Shakespeare improved Cinthio, his source for Othello, by making manifest Iago’s exploitation of Othello’s insecurities as a black man living in a prejudicial, white society. If everyone around you thinks you’re base, lustful and inferior, you’re bound to think so yourself.
In order to have believed the manipulating Iago, Othello must on some level have already believed that he was unworthy of the love of a beautiful white woman. And I would take this a step further and suggest that Othello doubted the sincerity of Desdemona’s love for him every bit as much as her father had. You’ll recall that Brabantio was so certain that his daughter would not have fallen in love with a Moor that he assumed Othello had used witchcraft to beguile her.
Thus, even though Shakespeare was, as we all are, a product of his times and surely held many of the prejudices and bigotries extant then, he does something extraordinary and visionary with the fact of Othello’s blackness. He in effect overturns Plessy v Ferguson and the separate-but-equal doctrine, long before the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education did, by presenting in dramatic form the insidiousness of societal bigotry.
One of the most powerful pieces of evidence in the Brown case was a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife, Maime Phipps Clark called the doll test:
In the “doll test,” psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven and asked them questions to determine racial perception and preference. Almost all of the children readily identified the race of the dolls. However, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks also gave the children outline drawings of a boy and girl and asked them to color the figures the same color as themselves. Many of the children with dark complexions colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.
Like the black children in Clark’s doll test, Othello had been primed by a racist society to believe the very worst about himself. It was therefore easy for him to believe Iago’s suggestion that a beautiful white woman could not truly love him because he had lived his entire life in a world that perpetuated the notion of his hideousness and inferiority and was, thereby, denied the opportunity to truly love himself.
Shakespeare anticipates everything. Had the Justices who decided Plessy been readers of Shakespeare, perhaps we would never have had a separate-but-equal doctrine.
This is an excerpt from an interview with Harold Bloom that appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of The Paris Review. Harold Bloom, probably the most famous American critic of Shakespeare, is the author of several works of literary criticism, including The Anxiety of Influence, The Visionary Company, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and, most recently, The Book of J. He currently teaches English Literature at both Yale and New York Universities.
INTERVIEWER: You teach Freud and Shakespeare.
BLOOM: Oh, yes, increasingly. I keep telling my students that I’m not interested in a Freudian reading of Shakespeare but a kind of Shakespearean reading of Freud. In some sense, Freud has to be seen as a prose version of Shakespeare, the Freudian map of the mind being in fact Shakespearean. There’s a lot of resentment about this on Freud’s part because I think he recognizes it. What we think of as Freudian psychology is really a Shakespearean invention, and, for the most part, Freud is merely codifying it. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Freud himself says, “The poets were here before me,” and the poet in particular is necessarily Shakespeare.
But I think it runs even deeper than that. Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean than a biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind a Cartesian or jungian invention. It’s not just that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition as such; I’m not so sure he doesn’t largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying something like this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare, and one of them got very indignant and said, “You are confusing Shakespeare with God.” I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were. Most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare.
The principal insight I’ve had in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn’t anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, on what they themselves have said. And then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change-becoming a different kind of character or personality, and even a different kind of mind. We take that utterly for granted in representation. But it doesn’t exist before Shakespeare.
It doesn’t happen in the Bible. It doesn’t happen in Homer or Dante- it doesn’t even happen in Euripides. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare s true precursor- where he took the hint from is Chaucer. But Chaucer only does it in fits and starts, and in small degree. Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that, and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation, is purely Shakespearean. We are now so contained by it that we can’t see its originality anymore. But the originality of it is bewildering.
Think of Bloom’s words when you read Shakespeare and you will notice “Freudian” neuroses in many of his major characters. Macbeth’s concerns about his manliness, Othello’s jealousy, Hamlet’s vacillation and King Lear’s delusions are dramatic interpretations of complex mental processes Freud would later study and write about.
Peter , Monday, April 15, 2013 / Macbeth
In A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy – a must read for all who have read the four great tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth – he discusses the following passage in which Macduff reacts to the news that Macbeth has slain his wife and children:
Malcom. Be comforted: Let’s make us medicines of our great revenge, to cure this deadly grief.
Macduff. He has no children. All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?
Malcom. Dispute it like a man.
Macduff. I shall do so; But I must also feel it as a man: I cannot but remember such things were, that were most precious to me. –
Who is Macduff speaking of when he says “He has no children?” Bradley offers and analyzes the three possible interpretations:
(a) They refer to Malcolm, who, if he had children of his own, would not at such a moment suggest revenge, or talk of curing such a grief. Cf. King John, III. iv. 91, where Pandulph says to Constance,
“You hold too heinous a respect of grief,”
and Constance answers,
“He talks to me that never had a son”
(b) They refer to Macbeth, who has no children, and on whom therefore Macduff cannot take an adequate revenge.
(c) They refer to Macbeth, who, if he himself had children, could never have ordered the slaughter of children. Cf. 3 Henry VI. V. v. 63, where Margaret says to the murderers of Prince Edward,
“You have no children, butchers! if you had, The thought of them would have stirred up remorse.”
Bradley makes short shrift of choice (b) simply by pointing out that everything in the text indicates that Macduff is not the kind of man who would kill someone’s children for revenge:
Macduff is not the man to conceive at any time the idea of killing children in retaliation; and that he contemplates it here, even as a suggestion, I find it hard to believe.
I would add that Macduff is a noble personage in Macbeth. Shakespeare makes him noble to put Macbeth’s ignobility in high relief. Having Macduff express a desire to kill Macbeth’s children would have been inconsistent with Macduff’s role in the play.
The first time I read Macbeth I was certain that Macduff’s words “He has no children” meant that Macbeth was capable of killing Macduff’s children only because he himself had no children. In other words, for Macduff, only a man who had not experienced parental love could murder a child. Now, after re-reading Bradley’s notes on Macbeth, I am not so sure.
The principal objection to choice a) is syntactical. If Macduff is speaking to Malcom, the argument goes, why would he refer to him as “he” rather than “you.” In other words, choice a) can’t be correct, because if it were, Shakespeare would have had Macduff say “You have no children” not “He has no children.” Bradley, the closest of close readers, notes that there are several other instances where Shakespeare has a character refer to the person he is speaking to in the third person:
It has been objected to interpretation (a) that, according to it, Macduff would naturally say ‘You have no children,’ not ‘He has no children.’ But what Macduff does is precisely what Constance does in the line quoted [above] from King John.
Bradley also posits that in this exchange Macbeth is addressing the messenger, Ross, not Malcom, who joins the conversation only at the end via interruption,
[A]ll through the passage down to this point, and indeed in the fifteen lines which precede our quotation, Macduff listens only to Ross. His questions ‘My children too?’ ‘My wife killed too?’ show that he cannot fully realize what he is told. When Malcolm interrupts, therefore, he puts aside his suggestion with four words spoken to himself, or (less probably) to Ross (his relative, who knew his wife and children), and continues his agonized questions and exclamations. Surely it is not likely that at that moment the idea of (c), an idea which there is nothing to suggest, would occur to him.
Based on Bradley’s exegesis, I now tend to favor choice a) . . . but only on those days that I do not favor choice c).
In this great soliloquy, Brutus decides that Caesar must die not for what he is, but for what he may become when he is crowned. What is remarkable about the speech is that Brutus’ makes his conclusion to assassinate Caesar before he analyzes the question. Brutus, for all his honorability, is merely fashioning a rationalization for doing what he has already decided to do.
The very excellent Amanda Mabillard of Shakespeare Online has developed several essay questions for each of Shakespeare’s plays. Today, I am going to take a shot at answering this two parter on the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV:
Many critics of the play argue that, in the final analysis, Shakespeare has failed to make Prince Hal a convincing character. We are to conclude that Hal has every virtue that makes both a great ruler and a great man — honesty, bravery, loyalty, generosity, intelligence, compassion, etc — in addition to accepting that he has no flaws with which to counter those virtues; flaws that would make him a realistic character. Do you agree that Hal is “too good to be true”? Is it really true that Shakespeare makes Hal flawless? Make reference to Hal’s relationships with his father and Falstaff in your answer.
Discussion and Analysis
In Shakespeare’s time Henry V (Prince Hal) was considered to be the model of the ideal English king. And for more than three centuries after that Shakespearean scholars who had carefully studied the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, 1 & 2 and Henry V) had, almost to a man, concluded that Shakespeare himself was a Henryoloter. That was the conventional wisdom until 1951 when a brilliant scholar named Harold Goddard came along. Goddard posited that Henry V was only apparently a patriotic tribute to an ideal king; that beneath its surface was a Shakespearean mockery of the notion that a warrior king, especially this warrior king, could ever be the ideal.
In her essay question, Mabillard asks this: “Do you agree that Prince Hal is too good to be true?” Not only do I not agree that Prince Hal as portrayed by Shakespeare is too good to be true, I don’t agree that any serious scholar has suggested that he is too good to be true. It is not Prince Hal, but Henry V, that scholars have suggested is too good to be true.
We need look no further for proof that Shakespeare did not intend to portray Hal as a flawless man than to the first 4 and 1/2 acts of Henry IV, Part 1, during which Prince Hal is not only not too good to be true, but not good at all. He is, at worst, a rogue, a prankster and a thief and, at best, a hypocrite.
Let’s examine, as Mabillard asks us to do, Hal’s relationship with the two father figures in his life: His real father, the embattled and insecure King Henry IV, and his surrogate father, the swaggering boon companion, Sir John Falstaff,
First, let’s deal with Hal’s real daddy.
Shakespeare, as he frequently does with his primary characters, builds Hal’s character by showing us how he is viewed by others. The pattern holds true here and the portrait we get of Hal is not a flattering one. The King not only finds his son to be flawed, he finds him to be irrevocably flawed. He is so disappointed in Hal that he openly wishes that Hotspur and he had been switched at birth and that his true son were the honorable Harry Percy rather than the riotous Henry Monmouth:
Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
It’s hard to imagine anything more damning than a father wishing that his son were not his son. Clearly there is something in Hal that has provoked this reaction from his father and it isn’t good. Fortunately, we don’t have to look far to see what it is. Hal himself tells us that he’s irresponsible, lazy, roguish and keeps company with theives, swaggers and drunks. He pronounces, in his most famous sololiquy (“I know you all, and will a while uphold… .”), that he will intentionally play the rogue to lower everyone’s expectations so that when he becomes king everyone will be pleasantly surprised that he is precisely the opposite. His prior dishonor, he says, will make his future honor stand out in high relief.
And let’s not forget Prince Hal’s premature self-coronation after the gravely ill Henry IV falls asleep on his death bed. Hal assumes his father is dead, grabs the crown and places it on his head. Goddard is spot on here when he says that Shakespeare wanted to portray Hal as overly-ambitious, drunk with the idea of power. Goddard provides the textual proof. The words Hal uses when he takes the crown are full of expectation and excitement at the prospect of power, but are quite different later when others, including his father, discover that he plucked the crown while the king still lives.
Hal’s relationship with his father is flawed from the crown to the toe. Hal doesn’t respect the King (if he did he wouldn’t be galavanting about town with the disreputable Falstaff and his pals) and the King wishes he had any other son but him.
Now let’s examine Hal’s relationship with his other father, Falstaff.
To be sure, Hal revels in Falstaff’s company. But most of that revelling comes at the bloat knight’s expense. Although Falstaff clearly thinks of Hal as his friend, Hal never thinks of Falstaff as anything but a source of amusement. Hal serves Falstaff merely to serve his turn upon him.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
. . . .
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Even if you hold with Goddard that Hal isn’t really a rogue but only playing one on T.V., you must still conclude that his manipulation of Falstaff and his boon companions for personal gain is devious and hypocritical. Hal, then, if not genuinely roguish, is a Machiavel.
Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff, although it should come as no surprise to even the casual reader, provides the final proof that Hal intended to abandon Falstaff all along. The public rejection of Falstaff was surely something the new King had to do to improve his reputation, but what does it say about him as a human being?
I find myself in a quandary on the question of Prince Hal’s character.
On the one hand, Shakespeare was much too original a dramatist to accept at face value the simplistic conventions of his time. While he may have wanted to feed the groundlings their red meat by portraying Prince Hal/Henry V as the ideal king, it is awfully hard for me to believe that he would have intended to portray him as a flawless man. In fact, judging from the subjects Shakespeare chose for his other plays, it is likely that he was attracted to Prince Hal/Henry V as a subject not because he was England’s ideal king, but because he was England’s flawed ideal king.
But Goddard goes too far when he concludes that Shakespeare had written a play beneath the play. I think Goddard does this because the notion that a ruthless warrior like Henry could ever truly be ideal was personally anathema to him. Goddard’s analysis of Prince Hal/Henry V seems to be infused with a twentieth century anti-war bias. Goddard’s ideal king would not concoct a false premise for war and would never slaughter defenseless prisoners. Goddard, therefore, assumes Shakespeare’s king wouldn’t either. Goddard’s contention, being based on assumptions that are not only unsupported by the text, but in direct contradiction of it, is similar in kind to those of the conspiratorialists Delia Bacon and Iganatious Donnelly who claimed that the plays are a grand and unified cipher that reveals that Shakespeare didn’t write them.
Goddard is right when he says Prince Hal/Henry V is a flawed man because the text proves that Shakespeare intended to portray him as a flawed man. But he is wrong, his pacifistic assumptions notwithstanding, when he suggests that Shakespeare, in spite of his mostly tributory text, in his heart of hearts really believed that Prince Hal/Henry V was a despicable character. Goddard’s reading of the Henry IV and Henry V plays turns textual analysis on its head by suggesting that what the words actually say is merely Shakespearean code-speak for their opposite.
If we are to assume anything about Shakespeare’s personal feelings about Hal/Henry, we must assume that Shakespeare shared the biases of his time and admired Henry V and intended to show that admiration in dramatic form.
I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Orlando Shakespeare Center this weekend and have been searching for an appropriate topic to write about. I found it on a website called Shmoop (tag line “we speak student”) which lists a series of exam-type questions for students reading the play. This question stood out (emphasis is mine):
The fact that Romeo and Juliet have sex is what makes it impossible for Juliet to marry Paris and it is what leads to the play’s final tragedy. Why do the Friar and the Nurse decide to help Romeo and Juliet spend the night together, even after he has killed Tybalt? Could the play still have unfolded in a similar way without this night of lovemaking?
I am less concerned with the actual question in this question than I am with the question’s premise: Juliet’s loss of virginity precludes her marriage to the County Paris.
I have read Romeo and Juliet several times and have seen it performed twice on stage, once in a ballet and several times on film. I have not until now heard the argument that Juliet doesn’t agree to marry Paris, not because of her intense love for Romeo, but rather because she has lost her virginity to Romeo. This reading, at first blush, appears to make some sense because if Juliet were to marry Paris he would, on their wedding night, discover that she is not a virgin, immediately demand an annulment and thereby disgrace Juliet and the entire Capulet family.
But is this reading supported by the text?
In Act III, Scene V, shortly after Romeo has left Juliet’s bed chamber, Lady Capulet tells Juliet that she is to wed Paris “early next thursday morn.” Here’s the exchange (emphasis is mine):
LADY CAPULET: Well, well, thou hast a careful father, child;
One who, to put thee from thy heaviness,
Hath sorted out a sudden day of joy,
That thou expect’st not nor I look’d not for.
JULIET: Madam, in happy time, what day is that?
LADY CAPULET: Marry, my child, early next Thursday morn,
The gallant, young and noble gentleman,
The County Paris, at Saint Peter’s Church,
Shall happily make thee there a joyful bride.
JULIET: Now, by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too,
He shall not make me there a joyful bride.
I wonder at this haste; that I must wed
Ere he, that should be husband, comes to woo.
I pray you, tell my lord and father, madam,
I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear,
It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate,
Rather than Paris.
LADY CAPULET: Here comes your father; tell him so yourself,
And see how he will take it at your hands.
The only sentence above that might possibly be construed as alluding to Juliet’s lost virginity is her outburst,
Now, by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too,
He shall not make me there a joyful bride.
The phrase “shall not make me there a joyful bride” certainly means that the bride shall not be joyful, but it might also mean that Paris won’t find his bride joyful (to himself) when he discovers that she has been enjoyed by someone before him. But I think that’s much too subtle a reference, even for Shakespeare.
I have searched the entire play and couldn’t find a single reference or allusion, other than the above sentence, that would indicate that the reason Juliet will not marry Paris is because she cannot marry him, having already lost her virginity to Romeo. Consequently, as we must always do when interpreting a Shakespearean text, we must assume that what is not there is not there for a reason. In other words, if Shakespeare wanted his audiences to believe that Juliet would have married Paris had she not consummated her marriage with Romeo, he would have made it clear at least somewhere in the text. That he didn’t include it in the text is additional evidence that Juliet would not have married Paris under any circumstances because she was utterly and thoroughly devoted to Romeo.
Here are two final points that make it easy for me to conclude that Juliet would not have married Paris even had she not already married Romeo and even if she had not consummated her marriage to him:
1. Even were Juliet inclined to accede to her father’s wishes and marry Paris, since consummation was required in Renaissance Catholic Italy (and probably Elizabethan England, too) in order to create a binding marriage contract, it would be Juliet’s marriage (remember, it’s not a marriage until it’s consummated) and not just one component of that marriage (the consummation) that precludes her marriage to Paris. Shakespeare, in other words, would not have separated the marriage from the consummation because in the time of the play and his own time the two were coterminous.
2. Shakespeare’s tragedy is premised on Romeo and Juliet’s extreme and reckless devotion to one another. If Juliet avoids marrying Paris only, or even partially, because she cannot marry him, that devotion is compromised and, along with it, the tragic crux of the play.
My wife and I attended the opening performance of Romeo & Juliet at the Orlando Shakespeare Center last night and, as we do all of the Shakespeare plays put on by the theater, thoroughly enjoyed it.
The highlight of the night, though, was when Jim Helsinger, the Artistic Director of Orlando Shakes, was pressed into emergency service as Lord Capulet after actor Johnny Lee Davenport got injured backstage.
The bespectacled Helsinger had to read his lines from a script. But he did so much more than that. He acted the hell out of the role and, at the end, received a standing ovation from the grateful audience for it.
What made Helsinger’s performance even more heroic was that Davenport’s injury occurred right before the beginning of Act III, Scene 4, which meant that Helsinger had to speak and act 260 of the 381 lines (68%) Capulet speaks in the play. Most of these lines are packed with emotion. They include the highly charged scenes between Capulet and his daughter Juliet, who refuses to marry the County Paris, and the final scene where Capulet anguishes over his daughter’s death.
So, kudos to Jim Helsinger and the cast and crew for not only putting on another excellent performance of a Shakespeare play, but for allowing us to witness first hand what the phrase “the show must go on” truly means.
The star-crossed title characters were played admirably by Michael Raver and Stella Heath. It was clear from their performances – they pant, they sigh, they yearn – that the director, Thomas Ouelette, wanted them to behave like the infatuated teenaged lovers they are.¹ Raver and Heath do a yeoman’s job.
But for me – and the passel of 12 year old students sitting in the row behind me who laughed at every bawdy pelvic thrust in the play (and there are many of them in Ouelette’s version) – the real star of the play was Geoffrey Kent as Mercutio. Kent is, of course, funny, but he is so much more than that. Ouelette told us in his pre-play presentation that Mercutio has a dark side and he wanted to make this evident. Kent pulls it off with aplomb, especially at the end of his famous Queen Mab speech when he seems to be talking from his own experience of unrequited love:
This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—
If you haven’t seen a Shakespeare play at The Orlando Shakespeare Center, you are missing something truly special. Go see Romeo & Juliet and bring your kids. It’s the perfect play to introduce children to Shakespeare. Be forewarned, though, that in addition to the bawdy gestures, the play has some violent moments and lots of fake blood. It’s probably not for children under the age of 12.
¹ I saw an old film version of Romeo & Juliet where a fortyish Leslie Howard plays the part of Romeo. It bordered on the absurd.
Peter , Sunday, January 22, 2012 / Reading Shakespeare
Do you think the Chinese are feeding their children double-condensed versions of the I Ching?
Katherin Schulten of the New York Times says there is now a condensed cartoon version of Shakespeare’s plays, er, I mean a condensed version of the CliffsNotes of Shakespeare’s plays:
If reading CliffsNotes’s “Hamlet” seems to be a pokey, 20th-century way to speed-comprehend Shakespeare, never fear. Now there’s a seven-minute cartoon version, complete with a talking Yorick’s skull. Think of it as CliffsNotes for CliffsNotes.
The goal, says Karen Cahn, general manager of branded experiences at AOL, a CliffsNotes partner, is to create “edutainment” that inspires young people to read the original. Students have used the familiar black-and-yellow CliffsNotes to supplement — or avoid — the reading of great literature since 1958. Though competitors like SparkNotes also have summaries and commentary online, CliffsNotes has animated the stories and translated Elizabethan English into contemporary slang. Romeo is “a total emo” and Julius Caesar dismisses warnings about the Ides of March with a “whatevs.”
Shakespeare coined words like sanctimonius, assassination and fashionable, Ms. Kahn has coined the word “edutainment.”
Oh, how I shake and quiver when I contemplate the future of my country.
Schulten continues. I grow more nauseous:
Does watching irreverent cartoons that “compress large amounts of knowledge into concise, tasty mind nuggets,” as the site describes it, help or hurt appreciation of Shakespeare? You be the judge.
“ROMEO AND JULIET” (Act 2, Scene 2)
JULIET: If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,
By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.
CliffsNotes Films says:
JULIET: OMG, that was like so hot. Let’s totes (per urban dictionary “totes” means totally) get married.
ROMEO: I’ll get a priest.
“HAMLET” (Act 1, Scene 2)
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
CliffsNotes Films says:
QUEEN GERTRUDE: So turn that frown upside down!
HAMLET: …O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer — married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
CliffsNotes Films says:
HAMLET: He’s your brother-in-law! Gross.
This is pornography. Shakespeare is his words and to change them or paraphrase them is no different than penciling a moustache on Mona Lisa’s nether lip or beatboxing Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik.²
I am generally opposed to the death penalty, but for crimes like this I am willing to reconsider.
¹ CliffsNotes Films has released videos of six often-taught Shakespeare plays, from “Macbeth” to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” co-produced by Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “Celebrity Apprentice”). A batch from another writer of classics, not yet announced, is in the works for summer.
² The missile scientists that came up with this idea probably feigned outrage when Turner Classic Movies aired a colorized version of Citizen Kane.
David Haglund writing for Slate questions T.S. Eliot’s claim that Coriolanus and not Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy:
In 1919, T.S. Eliot published an essay that elevates literary contrarianism to heights that have rarely been equaled. The central argument of “Hamlet and His Problems,” which first appeared in the Athenaeum and was later collected in The Sacred Wood, is that Hamlet, considered a masterpiece for centuries, is a shambles. Eliot goes on to insist that the Bard’s greatest tragedy is actually a play few people paid much attention to then or now: Coriolanus, just adapted for the screen by Ralph Fiennes.
I could understand Eliot preferring, say, King Lear, Macbeth or Othello to Hamlet, but Coriolanus?¹
Eliot [then] delivers his contrarian coup de grace, bypassing all the other likely candidates for Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy… and declares that the title rightly belongs to Coriolanus, one of the Bard’s least-read plays:
Coriolanus may be not as “interesting” as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success. And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the Mona Lisa of literature.
Haglund points out the reason Eliot preferred Coriolanus to Hamlet was that it made more sense. In other words, the motivations and actions of Coriolanus are easier to understand than those of Hamlet. But it is precisely Hamlet’s ambiguity and ambivalence that makes him and his play superior to Coriolanus and his play:
Eliot’s notion that Coriolanus is better than Hamlet because it makes more sense is, if anything, even more dubious. Do our moods and emotions always have “adequate equivalents”? Of course not. This is precisely the genius of Hamlet, that it so compellingly portrays a mind at odds with its surroundings, mysterious to itself as well as to us. The near century that has passed since Eliot’s essay has only provided more evidence of the wrongness of his of his judgment, Fiennes’ fine movie notwithstanding.
Intellectual elites like Eliot cannot gain a reputation for themselves as being smarter than everyone else unless they also disagree with everyone else.² Thus, instead of declaring King Lear or Macbeth superior to Hamlet, as many intellectuals had done before him, Eliot chooses Coriolanus, a play that no serious scholar has ever considered to be Shakespeare’s magnum opus. The great T.S. Eliot sees what we mortals cannot see.
Here’s more Haglund:
Of course, that century has also demonstrated the value of contrarianism for a critic who wishes to stand out: Eliot’s argument continues to fly so fully in the face of conventional wisdom that, to this day, his semi-offhand comment about Coriolanus may be the most famous thing about the play. You’ll even find it mentioned in the review of the new Fiennes adaptation published by the AP—a news outlet that is not generally in the habit of citing 90-year-old works of literary criticism in its film reviews. So, well done, Mr. Eliot. I guess.
¹ Coriolanus is still Shakespeare, however, and superior to all non-Shakespearean tragedies. I can’t wait to see Fiennes version.
² I knew a Bohemian chap in college who loved Boz Scaggs right up until the entertainer had a top 40 song. That the masses now also liked him was reason enough for this fellow to jump ship. But had Scaggs’ music really changed? I think not. Some folks, like Eliot, are contrarians. Whatever the masses like, they dislike. But not doing what everyone else does simply because everyone else does it is every bit as narrow-minded and sheep-like as doing what everyone else does simply because everyone else does it. Either way, your will is not your own.