Tuesday 10 October 2023

Marriages of unequal minds in Shakespeare

Have you ever noticed how often women in Shakespeare’s plays go for men unworthy of them? 

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia and Silvia are both better than Valentine and Proteus. 

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, all three women are wittier and wiser than the men. 

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is cleverer and more resourceful than Bassanio, and clearly would be the one wearing the pants in the relationship.

In As You Like It, one thinks that Orlando is a nice lad but wonders what Rosalind can possibly see in him. 

Similar with Helena and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well (though I think both are utterly unpleasant). 

In Measure for Measure, I don’t know why Marianna wants Angelo after he has thrown her away. 

In Twelfth Night, Viola, intelligent in other ways but foolish in love, willingly a thousand deaths would die for a narcissist such as Orsino.

In Othello, Desdemona is the sweetest innocent, too good for Othello (I have always clashed with A. C. Bradley’s view of him as a noble man). 

Same with Hero and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing

Same with Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbeline

Same with Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

Love is blind indeed.

So which are the equal and balanced couples in Shakespeare?

I guess we can say Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra—though in both cases, their love is destructive. I would also say the Macbeths—they’re a happy, loving couple—she does taunt him but I have always thought that people exaggerate her dominance, her control over him—Macbeth already has black and deep desires before she speaks; Macbeth is the one committing the murder, she can’t; Macbeth is the one killing more people, she can’t stop him. 

Probably the only great match with a happy ending is Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing

Why does Shakespeare so often depict women going for men unworthy of them? 

Wednesday 4 October 2023

A Bardolator’s notes on living in London

1/ As other sufferers would understand, once you have caught the Shakespeare bug, it’s incurable—you read the plays and listen to audio recordings and watch productions and watch film adaptations and read centuries of criticism—and if you happen to live in London, you look for the places associated with Shakespeare.

In May, I went on a Shakespeare tour with Declan McHugh, who specialises in Shakespeare and serial killers.

Last Sunday, I went on another Shakespeare tour with Helen Palmer of Elan Walks.

(Helen said to me “So you’re the Bardolator in the group.” How did she know? you ask. I’m a show-off, that’s how). 

2/ On 25/9, I was at the Swan at the Globe with Himadri of Argumentative Old Git blog, having won two tickets, for the event celebrating 400 years of First Folio and the new edition by Folio Society.

Three gorgeous volumes, £1000. Limited edition. 

I can’t afford them—I’m just a poor girl—but hey, I was one of the first people outside Folio Society to have seen and felt these beautiful books. 

3/ It’s insane to me that souvenir shops in Amsterdam are filled with Van Gogh and those in Vienna are filled with Mozart and Gustav Klimt, but souvenir shops in London just sell Harry Potter, the royal family, and London symbols such as the red bus. No Shakespeare. No Dickens. Rarely Sherlock Holmes. Just contemporary pop culture nonsense.

4/ I’m currently reading and enjoying Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects

It’s an interesting concept.

One can enjoy Shakespeare books anywhere, but it feels a bit more personal when you recognise place names (ah, Shoreditch!) or you can easily pop to Bankside and walk around the area where he worked.

(Yep, I’m rubbing it in). 

5/ There is a Shakespeare Museum opening in London next year. I am excited but worried. 

6/ If you’re heartbroken (or planning to be), I recommend London. Lots of attractions to see, things to do, places to visit.

Since moving to London, I have seen only two copies of the First Folio: the one at British Library and the one at the Globe. 

This year is the 400th anniversary of the First Folio so, you’ve guessed it, I’m gonna go hunt them:

Monday 2 October 2023

Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s characters’ ability to surprise

If asked to pick the greatest line in Shakespeare, I would go with “I was adored once too.” Virginia Woolf also thinks that when Sir Andrew says that line in Twelfth Night, “we feel that we hold him in the hollow of our hands; a novelist would have taken three volumes to bring us to that pitch of intimacy.”

Just five words completely change our perception of Sir Andrew. 

Also in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare does something brilliant with Malvolio: Malvolio first comes across as self-satisfied, holier-than-thou, and insufferable, so we laugh along when other characters play a prank on him, but then the prank goes too far and turns into something much darker and crueller, and as we see Malvolio abused and beaten and humiliated, we not only feel sorry for him but also feel complicit in the humiliation of the pitiful man.

It is excellent, and Jane Austen later does something similar with Miss Bates in Emma.

When people talk about Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature and powers of characterisation, they understandably talk about Iago and Othello, together with Hamlet, Macbeth, Rosalind…, but the most surprising character in Othello is Emilia. For a large part of the play, Emilia comes across as ordinary and earthy, contrasting with the saintliness and naïve childlikeness of Desdemona, but in the final scene, she is transfigured. Iago has seen through everything and manipulated everyone, but Emilia’s love and self-sacrifice and fearlessness is the one thing he has not anticipated. 

“EMILIA […] Thou hast not half that power to do me harm

As I have to be hurt…” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

The intensity! The rage! It is Emilia who defends Desdemona’s honour, who exposes Othello, who brings down Iago. It is a powerful scene—she is transfigured. 

But there’s nothing like the surprise of Cleopatra, the infinite variety of Cleopatra. A. C. Bradley thinks that in Shakespeare, there are four characters that are inexhaustible: Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago, and Cleopatra.

For a large part of Antony and Cleopatra, she is depicted as lascivious and tempestuous and dramatic and manipulative and shallow and an irresponsible ruler, and yet in the final Act, she is transformed. In the large part of the play, Antony and Cleopatra, both irresponsible rulers and in some ways very ordinary people, are both turned into quasi-mythological beings. It’s largely Cleopatra who mythologises Antony and herself. 

“CLEOPATRA Think you there was or might be such a man 

As this I dreamt of? 

DOLABELLA Gentle madam, no. 

CLEOPATRA You lie, up to the hearing of the gods, 

But if there be nor ever were one such, 

It’s past the size of dreaming; nature wants stuff 

To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t’ imagine

As Antony were nature’s piece ’gainst fancy, 

Condemning shadows quite.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

Her death is one of the most striking, unforgettable deaths in Shakespeare (and in literature in general). But unlike the death of Desdemona or Cordelia, it doesn’t feel tragic—instead, there’s a strange beauty and nobility in Cleopatra’s death. 

“CLEOPATRA Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have 

Immortal longings in me. Now no more 

The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip,

Yare, yare, good Iras; methinks I hear 

Antony call; I see him rouse himself

To praise my noble act. I hear him mock

The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men

To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come:

Now to that name my courage prove my title! 

I am fire, and air; my other elements

I give to baser life…” 


How does a pleasure-seeking, manipulative, and essentially shallow woman like Cleopatra transform into such a quasi-mythological being in the last Act of the play? How does Shakespeare do it? I don’t know—I’ve reread the play recently and still don’t know. It’s miraculous.