Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Star-cross’d Lovers”

Just like ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, this commonly misunderstood famous line comes ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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. 

The prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

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. 

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‘Measure for Measure’: When Shakespeare is More 21st Century Than You Realise

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?” 

from ‘Measure for Measure’, Act 2, Scene 4

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. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” 

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

‘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”. 

Hey, nonny nonny. They’ll learn. 

‘Good Tickle Brain’: An “excellent good friend” for exploring Shakespeare.

For Shakespeare Sunday this week, I want to share with you the wonderful work of cartoonist Mya Gosling at Good Tickle Brain. 

Mya takes the vast works of Shakespeare and condenses them into cartoons that even those with very little knowledge of Shakespeare can read, understand and appreciate.

For Shakespeare nerds like me, it presents a lot of fun and great “oh yeah!” moments. For those new to the plays or wondering what on earth the characters are saying and doing, Mya’s cartoons make the complex much more straightforward. 

This website contains a wealth of play summaries, character spotlights, analysis and audience insights. I frequently share Good Tickle Brain with my students because it really does help to make whatever play we are studying more accessible and relatable for them. 

Even if you haven’t seen or read the play Titus Andronicus — and let’s face it, most people haven’t— make sure you watch the video titled ’Titus Andronicus: All The Deaths’. The way she draws all the characters and then depicts how they died in the play is brilliant!

Also incredibly insightful is the non-Shakespeare section titled ‘Keep Calm and Muslim On’, which is Mya’s exploration of the way in which Muslims and non-Muslims get along together in American society, which I find highly relevant to Australia too.  I always enjoy seeing the simple but profound ways in which Mya breaks down the barriers and embraces the differences while still showing how similar we really all are. 

It’s a great website that holds lots of fabulous little surprises. I really hope that you’ll take a look, and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Much Ado About Nothing by Alfred Elmore, 1848. Image: Public Domain.

‘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!” 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘King Lear’.

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. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Macbeth’

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.

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: Richard III

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. 

My Least Favourite Shakespeare Play

The reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the title of ‘A Rose By Any Other Name’ is blatantly obvious. 

The irony is that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is probably my least favourite play from among Shakespeare’s works. As I often explain to my students who think it’s romantic and all about love, it’s really not. It’s a tragedy that demonstrates what happens when people do stupid things on impulse and don’t stop to think about the consequences of their actions.

They’re teenagers. They met on Sunday, and by Thursday, they’re dead.

And, as Shakespeare points out in the epilogue, they end up that way because their families both prioritise their stupid feud over the happiness and the future of their children.  How much more like a badly plotted teenage soap opera could it be?

It’s more of an anti-Romance, if you ask me. They’re not in love, they’re infatuated. Romeo really is quite an idiot, and as for fickle… how quickly did he forget his passion for Rosaline the moment he met Juliet? If you ask me, Rosaline dodged a bullet – or a dagger, or a vial of poison, there. 

To be fair, the fault isn’t Shakespeare’s. He based his play on an old story that was very popular back in the day, which was a brilliant marketing move. The other factor that made his play such a hit was the beauty of the language with which it is written. There’s nothing at all wrong with the writing: it’s magnificent. Nothing can convince me otherwise.  If anyone could give a story about two silly teenagers from equally silly families another 600 years plus in terms of longevity, he was the man for the job.

So, is it odd that I’ve used ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as one of the starting points of my story? Not really, because I wanted my story to be something of an anti-Romance, too. 

‘A Rose By Any Other Name’ draws on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ as starting points, then twists and tangles them together to create a mashup of the two stories with a very different ending. Romeo is still an idiot, it still ends in tragedy… but it’s a completely new story. It’s medieval fantasy, laced with faint traces of my subversive sense of humour. 

I like to think of it as the story that Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm never told. 
But I bet if they’d thought of it, they would have. 

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A Rose By Any Other Name is available for preorder.