Shakespeare and Cervantes: what similarities between the famous writers reveal about mysteries of authorship

Andy Rain/EPA

Alfonso Martín Jiménez, Universidad de Valladolid

William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, two of the most important writers of literature, are surrounded by a halo of mystery related to authorship.

In the case of Shakespeare, the question of whether he is the true author of his plays has circulated for some time. In the case of Cervantes, mysteries about authorship tend to concern who wrote the sequel to the first part of Don Quixote, one of the earliest modern novels.

Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605. In 1614, an unofficial sequel by the pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda was published. In response, a year later, Cervantes published his sequel to Don Quixote, denouncing Avellaneda’s version in the prologue. Since then, Avellaneda’s identity has become the greatest mystery in Spanish literature.

Cervantes, Shakespeare and education

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare lived and died at around the same time. Shakespeare was born into a wealthy, rural family and Cervantes had humbler origins, yet both had a passion for the theatre and wrote plays.

In both cases, we hardly know anything about their childhoods and education (although it is known that neither went to university).

Person’s finger on magnified page of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reading:
Shakespeare’s works have been attributed to 80 different authors.
Andy Rain /EPA

Great authors lend themselves to speculation. Shakespeare’s lack of education is one of the main arguments against the idea that he wrote his works, which have been attributed to 80 different authors. While Cervantes’ authorship tends not to be under the same scrutiny, questions about who exactly Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda was, remain.

Cervantes’ own educational background, however, suggests that it is possible to write to a high standard without academic training. If this could be true for the Spanish writer, why not for Shakespeare too?

A very large number of authors have also been proposed as candidates for the authorship of Avellaneda’s sequel to Don Quixote.

Social and cultural prejudices have been important in both cases. Shakespeare’s works show a detailed knowledge of the highest social classes, which is why it is thought that they should have been composed by some illustrious person of the time, such as Sir Francis Bacon.

However, Cervantes also had knowledge of the higher social classes and did not belong to them. Some researchers have even proposed that Avellaneda could have been Lope de Vega, the most prominent Spanish playwright at the time, since it is more attractive to imagine Cervantes confronted with a great author than with a mediocre person.

In both cases, figures who died well before both Shakespeare and Cervantes have been proposed as authors: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, and the Spanish writer Pedro Liñán de Riaza as Avellaneda, the unconvincing argument being that their works were left incomplete and were finished by other writers.

That said, it’s important to look at other plausible explanations. At the time of the publication of the first part of Don Quixote, there were no copyright laws protecting writers from continuations or plagiarism of works, which explains how Avellaneda’s version came to be.

Similar confusion has been caused in Shakespeare’s case. The Taming of the Shrew had an earlier anonymous version titled: The Taming of a Shrew, seemingly supporting theories that Shakespeare’s version was co-authored, or written by someone else entirely.

These days, however, following a theory put forward by Shakespearean scholar Peter Alexander in 1926, it is generally accepted that The Taming of A Shrew was simply an attempt to record the live production version of the play from memory.

In the case of Cervantes, I think I have cleared the mystery: we already know what Cervantes thought about Avellaneda’s identity, which should put an end to absurd speculation.

Cervantes and issues of authorship

As one popular theory goes, Avellaneda’s sequel to Don Quixote should be read as an embittered response to Cervantes’ parody of two real people: Lope de Vega and Jerónimo de Pasamonte. Pasamonte was a soldier from the region of Aragon who took part – as did Cervantes – in the battle of Lepanto (1571). Cervantes is said to have behaved heroically in the battle since, despite being ill, he insisted on fighting and was wounded several times.

Red hard-bound editions of Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quixote books in a row on a shelf
Cervantes’ parody of the apocryphal Don Quixote hints at Avellaneda’s true identity.
Amani A/Shutterstock

Shortly afterwards, in 1574, Pasamonte was taken prisoner and spent 18 years in captivity. Upon his release, he returned to Spain and finished his autobiography, Life and Works.

When writing about the capture in 1573 of La Goleta (where there was in fact no actual battle), Pasamonte claimed to have acted as heroically as Cervantes at the battle of Lepanto.

After seeing how Pasamonte had usurped his heroic deeds in his autobiography, Cervantes satirised it in the first part of Don Quixote. Cervantes turned Jerónimo de Pasamonte into Ginés de Pasamonte, a galley slave, who is presented as a liar, a cheat, a coward and a thief, and is gravely insulted by characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

The revenge of Pasamonte

The hypothesis that Pasamonte was Avellaneda, proposed by Martín de Riquer, an academic at the Royal Spanish Academy of the Language, is increasingly accepted.

As I have probed in my book, “The two second parts of Don Quixote”, Pasamonte sought to take revenge on Cervantes, writing a sequel to Don Quixote with the intention of robbing Cervantes of his earnings from the second part. In order not to be linked to Cervantes’ galley slave, he then signed it under a pseudonym.

To get revenge on Avellaneda, Cervantes imitated his imitator and created a masterly scene, making the literary representation of Avellaneda (personified in a character known as Jerónimo) recognise his Don Quixote as the true one.

As attractive as speculation about Shakespeare and Cervantes’ authorship may be, looking closer at their lives shows just how irrelevant class, education and conspiracy theories are in terms of explaining their genius.The Conversation

Alfonso Martín Jiménez, Catedrático de Teoría de la Literatura y Literatura Comparada, Universidad de Valladolid

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shakespeare’s ‘Timon of Athens,’ penned in plague-time, shows money corrupts but can also heal

Shakespeare did an excellent job of depicting the real nature of money, Karl Marx believed. A £2 coin issued in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Paul Yachnin, McGill University

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,
Karl Marx used Shakespeare’s work to examine money and its impact. The text was Timon of Athens, a tragedy written by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.

“Shakespeare,” Marx said, “excellently depicts the real nature of money.” Marx thought Timon of Athens shows perfectly how money both funds the miraculous fulfilment of all our wishes — and also robs us of friendship, love and our very humanity.

As philosopher Margherita Pascucci as well as the editors of the Arden Shakespeare third edition of Timon of Athens argue, Marx gets a great deal right about money in the play. I think that the play’s case against money is even more sinister than Marx does, but also, that the play shows how money can be used for the public good.

Spreading the wealth

Super-rich Timon loves to spread his wealth around. His supposed friends give him gifts in expectation of returns on investment. “If I want gold,” says one senator, “steal but a beggar’s dog / And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold.”

Timon thinks money is simply the thing he and his “friends” use to celebrate their friendship. “O,” Timon tells his greedy guests, “what a precious comfort ‘tis to have so many like brothers commanding one another’s fortunes.”

But Marx, like Shakespeare and unlike Timon, finds that money makes us powerful and lovable precisely by alienating us from ourselves. Marx builds his case against money on Timon’s diatribe against gold, which comes pouring out of him when all his “brothers” deny him money when he is most in need.

For Timon, gold is revealed as a “visible god” with the power to make the ugly beautiful, the evil good and able to conjure what passes for love between people.
Timon comes to understand how money replaces human relations with monetary ones.

Written in plague-time

In 1605-6, when the play was likely written, Middleton was coming off a string of brilliant satires about money-grubbing and seeking status. Shakespeare had, over the previous few years, written his great tragedies, including Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. In these early years of the reign of King James, the royal court was a hotbed of self-display by courtiers on the make and self-promoting gift-giving.

The plague had also swept through England in 1603, when about 25 per cent of the population of London died. Plague struck again in 1606, which is why the play seems never to have been performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The London playhouses were ordered closed. The churches, however, stayed open; congregants could hear about how plague came from God as a punishment for their sins.

Money as disease

Against this background of courtly profligacy and plague, it should come as no surprise that money in Timon of Athens isn’t merely an instrument of both empowerment and alienation. Money is a disease whose serpent-like winding from person to person swells into a pandemic large enough to annihilate humankind.

When Timon storms out of Athens, he curses the city:

“Breath, infect breath

at their society, as their friendship, may

Be merely poison!”

Alone in the woods, he digs for roots, but finds instead a fortune in gold. He gives gold to the soldier Alcibiades to bankroll an attack on Athens. Alcibiades had been banished from the city by the arrogant, unjust senators. Timon encourages him to slaughter everyone, down to the babies with “dimpled smiles”:

Put up thy gold: go on — here’s gold — go on;.

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove

Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison

In the sick air …”

Sharing money

A man turns away from two women and a solidier.
Timon, on the left, giving gold to Phrynia and Timandra; scene from ‘Timon of Athens’ (Act 4, Scene 3). Cropped detail from mounted etching and engraving.
(1299363001/The Trustees of the British Museum), CC BY-NC-SA

We moderns are informed by scientists, but we would do well to think with these Renaissance playwrights about about how the desire for money, and the power and pre-eminence money can buy, has led us to exploit the natural world and create gross global disparities in wealth.

Might money itself might have helpful or healing properties in the face of both the inequities that have become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic and the planetary climate crisis?

The play suggests two ways money can save us. Near the play’s end, Timon’s steward Flavius and his former servants gather to say farewell. Flavius makes the other men take a share of the money he has saved through his employment. “Nay, put out all your hands,” he says, “not one word more.”

What we see is a group of people whose hunger and desire for shelter are addressed by the simple sharing of money — as Marx wrote (or at least popularized), to each according to his needs.

Surely today, less hoarding of wealth and fairer systemic distribution of resources could help mitigate some of the worst impacts of the virus on communities that have been hardest hit. Similarly so when we look at the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the Global South.

Money upholding law

The play also shows us how money might help to uphold the law and undo corruption.

With Timon’s gold, Alcibiades is able to bring an army to the gates of Athens. Instead of putting the city to the sword, he uses the threat of the sword to enforce the good laws of Athens and to purge the corruption of the Athenian senators, who “with all licentious measure,” make their “wills / The scope of justice.” Alcibiades honours “the stream / Of regular justice … and public laws.”

We can put aside the spectre of righteous armies at the gates of our cities. Violence cannot create a just world. But money could serve to give the law teeth. Money could fund a lawful path toward a just world.

Imagine how we might scale up from Alcibiades’ honouring of “the stream of regular justice.” Money could fund a transnational movement able to transform into law in every nation a document like the Paris climate agreement, a pact which even the signatory governments now can simply nod at and ignore.

Groups championing a better Earth show us some ways it can be done. To make the Paris agreement into law across all nations would be to turn the world and the “visible god” of money toward what really matters and to give humankind a fighting chance of survival.

As Shakespeare understood, our fate depends on our ability to foster the humility and fellow feeling that will dethrone our god of money and transform it into a thing we use to advance our good and the good of others.The Conversation

Paul Yachnin, Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies, McGill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest villain

Hamlet and Ophelia by Agnes Pringle.
Chiswick Town Hall, CC BY-NC-SA

Catherine Butler, Cardiff University

Who is Shakespeare’s greatest villain? Richard III? Iago? Macbeth? They all have a claim to the title; however, the correct answer is Hamlet.

Hamlet not only behaves villainously throughout his eponymous play, but has somehow persuaded generations of audiences and critics that he is actually its hero. That is what takes his villainy to the next level.

Look at the roll call of Hamlet’s crimes.

First he kills Polonius – chief counsellor to the King and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Hamlet skewers him when he discovers him eavesdropping from behind a tapestry. Polonius may be an “intruding fool,” as Hamlet dismissively calls him on discovering his body; but Hamlet is in no position to feel superior, having “intruded” on Claudius’s private meditations in just the previous scene. Double standards are, however, a hallmark of this play.

Read more:
The lure of Hamlet – why this is the test of a lifetime for Benedict Cumberbatch

To make his treatment of Polonius worse, once dead, Hamlet drags his corpse through the court, hiding it from his loved ones and leaving it to decay and rot without proper burial.

Such disrespect of Polonius in death, however, is no different from how the prince treated him in life. Using his rank, Hamlet continuously insults Polonious, ridiculing him for his age, calling him names and refusing to talk to him directly at times. Hamlet does so knowing Polonius can not answer back. Punching down is Hamlet’s usual style with social inferiors: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric all experience similar treatment.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know?

Painting of Ophelia floating after she drowned in a river.
John Everett Millais’s Ophelia.
Tate, CC BY-ND

The most egregious crime is the death of Ophelia, whom Hamlet drives to madness and suicide with a campaign of misogyny, gaslighting and open sexual harassment, one moment condemning her for the crime of being female, the next degrading her in public with obscene puns.

Then there’s his casual proxy murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose only crime is to obey the king’s order to find out what is troubling their friend and then to escort him to England. Although Hamlet has no evidence that his friends know the fatal contents of the letter they carry, commanding the prince’s execution, he goes out of his way to ensure that they are not only killed but damned for eternity by being denied confession. By his own account, he never gives them another thought.

Read more:
Patriarchy’s ghosts in the light bulbs: Hamlet at The Royal Exchange

‘Never Hamlet’

Set design feature four of Hamlet's characters in a round lit by spotlights with crosses hanging above.
Set design for shakespeare’s Hamlet by Georgian artist Dimitri Tavadze.
Dimitri Tavadze/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-SA

Laertes, like Hamlet, has a murdered father, as well as a sister driven to suicide. When he takes a few lines to mourn at her graveside, Hamlet (whose self-absorbed soliloquies have already filled many pages) is outraged that the focus of attention should be on anyone else even for eight lines (“What is he whose grief/ Bears such an emphasis?”) and declares, on the basis of no evidence that we have seen, that he loved Ophelia 40,000 times more than her brother. Despite this hyperbolic protestation, he never again mentions or alludes to Ophelia from that moment on, let alone expressing regret at her death.

The usual excuse made for Hamlet is that many of these deeds are committed when he is of unsound mind. Indeed, this is his explanation to Laertes for the death of Polonius (“Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet”). That excuse would carry more weight had Hamlet not persuasively told his mother the opposite within moments of the killing:

My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,

And makes as healthful music: it is not madness

That I have utter’d: bring me to the test,

And I the matter will re-word; which madness

Would gambol from.

By the end of the play, Hamlet has not only ruined his own life and those of his family and friends, but freely given away his country to a foreign power – the very thing his admired father had struggled so hard to prevent.

In short, Hamlet is a self-centred, entitled, manipulative, callous bully. However, he is also intensely charismatic, so much so that he has persuaded the world to share his Hamlet-centric view.

That is what makes him a villain of genius.The Conversation

Catherine Butler, Reader in English Literature, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shakespeare on Zoom: how a theatre group in isolation conjured up a Tempest

Madeleine MacMahon as ‘Sebastianne’ in a live production of The Tempest by Creation Theatre from 2019.
Creation Theatre/ Big Telly Theatre Company

Laura Jayne Wright, University of Oxford

While theatres remain closed, the way we watch Shakespeare is changing. When I picture the audiences Shakespeare would have written for, I think of the groundlings in Shakespeare in Love(1998). They stand, arms on the edges of the stage, staring upwards, eyes filled with tears – laughing, clapping, gasping. They are part of the show – and they show that they’re there. In the bright afternoon sun, the actors can see and hear every reaction.

Right now, of course, it’s not possible to take a trip to the playhouse. Still, with the National Theatre, the Globe, and the Really Useful Group moving quickly to put past performances online, the theatre can come to us via YouTube. We can see and hear the actors (and, having watched Hamlet, Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I’ve been very grateful for it). But even though we can tweet our reactions, the actors can’t see or hear us.

The possibility of live performances during lockdown might change that. Over the Easter weekend, I watched an Oxford-based theatre company, Creation Theatre, and their co-producers at Big Telly Theatre Company from Portstewart in Northern Ireland, put on a production of The Tempest via video conferencing platform Zoom.

It seemed a tricky challenge under lockdown, with each cast member performing (and rehearsing) from home. Indeed, as chief executive and creative producer Lucy Askew warned before the play began, the night’s events were at the mercy of the technological gods.

But, when the play began and Ariel conjured a storm, suddenly it became clear that – despite our isolation – we too were part of the action. The audience’s microphones (muted while the actors spoke) were suddenly raised and we were asked to click our fingers to make it rain. The screen was full of audience members – and their pets, and their glasses of wine, and their pyjamas – and the storm was, even if I say so myself, convincing.

Within the space of an hour, the audience asked Antonio for answers via the chat function as he boasted of his usurpation of Prospero, we blew wind into the path of his ship and – in lieu of a banquet – all held up an offering of snacks (chocolate biscuits, from me). Each time other audience members appeared on screen, there was a rush of excitement as we got to see one another.

Listening to the island.

Shakespeare knew the importance of his audience’s reaction. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero relinquishes his magic and asks for something in return:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

It’s a moment when we are asked to make some noise – to clap with our “good hands”, to cheer (or whistle, or shout) with our “gentle breath”. Prospero’s redemption, if we allow him that possibility, comes from finally turning outwards, it comes from him seeing the necessity of his connection to others – to his daughter, to his once-forgotten subjects in Milan, and, perhaps, to us.

Yet, for all of the noise we made, this new medium exposed the myriad kinds of loneliness in The Tempest. Prospero sat in front of a backdrop of television screens, reminding us that we were all at one remove from one another. When Caliban described the noises of the island, the “Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”, it was painfully apparent that he was alone and that there was nothing real to hear. When Ferdinand proposed to Miranda and reached from his screen to hers in an impressive feat of Zoom technology, that brief moment of “contact” was bittersweet.

After all, the despair of being alone is a fear which Prospero seeks to create. As ordered, Ariel deliberately scatters the shipwrecked courtiers across the island. Yet, as John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

The dispersed groups come back together – Prospero leaves his island exile, and returns home. It’s not a perfect resolution, and it’s not a happy ending, but it is, nonetheless, a reunion.

Somewhere new?

As site-specific, conference call plays go, The Tempest lends itself to such a production. It’s a play about isolation and exile, about characters moving around a small island without ever meeting one another. Creation’s performance did nothing to disguise its new medium. In fact, the most powerful part of the performance came as Prospero spoke the famous epilogue which begins: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown”.

The cast slowly and methodically packed up their bedsheet green screens and wiped off their makeup. They changed their onscreen identities from their character’s names back to their own. By the time we were invited to stay on Zoom for a moment or two, to catch up with friends, thank the actors, and wave goodbye, the spell was broken.

But the magic may not be entirely over, not least as the popularity of their performances have led to Creation extending its run. Moreover, The Tempest is not the only play offered in this new genre of “Zoom Shakespeare”. Another group of actors recently collaborated to create A Midsummer Night’s Stream, which they advertise not simply as a reading but a live performance, “adapted for our stage”. And there is no reason to think that “Zoom Theatre” will stick to Shakespeare.

While we will (to entirely misuse one of Prospero’s lines) return to a time when we “have no screen between this part he play’d/And him he play’d it for”, Zoom Theatre may not be a temporary measure. Perhaps new plays will be written with the possibilities of Zoom and YouTube in mind. For many, watching theatre from home will allow for greater access and comfort. And, for now, speaking back, making noise, and waving at strangers, could inject a bit of silliness into our own isolated worlds.The Conversation

Laura Jayne Wright, Stipendiary Lecturer in English, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After the plague, Shakespeare imagined a world saved from poison, slander and the evil eye

Engraving from ‘The Fearefull Summer,’ a treatise published after the plague of 1625 and reprinted again in 1636, by John Taylor.
(McGill Library/Paul Yachnin), Author provided

Paul Yachnin, McGill University

Shakespeare lived his life in plague-time. He was born in April 1564, a few months before an outbreak of bubonic plague swept across England and killed a quarter of the people in his hometown.

Death by plague was excruciating to suffer and ghastly to see. Ignorance about how disease spread could make plague seem like a punishment from an angry God or like the shattering of the whole world.

Plague laid waste to England and especially to the capital repeatedly during Shakespeare’s professional life — in 1592, again in 1603, and in 1606 and 1609.

Whenever deaths from the disease exceeded thirty per week, the London authorities closed the playhouses. Through the first decade of the new century, the playhouses must have been closed as often as they were open.

Epidemic disease was a feature of Shakespeare’s life. The plays he created often grew from an awareness about how precarious life can be in the face of contagion and social breakdown.

Juliet’s messenger quarantined

Except for Romeo and Juliet, plague is not in the action of Shakespeare’s plays, but it is everywhere in the language and in the ways the plays think about life. Olivia in Twelfth Night feels the burgeoning of love as if it were the onset of disease. “Even so quickly may one catch the plague,” she says.

Juliet’s letter about her plan to pretend to have died does not reach Romeo because the messenger is forced into quarantine.

In Romeo and Juliet, the letter about Juliet’s plan to pretend to have died does not reach Romeo because the messenger is forced into quarantine before he can complete his mission.

It is a fatal plot twist: Romeo kills himself in the tomb where his beloved lies seemingly dead. When Juliet wakes and finds Romeo dead, she kills herself too.

The darkest of the tragedies, King Lear, represents a sick world at the end of its days. “Thou art a boil,” Lear says to his daughter, Goneril, “A plague sore … In my corrupted blood.”

Those few characters left alive at the end, standing bereft in the midst of a shattered world, seem not unlike how many of us feel now in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s good to know that we — I mean all of us across time — might find ourselves sometimes in “deep mire, where there is no standing,” in “deep waters, where the floods overflow me,” in the words of the biblical psalmist.

Poisonous looks

But Shakespeare can also show us a better way. Following the 1609 plague, Shakespeare gave his audience a strange, beautiful restorative tragicomedy called Cymbeline. The international Cymbeline Anthropocene Project, led by Randall Martin at the University of New Brunswick, and including theatre companies from Australia to Kazakhstan, envisions the play as a way to consider how to restore a liveable world today.

Cymbeline took Shakespeare’s playgoers into a world without plague, but one filled with the dangers of infection nonetheless. The play’s evil queen experiments with poisons on cats and dogs. She even sets out to poison her stepdaughter, the princess Imogen.

In ‘Cymbeline,’ Shakespeare suggests that even being seen by someone with antagonistic thoughts can be toxic.

Infection also takes the form of slander, which passes virus-like from mouth to mouth. The principal target again is Imogen, framed by wicked lies against her virtue by a man named Giacomo that her banished husband, Posthumus, hears. From Italy, Posthumus sends orders to his man in Britain to assassinate his wife.

The world of the play is also defiled by evil-eye magic, where seeing something abominable can sicken people. The good doctor Cornelius counsels the queen that experimenting with poisons will “make hard your heart.”

“… Seeing these effects will be

Both noisome and infectious.”

Even being seen by antagonistic people can be toxic. When Imogen is saying farewell to her husband, she is mindful of the threat of other people’s evil looking, saying:

“You must be gone,

And I shall here abide the hourly shot

Of angry eyes.”

Pilgrims and good doctors

Shakespeare leads us from this courtly wasteland toward the renewal of a healthy world. It is an arduous pilgrimage. Imogen flees the court and finds her way into the mountains of ancient Wales. King Arthur, the mythical founder of Britain, was believed to be Welsh, so Imogen is going back to nature and also to where her family bloodline and the nation itself began.

Indeed her brothers, stolen from court in early childhood, have been raised in the wilds of Wales. She reunites with them, though neither she nor they know yet that they are the lost British princes.

The play seems to be gathering toward a resolution at this juncture, but there is still a long journey. Imogen must first survive, so to speak, her own death and the death of her husband.

She swallows what she thinks is medicine, not knowing it’s poison from the queen. Her brothers find her lifeless body and lay her beside the headless corpse of the villain Cloten.

Thanks to the good doctor, who substituted a sleeping potion for the queen’s poison, Imogen doesn’t die. She wakes from a death-like sleep to find herself beside what she thinks is the body of her husband.

‘Imogen Found in the Cave of Belarius,’ by George Dawe (1781–1829), showing the scene from ‘Cymbeline,’ where Imogen was seemingly dead and discovered by her brothers.
(Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Embracing bare life

Yet, with nothing to live for, Imogen still goes on living. Her embrace of bare life itself is the ground of wisdom and the step she must take to reach toward her own and others’ happiness.

She comes at last to a gathering of all the characters. Giacomo confesses how he lied about her. A parade of truth-telling cleanses the world of slander. Posthumus, who believes that Imogen has been killed on his order, confesses and begs for death. She, in disguise, runs to embrace him, but in his despair he strikes her down. It is as if she must die again. When she recovers consciousness, and it’s clear she will survive, and they are reunited, Imogen says:

“Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?

Think that you are upon a rock, and now

Throw me again.”

Posthumus replies:

“Hang there like fruit, my soul,

Till the tree die.”

A world cured

Imogen and Posthumus have learned that we come together in love only when the roots of our being grow deep into the natural world and only when we gain a full awareness that, in the course of time, we will die.

With that knowledge and in a world cured of poison, slander and the evil eye, the characters are free to look at each other eye to eye. The king himself directs out attention to how Imogen sees and is seen, saying:


Posthumus anchors upon Imogen,

And she, like harmless lightning, throws her eye

On him, her brothers, me, her master, hitting

Each object with a joy.”

We will continue to need good doctors now to protect us from harm. But we can also follow Imogen through how the experience of total loss can purge our fears, and learn with her how to start the journey back toward a healthy world.The Conversation

Paul Yachnin, Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies, McGill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

William Shakespeare: archaeology is revealing new clues about the Bard’s life (and death)

Waxwork of Shakespeare by Madame Tussauds in Berlin.
Anton Ivanov via Shutterstock

William Mitchell, Staffordshire University

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.

There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.

The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.

Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.

Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.

Shakespeare’s house

Shakespeare’s greatest and most expensive possession was his house, New Place. Evidence, obtained through recent archaeological investigations of its foundations, give us quantifiable insights into Shakespeare’s thought processes, personal life and business success.

The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.

This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.

Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.

It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.

In search of the Bard

Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.

An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.

Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.

Here lies …

Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.

A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.

These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.

Read more:
How to read Shakespeare for pleasure

There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.The Conversation

William Mitchell, Lecturer in Archaeology, Staffordshire University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to read Shakespeare for pleasure

Martin’s Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare (1623)
Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Emma Smith, University of Oxford

In recent years the orthodoxy that Shakespeare can only be truly appreciated on stage has become widespread. But, as with many of our habits and assumptions, lockdown gives us a chance to think differently. Now could be the time to dust off the old collected works, and read some Shakespeare, just as people have been doing for more than 400 years.

Many people have said they find reading Shakespeare a bit daunting, so here are five tips for how to make it simpler and more pleasurable.

1. Ignore the footnotes

If your edition has footnotes, pay no attention to them. They distract you from your reading and de-skill you, so that you begin to check everything even when you actually know what it means.

It’s useful to remember that nobody ever understood all this stuff – have a look at Macbeth’s knotty “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in Act 1 Scene 7 for an example (and nobody ever spoke in these long, fancy speeches either – Macbeth’s speech is again a case in point). Footnotes are just the editor’s attempt to deny this.

Shakespeare plays hand bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex, UK.
Ian Alexanber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Try to keep going and get the gist – and remember, when Shakespeare uses very long or esoteric words, or highly involved sentences, it’s often a deliberate sign that the character is trying to deceive himself or others (the psychotic jealousy of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, for instance, expresses itself in unusual vocabulary and contorted syntax).

2. Pay attention to the shape of the lines

The layout of speeches on the page is like a kind of musical notation or choreography. Long speeches slow things down – and, if all the speeches end at the end of a complete line, that gives proceedings a stately, hierarchical feel – as if the characters are all giving speeches rather than interacting.

Short speeches quicken the pace and enmesh characters in relationships, particularly when they start to share lines (you can see this when one line is indented so it completes the half line above), a sign of real intimacy in Shakespeare’s soundscape.

Blank verse, the unrhymed ten-beat iambic pentamenter structure of the Shakespearean line, varies across his career. Early plays – the histories and comedies – tend to end each line with a piece of punctuation, so that the shape of the verse is audible. John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Richard II is a good example.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

Later plays – the tragedies and the romances – tend towards a more flexible form of blank verse, with the sense of the phrase often running over the line break. What tends to be significant is contrast, between and within the speech rhythms of scenes or characters (have a look at Henry IV Part 1 and you’ll see what I mean).

3. Read small sections

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t novels and – let’s face it – we’re not usually in much doubt about how things will work out. Reading for the plot, or reading from start to finish, isn’t necessarily the way to get the most out of the experience. Theatre performances are linear and in real time, but reading allows you the freedom to pace yourself, to flick back and forwards, to give some passages more attention and some less.

Shakespeare’s first readers probably did exactly this, zeroing in on the bits they liked best, or reading selectively for the passages that caught their eye or that they remembered from performance, and we should do the same. Look up where a famous quotation comes: “All the world’s a stage”, “To be or not to be”, “I was adored once too” – and read either side of that. Read the ending, look at one long speech or at a piece of dialogue – cherry pick.

One great liberation of reading Shakespeare for fun is just that: skip the bits that don’t work, or move on to another play. Nobody is going to set you an exam.

4. Think like a director

On the other hand, thinking about how these plays might work on stage can be engaging and creative for some readers. Shakespeare’s plays tended to have minimal stage directions, so most indications of action in modern editions of the plays have been added in by editors.

Most directors begin work on the play by throwing all these instructions away and working them out afresh by asking questions about what’s happening and why. Stage directions – whether original or editorial – are rarely descriptive, so adding in your chosen adverbs or adjectives to flesh out what’s happening on your paper stage can help clarify your interpretations of character and action.

One good tip is to try to remember characters who are not speaking. What’s happening on the faces of the other characters while Katherine delivers her long, controversial speech of apparent wifely subjugation at the end of The Taming of the Shrew?

5. Don’t worry

The biggest obstacle to enjoying Shakespeare is that niggling sense that understanding the works is a kind of literary IQ test. But understanding Shakespeare means accepting his open-endedness and ambiguity. It’s not that there’s a right meaning hidden away as a reward for intelligence or tenacity – these plays prompt questions rather than supplying answers.

Would Macbeth have killed the king without the witches’ prophecy? Exactly – that’s the question the play wants us to debate, and it gives us evidence to argue on both sides. Was it right for the conspirators to assassinate Julius Caesar? Good question, the play says: I’ve been wondering that myself.

Returning to Shakespeare outside the dutiful contexts of the classroom and the theatre can liberate something you might not immediately associate with his works: pleasure.The Conversation

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ explores colonialism, resistance and liberation

Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ contains timeless themes around resistance and colonialism. Here in an engraving by Benjamin Smith based on a painting by George Romney of Act I, Scene 1 of ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare.
(Benjamin Smith/George Romney/ Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division /pga.03317)

Paul Yachnin, McGill University and Hannah Korell, McGill University

Last winter, at the Studio Theatre at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto, Canadian actor Antoine Yared played Caliban in The Tempest. He stood, centre stage, looking out over the audience as he reassured his companions that the magic music of the island should not frighten them. He said:

“The isle is full of noises … that give delight and hurt not.”

But his face told the audience a different story — the story of a man heartbroken for what had been taken from him.

We chose Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the centrepiece for our “Playing for Free” workshop because the play has been entangled with the history of slavery and freedom in the west for over 400 years.

In this NYC 2016 production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest,’ Reanna Roane, as ‘Ariel,’ perches on a rock in Central Park during the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society theatre company’s performance.
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Tempest tells the story of the Duke of Milan, Prospero, who many years before had come to the island with his infant daughter. Upon arriving, Prospero enslaved two of its inhabitants, Caliban and the spirit Ariel. The play follows three interconnecting plotlines: Prospero’s revenge plan against his enemies; how his daughter, Miranda, falls in love with the son of his chief enemy; and how Caliban plans to destroy Prospero and take back the island.

Many consider the play an allegory of European colonization, and throughout the centuries, Caliban’s character has featured prominently in arguments that defend or resist against colonialist tyranny.

The Tempest has also been interpreted as an allegory of liberation. The 20th-century writer Roberto Fernández Retamar declared that the insurgent Caliban spoke for the colonized peoples of the Americas. In 1993, a production by Robert Lepage in Montréal portrayed Caliban as a working-class punk-rocker in open rebellion against the elite Prospero.

The Tempest and religious conversion

In our workshop, we wanted to blend theatre and scholarship to understand how The Tempest could have been used by both European colonialists and also by advocates of resistance. We also wanted to understand how the play might still be relevant.

The workshop brought together four Stratford Festival actors, three student actors from the Ryerson Performance Program and Renaissance scholars from an international initiative dedicated to understanding how Shakespeare’s work helped create the world we live in now.

The artists and scholars worked for a day and a half toward the performance. We talked about the history of slavery and freedom, primarily by thinking about how Christian conversion had served colonization. Indeed conversion has been an instrument of domination in the Americas from 1492 and onwards into recent times.

Forced conversion haunts the play. But there is another kind of conversion in the play where characters achieve the freedom to be true to themselves.

Caliban: Searching for the Other

Prospero attempts to strip away Caliban’s dignity. Prospero forces him to remain “stied” in a hard rock. In the Ryerson performance, Antoine Yared playing Caliban chose his first moments on stage carefully. Rather than obeying Prospero’s commands to “come,” he walked past Prospero, his back turned in a sign of his rebellion. For Caliban, even the act of walking around the Island, his home, was now charged with submission or defiance.

When Caliban encountered the shipwrecked servants he would recruit as co-conspirators against Prospero and when one of them fed him liquor, Caliban thought he had at last come face to face with God. He said to the drunken servant:

“Hath thou not dropped from heaven? … I prithee be my god.”

The drunk Caliban began singing and shouting:

“Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom! Freedom!, high-day, freedom!”

But when the invisible Ariel began to make her magical music, the two servants quaked in terror. They knelt at Caliban’s feet. Caliban rose up — straight and fine like a young tree. He stood triumphantly over the two trembling servants. The music was something he knew well. It was nothing to be afraid of.

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.”

At the Ryerson performance in Toronto, Antoine Yared as Caliban chose his first moments on stage carefully. He walked past Ben Carlson as Prospero, his back turned in a sign of his rebellion.
Author provided

That was in rehearsal. But when Yared played Caliban in front of the audience, he changed the way he did the speech. His lines about the music of the island were no longer triumphant. They were something that could break your heart.

Yared’s Caliban was a man who had once been at one with the natural world, but who had been cast out and could only recapture some sense of the beauty of nature by dreaming. When he said, “I cried to dream again,” it was as if he were a man turning and turning, trying to find the beloved he had lost.

The workshop taught the actors, the scholars and the members of the audience how the play The Tempest, with its depiction of slavery, resistance and love might have challenged people of the past to see Caliban’s humanity and might also speak to audiences in the 21st century.

Yared’s Caliban left us with this urgent question. It was as if he were echoing Ariel and asking the audience:

“If you have eyes to see this suffering one, if you are human, your affections would become tender.”

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. ]The Conversation

Paul Yachnin, Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies, McGill University and Hannah Korell, PhD Candidate, McGill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tropic of Shakespeare: what studying Macbeth in Queensland could teach us about place and shipwrecks

Macbeth’s Scottish heaths may seem a long way from tropical Queensland, but there are points of connection.
Unsplash/Matt Riches, FAL

Claire Hansen, James Cook University

When you imagine the setting for Macbeth, misty heaths, battlefields, and the brooding highlands spring to mind. Teaching the play in the midst of a tropical summer in Townsville, far north Queensland, highlights disjunctions and surprising correlations between play and place.

In their 2011 book Ecocritical Shakespeare, Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton consider this relationship between our environment and our practices of reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare:

What does the study of literature have to do with the environment? … What is the connection between the literary and the real when it comes to ecological conduct, both in Shakespeare’s era and now?

One way of answering these questions is through the use of place-based education. Educational theorists Amanda Hagood and Carmel E. Price reason that “student learning is enhanced when course content is grounded in a particular place of meaning”.

This approach is neither new nor (on the surface) complex. Educational philosopher John Dewey prioritised experiential learning such as nature studies. More recently, Swansea University educators have published research on the benefits of curriculum-based outdoor learning for primary school students.

But preliminary research on outdoor Shakespeare education conducted with Townsville secondary school students shows contradictory responses: some students found the location “calming” and “less stressful” than classrooms. Others believed that learning did not “rely on location”.

Christopher Gaze founded Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festivalin 1990. Attendance at the beachside performances has since topped 91,000.

Students’ sense of place

In 2019, 60 first-year English students at James Cook University were asked to rate the importance of setting in Shakespeare plays, and the importance of their own place to the study of Shakespeare.

Of those surveyed, 85% felt that the setting was important to the play, while 96% believed that Shakespeare had little or no relevance to their local area. Few felt that their real life location was important in their study of the playwright’s work.

These results show a contrast between the perceived value of literary and of lived place. This is problematic: how do students engage with fictional, imagined literary places if their own lived experience of place is devalued?

When asked to explain their ratings, students said:

I believe the setting plays a big part in the play as it allows the audience to understand why the characters are doing what they are doing. Shakespeare isn’t important in Townsville.

I live in a rural area. There is not a lot of room for Shakespeare – though given small town conflicts you would see his plots acted out in real life.

There is slippage here between the student’s reference to physical place and their conceptual space, which does not have a lot of cultural room for Shakespeare.

A third student wrote:

My family doesn’t really care about Shakespeare, but I do enjoy some of his works personally.

Here, place was understood to refer to relationships, not environment – an understanding backed by British social scientist and geographer Doreen Massey’s theories.

The disparity between students’ conceptualisations of place and their devaluation of their own location as relevant to their studies may be symptomatic of what Alice Ball and Eric Lai identify as “an ethos of placelessness in education”. In Canada, David Gruenewald has argued that the curriculum is largely “placeless”, with educational reforms and high stakes testing increasingly disconnected from our places.

Shakespeare’s shipwrecks

One approach to teaching Shakespeare through place-based education could centre on shared spaces in lived place and text. As a Shakespeare scholar living near the Great Barrier Reef, I’m interested in what Steve Mentz identifies as the “blue ecology” of Macbeth; the play’s many references to the ocean, liquids, and bodily fluids.

One blue image common to both Shakespeare and Townsville is that of the shipwreck – a favourite trope of Shakespeare’s, essential to plays including The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles.

Macbeth invokes shipwreck imagery with a tale of changed fortune after Macbeth’s victory over the traitor Macdonald:

As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection,

Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break,

So from that spring, whence comfort seemed to come,

Discomfort swells.

The Witches offer a literal description of a ship or “bark”:


Though his bark cannot be lost,

Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.


Show me, show me.


Here I have a pilot’s thumb,

Wrecked as homeward he did come.

Shipwreck is something that Shakespeare and Townsville have in common. Two of the most famous shipwrecks off Townsville’s coast are the SS Yongala (which sank in 1911 and is now a popular diving site) and the HMS Pandora (hulled on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 after capturing some of the Bounty mutineers; remnants of the wreckage are on display at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville).

Our students could both explore Shakespeare through the shipwreck and engage more with the history and culture of their own local places. This approach requires us to think about place as real and imagined; fitting for Macbeth, a play defined as a “tragedy of imagination”.The Conversation

Claire Hansen, Lecture in English/Writing, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.