February Post: Interview with Harvard Professor Jeffrey Wilson

I recently had the incredible opportunity to interview Jeffrey R. Wilson Ph.D., a professor in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the Why Shakespeare? course as a first-year writing seminar. Additionally,  I was able to shadow his course before the interview, which was truly amazing in witnessing a college-level English course, let alone one focused on my favorite subject, Shakespeare. In the class, Professor Wilson provided an engaging and interactive lecture coupled with a fun acting exercise of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. Learning alongside passionate students and a learned professor was truly fascinating. We discussed his upcoming book, Shakespeare and Trump, which will be available on April 20th, his background leading up to his current position, his class, and, of course, his thoughts on the Bard and his works. 

Professor Wilson’s upcoming book, Shakespeare and Trump, will be available April 20th.

Wilson’s work, focused on the intersections between Renaissance literature and modern sociology, has appeared in academic journals such as Genre, College Literature, Shakespeare, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Law and the Humanities, Disability Studies Quarterly, Early Modern Literary Studies, Literary Imagination, and Crime, Media, Culture, as well as public venues such as National Public Radio, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Profession, Academe, Public Seminar, The Smart Set, The Spectator USA, CounterPunch, and Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory

When were you first introduced to Shakespeare, did you read any of his works in high school?

I was assigned [his] works in high school. I’m sure I didn’t read any of them. I was not the best high school student, so I had kind of a ho-hum high school career.

What was your educational background, especially in relation to Shakespeare?

I grew up in Kansas and didn’t get into any colleges or universities when I applied around Kansas, so I went to community college out in San Diego, did a year of community college, and one year back at the University of Kansas. California has this amazing public higher education system, wherein community colleges, if you make certain marks, you are guaranteed admittance to a certain state school system. So, I went to Mesa Community College, and I ended up getting my Bachelor’s Degree from San Diego State University.

Then, I went to the University of California at Irvine for my Ph.D., and the year that I was graduating from Irvine, President Obama was speaking on campus. I wrote to him and availed my story as the poster child of California public education to him– he passed.

I was going in the direction of music and music production, and then the summer before my senior year, I had a really bad experience in the music industry, and that kind of turned me off to that. The very next semester, I had the most amazing Milton course at SDSU with a fellow named Peter Herman, and that opened my eyes to these amazing things that you can do with literature. I got really excited by that, and so, my last semester at SDSU, I probably read my first Shakespeare play. I then ended up going to Irvine to study with a Miltonist there.

I don’t know if I should be saying this, but my first love and my enduring love when I want to read really good literature is Milton. But Shakespeare is really, really amazing for centuries-long cultural conversations, which is what I care the most about.

We can talk with people who lived four hundred years ago and Shakespeare, just by virtue of his popularity, gives us a platform for doing that. I got really excited by that and had the most amazing Shakespeare scholar that trained me at Irvine named Julia Lupton.

Both of them [Peter Herman and Julia Lupton] have been really supportive and followed my career with interest and enthusiasm.

Professor Jeffrey R. Wilson

Why do you enjoy studying/teaching it?

I’m not the kind of super-enthusiastic lover of Shakespeare that a lot of people are. I’m much more interested in Shakespeare as an opportunity for us to do intellectual history. I used to say I’m agnostic to the quality of the literature. I think maybe doing so much of it has brought me around to liking it a lot more than I initially did.

I initially saw Shakespeare as an opportunity to think through how we, as a society, have changed over the past four hundred years by people constantly watching Shakespeare, reading Shakespeare, and responding to Shakespeare, and using that as a touchstone to be able to say here are some of the things that have happened in this big-scale history of English culture, of American culture. Shakespeare seems to be everywhere and seems to be a good way to do that. 

I  think both your upcoming book and class really speak to this—  why is or why should Shakespeare’s works be relevant today? 

I spend a lot of time in my class explaining that I’m not really interested in the “why should” questions, so I will never be arguing that the world will be better if we just read more Shakespeare.

The “why is” Shakespeare question fascinates me, though, and I could talk about that forever because I don’t know the answer to it. I always tell students in the Why Shakespeare? class that as soon as I do know the answer, I probably won’t be interested in teaching the class anymore.

It’s amazing to me that we’ve been working on this class for seven years, and we haven’t gotten to the bottom of the case yet. We don’t know “Why Shakespeare” in a large sense.

We know why Shakespeare surfaces in a number of different cultures in specific settings, but trying to answer the big “Why Shakespeare” question and wrestle with the implications of that is something that at least I haven’t cracked. I don’t know if coming up with a big unified answer to that question is something that will be beneficial to us anyway. But it has been the most generative topic of getting a whole bunch of extremely intelligent Harvard students coming from thirty different backgrounds that are all able to find themselves in a Shakespeare cultural reception in one way or another. It [the class and overarching question] then gives you thirty different perspectives on Shakespeare that you never thought about before, and that, to me, is the most fascinating thing. 

What is the format of your class and what do you think is most effective in teaching young people about Shakespeare? 

I teach a writing class that has a Shakespeare theme to it, so our focus is on writing academic essays. I remember when I started here, the Harvard brass asked me if I would teach Hamlet every semester, and I said absolutely not because you need seven weeks to teach Hamlet and we’re going to be talking about how to write essays as opposed to digging into the text and history of Hamlet.

When I eventually put Hamlet on the syllabus, I came to discover that Hamlet doesn’t need Jeff Wilson. Hamlet has been doing just fine by itself for four hundred years, so I almost teach nothing about the text. I teach very little snippets of arguments that you could do as a model for finding the ideas that you care about in Hamlet. For example, I’m really interested in ideas of social performance, and I get obsessed with those and can find those in Hamlet, but other people who are interested in their obsessions can find those different obsessions in Hamlet. I try to encourage people to really dig into their perspective and what makes you unique as an individual. I think the only way that we’re going to say new things about Shakespeare, about Hamlet, is by embracing the perspectives that we bring that four hundred years of Shakespeare scholars haven’t had because they are ours and ours alone.

Have you seen a change or a shift in how students respond to writing about Shakespeare or how they perceive Shakespeare’s works in your time teaching this class?

The biggest change in my time teaching this class is that a few years before I got here in 2010 or so, Harvard started to take having a diverse student a little bit more seriously, which was aspirational around 2010 and is much more real now. Now, we have students coming from a lot of different backgrounds, and that brings certain challenges: students who have had different levels of training, students who come from different quality of schools, and so forth.

But [diversity] also brings just immense, immense resources of people who have had different experiences that are all coming together to meet in the context of Shakespeare. Shakespeare can bring those different experiences to bear.

This semester, I had a student in my class from the LA Unified School District for the first time. I taught students at CSU Long Beach out there before I came to Harvard, and most of my students were from LA Unified and had been pretty much systematically been failed by LA Unified School District, so we had to grapple with that a lot. We do have some of those students here, and for us to be able to learn from them and to hear their conversations in class makes Harvard a much stronger place. 

Shakespeare and Trump: Shakespeare provides ample examples in his plays of the ability of power to absolutely corrupt— Julius Cesar, Macbeth, Lear, Richard III—  how do you use these as a basis for comparison in your books?

Shakespeare uniquely grappled with power and how power is used among some of the more canonical authors in the English and Western canon. Shakespeare cares about the head of the state, which not everyone does, with good reason. You have someone like Chaucer or Dante, and they care about the relationship between humans and the divine, or Milton, who cares about the divine. Dickens, who cares about society, and Austen cares about high society and interrelations there. Shakespeare seems obsessed with monarchy, and I always say that means Shakespeare shouldn’t be relevant to the 21st century, and yet, here we are.

There has been this massive discourse over the past four years, especially of bringing Shakespeare into relation with current events, especially politics, which is weird because it forces us to think about why someone who was obsessed with monarchy relevant to what is going on in 2020 in America. I think the short answer is that the nature of our politics has taken a turn toward the monarchical.

Donald Trump, with his petulant personality, massive wealth, and penchant for making decisions based on knee-jerk emotions of the day, throws us back into a little bit of a style of Shakespearean monarchical politics.

It seems to me that even though Shakespeare shouldn’t be relevant to democratic politics, he is. We need to grapple with that, and wrestling with those analogies that happen between Shakespearean characters and politicians helps us think through and better understand what’s going on in our society, which, to me, is much more important than celebrating the beauty of Shakespeare.

I think using Shakespeare as a tool —an instrument to learn about life today—  is something that fascinates me much more. 

Do you see yourself writing more books about Shakespeare’s works? If so, about what?

I was just talking with a friend yesterday, and we decided that the sequel will be Chaucer and Klobuchar.

 I think that the Shakespeare and Trump book was written very fast, and I wasn’t exactly dying to write this book, but based on some of my earlier work, I was well-positioned to write it.

It grows out of a couple of places. One is that it grows out of some work I’ve done under a project called, “Shakespeare and Criminology,” which is thinking about how crime happens and how justice is served in a modern setting in the context of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which are all about crimes happening and justice trying to be administered, and, often, it doesn’t go well. The idea was that we can use modern criminology and modern theories of criminology to explain what happens in Shakespeare’s plays, and, more importantly, we can use Shakespeare to think through modern issues of crime and justice. The logic or methodology of the Shakespeare and Trump book was in place for that, and these new events started happening in politics that the logic applied to.

Even though I have these older projects that are much more scholarly and build the logic for that methodology, they were available as a lens for me to look at these events that were happening rapidly right before our eyes.

The book came out of a public lecture I was asked to do, where I went and I said I’ll tell you five stories tonight. I finished that lecture and realized five stories, that’s five chapters, I probably better write this thing up. 

How and when do you see the interdisciplinary study of Shakespeare being applicable?

It happens in a number of different ways that are all fascinating to me. The most dominant paradigm is Shakespeareans who read scholarship from other disciplines and think about how we can apply that to understand Shakespeare, and that is fascinating to read.

What is more exciting, to me, is the prospect of how someone who is not a Shakespearean can use Shakespeare as a lens through which to look at their discipline. So, someone who’s a sociologist, as opposed to doing a sociological reading of Shakespeare, does a Shakespearean reading of sociology. That idea I frame under the rubric of Shakespeare for theory, which is to say, as opposed to taking cultural theory and using it to interpret Shakespeare, we take Shakespeare and build new theory out of it that might have the possibility of explaining events that are happening in the present and future.

House of Cards via Daniel Clark Creative

What are your thoughts on movies based on Shakespeare—  do you have a favorite?

My favorite Shakespeare play is Richard III, and so we did House of Cards growing off of that. It was the fall of 2016, and so I put Richard III and House of Cards on the syllabus because it was the election season, and I thought that everyone was going to want to talk about politics. Then the election came along and happened, and nobody wanted to talk about politics.

And so, teaching House of Cards in that moment was fascinating because it helped us build a bridge from our situation in modern life, specifically in respect to technology, back to Shakespeare’s plays. House of Cards updates Richard III in a fascinating way not because it makes Shakespeare’s monarchical politics into democratic politics, but because it takes Shakespeare’s early modern play that was written on manuscript parchment and transforms it into a digital product.

In Shakespeare’s Richard II, the audience has this very tricky relationship with Richard, where he is a charismatic guy but also a horrible villain. We seem to love him at the start of the play, and, then, we get roped into his ruse and have this intimate relationship with him because he speaks to us, charms us, and is hilarious. But then he starts killing children, and we have to figure out how to negotiate this intimacy we once had with this horrible person.

House of Cards updates that in a fascinating way because it puts it on Netflix, and Netflix has this mechanism of making you watch the next episode without clicking a button. This complicity you see in Richard III shows up in House of Cards, where we fall in love with this show and are not really thinking about what we’re doing. This character, Frank Underwood, we fall in love with him, and, similar to Richard III, we have to negotiate what happens when he becomes a horrible person. 

Do you see any issues or limitations in Shakespeare’s writing in the time period, common-held thoughts about gender, race, etc.

Absolutely, Shakespeare was a man of his time, and I think a lot of us wrestle with a tension between Shakespeare being a very humanistic and empathetic writer who was sensitive and cared about people’s humanity and squaring that with the clear cases of racism and sexism that you see in his plays, from Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Hamlet.

The way that I think about it is that the argument that Shakespeare was an unsalvageable misogynist is as equally unfulfilling as the argument that Shakespeare was a proto-feminist. I think Shakespeare was someone who sought to explore the humanity of several different characters, especially people who didn’t come from backgrounds that he came from. Yet, still, there are some biases that are pretty detectable and demonstrable. In Hamlet, women speak eight percent of the lines and are two characters out of thirty-one characters.

I think that trying to square that situation is tricky, but it also provides a lens for us to look at modern life in instances where you have individuals, institutions, or corporations that have egalitarian principles and aspirations but also might themselves have some unconscious biases that problematize their efforts and aspirations. 

What are your thoughts on the theories of William Shakespeare being a pseudonym for possibly several authors?

The authorship controversy is fascinating. There’s the initial response that most Shakespeare scholars will rightly give, which is that a lot of that is not very valid and that the authorship controversies are filled with classism of people saying that Shakespeare, someone from a working-class background, could never have written those beautiful plays, which isn’t very compelling.

But the Shakespeare scholars’ resistance to the authorship controversy has come into tension recently in fascinating ways with this computer-aided scholarship that is showing us that, in all likelihood, Shakespeare collaborated on at least ten of his plays. We need to think about how Shakespeare not only collaborated with other people but also was collaborating with the authors of his sources, Elizabethan theater-makers, the people who were getting these plays up on their feet. So, to me, the hostility that Shakespeare scholars show to authorship controversy jars a little bit with the openness we need to show with this new research showing interesting collaboration and co-authorship.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play and why? (comedy, tragedy?)

I think I will go with my heart here and say Much Ado About Nothing because it is the play that my spouse and I have experienced together the most, and we see ourselves in that play. That is a play that I enjoy on an emotional, visceral level more than others that I tend to engage with on an analytical level. Much Ado About Nothing is fun and such a good story, so I have fond memories attached to that.

Analytically, I really like Hamlet. I think it’s fascinating that I’ve been teaching this Why Shakespeare? course for seven years and each student writes an essay about Hamlet each semester, and I’ve never read the same Hamlet essay twice. I don’t know quite how that works, but it does when you kind of, as we’ve talked about, encouraged people to embrace their situated perspective in the world and find themselves in Hamlet. I’ve heard so many different perspectives on this text and it’s not exhausted yet, and that’s been a real joy to see.

Favorite character? Favorite villain?

Richard III. There’s just so much complexity there within the text. There is so much comedy and tragedy. There’s so much pain and suffering as well as evil and villainy, and thinking that out is the thing that kind of drew me to Shakespeare in the first place both in terms of how it works within the play and in terms of how it works in the four hundred plus years of criticism and receptions of Richard III. Why is Richard III, this physically deformed medieval king, such as touchstone, such a prominent figure in English history?

I think the experiences that Richard has in the text because of his experience with physical deformity and stigma as well as the experience that we as the audience, as readers, have with the text in trying to negotiate our relationship with Richard III captures a lot of what life is about: trying to negotiate a world in which there are interpretations of you that are coming from every direction and carving out a little bit of space to shape your own life. That text captures it for me. 

What are your thoughts on Shakespeare’s sonnets?

The sonnets are amazing. I have to do a bit on Valentine’s Day in any Shakespeare course saying to be very cautious because Shakespeare is highly skeptical about the possibility of romantic love if that’s what you’re looking for your beloved.

But the sonnets, as a sequence, show such a deep commitment to drama in the way that they’re told that they’re not all that different from the plays. You’ve got this heightened, stylized language and a big symbolic punch of literature with a sonnet that is then packaged into this ongoing, evolving story. Shakespeare’s plays have so much poetry in them, and Shakespeare’s poems have so much drama in them. You see him going back and forth between those two genres. 

Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter by Ewan Fernie

Favorite Shakespeare-related literature?

The book that stands out to me a lot right now is Ewan Fernie’s book called Shakespeare for Freedom, which is interesting as an argument that Shakespeare has historically been a venue for discussions of freedom. Issues of freedom are all over his plays; issues of how much external social forces exert influence on our behavior versus how much our own individual willpower can control our destinies and the freedom that we have from society. Those are all over the plays, so Shakespeare becomes a venue for people, especially people who are not in power, to think about how to navigate this world.

Favorite play to teach? 

The initial play that jumps out is Richard III. I think The Tempest is a favorite. The Tempest, to me, feels the most modern of Shakespeare’s plays. It seems like things that are going on there between Prospero and Miranda and Prospero and Caliban are speaking to very modern relationships. It was written at the end of Shakespeare’s life and shows a pretty mature perspective. A lot of Montanism in there, and we see that skeptical attitude, especially in Shakespeare’s late plays being open to question everything. And, of course, the reception of that play in its Caribbean afterlives and its American afterlives provides opportunities for us to connect the present with the past. 

What other playwright do you think tackles similar themes or should be read with Shakespeare’s works as an interesting point of comparison?

The most obvious analog to Shakespeare is the ancient Greek tragedians, who are similarly concerned with heads of state and with national politics, drama, and how the individual drama relates to the social drama that occurs.

Also, I think, for me, John Milton’s poetry is just beautiful, visceral, and satisfying on that level. I can engage with Milton more in a sense of I will be a student of you, and you will teach me things, as opposed to with Shakespeare, it’s more I will be an analyst of you and describe what you do. So I love learning from Milton. 

January Post: Jealousy in "The Winter’s Tale"

Happy New Year! Here’s to another year filled with all things Shakespeare! I found it appropriate to dedicate this next post to the winter season’s namesake, The Winter’s Tale. Although many consider it notable for Antigonus’s death by bear, I find the complex and driving theme of jealousy to be especially intriguing. 

One of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Winter’s Tale emphasizes that although the danger and powerful force of evil does not prevail, it is omnipresent. The audience is given a happy ending, but one must first endure the heart-wrenching jealous rage of Leontes and the deaths of three innocent people, perhaps a more realistic commentary on everyday life than Shakespeare’s earlier comedies. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare displays the driving force of jealousy, one in which Leontes convinces himself that his wife is unfaithful, and, in turn, becomes his own enemy.

The play opens with Leontes, King of Sicilia, hosting his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Leontes instructs his pregnant wife, Hermione, to plead with Polixenes to stay and delay returning to his homeland. Hermione does this, and Polixenes complies. Shortly thereafter, Hermione gives Polixenes her hand, and upon doing so, Leontes enters an irrational jealous state and argues that the two are, “paddling palms and pinching fingers” (1.2.146). Leontes draws an absurd conclusion based on witnessing the two “lovers” touching palms, which he believes to be evidence of infidelity. Leontes continues on this jealous tirade, concluding that, “his pond fished by …his neighbor” (1.2.243-244). In this context, Leontes considers Hermione as a possession, a pond within his gates, which he has control and ownership over, and the act of Polixenes “fishing” alludes to infidelity and a romantic relationship. He continues with this metaphor and explains that there is a prevalence of and his own view of it, stating that,

 “Whiles other men have gates and those gates open’d,

As mine, against their will. Should all despair

That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind

Would hang themselves. […]

No barricade for a belly; know’t;

It will let in and out the enemy

With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s

Have the disease, and feel’t not.” (1.2.18)

He seems to imagine infidelity as being raped, his gates forcefully opened, “against their will,” as though his wife’s supposed unfaithfulness is a shameful and non-consensual act. This jealousy allows him to conclude that “shall all despair/ That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind/ Would hang themselves,” which suggests that cheating wives are common and that most women are sexually promiscuous. Additionally, Leontes uses a metaphor to describe a wife’s infidelity as the opening and closing of gates, which husbands are defenseless against, when he insists there is  “no barricade for a belly.” His words speak to the destructive and all-consuming nature of jealousy, which allows him to make generalizations across an entire gender, as well as related matters of love and faithfulness into some sort of battle or warfare. This perhaps symbolizes the inferior status of women at this time, which are viewed as mere possessions to marry and own, and that infidelity is the theft of another man’s property. 

As the play continues, Leontes’s jealousy continues to fester, and Leontes begins to question the true father of his son, Mamillius. He hints at his suspicions about his wife’s unfaithfulness, commenting that, 

“Almost as like as eggs; women say so,

That will say anything but were they false

As o’er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false

As dice are to be wish’d by one that fixes

No bourn ‘twixt his and mine, yet were it true

To say this boy were like me. Come, sir page,

Look on me with your welkin eye: sweet villain!” (1.2.13).

In this passage, Leontes expresses that many women have said that Mamillius and Leontes look alike, which, of course, makes sense, as Mamillius is the son of Leontes. However, Leontes continues to refer to women as “eggs” and that they “will say anything but were they false…As dice are to be wish’d by one that fixes,” or, in other words, that women habitually lie, and therefore may have lied about Mamillius and Leontes looking alike. This also suggests that women in Leontes’s life, such as his wife, are dishonest. Leontes’s opinion of and distrust of women, which may stem from his possessive love Hermione, influences his baseless jealousy. 

Leontes subsequently looks to others to find support in his theory but is disappointed by his friends’ adamant defenses of his wife. When Leontes confides in Camillo and hopes that he will affirm his suspicions, Camillo warns, “Be cured/Of this diseased opinion…/For ‘tis most dangerous” (1.2.360-362). Clearly, Camillo recognizes the dangers of Leontes’s “diseased opinion,” the effects of his jealousy, and is worried about the harm it may inflict on Leontes and his loved ones: his wife, their unborn child, and his dear friend. His concerns are entirely valid, as Leontes’s jealousy destroys his family, ruins his friendship with Polixenes, and dooms his kingdom, as Sicilia is left heirless with the death of Mamillius and Perdita’s abandonment.  Likewise, Antigonus and other lords argue that “the Queen is spotless/ I’ th’ eyes of heaven,” that she is pure and faithful despite Leontes’s suspicions (2.1.158-159). Through the lack of support Leontes receives in his theory, the audience questions the rationale behind Leontes’s allegations. 

Despite the myriad testimonies of Hermione’s innocence, Leontes, possessed by jealousy, orders Camillo to poison Polixenes; however, Camillo instead warns Polixenes of this plot, and the two men flee Sicilia. Infuriated by their escape and betrayal, Leontes publicly accuses his wife of infidelity, asserts that Hermione is carrying an illegitimate child, and orders her to be imprisoned. After these rash, impulsive, and destructive acts, Leontes decides to consult the Oracle of Delphi to confirm his suspicions. The Queen then gives birth to a girl, which is shown before the king in hopes that the sight of his child will subdue his jealous rage; however, he only grows angrier, and orders  Lord Antigonus to take the child overseas and abandon her. The consequences of Leontes’s jealousy continue to unfold, as the Oracle responds that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent and that Leontes will have no heir until his abandoned daughter is found. When this news is revealed, word arrives that Mamillius, the couple’s young son, has died from sickness brought on by the accusations and imprisonment of his innocent mother. The death of Mamillius brings Leontes to his senses, but too late, as Hermione also perishes upon hearing the news of her son’s death. Despite the subsequent heartbreak and death, the audience is rewarded with a happy ending, in which Polixenes’s son, Florizell, marries Perdita, Leontes’s daughter, Leontes and Polixenes reconcile, and Hermione is reanimated in the form of a statue and reunites with her family.

UCSB Dept. of Theater & Dance – “The Winter’s Tale” – Hermione in statue form.

Shakespeare does not suggest that jealousy or suspecting infidelity can ever be beneficial, but rather, that jealousy is inherently damaging in nature. The exact source of Leontes’s jealousy is unknown, yet it is catastrophic to his mental state, his family, his relationship with his childhood friend, and for the future of his kingdom. The play exhibits that jealousy is a flaw in Leontes and in love itself. This jealousy arises in spite of evidence but spawns from a feelings of wishing to protect a “threatened” marriage. Leontes’s envy is fundamentally irrational in its lack of basis in evidence; however, his vulnerable state as an insecure man deriving his power on the basis of being able to control his wife leads him to act on it. His love for his wife led him to be ditrusting and possessive, which lead to insecurities that fueled his jealousy. This self-driven jealousy ultimately resulted in a disastrous fury and  display of toxic masculinity.

December Post: Hamlet's Soliloquy: 2.2 (576-634)

In Act 2 Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s soliloquy shows the psychological toll that pretending to be “mad” in order to relieve any suspicion from the King, Queen, and various spies (Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern) takes on him. Additionally, this may be his reaction to the events that transpire, including his immediate discovery that his childhood best friends have been tasked to spy on him by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. When he is alone at the end of the scene, Hamlet can relieve himself from the burden of the insane persona and speak from the heart, articulating his thoughts on his plan, the theatre troupe, and how his mental and emotional state has changed following the day’s events. He proclaims, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here..” This exhibits his mixed emotions for avenging his father’s murder, as he considers himself a “slave” to his father’s wishes and perhaps his destiny. Additionally, he refers to himself as a player, which is ironic considering the upcoming performance of the “players” from the theater troupe, which is part of Hamlet’s newfound plan to potentially oust King Claudius as being guilty of murder. Additionally, he believes that he is an insignificant pawn and player that is pained with a “monstrous” duty. This line exhibits Hamlet’s thoughts towards his actions, most of self-pity, of pretending to be insane to allude any suspicions, and what he feels he must do, kill his uncle to avenge his father’s murder. 

Hamlet goes on to articulate the exhaustion and frustration he feels from acting insane for an extended period of time, as he has “force[ed] his soul so to his conceit, That from her working all his visage wann’d, Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting, With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing! ” These lines represent the disconnection between his true thoughts and sanity from the outward appearance he strives to portray, one of a disheveled, depressed, lovesick mess. However, he grows frustrated and annoyed at the taxing nature of pretending to be something he’s not to everyone he knows, with little payoff thus far, “all for nothing!” He then continues to refer to himself as an actor, stating that, “He would drown the stage with tears, And cleave the general ear with horrid speech, Make mad the guilty and appalling the free..” Through his feigned insanity, he may be able to determine the guilty party and hints at the possibility of executing this plan at the upcoming play. However, his tone then shifts to critical and harsh comparisons, as Hamlet refers to himself as, “Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,” meaning that he is an absent-minded dreamer who has yet to exact his duty or be fulfilled by his duty, which is typical of his self-deprecating and insecure ways. Yet, there is truth to this; by contrast, Prince Fortinbras seeks vengeance for the death of his father as well but has been acting on his wishes by raising an army and making threats to the royalty of Denmark. He sulks in the pain of staying silent and relatively inactive compared to Fortinbras, while the legacy of his father is tarnished, as the King’s brother, Claudius, murders him and marries the King’s widow. Then, he asks the audience, “Am I a coward?”, doubting his ability to act if Claudius is guilty and acknowledging his own identity as an absent-minded dreamer, a thinker, not a doer, which is considered unmanly in a time of glorified war and vengeance. This line represents Hamlet’s ingrained self-doubt and indecision in his opinion of himself and his actions towards revenge through comparing himself to Fortinbras and complaining about the little he has done towards revenge, pretending to be insane.

However, the prince riles himself up again, as he reminds himself of Claudius’s crime, calling Claudius a “bloody, bawdy villain!, Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” With his newfound confidence, Hamlet decides that he has not acted with cowardice but is, in fact, brave for even attempting to avenge his murdered father’s death, declaring, “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder’d, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell.” Yet Hamlet appears unsure of the morality of what his actions and plans, as his revenge, depending on the true virtue of his father’s ghost, could lead to his doom or the ultimate sacrifice of love. 

As he continues, Hamlet reveals his true intentions of asking the players to put on “The Murder of Gonzago,” as he admits that, “…guilty creatures sitting at a play, Have by the, very cunning of the scene, Been struck so to the soul that presently, They have proclaim’d their malefactions; For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak.” In watching a play detailing their own supposed crimes, “murder will speak,” as the “guilty creatures,” King Claudius and perhaps Gertrude, will display the guilt of the crimes on their faces and possibly confess to it. In deciding on this as his plan, Hamlet announces that “I know my course. The spirit that I have seen May be the devil: and the devil hath power, To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps, Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds, More relative than this: the play ‘s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” In summarizing his decision, he determines to act after he has observed the audience of the play to avoid the possibility that the King is, in fact, innocent and that the devil is luring him to a trap. Hamlet recognizes his vulnerability in his state of grief and uncertainty in creating this plan as a reaction to his earlier criticisms in the soliloquy of lacking any actions to avenge his father’s death.

Hamlet ponders and decides his course of action for retribution, touching on the frustrations of his state as an unappreciated and melancholy youth pretending to be insane, the hatred he feels for his uncle, especially when he quickly realizes his attempts to spy on him, and feelings of inadequacy because of his lack of action. Pretending to be insane to avoid suspicion in investigating his father’s murder is a brilliant plan; however, the lines between reality and pretend may blur. Hamlet vents his grievances surrounding his plan and current state to the audience, but his self-imposed seclusion could drive anyone to madness. 

Grantham Coleman in the title role of Hamlet. Photo by Jim Cox.

October Post: “Sonnet 29”

“Sonnet 29”

“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee – and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29,” published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, is one of one hundred and fifty-four sonnets written by the Bard. This poem follows the traditional structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. 

The first eight lines conjure images of despair and loneliness, as the speaker is insecure and ashamed, wallowing in self-deprecation and thoughts of jealousy and wishing to be “..like to one more rich in hope,/ Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, / Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” Suffering alone in his “outcast state,” he feels sorry for himself, curses his poor fortune, and yearns to be in the shoes of those luckier, more successful, more talented, and more popular than him. In the following lines, the speaker states that, “With what I most enjoy contented least;/ Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising.” If from the perspective of Shakespeare, the lines suggest that the activity he is least satisfied with that he used to enjoy most is playwriting, as perhaps after receiving criticism or coping with the pressures of being a very popular and sought-after playwright, Shakespeare felt particularly worthless and insignificant.  

The last five lines change the tone of the poem, as the speaker states that, “Haply I think on thee- and then my state,/ Like to the lark at break of day arising/ From sullen earth, sing hymns at heaven’s gate;” The imagery of a lark singing sweet melodies at daybreak and the sun rising represent the speaker’s mood being uplifted, as he compares the beauty of nature to the feeling he gets when he thinks of his partner. The love he feels for his unnamed lover brightens his mood, making the speaker happy to be himself once more and never wish to trade places with anyone, even a king, someone of envious status and wealth. The poem speaks to the power of love to change one’s mindset and perspective, as although the speaker’s life isn’t perfect, it’s all he needs and could want because his lover is a part of it. 

It is unclear whether Shakespeare is the intended speaker of this poem; however, if this is indeed Shakespeare, I can’t help but wonder: who is this lover? What event or events made Shakespeare feel so incompetent and unimportant? I find this poem,  in some ways, to be a testament of high school. Constantly compared to others in terms of academic and athletic ability as well as social standing, high school students can easily become overwhelmed and think less of themselves, which I have seen firsthand. However, the presence of a positive figure or influence in one’s life, in this case the speaker’s lover, completely changes the tone of the poem from one of extreme sadness and depression to a romantic and detailed declaration of love.  The speaker emphasizes finding one’s happy place, in this case thinking of his lover, to be transported from his gloomy state. 

August Post: Twenty Facts You Didn’t Know About Shakespeare

I was inspired to write this post after spending too many hours surfing the web and researching fun facts about my favorite playwright. These fun facts are via: Biography Online, History.com, The Independent, FactRetriever.com, and No Sweat Shakespeare

1. Shakespeare married when he was only 18.

  • In November 1584, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a farmer’s daughter eight years older than him and three months pregnant.
  • The circumstances of the marriage— a pregnancy out of wedlock and a wife older than a husband— would have been controversial at the time. 
  • Six months after the wedding, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna was born. 

2. Shakespeare didn’t just write plays…

  • The Bard worked as an actor, writer, and co-owner of a theater company known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”
  • In 1603, the company became officially sponsored by King James I and was subsequently renamed “The King’s Men.”

3. No one knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

  • Known as “the lost years,” Shakespeare disappears from historical records between 1585 and 1593.
  • Historians speculate that he may have worked as a schoolteacher, studied law, traveled across continental Europe or joined an acting troupe that was passing through Stratford. 
  • This period includes when he moved to London and began his writing career, so there is no record of his rise of fame.

4. There are more than 80 different spellings of Shakespeare’s name. 

  • Sources show many variations of William Shakespeare’s name spanning his lifetime, ranging from “Shappere,” “Shaxberd,” “Willm Shakp,” “Willm Shakspere,” “William Shakspeare,” “Willm Shaksp,” “William Shakespe,” “Wm Shakspe,” “William Shakspere,” ”Willm Shakspere,” and “William Shakspeare.”
  • However, none of the Bard’s surviving signatures are spelled “William Shakespeare.”

5. Shakespeare’s epitaph curses potential grave robbers.

  • The Bard died on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52. 
  • His cause of death is unknown, but he did pen the epitaph over his tomb, which reads: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 

6. No one knows his exact birthdate.

  • There are no records of Shakespeare’s exact day of birth, but he was christened on April 26, 1564.
  • His birthday is celebrated on the day of his death, April 23rd.

7. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was banned under Joseph’s Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union.

  • The official reason was that Hamlet’s indecisiveness and depression were incompatible with the Soviet ideals of optimism, fortitude, and clarity.

8. The Globe Theater burned down in 1613.

  •  Built by Shakespeare’s company to perform his plays, the Globe was set on fire when a cannon shot during a performance of Henry VIII lit the thatched roof.
  • Within two hours, the theater was burnt to the ground.

9. Shakespeare’s sonnets were published without his permission.

  • On May 20, 1609, Thomas Thorpe published Shakespeare’s sonnets in a quarto volume without his permission.

10. There was no curtain and little/no scenery used in the performance of plays during Shakespeare’s time.

  • Instead, playwrights described the setting for the performance by the actors’ dialogue.

11. His works contain the first appearances of 2,035 English words.

  • These include critical, frugal, excellent, barefaced, assassination, and countless.

12. He bequeathed his wife his second-best bed.

  • In his will, most of his real estate and possessions were left to his daughter Susanna.
  • The only thing he left his wife was “my second best bed with the furniture” referring to the bedding for the bed. This is the only time she was mentioned in the entirety of Will’s will. 

13. Shakespeare was one of eight children.

  • His seven siblings were Joan (who only lived two months), Margaret, Gilbert, another Joan, Anne, Richard, and Edmund.

14. The Bard has no direct descendants.

  • Shakespeare and his wife had three children together: Hamnet, his only son who died in 1596, and Susanna and Judith.
  • His only grandchild, Elizabeth, Susanna’s daughter, died childless in 1670. 

15. His original grave marker was altered posthumously by the citizens of Stratford.

  • Although Shakespeare’s grave marker depicted him holding a bag of grain, the citizens of Stratford replaced the bag with a quill in 1747.

16. Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, is 1,770 lines long.

17. Some scholars theorize that Shakespeare did not write all of his plays.

  • Some believe plays attributed to the Bard were possibly written by one of fifty other suggested writers.

18. Not everyone was a fan of the Bard— some of his contemporaries even criticized him.

  • Written by theater critic Robert Greene, the first recorded mention of Shakespeare refers to him as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.”

19. There are thirteen explicit suicides in Shakespeare’s plays. (Spoiler alert!)

  • Brutus- Julius Caesar
  • Cassius – Julius Caesar
  • Cleopatra – Antony and Cleopatra
  • Charmian – Antony and Cleopatra
  • Goneril – King Lear
  • Juliet – Romeo and Juliet
  • Lady Macbeth – Macbeth
  • Ophelia – Hamlet
  • Othello – Othello
  • Mark Antony – Antony and Cleopatra
  • Portia – Julius Caesar
  • Romeo – Romeo and Juliet
  • Timon – Timon of Athens

20. Shakespeare never actually published any of his plays.

  • We only know of his works because two fellow actors, John Hemminges and Henry Condell, posthumously recorded and published thirty-six of them under the name “The First Folio.”

July Post: Twenty Phrases You Didn’t Know Were From Shakespeare

I love this topic so much that it has a second feature on my blog! After reading articles that exemplify the incredible literary and imaginative genius of the Bard in creating words to fit the situations and express the emotions of the characters in his plays in  Reader’s Digest and Buzzfeed, I knew I had to share it here!

1. “Knock knock! Who’s there?”

“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key. [Knocking within.] Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?”

Macbeth, Act II, Scene iii

2. “Swagger”

“What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here, so near the cradle of the fairy queen?”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene i

3. “Elbow room”

“Ay, marry, now my soul hath elbow-room; It would not out at windows nor at doors.”

King John, Act V, Scene vii

4. “Rant”

“Nay, an thou’lt mouth, I’ll rant as well as thou.”

Hamlet, Act V, Scene i

5. “One fell swoop”

“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?”

Macbeth, Act IV, Scene iii

6. “Puppy-dog”

“Here’s a large mouth, indeed, that spits forth death and mountains, rocks and seas, talks as familiarly of roaring lions as maids of thirteen do of puppy-dogs!”

King John, Act II, Scene i

7. “For goodness’ sake”

“Therefore, for goodness’ sake, and as you are known the first and happiest hearers of the town, be sad, as we would make ye.”

King Henry VIII, Prologue

8. “Catch a cold”

“Your hand; a covenant: we will have these things set down by lawful counsel, and straight away for Britain, lest the bargain should catch cold and starve.”

Cymbeline, Act I, Scene iv

9. “Fashionable”

“For time is like a fashionable host that slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand, and with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly, Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles, and farewell goes out sighing.”

Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene iii

10. “Puking”

“At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.”

As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii

11. “Break the ice”

“If it be so, sir, that you are the man must stead us all and me amongst the rest, and if you break the ice and do this feat, achieve the elder, set the younger free for our access, whose hap shall be to have her will not so graceless be to be ingrate.”

The Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene ii

12. “Majestic”

“Ye gods! It doth amaze me a man of such a feeble temper should so get the start of the majestic world and bear the palm alone.”

Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii

13. “Gloomy”

“May never glorious sun reflex his beams upon the country where you make abode; But darkness and the gloomy shade of death environ you, till mischief and despair drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves!”

King Henry VI, Part I, Act V, Scene iv

14. “Cruel to be kind”

“I must be cruel, only to be kind: Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.”

—Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv

15. “Good riddance”

“A good riddance.”

Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene i

16. “Love is blind”

“But love is blind and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit; For if they could, Cupid himself would blush to see me thus transformed to a boy.”

The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene vi

17. “Zany”

“Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany, some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick, that smiles his cheek in years and knows the trick to make my lady laugh when she’s disposed, told our intents before.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene ii

18. “A heart of gold”

“The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame; Of parents good, of fist most valiant.”

Henry V, Act IV, Scene i

19. “Lonely”

“My hazards still have been your solace: and believe’t not lightly — though I go alone, like to a lonely dragon, that his fen makes fear’d and talk’d of more than seen — your son will or exceed the common or be caught with cautelous baits and practise.”

Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene i

20. “All of a sudden”

“I pray, sir, tell me, is it possible that love should of a sudden take such hold?”

The Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene i