Short Shakespeare Readings

By Emily D. Irvine: 3-18-12

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Just some short writing assignments done for a Shakespeare course. Exercises in quick analysis of given scenes and characterizations.

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Hamlet

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Hamlet’s first soliloquy in 1.2 serves to illustrate the overwhelming reasons for the prince’s vexation, as well as foreshadow the conflicts that will arise because of them. Hamlet is furious with his mother for not just re-marrying a month after his father’s death, but marrying his father’s brother, an incestuous, unholy union. Hamlet begins this soliloquy with thoughts of suicide, “That the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon against self-slaughter!” (1.2.130-131) All that stops Hamlet from ending the play scarcely a scene after it began is the notion that God has decreed suicide to be a sin. Hamlet begins the play in a deep depression, though few could argue his melancholy is unwarranted. At this point, Hamlet has not seen or spoken to the Ghost, and therefore has no knowledge that his father’s death was murder most foul. This later knowledge is what will turn Hamlet’s melancholy to revenge-fueled rage. But the seed that emotionally derails Hamlet is his mother’s betrayal, the notion that a woman could be so cold as to forget her husband in a month. Hamlet views this behavior as a negative attribute of the female sex, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” (1.2.146) This statement foreshadows Hamlet’s romantic exploits, or lack there of, for the remainder of the play. Hamlet’s disgust for his mother’s behavior will infect and destroy his feelings for Ophelia. Hamlet will not be able to separate the actions of the two. Hamlet will revisit the idea of suicide in his most famous soliloquy, and right before he confronts Ophelia and tells her to get to a nunnery. The actions of a woman make Hamlet depressed enough to consider suicide, and the anger he feels toward his mother, Hamlet will direct first to Ophelia. “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133-134) Hamlet has no desire left to continue living, and can find no reason why he should. This callous attitude toward life will be the catalyst that drives him to the brink. Hamlet does not later seek justice on Claudius; he seeks revenge.

Henry IV: Part II

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Prince Hal’s crowning of himself and the ensuing scene, in which we will see his final interaction with his father, shows the young Prince’s maturation from party-hard ruffian to king. In this scene, we see the figurative death of Prince Hal with the literal death of the king, and with the shedding of ‘Hal’ comes the birth of Henry V.  Hal immediately echoes the sentiments of his father, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” (3.1.31.) when he calls the crown a “troublesome bedfellow” (4.3.152.) Hal is not looking at the crown with greed, or even reverence. He clearly sees it as a burden, one that “keepest the ports of slumber open wide/ To many a watchful night!” (4.3.154-155.) Hal has watched the burden of the crown slowly kill his father, and he does not take the crown from him with relish, but with sorrow and obligation.

Henry’s reaction to Hal’s “thievery” is the culmination of years of stress, guilt, and paranoia. Because he came by the crown in a less than honorable fashion, he is convinced he will loose it thus and that everyone is waiting for him to loose it, including his heir. But Hal tearfully and convincingly explains that the thought of his father’s death brought him no joy, stating it struck his heart cold (4.3.279.) We are reminded of Hal’s speech in Part 1, in which he somewhat dubiously stated his intentions of transforming himself into a remarkable example of leadership by abandoning his shenanigans to awe those who doubt him. Hal does not conceal this information, stating clearly that if he be lying about his sorrow over his father’s death, “O, let me in my present wildness die/ And never live to show the’incredulous world/ The noble change that I have purposed” (4.3.280-282). Hal is completely honest about his intentions to his father, and he demonstrates that he knows that what he is about to inherit is a burdensome enemy, not a mark of power and glory.

Hal has matured, or at the very least, he is mature enough to recognize when his young man’s pursuits of drink and merriment must cease and give way to the responsibilities of what he recognizes as a hereditary encumbrance. He does not savor the moment of his self-imposed coronation. To Hal, the crown slowly and mercilessly destroys its wearer, and with that knowledge, with full understanding of the uneasy head of a king, Prince Hal becomes Henry V.

Henry V

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The St. Crispin’s Day speech is only one of many memorable moments that solidifies Henry V’s reputation as a great talker. In under fifty lines, he is able to make a despairing army outnumbered five to one wish their numbers were even fewer. But why? What about Henry’s words so inspire a seemingly doomed army to victory? This speech’s defining quality is its focus on the positive. This is not a speech that tells its listeners “if we die, we die with honor,” or  that tells an army to fight for duty to their country. King Harry instead speaks to his soldiers about the glory that they alone will share for a lifetime should the battle be victorious. He claims that the fewer their numbers, the greater the glory to be shared (4.3.22). It is true, that the French would have little to boast about if they conquered an army one fifth of their size, but the small “band of brothers” than comprise the English army would have every reason to boast of their great feat should the battle prove victorious. In line 63, Harry tells his army every man who fights with him shall be raised to the status of a gentlemen by his great feats upon St. Crispin’s Day. Even more importantly, every man in England, asleep in his bed, “Shall think themselves accursed they were not here (4.3.65)”. Harry appeals to the very human desires for glory and legacy. “Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars/ And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day’/ Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day (4.3.48-51). Harry speaks to his men only of the positives, the glory and honor, the lasting benefits of victory. Harry spends only two lines speaking of death, and in such passing that it seems not even a possibility. Henry V is able to make his men so sure of victory that their pitiful numbers seem inconsequential.

Much Ado About Nothing

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The “wedding” scene in 4.1 serves to illustrate the stark differences between Beatrice and Benedick in comparison to the other characters in the play. Aside from the Friar, Benedick is the only male character  convinced of the possibility of Hero’s innocence, even though his closest friends are her slanderers. Benedick is very astute. He does not defend his friends’ actions, but nor does he slander them. In the midst of the malay, he states, “Two of them have the very bent of honor,/ And if their wisdoms be misled in this/ The practice of it lives in John the bastard (4.1.185-187).” Benedick realizes instantly that if his friends are mistaken, the fault is Don John’s. Benedick is willing to believe Hero innocent and for Beatrice, he is willing to uncover the truth, even if it means exposing his friends’ foolishness. Beatrice was not with Hero on the night her accusers claim she was unfaithful, yet Beatrice never falters for an instant in believing her cousin’s innocence. This shows that Beatrice knows Hero far better than the man who planned to marry her, and even better than her own father. She is not tearfully despairing at the situation, though. She is driven to a fury considered unfitting for a maid. “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place (4.1.303-304).” Beatrice would gladly kill Claudio to defend her cousin’s honor and innocence. Benedick’s love for Beatrice causes him to consider adopting such rash action in her stead. Beatrice and Benedick are a couple far advanced in emotional depth and understanding, and Beatrice is no love-struck simpleton like the cousin she loves so. When Benedick swears by his hand that he loves her, her terse reply is, “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it (4.1.320).” Beatrice and Benedick are united most by their mutual command of words in bitting verbal battles. But it takes far more than words to impress Beatrice. She can speak as smoothing as her Benedick. It will take actions to win Beatrice, and Beatrice wishes those actions to liberate a poor soul completely incapable of liberating herself.

Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night

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A Shakespearian comedy ends with weddings, song. and dance.  Of that much, his audience could be certain. Shakespeare’s comedies also tend to end with good cheer for all but one (generally.) The play’s decided “villain” will spend the conclusion pouting or entirely absent. In Much Ado About Nothing, Don John’s fate is deemed too heavy for the present merriment, but his due retribution is to be devised at a later hour. “Think not on him til tomorrow, I’ll devise thee/ brave punishments for him. Strike up pipers!” (5.4.121-122) Because Malvolio is a fun sucking, bumptious prat, his tormentors are fully forgiven at Twelfth Night’s end and Malvolio is left to slink away dejected while the others enjoy the marriage and merriment before them. Both Twelfth Night and Much Ado end in the absolution of misunderstandings, both contain relationships begun by disguise, and both unite two distinct couples after five acts of riotous nonsense. Viola and Orsino are no Beatrice and Benedick in terms of banter, but they just as well serve to represent a love built on intellect, not strictly speaking, beauty and physical attributes. While disguised as a man, Viola speaks to Orsino in riddles that  allude to her sexual concealment. “I am all the daughters of my father’s house,/ And all the brother’s too” (2.4.119-120), and in Orsino’s words at Viola’s feminine reveal, “Thou hast said to me a thousand times/ Thou never shouldst love a woman like to me” (5.1.260-261). Like the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare’s female protagonists, Viola is clever, perhaps more clever than the men who surround her, and in these terms, she is little different from her Shakespearian-sisters Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia, (even Lady Macbeth or Gertrude in the realm of conniving anti-heroines.) Viola and Beatrice are united to men entirely of their choosing by the play’s end. Twelfth Night especially ends in Viola’s triumph, not Orsino’s. Yes, he finds a wife, but not one he realized he wanted until 12 seconds after he learned she was female. Beatrice and Benedick hate each other and love each other in the same timing. Their marriage is a mutual triumph.

In his 116th sonnet, Shakespeare wrote of a “marriage of true minds,” a love that tempests cannot shake and cannot be altered by earthy impediments. It is widely believed and accepted that this sonnet was written for a man. Shakespeare lived in a society that believed women to be the subordinate sex, and intellectually inferior to men. Why then would the Bard create so many women who were the direct antithesis to this belief? Perhaps a literary genius like Shakespeare, married to an illiterate wife, longed for a woman to match him in wit and intellect, a wit and intellect he could only find in fellow men due to the intellectual and educational limitations forced upon the women of Renaissance England. Perhaps the women Shakespeare could not find, he created. Or perhaps he saw what his society did not, that no imposed limitations can crush an intelligent woman. She will find a way around all impediments, even if it means assuming the form of a man, or verbally lashing one with a wit as sharp as his own.

Othello

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As a villain, Iago feels little need to justify his actions with sound reason. His motivations for hating Othello are either obscenely ridiculous or pitifully vague. In the first thirty lines of the play, Iago states his first gripe. Cassio, a man with no skill in battle, Othello has named his first lieutenant. Iago feels he deserves this position by his skill and his experience, and so he is pouting to Roderigo to offer a convincing enough excuse for his hatred towards Othello. Iago’s second line in the play reveals that hatred. Roderigo states, “Thou told’st me thou didst not hold him in thy hate” (1.1.6) to which Iago replies, “Despise me if I do not.” (1.1.7) It is not immediately clear if Iago’s hatred for Othello stems from his rejection of the officer position, or if he hated him long before. The later seems more likely. Iago’s behavior is not that of a person scorned, but of an individual who finds some level of perverse satisfaction in the misery of others. In 1.3, Iago randomly pulls out of the air a rumor that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia. “I hate the Moor,/ And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/ He has done my office.” (1.3.368-370) This “rumor,” which Iago seems to have invented himself at this very moment, comes after a scene in which Othello and Desdemona have eloquently and convincingly expressed their genuine love for each other. Iago seems to play into his own game. He plans to undo Othello through the work of lies and deception, and he has just given himself “cause” to act by lying to himself. This moment is a heavy bit of foreshadowing. Sexual fidelity is the single most important issue in Othello. So sensitive is the issue that even unfounded rumors are justifiable causes for action.

Titus Andronicus 

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The first act of Titus Andronicus paints a bloody picture of the barbarism of Roman society, and the gaping holes in their own “civilized” views of their customs. The play’s first blood-shed occurs only 130 lines into the first act with the ritual sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son. Titus justifies this “civilized” custom on religious grounds, “These are their brethren whom your Goths beheld/ Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain/ Religiously they ask a sacrifice.” (1.1.121-124) Titus, a “civilized” Roman, orders the sacrifice of a prince of the Goths, a “barbarous” people, according to a custom that somehow spiritually atones for the death of his own sons. But one life per act is not enough for Titus. He goes on to slay one of his own sons, Mutius, for having the nerve to defend the actions of his daughter, Lavinia. Titus is scolded for this by his brother, Marcus, “Thou art a Roman: be not barbarous.” (1.1.375) This unflattering portrayal of Roman culture is further accentuated by the simple fact that Rome is quite literally “headless” for the bulk of act 1. There is no true democracy,  nor is the crown passed by right of heredity. Saturninus and Bassianus petition to the people about their right to the throne based on birthright and virtue, only to be passed over by the election of Titus, who refuses the vote and gives the crown to Saturninus. “This suit I make, that you create our emperor’s eldest son/ Lord Saturnine.” (1.1.223-225) What civil government can Rome claim to possess if the people’s vote can be overturned at will? But aside from simply being locked in a brief political debate about the selection of a new emperor, Rome is entirely without direction in terms of its customs and traditions. The condonation of human sacrifice and honor killings are hardly the proud achievements of forward-thinking societies.

Richard III

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The character of Richard III is, I would assume, one of the most challenging of Shakespeare’s characters to portray simply because of his necessity to convincingly deceive. In Olivier’s version especially, I was shocked at how much, as a member of the audience, I was able to buy into Richard’s deceptions of Lady Anne and Clarence. Having just seen Richard plainly explain his plans and motives in soliloquy, I still found his “heartfelt” speeches to Anne to be extremely moving. Olivier’s performance is so convincing, so heart wrenching, that he deceives even his audience, who are well aware of his treachery. This is an astounding level of acting and story telling, and Olivier does it again with Richard’s interaction with Clarence. We see in Richard a “genuinely” concerned and loving brother eager to keep the peace between his brothers. Richard words his treacheries so beautifully that he can make the most heinous of intents sound like a charitable favor: “Simple plain Clarence, I do love thee so / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven.” (1.1.119-120)

McKellen’s version of Anne’s deception is, in my opinion, ever so slightly more powerful. His decision to include the scene in a morgue with the body of Henry VI in full view adds to the creepiness and irony of the scene. Again, the audience is fully aware of Richard’s malice, but his performance pulls the sympathy strings of our hearts over and over again until we snap out of it and remember his previous soliloquies. McKellen’s performance when Anne spits on him comes off so genuinely tragic that an audience can almost question if it is the character’s malicious speeches that are a deception, not his heartfelt ones. His actions of course prove otherwise.

In the hands of a fantastic actor, Richard III plays with our emotions. His deceptions are a performance within a performance, and in the case of Olivier and McKellen, that performance is flawless. For Shakespeare, the deceptive protagonist technique he penned in Richard III to amazing success was made perfect later in his career when he created Iago. A fantastic plot device to create some bloody great plays!

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