Friday, 14 May 2021

Rereading Hamlet

Hamlet was the first Shakespeare play I read, when I was in the IB. After about 10 years, I suppose it’s high time I revisit the play. 

1/ Polonius is a shallow character, but he gives some good advice to his son Laertes, especially this part: 

“POLONIUS […] Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, 

Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. 

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment...” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

This is how William Hazlitt sees him:

“Polonius is a perfect character in its kind; nor is there any foundation for the objections which have been made to the consistency of this part. It is said that he acts very foolishly and talks very sensibly. There is no inconsistency in that. Again, that he talks wisely at one time and foolishly at another; that his advice to Laertes is very sensible, and his advice to the King and Queen on the subject of Hamlet's madness very ridiculous. But he gives the one as a father, and is sincere in it; he gives the other as a mere courtier, a busy-body, and is accordingly officious, garrulous, and impertinent. In short, Shakespeare has been accused of inconsistency in this and other characters, only because he has kept up the distinction which there is in nature, between the understandings and the moral habits of men, between the absurdity of their ideas and the absurdity of their motives. Polonius is not a fool, but he makes himself so. His folly, whether in his actions or speeches, comes under the head of impropriety of intention.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

I note, however, in the same speech a line that is very often quoted on the internet: 

“POLONIUS […] This above all, to thine own self be true…” 


It’s funny that the line comes from him. Polonius doesn’t trust Laertes—he sends someone to spy on his son. He doesn’t let Ophelia be herself—first, he tells his daughter to break off with Hamlet and return everything, without much regard for her feeling and judgment; then uses her as bait, forces her to put on an act with Hamlet with other people watching and witnessing her humiliation. 

Now if you go back and read the entire speech, you can see that it’s all good and sensible, but Polonius doesn’t follow his own advice. 

2/ Look at this line: 

“HAMLET […] What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (Act 2 scene 2)

Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (Act 3 scene 1) is more meaningful to me now that I place it next to the line above. The soliloquy makes me think about Claudio’s “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where” speech in Measure for Measure (also Act 3 scene 1)—the 2 speeches are obviously different as Claudio wants to live whereas Hamlet finds life meaningless and intolerable, but both speeches are about the fear of death as the fear of the unknown. 

Ophelia’s speech after her talk with Hamlet is heartbreaking. 

“OPHELIA O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

[…] O, woe is me

T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git has a brilliant blog post analysing Hamlet and Ophelia, with this scene as the key to the drama: 

3/ I vaguely remember being puzzled about Ophelia and her madness in my first reading. On the surface, she seems passive and naïve, but I don’t think she is. First, look at her response to Laertes’s “lecture”: 

“OPHELIA I shall the effect of this good lesson keep 

As watchman to my heart, but, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, 

Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

And recks not his own rede.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

That’s not the response of an airhead. She knows Hamlet, and she knows her brother. Later to Polonius, she does say “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know what she thinks—I think she is a mild daughter who doesn’t want to appear presumptuous, but she does, in a soft way, defend Hamlet and their courtship. She is intelligent, just not witty and sharp-tongued like Beatrice or Rosaline. 

I think it’s because they have a romantic (and possibly sexual) relationship that it crushes Ophelia in Act 3 scene 1 when Hamlet says he doesn’t love her and humiliates her in front of others, and it also hurts Hamlet that Ophelia returns everything to him. Also in the scene, he asks “Where is your father?” and she says “At home, my lord”—there can be different ways of saying this line, but it’s likely that she wouldn’t be able to hide that she is lying, and he would know it.

Ophelia is crushed because nobody loves her, because all the men that she care about (her father, Laertes, Hamlet) have little regard for her feelings, because she is used and humiliated and then discarded. I think she is crushed also because she doesn’t have a sister or some kind of female friend, some confidante that she can turn to—Hero has Beatrice, Desdemona has Emilia, Adriana and Luciana have each other, Helena and Hermia are close friends, Juliet can turn to the nurse, and so on—Ophelia has nobody.  

4/ Hamlet is more interested and involved in theatre than Shakespeare’s other characters, if I remember correctly. He dislikes overacting (does Shakespeare too?). 

Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hamlet has a play within the play, which is somewhere in the middle. The difference is that the plays in the other 2 are arranged by other characters whereas in Hamlet, it’s the central character who arranges, writes, and orchestrates the play, then sits in the audience to watch other spectators. 

When I read it, I was wondering about the point of the dumb show at the beginning of the play The Mousetrap—we already see a character putting poison into another character’s ear and Claudius says nothing, why does he react strongly later? Then Himadri pointed out something I should have noticed: in The Mousetrap, the murderer is not the king’s brother as in real life, but his nephew—this is both a re-enactment of Claudius’s murder of the previous king, and a threat from Hamlet. This is why Claudius loses his temper and leaves the room. 

5/ Hamlet tells himself and Horatio that he sets up the play to watch the reaction of the king, but he also wants to see his mother’s reaction. He turns to Gertrude and asks: 

“HAMLET Madam, how like you this play?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Before the play begins, he alludes twice to Gertrude’s hasty marriage in his replies to Ophelia. He is angrier at his mother than at Claudius—the anger is already there in the first soliloquy, and can be seen here and there in his talks (for example, “my uncle-father and aunt-mother” in Act 2 scene 2). Gertrude’s action bothers Hamlet because what’s the meaning of life if a man is so soon forgotten after his death? That his beloved wife quickly moves on with someone else? 

“HAMLET […] O God, God, 

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world! 

Fie on’t, ah, fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

But I don’t buy Freud’s (deranged?) interpretation that Hamlet has Oedipus complex (in fact, as I learnt from Contested Will, it was from his reading of Hamlet that Freud created the concept of Oedipus complex). For centuries, there have been different interpretations of Hamlet’s delay/ inaction, like conscience, consciousness (overthinking), or the Freudian reading, and there can be many things at the same time, but I think Himadri’s interpretation makes sense—that Hamlet’s inaction is because he feels a sense of duty to avenge his father’s death but he himself doesn’t love his father and cannot grieve for him.  

Here is Himadri’s blog post comparing Hamlet and Hal (and Anthony): 

Here’s his earlier blog post about Hamlet 

I think it makes sense to see Hamlet’s relationship with his father as mirroring Hal’s relationship with Henry IV, to recognise that Hamlet clashes with his father in values (he’s a scholar whereas his father’s a military man) and isn’t close to him, and to interpret his inaction along these lines. In his soliloquies, Hamlet castigates himself and talks about his hatred of his mother more than grieves for his father.   

6/ There can be another interpretation: what if Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius because the person he truly hates and wants to kill is Gertrude but he can’t kill her because she’s his mother?

He has to tell himself not to kill her. 

“HAMLET […] Soft, now to my mother. 

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever

The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;

I will speak daggers to her, but use none. 

My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites:

How in my words somever she be shent,

To give them seals never, my soul, consent!”

(Act 3 scene 2) 

However you interpret it, Hamlet is undeniably obsessed with the idea of his mother having sex with his uncle, and hates her more than Claudius.  

7/ You may not agree with the readings above, but some of the common interpretations of Hamlet’s delay/ inaction don’t seem sufficient or convincing.

Lack of opportunities? There are opportunities, such as the moment after the play, but Hamlet doesn’t do it—is it the real reason that Claudius is praying and Hamlet doesn’t want him to go to heaven, or is it his self-justification? 

Inability to kill? Hamlet can kill all right—he kills Polonius, and makes plans so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in his place. 

(Christian) conscience? Fear that the deed would corrupt his soul? In his soliloquies, he doesn’t say that killing Claudius is morally wrong. His reaction upon finding the dying Polonius is neither horror nor remorse. 

“HAMLET […] Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! 

I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

Then he returns to Gertrude. 

Later Hamlet has no scruples about sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. 

Cowardice? On the surface, the word comes from Hamlet himself:  

“HAMLET […] Now, whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—

A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

However, is it not questionable if you examine it in context? This comes after Hamlet learns of Fortinbras of Norway invading Poland, for a worthless piece of land—it is hard to read the word “coward” straight in such a context. And why does Hamlet seem to admire Fortinbras, who he knows is a warmonger leading 20.000 men to a pointless death? It makes more sense to read it in light of Hamlet having a troubled relationship with his father, because they have different values, and he’s castigating himself because Fortinbras is someone his father wanted him to have become (like Henry IV wishes Hal were like Hotspur).   

8/ Shakespeare, as always, gives voices to everybody. Claudius’s guilt makes me think of Macbeth. Gertrude isn’t Lady Macbeth however—she isn’t part of the murder, though she does love Claudius.

Gertrude and Ophelia are both tragic figures. Hamlet is a tragic character, but there are deeply unpleasant sides to his character and behaviour. 

I wish I could have seen Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet and Judi Dench as Gertrude. 

9/ Hamlet and Hal are probably Shakespeare’s most intelligent male characters: they both can see through everybody, and mimic them, but if Hal changes his language and adapts himself to the environment and to the people he’s with, Hamlet mimics people’s language in order to mock them. Hal’s insults are usually banter (though there are a few exceptions), Hamlet’s sense of humour can be more sardonic and his insults meaner, though subtle. 

Both can be ruthless. Hamlet is more unstable, more neurotic, and obsessed with death. I can’t imagine Hal talking to a skull. 

Both are impenetrable, for different reasons—whereas we don’t have access to Hal’s thoughts, Shakespeare allows us to enter Hamlet’s mind often but we still can’t fully understand him. His mind, like his language, is hidden behind several layers. 

Both Tony Tanner in his introduction and Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language note the doublings and repetitions in the language of Hamlet, which is interesting, but what does it mean? 

10/ Hamlet seems changed upon his return. He seems less agonised, seems not to torture himself, and I’ve noted that he talks more about the divinity: 

“HAMLET […] When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, 

Rough-hew them how we will.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

Later, when Horatio tries to stop him fighting Laertes: 

“HAMLET Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; it it be not to come, it will be now; it it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” 


Hamlet is now fatalistic—he has let go, and stops questioning himself. And in the end, it looks like divine interference: Laertes and Claudius get killed by their own devices.   

This is a magnificent play. 

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Jonathan Bate: counter-voices in Shakespeare

In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate pretends to raise the question of what’s special about Shakespeare when he almost never comes up with his own plot for the plays, and answers it in a chapter called “Shakespeare’s Peculiarity”. As that’s not the point of this blog post, I’m not going to answer the question or write much about Bate’s chapter, but he makes an interesting point when comparing Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the source book Rosalynde by Thomas Lodge: 

“Shakespeare complicates Lodge for purposes of critique. He introduces the foppish Le Beau in the first act in order to mock at the pretensions of the court. He introduces Jaques in the second in order to mock at the pretensions of pastoral idealization. Duke Senior regards the forest of Arden as untainted, redolent of the Golden Age; Jaques points out that whilst the wicked Duke Frederick has usurped his brother’s place at court, Duke Senior and his men have usurped the stag’s place in the forest. Shakespeare introduces the loutish William and Audrey in order to juxtapose a realistic view of country people against the literary view provided by the shepherd-in-love he inherits from Lodge. As for Touchstone, he is introduced in order to mock at everybody – yet his sophisticated court mockery is itself mocked by the dignity with which Corin speaks for honest country values.

The characters invented by Shakespeare may be described as ‘counter-voices’. Lodge’s story is controlled by a narratorial voice which leads the reader to make discriminations and moral judgements. Shakespeare’s dramatic form means that there is no single authorial voice; the play’s succession of mockings, ironic juxtapositions and unresolved debates render its world ‘open’. Even when ‘closure’ is reached with the multiple marriages, Jaques stands off against the resolution. This openness means that ample space is left for the intervention of the audience. We step in to continue the unresolved debates: that is one of the things which makes Shakespeare so performable, so discussable.” (Ch.5)

Later on, Jonathan Bate speaks again of counter-voices when discussing Shakespeare as the central point of world literature: 

“Because he was hardly ever narrowly topical in his own age and culture, Shakespeare has remained topical in other ages and cultures. Because he addresses great political issues rather than local political circumstances, his plays speak to such perennial problems as tyranny and aggressive nationalism. Because his own positions are so elusive, because every one of his voices has its counter-voice – Fluellen his MacMorris, King Harry his Michael Williams, Prospero his Caliban – he has become the voice of many positions.” (Ch.8)

This, I think, is the greatest strength of Shakespeare—not only is there a wide range of voices and points of view across the Shakespeare plays, but in each play, each voice also has a counter-voice. This is why Shakespeare is so popular and appeals to people across the political spectrum. This is why Shakespeare continues to be loved and adapted and analysed today. 

Reading these passages, I can’t help thinking about the bad films or TV series I’ve seen lately—a film or TV drama is similar to a play in that it has no narratorial voice as in a novel, but in some cases, it’s easy to tell that the screenwriter has some underlying moralism, sides with a specific character, and doesn’t give some other character’s lines equal force, and that is the sign of a weak screenwriter. 

Later on in the book, Jonathan Bate writes more about the opposing voices and the appeal to different people: 

“Since the eighteenth century, Shakespeare has been admired above all for two things: the range of his characters and the inventiveness of his language. The two go closely together, for it was by investing so many of his dramatic persons with memorable language that Shakespeare animated more voices than did any of his contemporaries. And because he animated so many opposing voices, he has been able to speak to many later dispositions. 

[…] For Hazlitt, the key to Shakespeare’s genius was his open-mindedness, his lack of egotism, and freedom from bias, his capacity to see both sides of a question and to empathize equally with all.” (ibid.)

Among the writers I’ve read, I think only 2 writers are comparable to Shakespeare in range of characters, and they are Tolstoy and Cao Xueqin. In Hong lou meng, Cao Xueqin seems to depict all kinds of people, of different sexes, of different classes, and from different backgrounds, and he has compassion for them all—there are a few pairs of characters who are similar, but they’re all distinct and lifelike. Hong lou meng makes most novels appear small and limited in comparison, and the author is invisible and self-effacing, not an egotist. But if Cao Xueqin is comparable in terms of range and breadth, he is not in terms of depth and complexity—his characters are not as deep, multifaceted, and self-contradictory as Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s characters, with the sole exception of Wang Xifeng. Wang Xifeng is his greatest creation, because there are many sides to her and there can be different responses to her (though if you say you adore her, I’d ask what’s wrong with you). 

Tolstoy can inhabit many different characters’ minds to the extent that I’ve not seen matched by any other novelist, and I think Shakespeare and Tolstoy are the 2 writers with the greatest understanding of human nature and human behaviour. The difference in Tolstoy is his egotism and didacticism—when the artist in him triumphs over the preacher, he is extraordinary, but often you may clash with his narrative voice and his personal views.

To go back to Jonathan Bate’s book, he quotes William Hazlitt:

“The striking peculiarity of Shakspeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune or conflict of passion, or turn of thought. He had ‘a mind reflecting ages past,’ and present: – all the people that ever lived are there. There was no respect of persons with him. His genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar.” (ibid.) 

That’s a great passage. 

If you’re interested in Shakespeare, you should read The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate. It makes me love Shakespeare even more. 

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Jonathan Bate: Shakespeare and Marlowe as dramatic twins

In The Genius of Shakespeare, after a chapter about the Shakespeare authorship question, Jonathan Bate starts the chapter “Marlowe’s Ghost” by talking about the Marlovian theory. Some imaginative people think Christopher Marlowe must have been the real Shakespeare because Shakespeare’s career took off after Marlowe’s death—the theory is that Marlowe faked his own death then ran away to somewhere in Europe, probably Italy, to continue writing plays, under Shakespeare’s name. Bate argues that they’re wrong about the conclusion but right for noticing the timing—he suggests that Shakespeare and Marlowe were, in some sense, dramatic twins who were competing and being influenced by each other, and Shakespeare only became Shakespeare because of the death of Marlowe. 

Look at this (long) passage about characters: 

“Marlowe’s plays were noted above all for two kinds of character and one kind of action. The characters were the military overreacher (Tamburlaine the exemplar) and the scheming machiavel (the exemplar being Barabas in The Jew of Malta, but with the Guise in The Massacre at Paris following close behind). The action was the magical spectacle of Dr Faustus. Shakespeare responded. He created the first military hero on the Elizabethan stage who was not an overreacher but a true Englishman: brave Talbot. And he matched this character against a figure who was both Faustus-like conjuror and cunning schemer: Joan la Pucelle.

By dramatizing the war between Talbot and Joan, Shakespeare showed that he could split the Marlovian achievement into halves which could be joined together into a new dramatic whole. He thus overcame the central weakness of all Marlowe’s plays: their imbalance. In Marlowe until this point, the overreacher or machiavel or conjuror is so strong a presence, both linguistically and dramatically, that no one else in the plays has a chance of being fully realized.

The result of this breakthrough was that, for the first time, Shakespeare was pushing ahead in the game. If Thomas Nashe is to be believed, more than ten thousand spectators thronged to witness the Talbot–Joan clash. Marlowe responded in the manner of an elder brother who realizes that his sibling has the capacity to outstrip him. He began to be influenced by Shakespeare. His Edward II was almost certainly new when performed at court by the acting company of Pembroke’s Men around Christmas 1592; it was thus his last surviving play.

Here Marlowe reined in his mighty line and resisted the temptation to let a single character dominate the action. He followed Shakespeare’s example and turned to an English historical subject. He followed the Henry VI plays and made his central character a weak king, instead of the strong man who had been at the heart of all his previous dramas. He also followed the example of Shakespearean history in introducing a bevy of scheming barons. But because, unlike Shakespeare, he was not really interested in political questions – the clash between the need for legitimacy and the dire consequences of royal weakness – he couldn’t stop the play trying to turn itself into the kind of drama he had written previously.

He thought that the danger man would be Gaveston, a thrilling machiavellian schemer who could easily have dominated the action. Marlowe overcame this potential problem by copying Shakespeare’s device of splitting. Where Shakespeare had split Talbot and Joan, Marlowe split the single figure of the machiavel who trades on the king’s proclivities. He killed off Gaveston halfway through and brought him back in the figure of Spencer. (Shakespeare made a note of the technique: if a character is getting out of hand and threatens to upset the balance of your play, kill him off halfway through – Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.) But in concentrating on the problem of Gaveston, Marlowe didn’t notice that the real danger man was Mortimer: he was the potential Tamburlaine or Barabas. The result is that there is a shadow of a play called ‘the rise and fall of Mortimer’ obscuring the tragedy of the fall of Edward II. The title-page to the 1593 quarto tried to accommodate it in the subtitle: The troublesome Reign and lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the tragical Fall of proud Mortimer.

Shakespeare saw what Marlowe failed to see. In order to focus on the fall of the weak king, to make him the absolute centre of tragic interest, you must push the strong man all the way to the margins. In Richard II, which was Shakespeare’s reply to Edward II, Bolingbroke is never given enough space to command attention. The consequence of this is that analysis of his rise has to be postponed and given retrospective attention in the context of its results – the civil broils after he has been crowned as King Henry IV. And the consequence of this is that the analysis becomes bound up with his wayward son, Prince Hal. Henry IV regards the riotous behaviour of his son as punishment for his own pursuit of a crooked path to the crown. In moving from Bolingbroke to his son, Shakespeare reverses the Marlovian pattern of rise and fall into a new pattern of fall and rise, charted in Hal’s progress from a prince to a prentice to a king. And the consequence of this is that the Marlovian two-part structure could finally be overcome in the triumphant three-part structure of Henry IV/Henry V.” (Ch.4) 

So far I have only read Doctor Faustus, but I did think that Faustus had such a strong, dominant presence that all other characters were but shadows.  

The chapter is fascinating and should be read in its entirety: Jonathan Bate also writes about Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare’s language and Shakespeare’s inventions, Richard III, female overreachers in Shakespeare, Edmund, Marlowe allusions in As You Like It, the connection between The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, etc. Shakespeare didn’t come out of nowhere—he learnt from, absorbed, was influenced by, subverted and reacted to the work of his predecessors and contemporaries.  

Another interesting point: Bate notes that Iago says “I am not what I am” but the same thing can be said by almost every one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, as pointed out by Lionel Trilling: 

“Hamlet has no sooner heard out the Ghost than he resolves to be what he is not, a madman. Rosalind is not a boy, Portia is not a doctor of law, Juliet is not a corpse, the Duke Vincentio is not a friar, Edgar is not Tom o’ Bedlam, Hermione is neither dead nor a statue. Helena is not Diana, Mariana is not Isabella.” 

I’ve just realised that all the plays I’ve read have some kind of acting, some character pretending to be someone else or something that they’re not. 

Bate now says: 

“Marlowe’s characters invest everything in their aspirations; Shakespeare’s are more flexible. They are not what they are. That is surely because Shakespeare was an actor and Marlowe was not; it is also one reason why Shakespeare’s characters have a richer, more varied and continuous stage afterlife than Marlowe’s.” (Ch.4) 

I’ve never thought about the significance of being an actor on his writing, but perhaps Bate has a point there. 

Near the end of the chapter, after writing about the relationship between the 2 writers and Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare in both plays and poems, Jonathan Bate argues that Shakespeare triumphed over all of Marlowe’s plays except one, and the one play by Marlowe that he couldn’t drown was Doctor Faustus.   

I should read more Marlowe. Shakespeare fans should check out The Genius of Shakespeare

Jonathan Bate and the Shakespeare authorship question

I know, I know Shakespeare fans are all (or mostly?) fed up with the authorship question, but in case any anti-Stratfordian wanders to my blog, here are some interesting passages from Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare

“If there is one thing we can say for certain about Shakespeare’s plays it is that they were written by a man of the theatre. An early play like Titus Andronicus was composed under the influence of the hit plays of the late 1580s, notably Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta; a middle play like Hamlet was intricately bound up with the rivalry between the adult and children’s acting companies around 1600; the late plays were responsive to Fletcher’s innovations in the writing of tragicomic romance and the King’s Men’s purchase of the lease on the indoor playhouse at Blackfriars. Countless technicalities of staging in every one of the plays reveal that only a professional theatrical insider could have written them.” (Ch.3)

A similar point is later made by James Shapiro in Contested Will

“You couldn’t write Rosalind’s part in As You Like It unless you had absolute confidence that the boy who spoke her seven hundred lines, a quarter of the play, could manage it. You couldn’t write a part requiring the boy playing Lady Percy in The First Part of Henry the Fourth to sing in Welsh unless you knew that the company had a young actor who could handle a tune and was a native of Wales. Whoever wrote these plays had an intimate, first-hand knowledge of everyone in the company, and must have been a shrewd judge of each actor’s talents.

There were times when Shakespeare was thinking so intently about the part he was writing for a particular actor that in jotting down the speech headings he mistakenly wrote the actor’s name rather than his character’s. We know this because compositors passed on some of these slips when typesetting his foul papers.” (Section “Four: Shakespeare”) 

The plays therefore had to be written by someone working in the company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, not an aristocrat sitting somewhere away.

Speaking of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the most popular candidate among anti-Stratfordians, Jonathan Bate mentions that he died in 1604, and says:  

“Insofar as Looney and later Oxfordians address the problem of chronology at all, they have to argue that the later plays were written before 1604, kept in manuscript, and subsequently revised by the players with topical allusions to post-1604 events added in. But this argument is fatally flawed in the cases of Macbeth and The Tempest: the former does not merely allude to the Gunpowder Plot, it is a Gunpowder play through and through, while the latter could only have been written after the publication of Florio’s translation of Montaigne in 1603 and the tempest that drove Sir George Somers’ ship to Bermuda in 1609.

Nor can Oxfordians provide any explanation for the manifest stylistic differences between Shakespeare’s Elizabethan and his Jacobean plays, or the technical changes attendant upon the King’s Men’s move to the Blackfriars theatre four years after their candidate’s death…” (Ch.3) 

This is a fact that all Shakespeare scholars discuss and anti-Stratfordians conveniently ignore: Blackfriars, unlike The Globe, is an indoor theatre and candles couldn’t burn unattended for the entire length of a play, therefore plays had to be divided into 5 acts so the candles could be replaced between acts. 

“The plays written after Shakespeare’s company began using the Blackfriars in 1608, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale for instance, have what most of the earlier plays do not have: a carefully planned five-act structure.” (ibid.)

Jonathan Bate also mentions another often ignored fact, that many contemporaries knew Shakespeare and spoke of him as a writer—Bate mentions several names and writes about them at length. I don’t know how anti-Stratfordians explain that to themselves and others—was everyone, especially Ben Jonson, part of the conspiracy?  

But I won’t write more about anti-Stratfordians. There is ample evidence that Shakespeare, the author of the plays, was Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. 

See my blog post about Bill Bryson and the Shakespeare authorship question.  

Friday, 30 April 2021

Shakespeare: 20 điều thú vị, và thuyết âm mưu

Đây là 2 bài tôi viết cho báo Trẻ nhân tháng 4, tháng sinh và tháng mất của William Shakespeare, nhưng không được đăng, nên để ở đây. 


Tháng 4 là tháng của William Shakespeare (1564-1616), nhà thơ và nhà viết kịch, nhà văn vỹ đại và có ảnh hưởng nhất của Anh quốc hoặc thậm chí, theo nhiều người, của thế giới nói chung. Sau đây là vài chi tiết thú vị về cuộc đời và tác phẩm của Shakespeare, có lẽ bạn chưa biết. 

1/ Shakespeare sinh ra ở Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Anh, bởi vậy được gọi là the Bard (thi sỹ) of Stratford-upon-Avon. Những người không tin Shakespeare thực sự là Shakespeare được gọi là anti-Stratfordian, tuy nhiên đa phần các học giả đều xem đây là thuyết âm mưu và không tự gọi mình là Stratfordian để thành ngang hàng với đám dở hơi kia. 

2/ Không ai biết ngày sinh chính xác của Shakespeare, chỉ biết được làm lễ rửa tội ngày 26/4/1564. Tuy nhiên người ta thường mừng sinh nhật Shakespeare ngày 23/4, cũng là tưởng niệm ngày mất. 

3/ Cha của Shakespeare là John Shakespeare, thợ làm găng tay và ủy viên hội đồng địa phương. John Shakespeare sinh ở Snitterfield, cũng may là dọn sang sống ở Stratford-upon-Avon nên hậu thế không phải biết tới William Shakespeare là thi sỹ của Snitterfield. 

Mẹ là Mary Arden. 

4/ Trước William, John và Mary có vài người con trai khác nhưng chết lúc nhỏ, nên William trở thành con trai cả trong nhà. 

5/ Bằng chứng hiện nay không còn, nhưng các nhà nghiên cứu lâu nay đều đồng ý là William lúc nhỏ đi học ở trường văn phạm mới của nhà vua (King’s new grammar school) ở Stratford. Không học đại học. 

6/ Năm 18 tuổi, William Shakespeare kết hôn với Anne Hathaway, lớn hơn 8 tuổi và đang mang thai. Một chi tiết thú vị là, một ngày trước khi hai người bạn ký surety £40 để đảm bảo tài chính cho đám cưới của “William Shagspere và Anne Hathwey”, đăng ký giám mục ở Worcester có một giấy đăng ký kết hôn giữa Shakespeare và Anne Whateley của Temple Grafton. Đây là chi tiết gây tranh cãi bao lâu nay—Anne Whateley chính là Anne Hathaway nhưng viết sai trong hệ thống, hay là người hoàn toàn khác? Nếu cùng là một người, giải thích thế nào về câu Anne Whateley đến từ Temple Grafton trong khi Anne Hathaway đến từ Shottery, cùng thuộc Warwickshire nhưng là làng khác? Tuy nhiên, không có một giấy tờ hay dấu vết nào khác về sự tồn tại của Anne Whateley của Temple Grafton. 

7/ Tên của Shakespeare được đánh vần hàng tá cách khác nhau: Shakespere, Shackspeare, Shakespear, Shakspere, Shaxspere, Shaxper, Shakspeare, Shackespeare, Shackspere, Shackespere, v.v… 

Những người theo thuyết âm mưu thường bảo đấy là bằng chứng Shakespeare không phải là tác giả các vở kịch nổi tiếng mà chỉ là một thằng cha bá láp ở Stratford không biết chữ và không viết nổi tên mình, nhưng thật ra tiếng Anh thời này rất linh hoạt, mỗi chữ có thể được đánh vần nhiều cách khác nhau, chưa được chuẩn hóa, và các tác giả khác cùng thời cũng viết tên mình nhiều cách khác nhau như vậy. Chẳng hạn, Christopher Marlowe có khi viết là Cristofer Marley, Christopher Marlen, Morley, Marlin, v.v… 

8/ 6 tháng sau đám cưới, Shakespeare và Anne có một con gái là Susanna. 2 năm sau, có một cặp sinh đôi là Hamnet và Judith. Hamnet, con trai duy nhất của Shakespeare, chết khi mới 11 tuổi, không rõ lý do.  

9/ 1585-1592 được gọi là những năm mất tích (lost years) vì dấu vết không còn và chẳng ai biết Shakespeare làm gì trong những năm đó, trước khi trở thành nhà viết kịch ở London. Trong suốt sự nghiệp sau đó, Shakespeare chia thời gian giữa hai nơi là London và Stratford. 

10/ Người ta thường gọi Shakespeare là nhà văn thời Elizabethan, nhưng cũng thuộc thời Jacobean. Những tác phẩm lớn nhất của Shakespeare như “Macbeth”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “The Tempest”…là viết dưới thời vua James (James VI của Scotland, James I của Anh). 

11/ Trong khi một số nhà viết kịch khác chuyển công ty, Shakespeare gần như cả đời gắn với một công ty kịch là The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, sau này đổi tên thành The King’s Men, do được vua James I bảo trợ. 

12/ Shakespeare có cộng tác với các nhà viết kịch khác trong những năm đầu và những năm cuối của sự nghiệp, nhưng đa phần viết một mình. 

13/ Shakespeare viết nhiều thể loại kịch khác nhau và thành công xuất sắc trong mọi thể loại: bi kịch (như “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “Hamlet”…), hài kịch (như “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Much Ado About Nothing”, “Twelfth Night”...), và lịch sử (Henriad, 2 nhóm kịch, mỗi nhóm 4 vở, làm về giai đoạn Richard II sang Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI). Đây là cách chia loại khi Shakespeare được xuất bản chính thức lần đầu tiên. Sau này các học giả xếp một số tác phẩm vào 2 thể loại khác là problem plays (không phải bi hay hài, như “Measure for Measure”, “Troilus and Cressida”…) và romances (“The Winter’s Tale”, “The Tempest”…). 

14/ Không chỉ viết kịch và diễn xuất, Shakespeare còn là nhà thơ, viết 154 bản sonnet, ba bản thơ tường thuật dài (narrative poem) là “Venus and Adonis”, “The Rape of Lucrece”, và “A Lover’s Complaint”, cùng vài bài thơ rải rác đây kia. 

15/ Sonnet là dạng thơ có từ Ý, có 14 dòng. Sonnet ở Ý (nổi nhất là Petrarch) có cấu trúc hai phần (octave và sestet) và theo vần ABBAABBA cho octave, CDECDE hoặc CDCDCD cho sestet. 

Tuy nhiên sang Anh, thể sonnet thay đổi, theo cấu trúc 3 khổ 4 câu (quatrain) với một đôi kết (couplet). Tiếng Anh cũng khó vần hơn tiếng Ý, nên sonnet ở Anh theo hệ vần ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

Sonnet của Shakespeare được chia thành hai nhóm: viết cho fair youth (một người đàn ông trẻ tuổi) và dark lady (vào thời Shakespeare, dark không nhất thiết có nghĩa gốc Phi mà có thể nói màu da nâu nói chung hoặc chỉ màu tóc đen).  

Đây là một trong những điều được tranh cãi bao lâu nay, về danh tính của fair youth và dark lady. Tuy nhiên, nhiều học giả cho rằng Shakespeare, cũng như nhiều nhà thơ khác cùng thời, không xem thơ là tự truyện mà chỉ chọn hình ảnh đàn ông và dark lady để đi ngược với quy ước của thể loại sonnet. 

16/ Trong “Romeo and Juliet”, một đoạn đối thoại giữa Romeo và Juliet khi gặp lần đầu tiên có thể ghép lại thành một bài sonnet. 

17/ Kịch của Shakespeare không được xuất bản chính thức khi còn sống—bản First Folio được hai người bạn John Heminges và Henry Condell xuất bản năm 1623, 7 năm sau khi Shakespeare chết. Khi tác giả còn sống, các vở kịch cũng được in và bán dưới dạng quarto, không chính thức và thường không chính xác. Tuy nhiên, những người theo thuyết âm mưu thường tung tin là không có tác phẩm nào gắn tên Shakespeare khi còn sống, đó là sai—tên Shakespeare gắn với “Venus and Adonis” và “The Rape of Lucrece” và các bài thơ sonnet, dù các bản sonnet có vẻ được xuất bản không có sự đồng ý của tác giả. 

Thời Shakespeare chưa có khái niệm bản quyền như thời nay—kịch viết ra là thuộc quyền công ty, không phải của người viết. Chưa kể, kịch chỉ bị xem là chơi, là play—tới năm 1616 mới là lần đầu tiên được xuất bản như sách, như tác phẩm văn chương, và đó là kịch của Ben Jonson. 

18/ Trên mạng hay có nhiều người nói là trong thời của mình, Shakespeare không được đánh giá cao, chỉ bị coi là viết giải trí—điều này hoàn toàn sai. Tất nhiên tới tận thế kỷ 19, Shakespeare mới được nâng thành tác giả vỹ đại nhất của Anh, không ai sánh kịp, nhưng khi còn sống Shakespeare đã là một trong những tác giả được coi trọng nhất, cùng với Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, v.v… Ben Jonson thậm chí còn nói Shakespeare là nhà văn của mọi thời đại (“He was not of an age but for all time!”). 

19/ Chỉ có khoảng 230 vở kịch từ thời đó còn tồn tại tới ngày nay, bao gồm 37-39 vở của Shakespeare, tức là khoảng 16%. 

20/ Có 3 bức chân dung thường được gắn với Shakespeare: Droeshout, Chandos, và Cobbe. 2 bức được gọi là Chandos portrait và Cobbe portrait thường được sử dụng nhiều do đẹp, nhưng không có bằng chứng đó thực sự là Shakespeare. Bức khắc Droeshout xuất hiện trên First Folio, khi kịch của Shakespeare được xuất hiện lần đầu tiên, nhưng không rõ độ chính xác là bao nhiêu vì là di cảo. 

Hải Di Nguyễn 


“Shakespeare: The World as Stage” của Bill Bryson. 

“Shakespeare” của Anthony Burgess. 



Tháng 4 là tháng tưởng niệm William Shakespeare (1564-1616), văn hào vỹ đại nhất của nước Anh, hoặc theo nhiều người là nhà văn quan trọng nhất của thế giới nói chung. Shakespeare là tác giả của “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, “Hamlet”, “Othello”, “Twelfth Night”, “As You Like It”, v.v… 

Một trong những chủ đề gây tranh cãi là về tác giả: Shakespeare liệu có phải là Shakespeare? Hay là người khác? 

Vì sao có cuộc tranh luận về danh tính tác giả? 

Vì William Shakespeare sinh ở Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Anh quốc, những người cho rằng Shakespeare không phải là tác giả những vở kịch nổi tiếng được gọi là anti-Stratfordian. 

Phe anti-Stratfordian đưa ra nhiều lý do và lập luận để nói Shakespeare không phải là Shakespeare nhưng thật ra tất cả có thể chỉ tóm gọn lại một ý: Shakespeare, theo họ, không có đủ lai lịch và học vấn để viết những tác phẩm hay như vậy. Theo họ, một diễn viên kịch thuộc nhà loàng xoàng không phải quý tộc, có cha là thợ làm găng tay, bản thân lớn lên ở tỉnh lẻ, chỉ học trường văn phạm và không học đại học, không thể viết những tác phẩm bất hủ và trở thành nhà văn hào vỹ đại nhất của Anh như thế.  

Nguồn gốc câu hỏi về danh tính tác giả  

Một ý không phải ai cũng nhắc tới khi nói về cuộc tranh luận về danh tính tác giả (authorship debate) là nó có từ thế kỷ 19 (trong khi Shakespeare sống ở cuối thế kỷ 16, đầu thế kỷ 17) và bắt nguồn từ Ohio, Mỹ. 

Nói cách khác, không ai nghi ngờ danh tính tác giả khi Shakespeare còn sống, cũng không ai băn khoăn gì suốt vài thế kỷ sau đó—chỉ từ thế kỷ 19 mới có lần đầu tiên, một phụ nữ người Mỹ tên Delia Bacon cho rằng các vở kịch mang tên Shakespeare thật ra là của một nhóm cùng viết, đứng đầu là Francis Bacon. 

Theo “Contested Will” của James Shapiro, một cuốn sách đi sâu vào cuộc tranh cãi này, đây là giai đoạn dậy lên cái gọi là higher criticism hay historical criticism, đặt nghi vấn về tác giả của Kinh thánh hay về danh tính của Homer (nhà thơ Hy Lạp cổ đại, được xem là tác giả của “Iliad” và “Odyssey”), nên không có gì lạ Delia Bacon cũng đặt ra câu hỏi về danh tính thật sự của Shakespeare và nhiều người ở Mỹ lẫn Châu Âu đều bị cuốn vào đó, bao gồm những tên tuổi lớn như Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Helen Keller, v.v… 

Các ứng cử viên khác

Theo Wikipedia, cho đến nay đã có khoảng 80 cái tên khác nhau được đưa ra là “Shakespeare thật sự”. 

2 thuyết chính, với nhiều người theo nhất, là về Francis Bacon và Edward de Vere. 

Francis Bacon, Tử tước (Viscount) St Alban thứ nhất (1561-1626) là một nhà triết học, chính khách, và essayist người Anh, cha đẻ của chủ nghĩa duy nghiệm (empiricism) và một trong những gương mặt quan trọng nhất của cuộc cách mạng khoa học ở Châu Âu. Hiện nay có lẽ không có mấy người quan tâm tới Francis Bacon, nhưng vào thế kỷ 19, ông được xem là một những người hiểu biết uyên bác nhất của Anh, hoặc Châu Âu nói chung. Sự uyên bác của Francis Bacon gần như là lý do chính khiến một số người, bắt đầu từ Delia Bacon, cho rằng đây mới là tác giả những vở kịch của Shakespeare, nhưng phải giấu nhẹm đi và để ông diễn viên Stratford đứng tên để không ảnh hưởng sự nghiệp chính trị. 

Một số người nghĩ Francis Bacon để code trong các vở kịch về danh tính của mình, và thậm chí họ còn bỏ hàng năm tìm kiếm và giải mã code chứng minh Bacon mới là tác giả. 

Thuyết Baconian là thuyết phổ biến nhất một thời gian, rồi bị thay thế vị trí số một bởi thuyết Oxfordian, về Edward de Vere, Bá tước (Earl) thứ 17 của Oxford (1550-1604). Edward de Vere có xuất bản vài bài thơ và vở kịch làng xoàng, chẳng mấy người để ý tới, và ngày nay chủ yếu vẫn còn được nhắc đến không phải vì những tác phẩm ký tên Earl of Oxford mà chỉ vì một số người nghĩ đó là tác giả thật sự ẩn sau cái tên William Shakespeare. Thuyết Oxfordian bắt nguồn từ một giáo viên người Anh tên J. Thomas Looney, chỉ vì cuộc đời Edward de Vere có vài điểm khớp với chi tiết xuất hiện đây kia trong kịch Shakespeare; 13 trong số 37-39 vở kịch lấy bối cảnh ở Ý, Edward de Vere đã du lịch nhiều nơi và thậm chí từng sống ở Ý, trong khi không có vẻ gì Shakespeare từng qua Ý; và Looney cho rằng Shakespeare thật sự phải thuộc tầng lớp quý tộc. 

Trên thực tế, không ai tìm được bất kỳ bằng chứng nào liên hệ Bacon, Oxford, hay bất kỳ ai khác với các tác phẩm của Shakespeare. 

Bằng chứng cho Shakespeare 

Ngược lại, mọi bằng chứng còn sót lại, dù không nhiều, đều cho thấy Shakespeare chính là Shakespeare của Stratford-upon-Avon. Phe nghi ngờ thường quên rằng giới văn chương của London rất hạn hẹp, ai cũng biết ai—Ben Jonson, một trong những nhà văn quan trọng nhất thời đó, quen Shakespeare và từng viết một bài thơ ca ngợi; bản thân Shakespeare và công ty kịch The Lord Chamberlain’s Men từng xuất hiện trước mặt nữ hoàng Elizabeth lẫn vua James; John Heminges và Henry Condell, hai người giúp chính thức xuất bản các vở kịch lần đầu tiên là bạn của Shakespeare và thuộc cùng công ty. 

Nói về lai lịch hay học vấn, một số nhà văn quan trọng cùng thời cũng có nguồn gốc tương tự Shakespeare: Christopher Marlowe có cha là thợ đóng giày, Ben Jonson là con của thợ nề và cũng chẳng học đại học. Một số người khăng khăng là tác giả phải thuộc dòng dõi quý tộc mới viết được về giới thượng lưu, nhưng trong tác phẩm của Shakespeare cũng có tầng lớp thấp, nhà nghèo, đám tội phạm, gái điếm…—dùng cùng lập luận, làm sao các ông như Edward de Vere biết được tầng lớp này? Hơn nữa, kịch Shakespeare có nhiều hình ảnh hoặc ẩn dụ về đồng quê Warwickshire hoặc liên quan đến ngành làm găng tay da (như cha Shakespeare). 

Các dấu vết còn sót lại (chẳng hạn đôi khi Shakespeare viết nhân vật cho một diễn viên cụ thể nào đó nên viết lộn tên diễn viên thay cho tên nhân vật) cho thấy tác giả phải là người đang làm việc trong công ty kịch, biết bạn diễn gồm có ai, khả năng thế nào, diễn được loại vai nào, nếu viết một vai khó (như cần nói được tiếng Welsh hoặc biết chơi nhạc) thì có người để đóng không, v.v…, chứ không phải một ông quý tộc ngồi viết từ xa rồi tuồn ra. 

Quan trọng hơn hết, Edward de Vere chết năm 1604, sau đó vẫn xuất hiện nhiều tác phẩm khác của Shakespeare như “King Lear”, “Macbeth”, “Antony and Cleopatra”... và nhiều vở kịch cũng thay đổi phong cách sau khi công ty kịch của Shakespeare chuyển sang một nhà hát khác, với điều kiện hoàn toàn khác—một điều Edward de Vere không thể đoán trước. 

Nhiều lập luận chống Shakespeare cũng bắt nguồn từ thiếu hiểu biết hoặc hiểu sai về thời Elizabethan hay Jacobean. Chẳng hạn, nhiều người nói Shakespeare không nhắc gì tới sách vở hay bản thảo trong di chúc, nhưng di chúc thời đó chỉ nói sơ sơ vài thứ, không kể hết mọi của cải đồ đạc của người viết. 

Vậy tại sao một số người vẫn nghi ngờ danh tính của Shakespeare, và đi theo thuyết Baconian, Oxfordian, hay một thuyết khác? 

Có trời mới biết được. Người ta có thể theo thuyết âm mưu vì hàng ngàn lý do, không cần logic hay bằng chứng. Trong trường hợp này, một số người chỉ đơn giản không thể chấp nhận con trai một thợ làm găng từ tỉnh lẻ có thể trở thành đại văn hào vỹ đại nhất nước Anh và thay đổi cả Anh ngữ. 

Nhưng bằng chứng chẳng hướng tới ai khác, ngoài William Shakespeare của Stratford-upon-Avon.  

Hải Di Nguyễn 


“Shakespeare: The World as Stage” của Bill Bryson

“Contested Will” của James Shapiro 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

1/ This is the first Ben Jonson play I’ve read.

My first impression confirms what I have heard—that Ben Jonson, unlike Shakespeare, shows off his learning in his plays. Or to use Bill Bryson’s words, his learning “hangs like bunting on every word”. For example: 


The thumb, in chiromanty, we give Venus;

The forefinger to Jove; the midst, to Saturn;

The ring to Sol; the least, to Mercury;

Who was the lord, sir, of his horoscope,

Is house of life being Libra, which foreshowed, 

He should be a merchant, and should trade with balance.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Subtle is the alchemist (well, a con artist), and he is talking to Abel Drugger, a tobacco-man that he’s trying to scam.   



Make me your door, then, south; your broad side, west;

And on the east side of your shop, aloft,

Write Mathlai, Tarmiel, and Baraborat;

Upon the north part, Rael, Velel, Thiel.

They are the names of those mercurial spirits,

That do fright flies from boxes.” 


My New Mermaids edition says that the “Mathlai… Thiel” part is quoted from the Heptameron, seu Elementa magica Pietri Abano Philosophi. No idea what that is. 

Let’s look at another passage. A knight named Epicure Mammon thinks he’s about to get the philosopher’s stone from Subtle, and tries to convince his incredulous companion Surly, a gamester, that the philosopher’s stone is real and has been written about by Moses, Salomon, and Adam.


‘Tis like your Irish wood,

‘Gainst cobwebs. I have a piece of Jason’s fleece, too,

Which was no other, than a book of alchemy,

Writ in large sheepskin, a good fat ram-vellum.

Such was Pythagoras’s thigh, Pandora’s tub;

And, all that fable of Medea’s charms,

And manner of our work: the bulls, our furnace,

The breathing fire; our argent-vive, the dragon;

The dragon’s teeth, mercury sublimate,

That keeps the whiteness, hardness, and the biting; 

And they are gathered, into Jason’s helm,

(Th’ alembic) and then sowed in Mars his field,

And, thence, sublimed so often, till they are fixed.

Both this, th’ Hesperian garden, Cadmus’s story, 

Jove’s shower, the boon of Midas, Argus’ eyes, 

Boccace his Demogorgon, thousands more, 

All abstract riddles of our stone…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

I mean, take it easy there, Ben? 

As it turns out, there are a lot more names and concepts and archaic words and Latin in the scenes between Subtle, Mammon, and Surly. 

Compared to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson seems more interested in the London around him, setting the play in Blackfriars during a plague and mentioning places or people that his audience would probably have recognised. He also refers more to contemporary issues and events explicitly: in Act 1 scene 2 for example, there are references to figures such as Simon Read, Chiause, Clim o’ the Cloughs (Adam Bell), etc.; and he writes about contemporary ideas and practices such as alchemy, horoscope, palmistry, the humours, etc.  

I’m not saying that The Alchemist is no longer relevant or relatable today (whatever it means), but in some ways the play seems to be more rooted in its time and place, whereas Shakespeare transcends his time and country.  

2/ From earlier on, I’ve noticed that Epicure Mammon sounds like an overreacher, like Doctor Faustus. In his conversation with Surly, and later with Face (Subtle’s accomplice), he talks about all the powers he thinks the philosopher’s stone would give him, and all the stuff he would do with it. 

Something gets my attention however:  


[…] Where I spy

A wealthy citizen, or rich lawyer,

Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow

I’ll send a thousand pound, to be my cuckold.” 

(Act 2 scene 2)  


Compared to the 2 previous victims, Mammon isn’t very sympathetic—does anyone feel bad that such a man get scammed? 

3/ Unlike Shakespeare in most of his plays, Ben Jonson does obey the 3 unities of classical drama: unity of action (a single action of Subtle and Face scamming people, with no subplot), unity of place (everything takes place in or just outside Lovewit’s house), and unity of time (the action is more or less continuous and takes place within the course of a day).  

The comedy of The Alchemist is very different from Shakespeare’s comedy. Once in a while there’s a sexual innuendo, whereas Shakespeare’s plays, including the tragedies and histories, are filled with puns and sex jokes. Ben Jonson doesn’t seem to like puns much.

His comedy is more satirical: mocking the vices of humankind such as greed, lust, gullibility, and hypocrisy. 

Ben Jonson does play with language, but not in the same way as Shakespeare. 

The con-men, especially Subtle (but also Face), put on different roles and speak different kinds of language. When Subtle talks to Abel Drugger for example, he uses the jargon of metoposcopy (the art of reading character from physiognomy), chiromanty (palmistry), and horoscope. In front of Mammon, Subtle talks like some kind of priest or holy man, then he and Face use the jargon of alchemy. 

Now take this scene, when a deacon named Ananias comes and asks for them. 


[…] Who are you?


A faithful Brother, if it please you. 


What’s that? 

A Lullianist? A Ripley? Filius artis? 

Can you sublime, and dulcify? Calcine?

Know you the sapor pontic? Sapor styptic? 

Or, what is homogene, or heterogene?


I understand no heathen language, truly.” 

(Act 2 scene 5)  

I get exhausted reading that. 


All’s heathen, but the Hebrew. 


Sirrah, my varlet, stand you forth, and speak to him

Like a philosopher: answer, i’ the language. 

Name the vexations, and the martyrizations

Of metals, in the work.


Sir, Putrefaction,

Solution, Ablution, Sublimation,

Cohobation, Calcination, Ceration, and



This is heathen Greek, to you, now? 

And when comes Vivification? 


After Mortification. 


What’s Cohobation? 


‘Tis the pouring on. 

Your Aqua Regis, and then drawing him off,

To the trine circle of the seven spheres. 


What’s the proper passion of metals? 




What’s your ultimum supplicium auri?




See what I mean? I put up a long quote so you get the idea that it goes on and on—the language is packed with Latin and archaic words and unfamiliar terms.

Perhaps the way to read it is to accept feeling lost sometimes—Subtle uses language to dazzle and confuse and dwindle others. 

4/ Mammon’s language is fun. Take this speech to Dol, a prostitute and partner-in-crime of Subtle and Face that Mammon thinks is a lady and a scholar. 


It is a noble humour. But this form

Was not intended to so dark a use! 

Had you been crooked, foul, of some coarse mould, 

A cloister had done well; but such a feature 

That might stand up the glory of a kingdom,

To live recluse!—is a mere solecism,

Though in a nunnery. It must not be…” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

She’s too hot to be a recluse, he says. A short while later: 


I am pleased, the glory of her sex should know,

This nook, here of the Friars, is no climate

For her, to live obscurely in, to learn 

Physic, and surgery, for the Constable’s wife

Of some odd Hundred in Essex; but come forth,

And taste the air of places; eat, drink

The toils of emp’rics, and their boasted practice;

Tincture of pearl, and coral, gold, and amber; 

Be seen at feasts, and triumphs; have it asked,

What miracle she is? Set all the eyes 

Of court afire, like a burning glass,

And work ‘em in cinders; when the jewels

Of twenty states adorn thee; and the light

Strikes out the stars; that, when thy name is mentioned,

Queens may look pale; and, we but showing our love,

Nero’s Poppaea may be lost in story! 

Thus, will we have it!” 


Mammon is pompous and his language is bombastic. In The Alchemist, Ben Jonson satirises different types of people, Mammon is probably the one that stands out the most—at least to me. 

Sometime in the play, Surly calls him “the Faustus”. 

5/ One good thing about Ben Jonson putting his learning in the play is that I now know he knew Don Quixote. What a surprise. 

(Another unexpected thing is that the word “dildo” appears in the play, near the end). 

6/ The best part of The Alchemist, I reckon, is the tightly structured plot—it becomes denser and denser as the victims go in and out at the wrong time or new ones unexpectedly arrive and they clash with each other, forcing the con-men to improvise as they go along. 

The ending is good—unexpected. 

Thursday, 22 April 2021

All’s Well That Ends Well

1/ In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode says All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are twins. 

Both are problem plays. Both have lots of scheming and deception. Both use the same plot device. 

2/ See this line about virginity: 

“PAROLLES […] ‘Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying; the longer kept, the less worth.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Earlier, also about virginity: 

“PAROLLES […] Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose by’t. Out with’t! Within ten years it will make itself ten, which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not much the worse. Away with’t!” 


Now look at this exchange: 

“COUNTESS Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.

CLOWN My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Hahaha I like the honesty. 

3/ Helena, in her hopeless and foolish love, reminds me of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My first impression was that there’s something pathetic about it.  

In her confession to the Countess, she says “I know I love in vain, strive against hope” (Act 1 scene 3). That reminds me of a line from Great Expectations

“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.” 

In All’s Well That Ends Well, it is hopeless because Bertram is a count and Helena is the daughter of their family physician—after her father’s death, she’s been the Countess’s ward. He’s very much above her. 

“HELENA […] my imagination

Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s.

I am undone; there is no living, none, 

If Bertram be away; ‘twere all one

That I should love a bright particular star,

And think to wed it, he is so above me.

In his bright radiance and collateral light

Must I be comforted, not in his sphere….” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

But she is different from the Athenian Helena. In this same speech, an image rather stands out to me: 

“HELENA […] Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself: 

The hind that would be mated by the lion

Must die for love.” 


Note that: “mated”. She is horny.  

As the story unfolds, we see that she isn’t weak or pathetic as she initially seems—to an ignoramus like me, it comes as a surprise that in a Jacobean play, such a female character appears before the King, asserts herself, and makes a deal where, if she wins, she may be granted any husband she chooses. There is even a scene where the King has several lords standing in line for Helena to pick and she picks Bertram—he objects, but cannot disobey the King. I can’t help wondering what the audience in Shakespeare’s day thought about it. 

However, after the (forced) marriage, Helena refers to herself as his “most obedient servant” and Bertram right away goes to war to avoid his wife—something a woman under similar circumstances cannot do.   

4/ This is a great line: 

“FIRST LORD [Aside] Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

Parolles is a liar, braggart, and coward, but without the wit and charisma of Falstaff (from the Henry IV plays) and without the charm of Lucio (from Measure for Measure). Tony Tanner’s analysis of Parolles is particularly fascinating (I’m being deliberately vague so you have to check out the essay for yourself).  

It is significant that Bertram misjudges Parolles when everyone else can see through him—Bertram is not a good judge of character. I think it’s also meaningful that Helena can clearly see Parolles’s faults, so her love for Bertram may not be (entirely) foolish.  

5/ All’s Well That Ends Well cannot be dated with certainty—assuming that it’s from around the same time as Measure for Measure and Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well cannot compare in terms of poetry or dramatic power. But Shakespeare still does something interesting with the language. 

For example, look at these lines:

“KING Wherefore hast thou accused him all this while?

DIANA Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty;

He knows I am no maid, and he’ll swear to’t;

I’ll swear I am a maid and he knows not.

Great King, I am no strumpet; by my life

I am either maid or else this old man’s wife.”

(Act 5 scene 3) 

That reminds me of the equivocation in Macbeth, especially the language of the witches. 

6/ At first, Bertram seems sympathetic. He is a snob and may be rude, but he is a young man forced to marry a woman for whom he does not care. Helena is not like Angelo in Measure for Measure, but she does marry Bertram against his will and has not only the King but also Bertram’s mother on her side. She appears more sympathetic because everyone praises her virtue and Shakespeare gives us access to her private thoughts but not his, but we can still understand the way he feels. 

Later in Florence, he courts Diana and we may say it’s wrong, especially to Diana, but can we really say that he betrays Helena when he has never said he loved her and never chosen to marry her? Note too that at this point, he thinks Helena is dead. 

The complex, problematic part of Helena’s plot is her speech to the widow, Diana’s mother: 

“HELENA […] Let us assay our plot, which, if it speed,

Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,

And lawful meaning in a lawful act,

Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.

But let’s about it.” 

(Act 3 scene 7) 

For those of you who find the passage confusing, this is the explanation in my edition: “the point of this passage is that Bertram’s intention is wicked, though his deed—copulating with his wife—will be lawful; Helena’s intention and her act will be good, and the deed will not be a sin though in Bertram’s mind he will be sinning”.

Even if we don’t look at it through the lens of modern standards about consent, there is manipulation and deception, lawful or not. Morally, it seems more questionable than the bed trick in Measure for Measure.  

Now several questions must be raised: does Helena, for example, intend to follow Bertram to Florence from the start, or does she go to the monastery as she tells the Countess, and later wander to Florence? Note that she says she’s going to be a Saint Jacques’s pilgrim, which means going to the shrine in Compostela, and Florence is not on the way from Rousillon to Compostela—it’s in the other direction.   

In addition, at the beginning of the play, Helena says that she wants to go to court to treat the King’s health, but it’s clearly not about saving him as much as about striking a deal with him and getting him to arrange the marriage. Later, it is uncertain, but she must be the one spreading rumours about her own death, and she is the one that plans the bed trick with Diana. She pulls all the strings, like the Duke in Measure for Measure. Is she intelligent and resourceful, or scheming and manipulative? 

(Either way, that’s a lot of scheming just to get in bed with Bertram). 

In the final act, however, Bertram turns out to be contemptible—in his willingness to marry Lafew’s daughter and his despicable treatment of Diana. The final scene of All’s Well That Ends Well seems to mirror the final scene of Measure for Measure—the despicable men may easily get away with their bad deeds and get everything they want if not for the evidence Helena has in All’s Well That Ends Well and the Duke’s full knowledge in Measure for Measure.

This leads to other questions: why does Helena want Bertram, and how should we interpret his final line? 

Let’s look at it: 

“HELENA O, my good lord, when I was like this maid,

I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring,

And, look you, here’s your letter. This it says:

“When from my finger you can get this ring,

And is by me with child”, &c. This is done.

Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?

BERTRAM If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,

I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

Some readers have complained about Bertram’s sudden conversion in this scene, but I don’t think there’s a conversion as such. Perhaps it’s the psychological realism reader in me speaking, but firstly, there is an “if” in his sentence, and secondly, I don’t think he’s being truthful. If you look at it and consider how he has offended the King: he has objected to the arranged marriage, run away from his wife, flirted with another woman, chosen to sleep with her (the switch is beside the point), lied about her in front of the King and everyone else, lied about the ring… Now, in front of everyone and with them all on her side, Helena reads out loud the seemingly impossible challenge from Bertram that she has fulfilled, do you think he has any other option but return to her and obey the King? 

Whether they can be happy together is another question. Like Measure for Measure, it seems to be an ambiguous ending. But who knows, maybe they would be happy together—he seemed to enjoy the sex with her after all.  

7/ It is interesting, whenever I finish reading a Shakespeare play, to read Tony Tanner’s essay about it and learn about how Shakespeare uses his sources and always complicates and deepens the stories. 

One of the changes here is that in the original, Giletta (the Helena figure) arranges the bed trick several times and, when confronting her husband Beltramo, brings with her 2 sons who look just like him. In Shakespeare’s play, the bed trick is a one-time affair and at the confrontation, Helena is pregnant. 

“Without pushing the matter too pointlessly fair, there is surely a signal difference between confronting a man with two bouncing baby boys who are his spitting image, and standing, visibly pregnant, in front of him and asserting that you are carrying his child. Paternity is notoriously difficult to establish incontrovertibly, and this seemingly slight plot change is characteristic of the widespread introduction of uncertainty—or the draining or diffusing away of certainty—which marks this play. All you can feel at the end is that it is, indeed, a conclusion ‘pregnant’ with possibilities.” (Introduction) 

8/ As Tony Tanner points out, Helena herself says “All’s well that ends well” twice, in Act 4 scene 4 and Act 5 scene 1.

The King’s final speech however says: “All yet seems well…” (Act 5 scene 3). 

That “seems” is significant.   

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Measure for Measure

1/ Measure for Measure was published in the First Folio as a comedy, and it is in Comedies Volume 2 of the Everyman edition. It is now often classified as a problem play, together with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida (though some scholars include some other plays such as The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, etc.), because of their shifting and ambiguous tone. 

As I’m quite ignorant, I don’t know what the differences are between problem plays and tragicomedies. 

I’d note that Measure for Measure is a Jacobean play and generally dated 1603-1604, so around the same time as Othello. Both plays deal with the idea of purity.  

2/ Measure for Measure begins with the Duke leaving Vienna for unknown reasons and making Lord Angelo his deputy. In power, Angelo becomes stricter and more authoritarian—soon we hear that a guy called Claudio is arrested for having premarital sex and making his beloved Juliet pregnant, and he is sentenced to death.


I should add here that our Will did have premarital sex—Anne Hathaway was pregnant at their wedding. 

Check out this speech from Claudio to his friend Lucio: 

“CLAUDIO […] Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,

Or whether that the body public be

A horse whereon the governor doth ride,

Who, newly in the seat, that it may know

He can command, lets it straight feel the spur; 

Whether the tyranny be in his place, 

Or in his eminence that fills it up,

I stagger in—but this new governor

Awakes me all the enrollèd penalties

Which have, like unscoured armor, hung by th’ wall

So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,

And none of them been worn; and, for a name,

Now puts the drowsy and neglected act

Freshly on me. ‘Tis surely for a name.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Later Escalus, another Lord, tries to plead for Claudio. This is how the man replies. 

“ANGELO ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,

Another thing to fall…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

How self-righteous. He even says: 

“ANGELO […] What’s open made to Justice,

That Justice seizes. What knows the laws 

That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,

The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t

Because we see it; but what we do not see 

We tread upon, and never think of it.

You may not so extenuate his offense

For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,

When I, that censure him, do so offend, 

Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,

And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.” 


What a strange way to speak of people who violate the law: “the jewel that we find, we stoop and take”? 

On a side note, this is such a good time to read about a sanctimonious and authoritarian figure. It is no surprise that Angelo turns out to be a hypocrite, and he is much worse than Claudio—Claudio loves and wants to marry Juliet; Angelo propositions Isabella because of lust. 

3/ I love the speech from Claudio’s sister to Angelo: 

“ISABELLA Could great men thunder

As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,

For every pelting, petty officer

Would use his heaven for thunder.

Nothing but thunder. Merciful heaven,

Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt

Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak

Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Such a fantastic speech. This must be one of the great speeches in Shakespeare. 

Watch it here, performed by Kate Nelligan for the 1979 TV film: 

I knew about this passage from the Alastair Stewart thing (which was utter nonsense), but the speech is even greater in context. 

I like what Tony Tanner says about the first meeting between Isabella and Angelo: 

“When Isabella has left, Angelo does knock on his bosom to ask what’s there—and to his horror, he finds foulness.” (Introduction) 

4/ Here’s a great speech from the condemned man: 

“CLAUDIO Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, 

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot, 

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit 

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside 

In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice; 

To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about 

The pendent world; or to be worse than worst 

Of those that lawless and incertain thought 

Imagine howling—‘tis too horrible! 

The weariest and most loathèd worldly life 

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment 

Can lay on nature is a paradise 

To what we fear of death.” 

(Act 3 scene 1)   

This is a magnificent and relatable passage about the fear of death. 

Measure for Measure has some difficult questions: what should Isabella do? What would you do? On the one hand, Angelo is undeniably despicable, a Harvey Weinstein (who says Shakespeare is not relevant?), and it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to accept his offer. On the other hand, her idea of purity doesn’t seem that different from the kind of thinking that motivates the law, and her strong reaction to her brother’s pleas in this scene appears shockingly cold and inhumane. 

Look at that: 

“ISABELLA […] Take my defiance,

Die, perish! Might but my bending down

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.

I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,

No word to save thee.” 



“ISABELLA O, fie, fie, fie! 

Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade. 

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd,

‘Tis best that thou diest quickly.” 


I understand that she feels strongly about it and wouldn’t want to trade her body, but it’s trading her body for her brother’s life, and aren’t those such terrible words to say to a brother who would soon get executed? Especially when he has just talked about his fear of death? She may be ready for death because of her faith, but he is not. He is human. 

Now go back to the previous scene, see her reaction to Angelo and his response—Angelo and Isabella are more similar than she thinks. 

At the beginning, I was wondering why Isabella was going to be a nun—how it’s significant for the story—but gradually I realised that it made perfect sense. In the introduction, Tony Tanner writes about the sources for Measure for Measure and the changes, and this is one of Shakespeare’s inventions. 

5/ The scene of the Duke (disguised as a Friar) talking to Lucio reminds me of the scene in Henry V of the disguised king with Bates and Williams. Lucio is hilarious though. 

I haven’t written about it, but part of Measure for Measure is very funny, when Lucio is present or when Shakespeare moves to the bawds and criminals. Compared to others, Claudio’s offence is very trivial. 

6/ A central theme that keeps appearing in all of Shakespeare’s plays, in one way or another, is the problem of “seeming”—that things or people are not as they seem. In some plays such as Measure for Measure and Othello, Shakespeare pushes it even further.

7/ One of the puzzles of Measure for Measure is the Duke’s motives. Why does he leave his position at the beginning and install Angelo in power, whom he must know to be a puritan? Why does he go about, pulling the strings, when the easier way is to return to power and fix everything? 

I’m going to pass off Himadri’s ideas as my own, because I agree, that the Duke acts like a God (though he shouldn’t be read as an incarnate figure of God). The religious viewpoint is that on the Day of Judgment, God will set everything right, but why does God, who is all-powerful, allow things to get to this stage? Why is he testing us? 

The Duke clearly puts everyone to test: Isabella, Mariana, Angelo, Escalus, the Provost, Lucio… and in a way, the people of Vienna as a whole when he is temporarily not in power. He is the only one in the play who knows everything and makes all the moves—he withholds information and plans and manipulates, and tests everyone to their very limit. In the process, everyone’s character is revealed. 

Tony Tanner doesn’t think so, and seems to think that the play is more about the questions of government, mercy, and justice, but that is probably why he loves the intense first part of the play but doesn’t seem as happy with the second part, when it moves into prose and the play focuses more on the Duke, “the mode changes, the mood changes, the atmosphere changes, the pace changes”, and everything becomes quieter. I think that if you think, as Tony Tanner seems to think, that the Duke’s intention is to sort everything and restore justice, the second part of the play may seem to drag and feel muddled up as the Duke can easily halt it all and return to power, but I don’t think that’s the intention. The intention is to test all the characters to their very limit, though why he wants to do so is of course another question.  

8/ Is it a happy ending? I don’t think so.

Lucio is ordered to marry a prostitute who has a child with him. Angelo is saved from death, but forced to marry a woman he doesn’t want; Mariana gets a husband, but he has humiliated her in the past and doesn’t want her now. Claudio is saved, but can the relationship between him and his sister Isabella be the same after what has passed, especially when Isabella does think Claudio is not guiltless? She wants to be a nun, but now the Duke wants her to himself and the play ends before we know her reaction.

I don’t think this is me looking at the play through the modern lens—I think Shakespeare intended the ending to be ambiguous and not truly happy.

Tony Tanner agrees: 

“… the arranged marriages have not been sought and pursued by the couples involved—there is no genuine love (as opposed to lust) in this play—but are imposed by the Duke (we get no sense of Claudio and Juliet as a happy couple); the knots don’t come across as very ‘well-tied’ (Isabella doesn’t even get to answer the Duke’s unprecedentedly peremptory proposal of marriage); there is certainly danger rather than death, but not much of a sense of delight or happiness comes off the resolving reversals.” (Introduction)