Major Work: Hamlet
Publication date: 1600
Format: Blank verse
Length (time to read): 3hrs 42mins
Influences: Ovid, Plutarch, Montaigne, Holinshed
Themes: History, War, Appearance & Reality, Jealousy, Magic & Superstition, Madness
Quotes (a few selections from his entire works): “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet) / “The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils” (Merchant of Venice) / “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It) / “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (Measure For Measure) / “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once” (Julius Caesar) / “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (Othello) / “Out, out brief candle, life is but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth)
Literary Echoes: Hamlet alone has influenced works by Henry Fielding, Goethe, Dickens, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Margaret Atwood, etc
Album accompaniment: Hamlet’s social isolation and borderline madness make me think of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon
Film accompaniment: Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight is currently my favourite Shakespeare film; Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is arguably the best (closely followed by Kenneth Branagh); Coriolanus is the modern Shakespeare film I’ve enjoyed most
Rating (out of 100): 99
One reason for covering Shakespeare so early in this blog’s life was my participation in a 10-week FutureLearn course called Shakespeare & His World. The course was run by Jonathan Bate and Warwick University, and relied heavily on artefacts from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to summon up the world in which the Bard was raised and later plied his trade. Bate has written a book called The Genius of Shakespeare that is currently on my bookshelf and marked “to be read”, and his scholarship and passion for the subject comes across very clearly in the course videos.
At the same time, I also did another FutureLearn course called Reading Literature In The Digital Age, which explored the variety of methods that academics use to analyse literary texts. One such method is distant reading, a technique created by an Italian scholar called Franco Moretti, and while I was exploring his work at Stanford University’s Literary Lab, I came across a study of the character networks in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. See the data visualisation below:
Unsurprisingly, it shows (via lines that denote interactions in the play between characters) how central Hamlet is to the drama, while also underlining the importance of Claudius and Horatio. When the focus is then switched on to communities of characters in the play (as explored in this blog), then it becomes clear how isolated Hamlet actually is compared to the members of the court led by Claudius, and the representatives of the Danish state led by Horatio. Like the author of this NYT article, Kathryn Schulz, I’m unconvinced that new literary analysis methods like distant reading could ever replace traditional criticism and analysis, but I do see how this new emerging “science” of digital humanities can complement and enhance our understanding of literature.
Below are some of the observations that I made during the Shakespeare course:
• Shakespeare was born in Latin (see parish registry entry) and died in English, in other words English became the language of officialdom during his lifetime, and he himself helped to promote the use of vernacular English via his imaginative wordplay
• His father’s rise (from yeoman farmer to gentleman) & fall (usury and loss of office) were a big motivator for success to the teenage Shakespeare. His plays are often about movement up and down the social scale, and power structures
• His son Hamnet died aged 11, bringing about a change in the outlook of his later plays (for example, the very bleak atmosphere of Hamlet)
• Shakespeare lived during the reign of both the Queen of England and the King of Britain. There are echoes of Queen Elizabeth in Cleopatra and echoes of King James in Augustus Caesar; also, the latter two both held newly invented titles (King of Britain, Emperor), were keen patrons of the arts (Shakespeare, Ovid) and took over from women (Elizabeth in Britain, Cleopatra in Egypt)
• Shakespeare didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, and had a strong Warwickshire accent (see the gravediggers for his portrayal of how working class people spoke). Shakespeare was mocked in London by university-educated playwrights as an “upstart crow”, with his Midlands accent and his apparent chip on his shoulder
• Authorship conspiracy theorists like to emphasise that it was unlikely someone like Shakespeare could have known the workings of court so well, however his Royal commissions would have given him many insights. A better question would be how could an aristocratic writer (i.e. not Shakespeare) write so well about the common people?
• The course made me appreciate Shakespeare’s progressive portrayal of women. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, he shows respect for women who can control men and their lust, and sends up a lot of the feckless menfolk brilliantly (i.e. comic indignation of Falstaff)
• Female relationships in Shakespeare are often very complex, for example Rosalind and Celia have an idealistic “ready to die for each other” friendship in As You Like It, while Emilia is a dedicated and faithful servant to Desdemona in Othello (they are close to each other, but not equal in their friendship). The strangest relationship is between the three sisters in King Lear, with Goneril and Regan favouring a pragmatic partnership that’s combined with rivalry, while Cordelia is not their friend at all, and spiritually very different to both of them
• In terms of literary influence, for classical history, and specifically Antony & Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare turned to Plutarch’s Lives. As well as Ovid and Holinshed, Michel de Montaigne was another key influence; from 1604/5 onwards, this is felt in plays such as King Lear and The Tempest (and evidence Shakespeare kept reading in late life)
• Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are two rare plays that Shakespeare invented from scratch; the rest are adaptations, dramatisations and intensified versions of history (often based on Holinshed’s Chronicles)
• One of the intensified versions of history is Macbeth, which has one of the most striking openings of any Shakespeare play, creating the tone of the drama from the outset. He was writing at a transitional time, between the new age of reason and an old tradition of superstitions, especially in the countryside. Macbeth’s pact with the supernatural (witches) is reminiscent of Dr Faustus and his deal with the devil
• King James was interested in witchcraft and medicine, and Shakespeare showed an increasing interest in medicine in his later plays after the marriage of his daughter to a doctor. In Macbeth, the “insane root” is likely black henbane
• In Macbeth and other later tragedies, the death of undeserving female characters – Lady Macduff, Desdemona, Cordelia and Ophelia – left audiences very troubled
• Jealousy is a key theme in several plays – Othello, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale – while appearance & reality is another key Shakespeare theme, notably in Richard III (lots of mirror / glass imagery) and Othello
• One interesting aspect of Othello is that he was a Moor who converted to Christianity, rare given it was more likely for Christians to “turn Turk” at that time, while a key reason that Elizabethans were fascinated by the city state of Venice was that it was a republic free from the influence of the Catholic church, with its own political and trading system. Often, Venice acts as a double for Shakespeare’s London
• Sometimes the location of a Shakespeare play is unclear; for example, is the setting of The Tempest an island in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, or neither? The Caribbean would tie in with the play’s “brave new world” theme (Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe when Shakespeare was just in his teens, so clearly an inspiration)
• Montaigne’s essay on cannibalism, and the concept of what’s savage to one culture is acceptable to another, is influential on The Tempest. The play is about art (music is often important in Shakespeare plays), and about theatre, and Prospero’s farewell sounds almost like Shakespeare was saying his own farewell to the world
My own data visualisation to end proceedings…
Given Shakespeare is worthy of more time than most authors, I went to the effort of putting together a spreadsheet of all of his plays, including tabs such as year written, genre, setting and number of words. See the visualisation of this data below.
One extra note: There was something uncanny about the realisation that Shakespeare wrote or co-wrote 38 plays, almost the exact same number of studio albums released by Bob Dylan (37). That two masters of their art were almost identical in terms of their prolific output seems like more than a coincidence to me.