Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens.
Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible.
Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.
It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities.
There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too.
In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.
Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.
When people say this, they usually assume it means that the world is at their feet and they are in a position where everything is going to work in their favour. Others say it to imply that they are “the pearl” and they are being cultivated for greatness.
However, when these lines were spoken in Shakespeare’s ’The Merry Wives of Windsor’, the intention is actually quite different.
In a conversation between two less-than-reputable characters, this conversation takes place:
In other words, if Falstaff won’t give him money, Pistol will go and take it forcibly from other people. It’s about taking what one is not entitled to, and it has quite violent connotations.
An oyster does not willingly open – it has to be forced. An oyster does not willingly give up its pearl, which can take years to develop, and the oyster is often damaged or killed in the process of extracting the pearl.
This is an image of violence, and not one of happy or fortunate circumstances at all.
Macbeth is certainly one of Shakespeare’s very interesting characters.
Macbeth and his wife present an interesting study of power, control and submission. A proven warrior, he lets not only his imagination, but also his wife’s, run away with him, and completely submits to her manipulation and taunting. Instead of waiting for things to take their natural course, they took matters into their own hands in pursuit of the position and power promised in the prophecy of the wyrd sisters.
As things are wont to do in Shakespeare’s tragedies, things get way out of hand and end up with a bunch of people dead.
I hope you enjoy this very good character study of Macbeth, courtesy of the Interesting Literature blog.
An Interesting Character Study: Macbeth
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragic heroes, not least because he represents the Man Who Has It All (seemingly) and yet throws it away because of his ‘vaulting ambition’ to have Even …
I have witnessed so many people talking about Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers” in the sense of their meeting and relationship being their destiny, and that the two were somehow fated to be together.
This couldn’t be more wrong.
The actual meaning of the term becomes clearer if one thinks of it in terms of the stars actually crossing them.
Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. The fates were against them, right from the start, and it was never going to work out well.
It’s important to remember that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main characters always die. There are no happy endings. That’s a convention of the genre, and it is pointless to expect anything else.
Not only that, but Shakespeare gives us the spoilers right there in the prologue, the opening speech of the play, which is where the phrase comes from. They’re going to die, and as they are laid to rest, so too will be buried the feud between their families, which is what made their love forbidden in the first place.
If, as some believe they do, the stars were to control one’s fortunes in life, the last thing you’d wish for is to be “star-crossed” in any way.
Of all the lines written by Shakespeare, this is possibly the single most misunderstood by a 21st century audience.
While it might be a romantic notion for a lovesick teenager to look out her window— not a balcony, by the way— and wonder where her beloved might be, that’s all it is. That is not what is happening in this scene.
In early modern English, “wherefore” meant “why”.
Juliet is not asking where Romeo is. She is asking why, of all the families in Italy, did her new boyfriend have to belong to the family with which hers had been feuding? Why did he have to carry a name that would be an immovable obstacle to them both?
She goes on to insist “that which we call a rose by any other name would be as sweet”— in other words, it’s not the name that makes someone what they are. If Romeo were to change his identity, he would still be the same person. What his name is should not matter — what sort of person he is, and the fact that she loves him, is what should determine their compatibility.
That’s why when you’re waiting for a friend or looking for your dog, it’s incorrect to ask “Wherefore art thou, Buddy?” It may sound cute, but it will make your Shakespeare-loving friends cringe, at least on the inside.
Written in 1603 or 1604, ‘Measure for Measure’ is a play with enormous relevance to the 21st century.
As I listened to the play on the BBC’s ‘The Shakespeare Sessions’ podcast yesterday, it struck me just how timely and relevant it is.
The play features a man named Angelo who, having been left in charge by the Duke, totally abuses his power in the interests of sexual gratification. He tells Isabella he will pardon her brother Claudio, who has been sentenced to death, if she has sex with him. When Isabella refuses and threatens to tell everyone what he has suggested, he simply asks, “Who will believe you?”
Angelo is clearly relying on his powerful position, and his ability to hold something over her, to get away with sexual abuse and bribery. And he dares to call it “love”, when it is anything but that. He is attempting to romanticise his proposed rape and abuse of power, as abusers so often do.
This is exactly the kind of behaviour we’ve seen exposed by the #metoo movement. Men abusing their positions of power and pressuring women to give in to them because they have the power to grant what the women need – a job, justice, whatever… and relying on their position to give them more credibility than a woman in a weaker position in society. It really does foreshadow those now infamous words spoken in 2017 by yet another reprehensible character: “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Not easily intimidated, Isabella points out that what he is suggesting is exactly the crime for which he has sentenced her brother to death. His hypocrisy is abundantly obvious to not only Isabella, but also to the audience. That she calls him out on it demonstrates her integrity and intelligence. Bravo to Isabella for not taking his crap or falling prey to his greasy manipulation.
Caught in between wanting to save her brother’s life and not wanting to have sex with Angelo, Isabella verbalises the impossibility of her situation in that very poignant and thought-provoking line: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?”
Still, even though she understands that what he says is probably true, she neither yields to him or gives up on her brother. Instead, she finds another way to solve her problems and expose the bad behaviour of Angelo.
As suggested in the title, justice is received at the end of the play in the same measure with which it is meted out at the beginning.
In this, we see a woman standing up for what is right, defending herself, refusing to give in to a man’s manipulation and sexual pressure, and winning. Angelo is punished for his corruption, and Isabella saves both herself and her brother.
This is a powerful contrast to most of the women in Shakespeare’s other plays, and indeed in the early modern times in which he lived and wrote, few of whom had any real agency or ability to stand up for themselves against the will of men.
‘Measure for Measure’ is a thought-provoking and entertaining play which demonstrates that while times have changed, the effect of power and position on human nature has not. Even so, it does remind us that evil people can, and should, be resisted, and we should never stop pursuing justice just because it’s difficult to do so.
That is truly a message pertinent to life in the 21st century.
While they’re definitely great podcasts to check out, I do have a new favourite!
I recently discovered The Hurly Burly Shakespeare Show, a fabulous podcast by Aubrey Whitlock and Jess Hamlet, AKA Whamlet. Both are vivacious and highly entertaining ‘lady academics’ – their words, not mine – who use their knowledge and expertise to make the plays accessible to new audiences and inspiring them to enjoy and appreciate Shakespeare’s works.
Both hosts are very engaging and easy to listen to, although the podcast does come with a ‘bawdy language’ warning which would be well heeded by those offended by expletives.
The podcast explores each play at a 101 level, giving the listener all the basics they need to know about that play to help them understand it better. Plot, characters, key themes and points of interest are discussed in a relaxed and relatable way.
Each episode also presents insights into the performance or staging of the plays, dramatic devices used by Shakespeare in crafting his works, and various developments in the worlds of studying or performing Shakespeare.
Some plays are revisited at a 201 level, exploring central themes and ideas at a deeper level.
In addition to exploring Shakespeare’s work, there are some really interesting episodes dedicated to the writing of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Thomas Kidd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Thomas Middleton.
The Hurly Burly Shakespeare show is both highly entertaining and informative. It has not only reinforced my knowledge, but also motivated me to read more widely and to expand my knowledge of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote.
If you enjoy Shakespeare, or if you’d just like to know more about his work, I recommend this excellent podcast.
Since then, I’ve noticed one really annoying thing when I’ve been scrolling through my feed. It’s not actually the fault of Pinterest, but it is there that I am continually reminded of a matter that really needs to be corrected.
There’s a super popular quote that keeps coming up on my feed because Pinterest knows I love Shakespeare. It’s all over the internet, and it seems every second person on Pinterest is sharing it.
The problem is, while it sounds like something Shakespeare might have written, those lines do not appear anywhere in the plays or poetry of the Bard… not even close, actually.
The quote is a translation from an Italian opera by Arrigo Boito titled ‘Falstaff’, based on one of Shakespeare’s plays, and which uses a number of lines from several other plays, too. Given that Boito borrowed from the Bard quite freely, it’s not really surprising that other lines from the libretto have been wrongly attributed back to Shakespeare. Some might suggest it’s karma, but it’s really just careless.
I’m more than happy for people to continue posting pretty images of the quote, but it would be great to see them attributed to the right person.
Written by Shakespeare in around 1593, these words have become immortalised as the final words of desperation spoken by King Richard III of England as he battled Henry Tudor for control of the throne of England.
These words are also possibly the most frequently misinterpreted Shakespeare quotation in history, although Prince Hal’s “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” from Henry Vl is right up there on the list.
Shakespeare very cleverly painted Richard III to be entirely evil and villainous, self-serving and single-minded in his pursuit of the throne at the expense of all others who stood between him and the ultimate royal goal.
As evil and villainous as Shakespeare’s Richard is, it’s crucial to remember that Richard was fighting for both his kingdom and his life. It makes absolutely no sense, therefore, that he would have been wandering around Bosworth Field offering someone his kingdom in exchange for a horse.
What this line actually means is that Richard knew he was going to lose the battle if he couldn’t get back on a horse and keep fighting. His horse had just been killed in battle, while he was still riding it. On foot, he was without means of either strategic defence or meeting the enemy in an even fight. He was an easy target that travelled much slower and far less deftly than his mounted opponent.
The line could be interpreted as meaning, “Without a horse, I’m going to lose my kingdom!” It was a cry of despair, not an attempt at last-minute marketing.
The urgency and foreboding in Richard’s words make this scene a magnificent piece of drama. If there’s anything the audience loves more than a villain getting it in the neck, it’s the villain realising that it’s coming.
When understood properly, this oft-misinterpreted quotation reveals once again the genius of the wordsmith.
If you have a line or scene of Shakespeare you’d like explained, feel free to ask a question or make a suggestion in the comments and I’ll give it a red hot shot.
‘Hey nonny nonny’ is a curious little phrase found in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. The character Balthasar sings a song to the ladies in which he recommends that instead of worrying about what the men are up to, they should convert their sighs of despair into ‘hey nonny nonny’.
The phrase ‘Hey nonny nonny’ has no direct translation into modern English, but is understood from the context that it could be taken to mean a dismissal of circumstances as we do today with expressions like “whatever”, “what the heck?” or “that’s life”, or simply refer to general merry-making.
As such, it is a phrase that can be safely used in circumstances where less appropriate responses cannot be uttered. In my experience, expressing one’s umbrage using Shakespearean quotations is almost as satisfying as actually swearing anyway. There is something remarkably cathartic about speaking in Elizabethan English, although that will likely never be understood by anyone who does not appreciate and enjoy the language as I do.
I have decided to add “hey nonny nonny” into my repertoire as a worthy companion exclamation to my renowned-among-those-who-know-me question, “What manner of nitwittery shall plague me on the morrow?” In writing this post, however, I’ve come to one realisation: I will have to teach my devices that I intend to type “hey sonny sonny” or “hey nanny nanny” about as much as I ever mean to type “oh shot”.