas a Petrarchan poet may well proclaim that his lover’s eyes are more glorious than the sun, Shakespeare takes a realistic approach to his subject.

Shakespeare's Sober View of The Dark Lady's Beauty


Every stock comparison is lampooned, and the dark lady’s beauty isn't lauded as something unmatchable. In fact, it’s presented as very pedestrian. 

Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 parodies the
grandiose Petrarchan sonnets
There are many things that are far more beautiful as far as the poet is concerned: the lady’s eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks and breath cannot match the splendour of nature. 

Her voice is no sweeter than music and, unlike goddesses, such as Venus (who is a popular figure of comparison in Petrarchan sonnets), she treads on the ground like every other mere mortal.

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”


However, this is not in any way offensive to the dark lady. In fact, quite the contrary, Shakespeare suggests that the false comparisons that he's parodied are just that: false.

In the volta (the final couplet), Shakespeare twists the direction of thought and says that, despite the fact he cannot (or will not) make ridiculously exaggerated claims as to his mistress’ beauty, she is just as special and unique as any of the women who have been subject of exaggerated flattery.

So, he's taking with one hand and giving with the other.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Shakespeare's As You Like It in a Nutshell

The plots of Shakespeare's plays are almost always multilayered - with some being more complex than others. But is it possible to simplify them? What if Shakespeare were alive and working as a screenwriter? He'd need loglines (one or two sentence summaries), of his works.

So, here's my effort at reducing one of his plays to its simplest parts - As You Like It in a nutshell.

A young woman dresses as a man and flees her uncle's court. Accompanied by her cousin and a fool, she goes in search of her father in the forest of Arden, but finds much more there than she bargained for. 


Now, there's obviously a lot more going on in the play than that, but these are the most basic elements. And, just as All's Well That Ends Well in a nutshell sounded like a modern romcom, the gist of As You Like It seems equally contemporary.

And this, for my money, is one of the reasons Shakespeare has had such immense staying power. His plays (and I'd argue this is even true of the histories), are not chained to one particular place and time. They continue to resonate, and continue to entertain.