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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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”.
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.
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,
The Witches offer a literal description of a ship or “bark”:
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”.
When you think of inner-city teenagers, what springs to mind? For many, it’s hoodies, video games – and probably hating Shakespeare. But my research proves that this stereotype is far from the truth.
Shakespeare holds a contested place in the English national curriculum as the only compulsory writer to be studied between the ages of 11 and 16. This imposed curriculum attempts to situate Shakespeare’s plays as part of national culture, rather than purely as an exemplar of high art. But teens are rarely asked directly about their experiences of education, and about its relevance to them.
However, my research with over 800 students in four London secondary schools offers a very different picture. I asked these 13 to 14-year-olds what they think and/or feel when they hear the word “Shakespeare” – and some of their answers defied expectations.
What students say
Many students told me that they actually enjoy studying Shakespeare in school. From comments such as “I feel happy because I like most of his plays”, to “I feel excited because Shakespeare was the best writer ever […] a legend or genius”, they expressed levels of interest in Shakespeare that are rarely acknowledged.
These students also did not see the language as a barrier, but as a challenge to be embraced. One commented: “I also get quite happy because we do not often look at texts with old English.”
In this large cohort of students, some comments stand out, showing how varied and individual their responses are. One described Shakespeare as “one of my inspirations for writing poetry”, while another said that “although I don’t really like English, I like his plays a lot”.
Teachers seem to play a key role in developing a positive attitude in some of their students. One student said that “all the work I’ve done on Shakespeare has been interesting and fun”, while another said she “really enjoyed the last play that we did”.
This study did not look in detail at what actually happens in the classroom, but many of the students’ comments suggest that having the confidence to approach a Shakespeare text with a positive attitude partly comes from the teacher’s attitude to him and his work.
‘Be not afraid of greatness …’
In addition to the wholly positive comments, some students demonstrated a more mixed response to the subject. One student told me that “sometimes it’s interesting and sometimes it’s just boring ‘cause in Year 7 I remember we did this one play for a very long time and it was just kind of the same thing every lesson for a double lesson”.
Here, the lessons were clearly not varied enough to hold this student’s attention all the time, although the comment suggests that the student knew that studying Shakespeare could be interesting and fun, even if it isn’t always like that in practice.
For others, the choice of play is key: “Some Shakespeare plays are more interesting than others, in my opinion.” One of the students I interviewed also articulated a clear tension in her attitudes towards studying Shakespeare. She said:
The good part is because everyone goes through different stuff, some people can relate and they can feel like they’re not alone or like this has happened before and studying Shakespeare makes you see the world differently, […] and the bad thing about it [is] learning how to write in the Shakespeare kind of structure when it won’t be useful in the future.
For a number of students, there are perhaps inevitable negative connotations attached to the word “Shakespeare”. Some did describe Shakespeare simply as “boring”, but others explained their reservations in more detail. One said: “I feel like I’ve heard the word Shakespeare too much and that I don’t want to talk about him.” Another thought “about long complicated language that no one understands”, while further complaints were about how “it is unnecessary to learn about as I don’t understand what’s beneficial for us as students”.
Overall, the students involved in this research demonstrated a breadth and depth of response to Shakespeare that counters the generalised belief that teenagers respond poorly to his work. Indeed, used as an introductory question to establish students’ attitudes to Shakespeare before attending a production at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in London, I have been fascinated by the variety and subtlety of thought they have demonstrated.
As one said: “I feel honoured that I’ve covered Shakespeare in school, because telling people you have read his plays makes you sound smart.” The sense of privilege inherent in this comment, despite the fact that everyone studies Shakespeare at school, is clearly something to cherish.
It’s hard to imagine a more literary or successful author than William Shakespeare, formerly of Stratford-upon-Avon. Around the world his plays are widely taught and expensively performed. Journalists and scholars look to him for social and political insights. In Washington DC, notionally the capital of the free world, the Folger Shakespeare Library stands near the Capitol building and the Library of Congress as a grand memorial to the Immortal Bard.
Is there another author whose reputation could ever rival Shakespeare’s? Certainly not from the 16th century, nor the 17th. Perhaps Johnson or Swift from the 18th? Austen or a Brontë from the 19th? Woolf, Joyce or Hemingway from the 20th? There are contenders, to be sure, but no one has put Shakespeare in the shade.
And yet there is a problem with Shakespeare.
Johnson, Austen, the Brontës, Woolf, Hemingway and Joyce all left behind evidence of their authorial lives. We can study diaries, letters, manuscripts, even juvenilia – a fulsome literary paper trail. With Shakespeare, though, the trail is meagre. Most of what we know of his life has come to us from arid official records, or via cryptic comments from contemporaries who hint at something mysterious or disreputable in the background.
What we notice most starkly is a documentary gap, one that people have attempted to fill in all manner of ways – by contacting Shakespeare through seances, or searching tombs and riverbeds for hidden manuscripts, or probing for secret messages in the plays, or positing all manner of “secret author” theories. According to those theories, William Shakespeare of Stratford was just a frontman for the true author of the Shakespeare oeuvre.
Many credible writers and scholars have embraced Shakespearean heresy. Disraeli, Emerson, Freud, William James, Mark Twain, Orson Welles and Walt Whitman all doubted Shakespearean authorship. Henry James was “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world”.
The heretics are right to be sceptical. Apart from the documentary gaps, there are good reasons to doubt Shakespearean authorship of at least some of the plays. They were published by men with a track record of fraud, and the printed versions conceal much about how they were produced, including the role of collaborators.
Fundamentally, though, the heretics are wrong. Thanks to four centuries of scholarship, we know William Shakespeare was an author. And we know a great deal about what kind of author he was.
Gerard Langbaine’s Dramatick Poets includes this anecdote about Titus Andronicus:
…the Play was not originally Shakespear’s, but brought by a private Author to be acted, and [Shakespeare] only gave some Master touches to one or two of the principal Parts or Characters: afterwards he boasts his own pains; and says, That if the Reader compare the Old Play with his Copy, he will find that none in all that Author’s Works ever receiv’d greater Alterations, or Additions; the Language not only refined, but many scenes entirely new: Besides most of the principal Characters heightened, and the Plot much increased.
The first significant reference to Shakespeare as a dramatist – Robert Greene’s famous “Shake-scene” attack – is a complaint about him taking credit, as an “upstart crow”, for the writings of others. There is other evidence, too, that much of his work consisted of revising and retouching plays by other people.
What did it mean for a play to undergo the Shakespeare treatment? We know the answer to that, too. It seems a lot of the treatment involved sexing things up.
Today, William Shakespeare’s surname is utterly respectable. In the 16th century, however, the name had very different connotations. It was an old and earthy name, even a rustic one, akin to “Sheepshanks” and “Silcock” and “Wetherhogg”. His peers were always making fun of his provincial origins. People spoke of his “killcow conceit” – simultaneously an allusion to his father’s humble position in the Warwickshire leather trade, and a suggestion that Shakespeare’s cobbled-together plays were heavy with crude imagery.
The name “Shakespeare” had another connotation as well. Shakespeare’s first reputation was as a poet, and particularly as a sex poet. In his three main books of poetry – Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and the Sonnets – bawdy and erotic content is paramount.
Shakespeare made his first appearance in print with Venus and Adonis. Published in 1593, that book immediately earned a salacious reputation as an aid to what Michael Schoenfeldt called “solitary pleasure”. It is referred to in the anonymous Parnassus plays (1598–1602), in which the character Judico expresses love for the poem and its sweet, “hart throbbing” lines, and the character Gullio promises to “worship sweet Mr Shakespeare, and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillow”.
John Davies’ 1625 A Scourge for Paper Persecutors also mentions the poem, and suggests another way to enjoy it:
Making lewd Venus with eternall lines
To tye Adonis to her loves designes:
Fine wit is shown therein, but finer ’t were
If not attired in such bawdy geer:–
But be it as it will, the coyest dames
In private reade it for their closet-games.
Samuel Johnson would later list Venus and Adonis as one of the most scandalous and corrupting poems of the late 16th century.
He sex and she sex
William Shakespeare was very much alive above the ears and below the waist. A surprisingly high proportion of the documentary trail concerns his racy and bawdy exploits.
An important anecdote, from John Manningham’s 1601 diary, concerns a performance of the play we now call Richard III. Richard Burbage played the king and caught the attention of a beauty in the audience. The lady was so impressed by Burbage’s performance that she invited him to her home that evening — as long as he promised to stay in costume and character. Shakespeare got wind of the assignation and went first to the lady’s residence. Burbage arrived at the appointed time but Shakespeare was already inside, being “entertained and at his game”.
When the lovers were informed that Burbage was at the door, a triumphant Shakespeare sent his colleague a mischievous reply that contained a sharp lesson in English history. “William the Conqueror,” he said, “was before Richard the Third.”
Jane Davenant, mistress of the Crown Tavern in Oxford, is rumoured to have been another of Shakespeare’s lovers. Her son William, the future poet laureate, inferred on multiple occasions that Shakespeare was his father in more than just a poetical sense.
By the time Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609, they were somewhat old-fashioned and enjoyed little success. But an earlier manuscript version had circulated in the 1590s. According to the clergyman Francis Meres, Shakespeare’s “private friends” had devoured these “sugared sonnets” with relish.
Today, no copies of the Sonnets manuscript are known to exist. An enduring fantasy for bibliophiles and book-hunters, the manuscript is also a puzzle. The printed edition is a fascinating shandy of hetero- and homosexual flavours. Apart from being more raw and racy, the manuscript Sonnets may have been differently organised, perhaps into sections according to whose appetites were being served. The manuscript may also have included more prefatory matter – such as a letter from the author – that explained what he was up to.
Printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays started appearing in the mid-1590s, but not until 1598 did they carry his name on their title pages. The men and women who bought these thin quarto editions knew exactly what to expect. They had already been conditioned by the outputs of William Shakespeare, sex poet.
Like those of his closest peers – men such as Greene and Christopher Marlowe – Shakespeare’s plays are noteworthy for their bawdy and disreputable content. Everyone knows the scene from Othello in which Desdemona and Othello make “the beast with two backs”. There are hundreds of comparable examples. In Hamlet, the prince and Ophelia trade spicy banter:
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Falstaff’s speech in Henry IV Part 2 speaks of Justice Shallow in terms such as these:
…the whores called him mandrake: [he] came ever in the rearward of the fashion, and sung those tunes to the overscutched huswives that he heard the carmen whistle.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Adriano de Armado makes a striking confession about the king:
…it will please his grace, by the world, sometime to lean upon my poor shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally with my excrement, with my mustachio; but, sweet heart, let that pass.
OK let’s not get too carried away: “excrement” probably meant “beard”, but the contact is still intimate.
Passages of this flavour are what Shakespeare’s contemporaries meant when they said he wrote in a raw manner, “from nature”. And they are what Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler removed to make their 19th century Family Shakespeare. (They excised, for example, the “beast with two backs”.) Johnson wasn’t far from the Bowdlers in his views about the raw parts of Shakespeare. “There are many passages mean, childish, and vulgar; and some which ought not to have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden Queen.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was probably more vital and bawdy than its predecessor version, possibly written by Thomas Kyd and now lost. Certainly Shakespeare’s King Lear is racier and more involving than the anonymously authored prior play, King Leir, which was registered in 1594.
The Bard had good reason to rev things up. Playwrights sometimes shared in the extra profits from the performance of successful plays. Writers were smart to add spicy content that would appeal to audiences from all classes.
Apart from adapting earlier plays, Shakespeare took material from histories and poems and novels. His extensive use of sources shows there was no “secret author” behind the scenes who reliably fed him texts. His own library of sources performed that role.
Shakespeare’s personal collection of books and manuscripts has never been found, but one conception of it is compelling: an erotic library rich with imported Dutch and Italian smut along with English works such as Thomas Cutwode’s scandalous The Bumble-Bee (1599) and Giles Fletcher’s equally disreputable Licia, or Poemes of Love (1593).
The field of Shakespeare studies is all about mystery and discovery. There are many uncertainties about Shakespeare, but his achievement as a libidinous “sexer upper” allows us to put one precious stake in the ground.
Although sex is the unlikely key to understanding Shakespeare’s achievement as an author, for a long time the academy shunned his racy side. That side was not, however, wholly overlooked.
The New Zealand-born lexicographer Eric Partridge compiled the remarkable Shakespeare’s Bawdy (1947), which presents, among other things, scores of Shakespearean synonyms and euphemisms for vagina. Nothing Like the Sun (1964) by the novelist Anthony Burgess is “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life”; the covers of the Heinemann hardback and the 1966 Penguin softback show Shakespeare with his mistress, the mysterious “dark lady” of the sonnets.
Still, the Shakespeare of Partridge and Burgess is very different to the respectable, mainstream one. How did Shakespeare pull off the transformation from sex poet to literary monument?
Even in his lifetime he was shape-shifting, from boisterous lyricist and tearaway playwright to old-fashioned sonneteer and retired bookman. In the decade after his death, men tidied up his authorial legacy – and possibly added to it – but Shakespeare was still one writer among many, his reputation on a par with those of Marlowe and Middleton, and behind those of Jonson, Milton and Spenser.
But Shakespeare was tailor-made for the Romantic and Victorian eras, whose actors, scholars and hacks embraced and refashioned the Bard. Bowdlerising editors cut many of the ruder bits and added happier endings. By the 20th century, Shakespeare’s preeminence was immutable, his works as sublime and respectable as Beethoven’s symphonies or Mona Lisa’s smile. Things, though, could have been very different.
Professor Stuart Kells is the author of Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Text Publishing).