Today my students investigated the words and phrases coined by Shakespeare.
I started by giving them a list of the words and asking them to highlight which ones they knew and used. This really engaged them, and it was great to see their motivation change as they realised that Shakespeare’s language isn’t all lofty poetry and words that finish in -eth.
I followed that up with some great videos and a website resource to extend their knowledge and reinforce their learning.
An unexpected bonus for me was the overall positive response to the exit quiz I made for the end of the lesson.
Of course, it wasn’t all enthusiastic. I’ve been teaching Year 9 English for long enough to know not all kids are going to respond positively, so I do at least try to make my quizzes fair so that they can express their feelings honestly, and kind of fun so that they actually want to do them.
They know there is no obligation to respond in a way that will make me feel good, and I know my students, so I’m confident that these responses are an accurate reflection of attitudes throughout the group.
Wait, what? Boring?
Thankfully, the next set of responses explained that. The 26% who found the videos boring are probably the ones who preferred the website based resource instead. That’s a relief!
There was a surprise waiting for me, though.
The funny thing is, I didn’t even know there was an option 7. I must have accidentally hit ‘return’ while making the quiz on Google Forms. I don’t know if Option 7 was perceived to be better or worse than ‘boring’. I’m telling myself that since they could choose multiple options, Option 7 was checked by those with a good sense of humour.
This was the closest I got to asking the students to identify themselves. If they don’t have to tell me their names, they are more likely to give honest responses. I’m not-so-secretly excited that so many of them identify as dragons.
‘Julius Caesar’ is a play by William Shakespeare about the assassination of Caesar by a group of his senators.
Given that the play clearly demonstrates that the assassination was morally wrong, and that the conspirators did not prosper as a result of their actions, you might be tempted to think that anyone who knew the play well enough to perform the role of Mark Antony would know better than to assassinate someone.
And if you thought so, you’d be wrong. A famous actor and a member of a prominent family among theatre circles, John Wilkes Booth played Marc Antony while two of his brothers played Cassius and Brutus in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at The Winter Garden theatre on November 25, 1864, just four months before he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Obviously, his decision to shoot the president brought his acting career to a screeching halt. What a shame that he took more inspiration from Brutus than he did from Mark Anthony. Less violence and more brilliant rhetoric might have served us all well.
‘Julius Caesar’ is a brilliant play in which Shakespeare demonstrates his genius is in taking a story we all know and making the characters familiar in a personal and almost tangible way. Shakespeare takes one of the most famous men in history and portrays him as fully human, flawed and even vulnerable in different ways. It’s not the way we’re accustomed to thinking about ‘historical giants’ like Caesar., but Shakespeare makes it all seem quite natural.
At the beginning of the play, even while he is being celebrated as Rome’s all-conquering hero, his first interactions cast him as a husband who is acutely aware of his wife’s childlessness. We don’t know if his instructions to Calpurnia and Antony are motivated by sorrow or by his desire for an heir to whom he might pass his empire, but either way, Caesar doesn’t miss an opportunity that might make a difference.
Before long, we see him as a man afflicted by disease when he is struck by a seizure, and is obviously bothered by the fact that is happens in public. He may control all of Rome and its empire, but he cannot control his illness. We also see him as a man keenly aware of popular opinion, sen in his public refusal of the crown not once, but three times, yet ignorant of the way his own senators feel about him personally. Regardless of his aspirations, he is astute enough to know that actually accepting a crown as Emperor is not the best move for him at this point in time.
In these things, the audience begins to see the great historical hero Julius Caesar as a complex, thoughtful man, one who holds a variety of responsibilities and obligations that he takes very seriously. He is very much human, in contrast to the Roman tendency to venerate their heroes almost as gods. We see his humanity rather than his pride, although we know that exists because it is his hubris that brings about his downfall.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of other characters is equally powerful.
Caesar’s assessment of Cassius is profound: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” In those few words, Shakespeare establishes a vivid image that shapes our perception of the man and positions the audience to distrust the character.
Brutus is shown as a moral man struggling with a dilemma that weighs heavily on him. A strong sense of foreboding settles on the audience when he puts his trust in Cassius, making himself vulnerable to a man whose thoughts and conspiracies are indeed dangerous, particularly for Caesar. At this point, even though both Caesar and the audience like Brutus, his destiny as one of the conspirators is sealed.
In all of this, Shakespeare makes expert use of dramatic irony and foreboding to keep the audience in suspense as Caesar’s train speeds ignorantly toward its derailment. This is established right at the start of the play with the mysterious soothsayer who delivers the warning, “Beware the Ides of March”.
While it is a history play, it has some elements of a tragedy in that Caesar is completely oblivious to the fact that his actions are contributing to his own eventual demise at the hand of the conspirators whom he still perceives as friends and allies. The pathos of his question to Brutus: “Et tu, Brute?” — “You too, Brutus?” makes the moment of his all-too-late realisation one of almost palpable betrayal and sorrow. In that moment, Caesar dies knowing that he is truly friendless and alone.
It’s important to note that the play makes it clear that assassinating anyone is not a good idea, and the assassins do not prosper as the result of their actions. It wasn’t in Shakespeare’s interests to be seen to promote or condone assassinating the established ruler, as he was reliant on the good favour of Queen Elizabeth I and, after her, King James. He wasn’t encouraging anyone to try to kill their leader: he was showing that, historically, doing so didn’t actually achieve what the conspirators hoped it would.
It’s a very direct and straightforward play – there are no real subplots and the political undercurrents are all really obvious because they are what drives the play. This makes it a great play for a “first Shakespeare play” for those who are just beginning their Shakespeare journey.
For the word-nerds, this is the text from which we get great, still commonly used phrases like “It’s all Greek to me” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. It’s also the source of the title of John Green’s enormously popular novel ’The Fault In Our Stars’.
‘The Lion King’ is on TV tonight and, of course, I’m watching it. I’m singing the songs. I’m totally loving it. If anything is able to make me turn the TV on, it’s going to be a musical.
And Facebook is alive with people proclaiming that it’s basically ‘Hamlet’.
Well, no. It’s basically not. And I’m not even sorry for any disappointment that may cause.
Anyone who believes the two stories are the same either pays too much attention to social media and the popular clickbait theories that abound there, or they have not paid sufficient attention to ‘Hamlet’ at all.
Scar is certainly as evil as Claudius. He’s certainly interested in getting rid of his brother and his nephew and taking over the kingdom, and takes full advantage when Mufasa dies in a situation that he has engineered.
That’s really where the similarities end.
In fact, it’s really only a very tenuous connection. Scar is by no means the only brother of a king ever to aspire to the throne through nefarious means, so that’s hardly a convincing argument for a direct correlation between the two texts. You could use the same argument to suggest that ‘The Lion King’ is based on ‘Richard III’, which it clearly is not.
Furthermore, Sarabi – Simba’s mother – does not enter into a relationship with Scar. The fact that his mother married Claudius, his father’s brother and murderer, is the root cause of much of Hamlet’s angst and misery. Given that this is one of the crucial elements of the play, and there is zero correlation in ‘The Lion King’, that’s fairly conclusive evidence that the two are not the same story.
Sure, the ghosts of the dead fathers both appear and speak to their sons. However, they hardly communicate the same thing, and it’s at a very different stage of the plot. Mufasa tells Simba to grow up and retake his kingdom while Hamlet’s father urges him to get revenge on his brother for murdering him and taking not only his kingdom, but also his wife. “Remember who you are” is a very different message from “Revenge!”
Simba is nothing like Hamlet in character, other than being the son of the dead king. Simba is naturally optimistic, fun-loving and adventurous. Simba runs away thinking he’s responsible for his father’s death. Morose and pessimistic, Hamlet hangs around the castle, feigning madness and overthinking everything to the point where his agonising over what to do actually prevents him from doing anything much at all.
The correlations among the minor characters are, similarly, only superficial.
While both Simba and Hamlet have two friends, Timon and Pumbaa are not anything like Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Timon and Pumbaa rescue Simba and remain his friends throughout the story. Hamlet’s friends are quite willing to sell him out at Claudius’ bidding, and there is nothing loyal or supportive about them.
Both Simba and Hamlet have girlfriends, but Nala doesn’t go mad and drown herself in a river.
Zasu and Polonius both talk way too much, but that’s about the only similarity between them.
In fact, that’s the difference between the two in a nutshell: ’The Lion King’ is life-affirming and positive. In direct contrast to ‘hakuna matata’, there is no ‘problem free philosophy” in Hamlet, a play that philosophises about death and suicide and which finishes with the main characters and many of the minor ones dead.
So, there you have it. The difference between ’The Lion King’ and ‘Hamlet’ is a matter of life or death. The basic premises are polar opposites, so the two cannot possibly be the same story.
My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge devotee of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup. We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar. Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare-hater, is out of town.
“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”
I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without checking the footnotes, then the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go. Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was written in 1598-99. It is one of Shakespeare’s comedy plays, which means that the main characters enjoy a happy ending.
In that sense, the word ‘comedy’ has changed over time, because now it’s understood to mean a text that is designed to make the audience laugh. There is plenty of humour in this play, though, as it was written purely to entertain and amuse the Elizabethan audiences.
While it’s all about the entertainment, the play does explore some key ideas in ways that are designed to make the audience consider or contemplate those concepts for themselves.
The play revolves around the challenges encountered by several couples who are in love but face various challenges in their personal lives that threaten their happiness and wellbeing. The ways in which different people respond to those conflicts and complications are well worth thinking about, because relationships are always challenged by problems of one kind or another. As Shakespeare observed in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, “the course of true love never did run smooth”, an epithet which is demonstrated with profound clarity in ‘Much Ado’.
Questions of commitment, trust, belonging, family dysfunction, hatred and revenge all emerge in this play, seamlessly woven into and underpinning the plot and the responses of the characters. It is those timeless ideas that enable audience five hundred years later to still appreciate and relate to Shakespeare’s plays even though the language and many elements of our society have evolved since then. Shakespeare really was a master of exploring and portraying human nature at its best and its worst.
In contrast to those more serious ideas, one of the things I enjoy most about this play is the wit and banter between Beatrice and Benedick. They’re crazy about each other, but spend most of their time insulting and taunting each other because neither one knows that other is crazy about the other. In that way, theirs is an unconventional romance because there’s no formality, no swooning, and no overly sentimental conversations. They’re far more likely to be saucy or sarcastic than sickly sweet.
Dogberry is hilarious in his frequent mangling of the language and the way he continually bungles his job as the constable despite his pretentiousness and high opinion of himself. He is entirely inept and ridiculous, providing some welcome comic relief during the more emotionally intense phase of the play.
I also enjoy the way in which Shakespeare uses the characters and events of this play to make fun of the stereotypical romances that occurred in many popular plays and stories of the time, adding another level of wit and engagement to this play. I do love a bit of snarky, subversive humour, especially when it comes to the tropes of the genre of romance.
As with all good Shakespeare plays, there are a couple of characters we can enjoy hating on. Don John, in a perpetual bad mood, seems determined to make everyone else suffer, just because things haven’t always gone his way. His selfish dudgeon may be as annoying to the audience as it is to the rest of the characters, but his blatant disregard for Hero makes him despicable.
I also harbour significant dislike for Claudio and Leonato because they never even stop to consider that Hero might be innocent of the accusations levelled against her. For two men who love her – albeit in different capacities – they have a mighty strange way of showing it. They don’t give her any credit for honesty or integrity: instead, they both default to outright condemnation. The fact that Claudio delivers his judgement with such vengeance puts him right into my “love to hate” group with Don John.
Finally, I can’t help but love a play that can get so much mileage out of a line like “hey, nonny nonny!”
It is a constant source of amusement to me that barely a day goes by without someone reading a post I wrote over two years ago. As hard as I try to write posts that are interesting and engaging, and have some relevance to either readers or other authors the one post that shows up in my blog stats almost every day is ‘Top Four Shakespeare Podcasts’, posted in June 2017.
While I have had some posts that got a great response at the time, othing else I’ve published on this blog has had that kind of perpetual popularity,
The funny thing is, it’s only got three likes, but more people than that visit that post every day. Perhaps WordPress needs to make the “like” button bigger and brighter so that it’s easier to see and click.
Given that it’s the most successful blog post I’ve ever written, I thought it was worth posting again for all the followers I’ve gained since then. Enjoy.
I love podcasts, and I love Shakespeare. In these four podcasts, you’ll find the best of those two worlds combined.
#1: No Holds Bard. An informative and entertaining podcast by Dan Beaulieu and Kevin Condardo, directors of the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They discuss the plays, words that people in the 21st century might not know, different interpretations, and various performances of Shakespeare’s plays. They even have a segment where they’ll answer homework questions sent in by students.
#2: Folger Shakespeare Library: Shakespeare Unlimited. A podcast that explores the associations between Shakespeare’s writing and the world today through the words we use, ideas we discuss, and performance of the works of Shakespeare and others.
I have loved ‘King Lear’ ever since I saw a performance of the play in my teens and was completely transported by it. I find it impossible to consider a parent being betrayed by their child without thinking of Lear, and am compelled to utter the quotation, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow!” at least once during every good storm I witness.
‘King Lear’ is the story of a king with one daughter who actually loves him and two who are the most selfish, greedy, and deceitful women the kingdom had ever seen. The problem was that he was unable to tell which was which. And so, his story turns to tragedy.
Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about being historically correct or pleasing the right people with this play, although it wouldn’t be right to show the king as being a bit of an idiot when it comes to his family relationships, so he was sure to stay safe by putting the blame on the king’s horrible daughters and their ambition to take what was not rightfully theirs. Loyalty and faithfulness were, after all, very important qualities and concepts for anyone living in Elizabeth’s England, and you couldn’t have people just seizing land and power that didn’t belong to them.
It’s not just Lear’s elder daughters, either, that turn on their father. The Duke of Gloucester, faithful supporter of Lear, also feels the dagger of betrayal planted firmly in his back Edgar, by his bastard son, Edmund, who is seeking to take all that rightfully belongs to his brother Edgar.
In all of this, there are valuable lessons to be learned about who to trust, how to discern who is really loyal to you, and the fact that some people are far more driven by greed and ambition than they are by familial love. Given that we live in a world where kids have been known to turn on their parents and even divorce them in some cases, and where families are divided and sometimes irreparably broken by disputes over money and property, ‘King Lear’ is clearly a play that still holds relevance for us today.
It is a beautifully crafted story, full of pathos and tragedy and heartbreak. The language and imagery is magnificent. The dramatic irony of Cordelia’s fall from grace and Lear’s subsequent fall from power at the hands of General and Regan is heartbreaking. Cordelia’s fate hangs in the balance right up to the end of the play while, it seems, the evil people win. That is another point of relatability for the audience: we don’t like seeing the evil people win, and we want to see them get their just desserts. It’s a theme that Shakespeare explores at length in this play, and he expertly positions the audience to keep hoping that Lear and Cordelia will win the day.
It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy, however, that pretty much everyone dies and there are a few minor characters left to pick up the pieces at the end, so the audience has to be content with the poetic justice delivered to some and the beautifully tragic ending that comes to others.
The fact that it doesn’t have a happy ending is one of the things I like about it. Life often involves less-than-happy endings, and it has always seemed to me that those who hope only for happiness are setting themselves up for an enormous struggle when adversity shows up instead. We can’t always have what we want, and Lear would have done well to remember that. Cordelia would have been better off if she had realised that not everyone who should recognise your integrity will do so, and that sometimes you need to play the game better than the cheats do in order to make them lose.
Sure, I believe in happiness, but I know from my own experience that life is generally far more complex than being able to achieve happiness and simply stay there. We are constantly challenged to maintain a balance between necessity and luxury, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, lest we be overrun by one or the other. Achieving that balance is the art of life.
Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.
It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would.
Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.
The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.
Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play.
Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it.
That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not.
Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.
I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites.
At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses.
Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined to let the truth get in the way of a great story.
Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes.
Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it.
Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action.
My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.
The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art.
It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.
To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright.