recurring motifs

Shakespeare’s Recurring Motifs #

David Williamson notes that Shakespeare was regarded as a popular entertainer and his scripts not even worthy of keeping for future generations. When he retreated back to Stratford in his early 50s he was sure his writing career had achieved little and strove to remake himself as a provincial property owner. Luckily some of his fellow actors, years after his death, wrote down his complete plays as an act of homage to a man they venerated. When Shakespeare died in 1616, there was not as much public acknowledgemnet as when Richard Burbage died five years later.

Ben Jonson anticipated Shakespeare’s dazzling future when he declared in the preface to the First Folio - 1621:

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Jonson’s final tribute to Shakespeare:

in spite of acknowledging a belief that his great contemporary was, on occasion, “full of wind”—sufflaminandus erat—he declared that “I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any.”

Many consider Shakespeare is the most popular dramatist and poet the world has ever produced, his plays, considered the best in the world of all time. His first plays tend to be didactic, however as he develops his skill they become more complex and elusive. The best, after 1595, appear more serious. They are:

• More subtle in plot
• Deeper in thought
• Magnificent in language
• Voice against life in more bitter reproaches

They becomes more balanced, providing two sided options in issues, allowing individuals to form their own views.

Power is an elusive term. Soft power of influence and authority can be more effective than hard power at times. The power of persuasion, the power of love, the power of truth can be profound. That the pen is mightier than the sword accepts the concept, ideas can prevail.

Good usually triumphs over evil, but at what cost? For us to win WWII and defeat fascism, cost more than 60 million lives.

We hope to examine what Shakespeare’s values were and how defensible they are. His stance concerning the role of theatre is neither explicit nor always consistent. What is amazing is the appropriateness of his language to the situations and speakers. His plays are rich in meaning; any drama that is merely political – and nothing else – is shallow drama.

Shakespeare prizes order, and his plays often dramatically portray the disruption of order followed by action to restore order – not necessarily Justice.

We also need to explore Shakespeare’s role in cultivating “a unique brand of English white superiority.” Close readings show how his many beliefs about power and race reside in the language of the plays.

“Romeo and Juliet” is suffused with metaphors that “elevate whiteness above blackness,” whereas “The Tempest” complicates attempts to describe characters with fixed labels by blurring the boundaries between “beauty and monstrosity” and “civility and barbarity.”

The Merchant of Venice, and Othello illustrate competing attitudes to discrimination and bigotry.

Ultimately, as contemporary productions featuring imaginative and diverse casting show, “we all have the right to claim the Bard.”

Shakespeare acquired a reputation of a ladies man. Legend tells us that a woman fell in love with Richard Burbage when she saw him play Richard III and begged him to come to her chambers that night under the name of King Richard. But Shakespeare overheard the proposition and, as a joke, left the theatre early to take Burbage’s place. Shakespeare was “at his game” ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III" (Rowse, 130).

Language #

The most difficult interpretive skill is to discern whether a situation is being satirised or endorsed. Dectecting irony is also problematic.

Shakespeare’s language, the richest in all literary history, ranges from child like magic, to the august authoritative language of the powerful.

He displays a versatility of modality, flexibility in projecting (ventriloquize) his voice into a variety of speakers – the dialects of the lower classes to the elevated diction of the rulers.

There is a wonderful little scene in Henry IV, Part One that is nearly always cut in performance. This is partly because it is dispensable in terms of the action (and in today’s theatre directors are always looking for cuts) but also because it is written in such verbatim colloquial street slang that it is almost incomprehensible to a modern audience. It’s a scene between two carriers transporting goods. They whinge about the price of oats and the fact the pub won’t give them a chamber-pot so they have to “leak in the chimney” … I’d bet my boots that Shakespeare was lying awake in bed, heard these two guys yakking outside his window and just jotted it down. It’s an irresistible piece of verbatim theatre. John Bell ABC Boyer Lectures

A man in all the world’s new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain.
Love’s Labor Lost

In The Tempest, Caliban learns the language and uses it to curse the invaders.

Hamlet also ridicules Osric’s pompous language:


Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him


The concernancy, sir? why do we wrap the gentleman
in our more rawer breath?


Caesar shall forth:

Shakespeare often omits the verb “go”

More @:

Deception #


The values of the witches, like most of the characters have become inverted so that good is considered evil and evil – good. Don’t trust appearances.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air. Exeunt.


What bloody man Is that? He can report-, As seemeth by his plight

All appearances can be deceptive.


No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive
Our bosom interest

Indicates Duncan’s credulity


So foul and fair a day I have not seen

These first words of Macbeth echo the witch’s philosophy and portend a major thread running throughout the play that nothing is what it seems.


Why do you start, and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?


And often times, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles to betray’s
In deepest consequence

Perhaps the most honest and telling cautionary tale of false hope – of getting sucked in.


There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

Again Duncan entertains a false sense of pride in his judgement of character. He is obviously too trusting – a gull or dupe.

Lady Macbeth

Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
Lady Macbeth merely reinforces Macbeth’s intentions.


Stars, hide your fires:
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand: yet let That be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
Macbeth calls on the dark forces of the universe to disguise his true self.


Goes the King hence today?


He does: he did appoint so.

Macbeth quickly corrects himself – he knows Duncan is not going anywhere but he is not about to let Lennox know that.


Help me hence, ho!

As Macbeth rambles on justifying his killing of the guards, he is in danger of inadvertently letting incriminating evidence slip, so Lady Macbeth distracts everyone by feigning a swoon.


Let’s not consort with them.
To show an unfelt sorrow Is an office Which the false man does easy.
Where we are there’s daggers
In men’s smiles; the near in blood,
The nearer bloody.

Macbeth on the witch’s assurances.


That which you are my thoughts cannot transpose.
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.

Perhaps the most profound observation in the play; just because evil looks good, doesn’t mean that good can’t also give the appearance of good.


Infected be the air whereon they ride;
And damn’d all those that trust them!


And be these juggling fiends no more believed
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.

Good Governance #

George Lakoff calls the essential ‘conceptual metaphors’ of American political life, government as ‘strict father’ or ’nurturant parent.

In his later plays, from 1598, Shakespeare appears to have developed a more questioning or cynical attitude to the state of the world.

Lear expresses deep dark despair:

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools

Gloucester in despair resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:

We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.


There’s never a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he’s an arrant knave.


There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.

ROSENCRANTZ answering Hamlet’s question on what’s new?

None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.

Populist Expression #

Good leaders are in touch with the people, showing magnanimity for the commons and a devotion to the public good.

In Julius Caesar both Antony and Caesar are well regarded. In Antony and Cleopatra, young Pompey courts the public. In Richard II, Bolingbroke is observed:

courting the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;

Hal’s, misspent youth with commoners helps his kingship, as Henry V, is marked with his relating to all kinds of commoners.

Shakespeare has Coriolanus say:

Th’ honored gods
Keep Rome in safety and the chairs of justice
Supplied with worthy men! Plant love among ’s!
⌜Throng⌝ our large temples with the shows of peace
And not our streets with war!

In Hamlet, Claudius cannot act against Hamlet because:

He’s loved of the distracted multitude,

The Merry Wives of Windsor


It is not meet the Council hear a riot.
There is no fear of God in a riot.
The Council, look you, shall desire to hear the fear of God,
and not to hear a riot.
Take your visaments in that.


Ha! O’ my life, if I were young again,
the sword should end it.


Claudius tell Laertes he can’t act against Hamlet because the distracted multitudes.


He’s loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes;
And where tis so, the offender’s scourge is weigh’d,
But never the offence.

And later:

Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timber’d for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aim’d them.


Despises the people as fickle sycophantic brainless spawn of carelessness.

Julius Caesar

A populist leader revered by the fickle crowds, easily swayed by the speeches of Brutus and Antony.

Antony and Cleopatra

ANTONY on why he needs to go back to Rome:

our slippery people,
Whose love is never link’d to the deserver
Till his deserts are past, begin to throw
Pompey the Great and all his dignities
Upon his son; who, high in name and power,

Measure for Measure

……………………..I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes.
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and aves vehement,
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.
I.1.73 -78


Masters of the people, Your multiplying spawn how can he flatter– Coriolanus

Providence #

– divine retribution – man’s place in the cosmos.

Is the universe:

  • rational, moral and deterministic or
  • random, indifferent and radically open?

Fintan O" Toole claims Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello and Lear are distinguished in these dramas by the illusion that they can determine events by their own actions. They have, they believe, the power to say what will happen next. But no amount of power can ever be great enough in an irrational world. The universe does not follow orders.

King Lear: #

KING LEAR swears by the universe when he curses:

Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;

Later he demands of nature to seek his revenge:

*Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
.. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

Gloucester believes in portents, the stars:

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us” I.2.103

But in despair he resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” IV.1.35.

Edmund disagrees: We are free agents, self-sufficient – responsible for our destiny.

“This is excellent foppery of the world,
that when we are sick in fortune,…..
we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon
and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion….”

Kent in protesting the disinheritance of Cordelia tells Lear:

thou dost evil.

Albany is one of those who ponders the cause of evil, the root of unnatural conduct:

“Now the gods that we adore, whereof comes this?” (Lear’s anger) I.4.287.

Edgar makes some of the most profound observations:

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plaque us.”
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. V.3.170

And Edmund replies:

“Tis true. The wheel has come full circle” V.3 174.

EDGAR’s advice to his father after his thwarts his suicide attempt:

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all: come on.

GLOUCESTER acquieses:

I do remember now: henceforth I’ll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough,’ and die.

Albany, beginning to comprehend what is happening concludes:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself IV. 2. 46 – 50.

This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge!“ IV. 3. 78 – 80.

Kent: It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions. IV. 3.32.

ALBANY , after he hears that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then killed herself:

Produce their bodies, be they alive or dead:
This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pity.

(the final word) Albany (Quarto) / Edgar (Folio) :

“All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.. V.3 . 276

Hamlet: #

Hamlet assumes a rational moral order in the universe where Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution or poetic justice. Hamlet searches for the ultimate meaning of life in what is basically an irrational world through most of his soliloquies which dwell on his existential quest to understand life. The universal question revolves around whether the universe makes sense or not.

However when Hamlet tells his mother, Hoist with his own petard, this concerns landmines for an engineer to be blown by his own bomb. It becomes a matter of poetic justice - to get your just deserts.


I am justly killed with my own treachery.

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter telling the English to execute Hamlet is turned against themselves.
  • Leartes and Claudius both die from the same same sword they envenomed .
  • Gertrude dies from the poisoned wine the King intended for Hamlet.

When the King dies, Leartes says:

He is justly served.

Existentialists assume a universe governed by chance; an indifferent and purposeless universe where free will reigns and anything can happen.

There is conflicting or ambiguous references to Christian determinism and pagan fatalism. Fortuna is frequently mentioned.

Quotes on Destiny:

At first Hamlet questions his free choice:

“Our wills and fates do so contrary run,
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own
(III 2 210)

Later he accepts his fate:

“and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will”
(V 2 9 )

From Montaigne?


Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all:
(V 2 216 - 220)

Macbeth: #

MACDUFF assumes a duel is the determinate of God’s Judgement:

O, I could play the woman with mine eyes
And braggart with my tongue! ….
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword’s length set him; if he ‘scape,
Heaven forgive him too!

MACBETH’s last words:

I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet, …
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’

He is not damn’d because he faces death with courage.

MACDUFF questions why heaven did not intervene in the murder of Lady Macduff and their children:

Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part?

Is there a moral order in the universe? Shakespeare already raised the existential question.

Death: #

Many people meet their death in Shakespeare, some nobly - many ignobly. Highest body count – Lear – 10, Hamlet – 9, Macbeth – 8.

How characters meet their death is telling -

Cawdor in Macbeth nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it;….To throw away the dearest thing he owed,/As ’twere a careless trifle.

Macbeth dies with “harness on his back.” Julius Caesar is assassinated in the rotunda of The Capitol. Richard II starves to death in Pomfert Castle. Richard III on Bosworth field. Lear of a broken heart, Hamlet, poisoned by Claudius in a duel, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Brutus by their own hands.

Reactions to death vary. Most are platitudinous, like Coriolanus, Brutus

Lady Macbeth’s is followed by a brilliant long but detached, generalised and impersonal contemplation on the futility of life:

Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
a poor player that struts and frets his hours upon stage
and then is heard no more .

It is a tale told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Contrast that with an earlier scene when Macduff hears about his wife and children’s death:

When told to take it like a man, he replies: “First I must feel it like a man.

Old SIWARD on hearing his son died courageously fighting tyranny:

He’s worth no more
They say he parted well, and paid his score:

Suicide #

Because Roman culture was fundamentally militaristic, dying bravely in battle was glorified. Before Christian theologians preached suicide as a sin, taking one’s own life for the preservation of honour (and the retention of property) could also be a noble way to go. The most famous ancient example of suicide was Socrates. Shakespeare illustrates it with Brutus and Cassius and many others.

In Julius Caesar Cassius considers it twice at first and then he and Brutus go through with it.

Antony and Cleopatra in similar fashion to Romeo and Juliet all commit suicide.

Hamlet considers it.

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

To be or not to be

As thou’rt a man,

Hamlet considers suicide; Ophelia commits it, but cannot be buried in hallowed grounds.

Horatio intends it with:

I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:
Here’s yet some liquor left.

HAMLET attempts to dissuade him with:

Give me the cup: let go; ……by heaven, I’ll have’t.
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.*

Macbeth considers it, but then defies it.

Why should I play the Roman fool, and die
On mine own sword?
V. 7. 1,2

Others to commit suicide are, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra

Good and Evil: #

Most plays reveal the good and the bad, and sometimes the antagonists win. Shakespeare appears lenient to the errors of the flesh.

Machiavelli appears to influence Shakespeare’s thinking with a relativity of morals.


Well you deserve. They well deserve to have
That know the strong’st and surest way to get.
III. 2.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Hamlet Act II, Scene 2

So our virtues Lie in the interpretation of the time:
And power, unto itself most commendable.
Coriolanus but Commodius claims

valour as the greatest virtue.

MALCOLM in Macbeth itemises the qualities of a good king:

But I have none: the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

LADY MACDUFF ponders the preference of good over evil. It has a Machiavellian ring to it.

Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly

Lear also questions the cause of evil:

During a mock trial of his daughters, Lear pretends to be the prosecutor:

Let us anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart.
Is there a cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

Hannah Arendt contemplates the seedbeds of evil with her signiture phrase, The banality of evil.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was so morally vacant in his eager adherence – indeed narcissistic devotion – to regulatory order that he was an almost comic figure.

For her he was neither symbol nor symptom nor scapegoat. Yet he also represented and embodied something more terrifying through his vacuous compliance.

Her phrase for this vacuity, the “banality of evil”, did not trivialise the evil to which he contributed.

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare writes:

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.

Strong evidence that he has read Machiavelli.


Gloucester, ’tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be.
Good morrow, brother Bedford. God Almighty!
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out.
For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry:
Besides, they are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all, admonishing
That we should dress us fairly for our end.
Thus may we gather honey from the weed,
And make a moral of the devil himself.

Shakespeare and War #

Wars play a prominent part in many of Shakespeare’s plays and we might mistakenly assume that he glorifies it, however as Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia writes:

In 26 of his 38 plays, Shakespeare includes a war in either foreground or background. In all these, anti-war invectives abound in epigrammatic phrases:

More @:

As a species, mankind has been at war for most of the rise of the polis - the city state. War has always been destructive. Space Odyssey (1971) dramatises primitive man discovering that a human bone can be used as a weapon to strike at another human being to force them to submit to your will. Since then most of our energy has been used to improve our ability to produce better weapons to destroy others.

Shakespeare’s attitude to war is ambivalent at best, but there is evidence he distinguishes between defensive wars and aggressive ones.

John Bell notes:

Once reconciled to his eldest son and convinced of his readiness to assume his regal responsibilities, the dying Henry IV advises Hal to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” - that is, declare war on France. That way he’ll shut up the rebels, unite the country behind him and secure the legitimacy of his title.

Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia cites examples:

“O, war thou son of hell” (Henry VI, part 2); “the hideous god of war”; “war and lechery confound all” (Troilus and Cressida); “dogged war bristle[s] his angry crest / And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace” (King John).

Soldiers are regarded by civilians as cruelly taking:

“our goodly agèd men by th’beards”

and indulging unbridled sexual violence in:

“Giving our holy virgins to the stain /Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (Timon of Athens).

For students and politicians used to reciting Henry V’s stirring “Once more unto the breach …” and “St Crispin’s Day” speeches before and after the battle of Agincourt, it is often assumed Shakespeare must support war and heroic values, epitomised in an “ideal king”.

However, the respective dramatic contexts undercut the King’s rhetoric. There are also strong arguments in the play that his invasion of France is illegal and unjustifiable, and he is guilty of war crimes, such as conscripting children, killing prisoners of war, and threatening a town with genocide. Soldiers are “bloody-hunting slaughtermen”.

In “impious” war, bloody corpses are seen “larding the plain”. Shakespeare’s final conclusion is that Henry V , “lost France and made England bleed”. It was a failed imperialist attempt.

Meanwhile, in other plays, some sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters condemn the tragic futility and violence of war. Hamlet meditates over a piece of worthless, depopulated scorched earth “wasteland”, over which “the imminent deaths twenty thousand men’ … [will] go to their graves like beds”, fighting “even for an eggshell” “which is not tomb enough and continent /To hide the slain”.

The saintly, pacifist King Henry VI quotes Christ’s words while brooding on the high moral ground of a hill overlooking battle in “civil butchery”, intra-family, mafia-like vendettas pitting families against each other and resulting in mutual slaughter of fathers and sons. In revenge plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, the cessation of one conflict is simply the prelude to the next in a succession ending only with the deaths of all antagonists, like today’s nightmare specter of a sequence of retaliatory nuclear strikes.

In Julius Caesar, “Havoc.” in battles of ancient times this cry was the signal that no quarter was to be given to prisoners.

Antony uses the language of hunting. (See lines 205-211)“let slip the dogs of war.” To “let slip” a dog was to release it from the leash when it was time to begin the pursuit. It has been suggested that “the dogs of war” are fire, sword, and famine, for in “Henry V” the poet says of the warlike king,

and, at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should Famine, Sword, and Fire
Crouch for employment.

After Henry V’s “once more into the breach” speech, his soldiers counter with:


The plain-song is most just: for humours do abound:
Knocks go and come; God’s vassals drop and die;
And sword and shield,
In bloody field,
Doth win immortal fame.


Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give
all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.

Later King Henry V claims dying in war is the highest honour:

methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

To which WILLIAMS replies:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
IV. 1

The key word above is the subjunctive “if”. There are times when characters dying for a good cause is venerated.

In Macbeth Old Siward, informed that young Siward has been killed by Macbeth, inquires where he received his wounds.

ROSS explains to Siward that his young son was killed by Macbeth:

Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt:
He only lived but till he was a man; …. But like a man he died.


He’s worth more sorrow,
And that I’ll spend for him.


He’s worth no more
They say he parted well, and paid his score:

He died honourably for a good cause.

An outspoken anti-war work Troilus and Cressida is widely acknowledged as among the most outspoken anti-war works of all time. It chronicles a squalid war waged over the forced abduction of a woman, who is regarded as little more than a symbolic trophy.

The prophetess Cassandra, speaking as much for future generations as her own, condemns the Trojan war, calling upon:

“Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled old,
Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry”,
to weep in protest at the “mass of moan to come”.

The fate of the “heroic” Hector in the play is ignominiously humiliating:

He’s dead; and at the murderer’s horse’s tail,
In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field
… Hector is dead, There is no more to say.

So much for heroism.



The news is, sir, the Volsces are in arms.


I am glad on ’t. Then we shall ha’ means to vent
Our musty superfluity.
248 - 250

Martius seizes this opportunity to galvanise the citizens together, gain glory for himself and advance his career.

Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most single-minded, professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “Chief enemy to the people”, he is a sociopath and prey to violent outbursts of anger. More machine than man, his role resembles the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling weapons indiscriminately to either side of conflicts.

Having turned against Rome and then against his new associates in arms, Coriolanus is finally hacked to death unceremoniously by Volscians baying:

“kill, kill, kill…”

He is remembered as one who,


My rage is gone,
And I am struck with sorrow.—Take him up.
Help, three o’ th’ chiefest soldiers; I’ll be one.—
Beat thou the drum that it speak mournfully.—
Trail your steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widowed and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.

Clothing Imagery #

The plays contain innumerable allusions to the extremity of fashion.

“O, many have broke their backs with laying houses on ’em.” (Henry VIII)

And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ, and seem a saint, when I most play the devil. Richard III.

Accoutred as I was, Cassius, jumping into a river to save Julius Caesar.

Antony and Cleopatra: #

DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS on hearing of Fulvia’s death:

Why, sir, give the gods a thankful sacrifice. When
it pleaseth their deities to take the wife of a man
from him, it shows to man the tailors of the earth;
comforting therein, that when old robes are worn
out, there are members to make new. If there were
no more women but Fulvia, then had you indeed a cut,
and the case to be lamented: this grief is crowned
with consolation; your old smock brings forth a new
petticoat: and indeed the tears live in an onion
that should water this sorrow.

Clothing imagery in Macbeth: #

We wear clothing for a variety of reasons; for warmth and protection, modesty, occasion and distinction. The more regalia worn, the higher the rank, however cloaks and vestments may also be used to cover up a multitude of sins. Power dressing has always existed, so women wear solid colors, high heels and shoulder pads. Men wear suits, collars and solid ties. Today’s trend is toward more casual wear. The minimalistdress is often referred to as a fig-leaf.

Mark Twain was a great humorist. His words were laced with humour, wit, and sarcasm. In this quote, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” he wishes to impress upon us the importance of dressing well. To make his point, he compares well dressed people to stark naked ones, who probably don’t have an opinion of fashion and style. The original quote was made by Shakespeare in his play, Hamlet. He wrote, “Clothes maketh the man.” Twain added his own twist to Shakespeare’s words.

Fashion is the most universal form of self-expression, whether it’s a sign of tragic self-effacement or delightful defiance that so many women use clothes to make a statement about themselves. Our relationship with clothes changes as our relationship with ourselves shifts so at all times our dress sense should reflect our real selves.. Sometimes we like to dress up; at other times we dress down.

The number of references to clothing in Macbeth signifies Shakespeare’s interest in its importance as a metaphor for power and position.

“lapt in proof(I.ii.54) armour that proved effective. (protection)

“Why do you dress me In borrowed robes?”

Macbeth is uncomfortable with this new title, because the witches have just predicted it but he knows the former Thane of Cawdor still lives. Ironically he too betrays King Duncan.

“New honours come upon him like strange garments, cleave not their mould but with the aid of use.” (distinction)

Just like new clothing often need to be worn in, new positions take a while to adjust to and become comfortable with.

“I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people Which should be worn now in their newest gloss.” (distinction)

New clothing, like reputations have to be taken care of so they don’t get soiled.

“And when we have our naked frailties hid That suffer in exposure”. (modesty and protection)

Raw, naked emotions need time to recuperate.

“Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.” (distinction)

Malcolm and Donaldbain realise they are vulnerable under a new King.

“who wear our health but sickly in this life”. (protection)

Another reference to the fragility and serendipity of life.

“Now does he find his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe Upon a dwarf” (V.ii.20) (distinction)

Macbeth’s authority has been eroded and Shakespeare uses the clothing metaphor to illustrate his diminished stature.

Fashion is the most universal form of self-expression, whether it’s a sign of tragic self-effacement or delightful defiance that so many women use clothes to make a statement about themselves. Our relationship with clothes changes as our relationship with ourselves shifts so at all times our dress sense should reflect our real selves.. Sometimes we like to dress up; at other times we dress down.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays revolve around characters adopting disguises. Rosalind in As You Like It, adopts a new name and male disguise. Cross dressed as a man, she commands more respect than as a woman. Viola in Twelfth Night dresses in the same clothes as her missing twin brother, which of course generates a lot of comedy out of mistaken identity.

In The Merchant of Venice, three women assume male disguises: Jessica, the daughter of Shylock, who disguises herself as a boy in order to escape her father’s house and elope with Christian Lorenzo; Nerissa, who dresses as a legal clerk in order to attend her mistress Portia in the garb of a male barrister.

In Measure for Measure, Act 1, scene 3 The duke obtains the clothing of a friar in order to disguise himself and secretly observe the conduct of Angelo and the people of Vienna.

King Lear makes the following observation:

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; robes and furr’d gowns hide all.

Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw doth pierce it……

The Taming of the Shrew

Medieval dress codes delineated status. In order to reverse their roles, Lucentio and Tranio merely swap their overcoats.

Petruchio arrives for his wedding with:


Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless; with two broken points:


O, sir, his lackey, for all the world caparisoned like the horse; with a linen stock on one leg and a kersey boot-hose on the other, gartered with a red and blue list; an old hat and ’the humour of forty fancies’ pricked in’t for a feather: a monster, a very monster in apparel, and not like a Christian footboy or a gentleman’s lackey.


‘Tis some odd humour pricks him to this fashion;
Yet oftentimes he goes but mean-apparell’d.


I am glad he’s come, howsoe’er he comes.


Why, sir, you know this is your wedding-day:
First were we sad, fearing you would not come;
Now sadder, that you come so unprovided.
Fie, doff this habit, shame to your estate,
An eye-sore to our solemn festival!


But where is Kate? I stay too long from her:
The morning wears, ’tis time we were at church.


See not your bride in these unreverent robes:
Go to my chamber; Put on clothes of mine.


Not I, believe me: thus I’ll visit her.


But thus, I trust, you will not marry her.


Good sooth, even thus; therefore ha’ done with words:
To me she’s married, not unto my clothes:
Could I repair what she will wear in me,
As I can change these poor accoutrements,

The servants however are expected to be well dressed:


serving-men in their new fustian, their white
stockings, and every officer his wedding-garment on?
Be the jacks fair within, the jills fair without,

PETRUCHIO promises Kate new clothes:

Will we return unto thy father’s house
And revel it as bravely as the best,
With silken coats and caps and golden rings,
With ruffs and cuffs and fardingales and things;
With scarfs and fans and double change of bravery,
With amber bracelets, beads and all this knavery.
What, hast thou dined? The tailor stays thy leisure,
To deck thy body with his ruffling treasure.

Petruchio orders expensive drapers to prepare Katharina’s outfit for Bianca’s wedding, but then rips them up forcing her to wear her everyday clothes.

Well, come, my Kate; we will unto your father’s
Even in these honest mean habiliments:
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor;
For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.

Henry VI Part 2 #

KING HENRY VI assures us that a clear conscience is all we need to win our battles. Shakespeare frequently shows us the opposite.

What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just,
And he but naked, though lock’d up in steel
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.

(King John, 3.1.189), Constance to Cardinal Pandulph

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats;
a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave;
a lily-livered, action-taking knave.

Men wore hats of all sizes, shapes, and colours. The most popular material was velvet. All sorts of feathers were used by men to decorate their hats; black feathers eighteen inches or two feet in length were in great demand. A common decoration was a twisted girdle next the brim, called a cable hat-band. Some hats, however, were perfectly plain, of soft felt. Others wore velvet caps with a jewelled clasp. Occasionally small mirrors were worn in the hat for novelty. The place for the hat was frequently upon the head; but quite as often the hat was worn dangling down the back at the end of a brightly-coloured ribbon. It was worn in either place, either within or without doors.

The hair was usually cut short, with, however, a love lock left long behind one or both of the ears. It was adorned with pretty bows of ribbon. Men painted the face quite as frequently and as carefully as the women. The moustache was sometimes left very long. Hair, moustache, and beard were coloured as fancy prompted.

The following from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to be understood quite literally:

“Either your straw-coloured beard, your orange tawny beard, your purple ingrain beard, or your French crown coloured beard, your perfect yellow.” “Forsooth, they say the king has mew’d [moulted] all his gray beard, instead of which is budded another of a pure carnation colour, speckled with green and russet” (Ford’s The Broken Heart, ii. 1.)

Harrison writes:

“Neither will I meddle with our variety of beards, of which some are shaven from the chin like those of the Turks, not a few cut short like the beard of the Marquise Otto, some made round like a rubbing brush. . . . Therefore if a man have a lean, straight face, a Marquis Otto’s cut will make it broad and large; if it be platter like, a long slender beard will make it seem narrower. . . . Some lusty courtiers also, and gentlemen of courage do wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearl, in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God not to be a little amended.”

Harrison does not mention the fact that gallants usually wore the love lock as an especial support for ladies’ favours.

Body Imagery #

We talk of the body of politics as head of department, arms of government, foot soldiers…. Shakespeare frequently adopts this analogy. Body Parts become an analogy to explain how the body corporate is meant to serve the greater community. A metaphor from Livy - the body politics.

In Julius Caesar, Brutus tells us that Antony is but a limb of Caesar (II.1.160) and later:

For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm
When Caesar’s head is off.
I.1. 182 - 3

In Coriolinus the SECOND CITIZEN

They say poor suitors have strong breaths;
they shall know we have strong arms too.

Later Menenius uses the analogy of the body to explain the political structure:


There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ th’ midst o’ th’ body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing (item of food)
Like labor with the rest, where th’ other instruments


The kingly crownèd head, the vigilant eye, The counselor heart, the arm our soldier, Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter,


Your most grave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answered:
“True is it, my incorporate friends,” quoth he,
“That I receive the general food at first
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body. But, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood
Even to the court, the heart, to th’ seat o’ th’ brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live.
I.1. 90 - 147

Money #

Merry Wives of Windsor


for they say, if money
go before, all ways do lie open.


Money is a good soldier, sir, and will on.

Romeo and Juliet

When Romeo has to pay extra to buy poison he claims:

Gold is more poisonous to men’s souls. (then poison)

Timon of Athens

Timon gives gold to prostitutes to infect as many men with venereal disease as possible:

……………………………..Consumptions sow
In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,
And mar men’s spurring. Crack the lawyer’s voice,
That he may never more false title plead
Nor sound his quillets shrilly. Hoar the flamen (priests),
That ⌜scolds⌝ against the quality of flesh
And not believes himself. Down with the nose—
Down with it flat, take the bridge quite away—
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal.
Make curled-pate ruffians bald,
And let the unscarred braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you. Plague all,
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection.

Garden as metaphor for good governance #

Shakespeare’s compares the management of statecraft to a gardener, weeding out the ordinary and the adventitious, encouraging variegated blooms and hardy perennials both.


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

Nature - Weeds (7 times) Flowers #


: ’tis an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature.


I find thee apt; And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, (memory) Wouldst thou not stir in this.


Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected, With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,


And do not spread the compost on the weeds,


Scotland is seen as being a garden and Macbeth is seen as a weed.

“I have begun to plant thee, and will labour
To make thee flail of growing
Act 1 Scene 4

King Duncan to Macbeth and Banquo

Lady Macbeth

“look like th’ innocent flower,
but be the serpent underneath”
Act 1 Scene 5 .

“Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.”
Act 5 Scene 2

A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride
Henry IV Pt 1

To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
An plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke?
Henry IV Pt 1

In The Tempest, Prospero is like a gardener, tending his garden, continually trying to combat the weeds that keep springing up to disrupt the garden’s order.

Families as trees


Edward, my lord, your son, our king, is dead. Why grow the branches now the root is wither’d? Why wither not the leaves the sap being gone?

Albany, in King Lear, talks about husbandry, in terms of a family being a family tree:

“She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use.
IV. 2.. 34 – 36

Historical Accuracy #

How should historians respond to creative works about history? Do historians have a public responsibility to apply their specialist knowledge to contest spurious claims about the past? Or should they simply respect creative licence, and let audiences have their fun?

Historical accuracy matters. But more important for historians should be whether creative works pass the test of authenticity: whether a creative work “rings true” to the historical context as a whole.

Shakespeare was well educated and researched his plays assiduously but the greatest writer in the history of the world was sometimes casual and careless with the facts. His plays have some of errors of fact, careless anachronisms, and little knowledge of geography. He has a clerk in Caesar’s Rome, a billiard table in Cleopatra’s Egypt, no Magna Carta in King John, no Reformation in Henry VIII and casts Joan of Arc as a wanton witch.

He has Hector, a 11th -century fighter, quote Aristotle – a 3rd century philosopher. Coriolanus of the 5th century quotes Cato from the 1st . He has never left England, speaks no French, little Italian yet sets many of his plays in exotic locations he is blissfully ignorant of, giving Bohemia a coastline, and send Valentino from Verona to Milan by sea and has Prospero sail out of Milan. Who cares?

While most of his histories are plagiarized verbatim from reliable source;, Roman history from Plutarch, English history from Holinshed, he is careless with detail and sometime outrageously biased as in Richard III. He demonstrates agency by cherry-picking what he needs and discarding others to suit his purpose.

Most plays share topics and compete with each other for the best version. Romeo and Juliet has many versions, but Shakespeare’s stands head and shoulders above the rest. Several playwrights come up with revenge tales like Hamlet, such as Christopher Marlowe (died 1593) or Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1592). Shakespeare’s Hamlet leads the field.

Order: #


But I have none: the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them,

Honest: occurs 16 times in Hamlet


Then I would you were so honest a man.


Honest, my lord!


Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.


What’s news? ……… ROSENCRANTZ

None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.


what have you,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?


Ha, ha! are you honest?


My lord?


Are you fair?


What means your lordship?


That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.


Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?


Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof. I did love you once.


Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.


You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.


I was the more deceived.


Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
Where’s your father?

Order & Disorder in Shakespeare #

Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays begin with a state of order or stability, which gives way to disorder or confusion.

That disruption could take place in individuals. Macbeth is told that he is going to be king and as a result of that becomes consumed by ambition; Othello believes his wife to be unfaithful and is overwhelmed by jealousy; Hamlet learns that his father has been murdered by his father’s brother and becomes obsessed with revenge. Other human causes of disruption are love, hatred, the lust for political power or any other strongly felt emotion. The disruption drives the dramatic action.

Disruption could also occur in society – for example civil war or rebellion. Sometimes disruption in an individual will lead to social disruption, and vice versa.

Disruption in individuals is often echoed by disruption in nature. For example, Lear’s madness is reflected in the storms and tempests that take place throughout; Macbeth’s unnatural killing of his king is reflected in unnatural happenings such as the horses in the stables going mad and biting the grooms, earthquakes, unusual downpours etc.

Order is restored in the end. The suffering individual is usually dead by the end of the play, but even in the plays that aren’t classical tragedies the disrupted individual comes to new understandings and a new outlook on humanity, even though that may be minutes before his or her death.

Although order may be restored it is seldom all perfect and harmonious. There are loose ends, such as the treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. On the surface, it looks like the Christian community has triumphed in the face of an attack from an enemy and restored order to their community. As Shylock slinks away in defeat after he is humiliated in his court case against Antonio though, we are appalled by the nastiness of the Christian characters as they mock him, and we also see the seeds of an even worse disruption of Venetian society as its anti-Semitic character is affirmed. Most of the plays have such hanging threads in their show of order at the end. In real life order never lasts and new conditions lead to new threats. Shakespeare’s plays reflect that reality.

Some of the plays deal specifically with the theme of order and disorder, making it almost ‘what the play is about’ (although one can never say about a Shakespeare’s play that it’s ‘about’ one particular thing). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of those. The social order of Athens demands that a father’s will should be enforced. That is also particularly true for the order of the family. Egeus’ family is threatened because his daughter refuses to marry the husband of his choice and insists on her own choice. When she runs away from the ordered, hierarchical society of Athens, followed by her lover and their friends, to the chaos of the woods, order is disrupted: in the woods the relationships are fragmented. There is also a row going on between the rulers of the forest, the Fairy King and Queen, and even the seasons are disrupted. It is only when Oberon and Titania are reconciled and the natural order of the fairy world is restored that the lovers’ relationships can become ordered once more and their return to human society can in turn restore its order. Egeus’ daughter gets her way regarding her choice of husband, however, and the drama ends with this threat to the social order.

Some of the plays begin with a significant measure of disorder, only to see the restoration of order, which then proves to be a mere illusion of order. Macbeth is one such play. It begins with battle raging between the Scots and the Norwegians, aided by Scottish traitors – extreme disorder and chaos everywhere, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Two great military captains, Macbeth and Banquo defeat the Norwegians and restore civil order. A scene in which the king punishes the traitors and rewards the loyal is all about the restoration of social order. Everything now seems ordered and harmonious, but the rest of the play is a demonstration of how disruption within an individual – Macbeth’s over-reaching ambition – can bring about disorder again, after which order has to be restored once again. This play can also be seen as being ‘about’ order and disorder, although we know that it is impossible to say what any Shakespeare play is ‘about.’ One can only explore some of its ideas, but the idea of order and disorder is central in Macbeth.

The centrality of the theme is reinforced by the language throughout. Macbeth’s comment, ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’ echoes the witches’ chant and links him with the chaos of their dark world. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth talk they frequently invoke the darkness that allows evil and disorder to flourish – ‘come thick night and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell’; ‘stars hide your fires’ and so on.

The contrast between order and disorder is demonstrated in various places throughout the play. The banquet scene is probably the finest illustration of this theme in all of Shakespeare. Macbeth has just become king after murdering Duncan, and is holding a state banquet with noblemen of all degrees, each knowing his place in the seating order. The irony of his welcoming statement, ‘You know your own degrees, sit down’ is striking since he has just disrupted the order by killing his king. This is the scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears.

Macbeth’s guilt makes him lose control and the banquet ends in chaos as everyone runs for the door. Lady Macbeth’s urging, ‘stand not on the order of your going but go at once’ confirms the breakdown of order, and it is from this point that the disruption of Scottish society is worked through, to culminate in its restoration with the defeat and death of Macbeth and the restoration of the rightful king, Malcolm, to the throne.

Again, with the reminder that no Shakespeare play is ‘about’ any one thing, a central theme of The Tempest is the conflict between order and chaos, with order being a fragile thing, perpetually threatened by chaos. In the background of the text is the almost continuous interplay between stormy weather and music, graphically illustrating that wavering interaction. Prospero is like a gardener, tending his garden, continually trying to combat the weeds that keep springing up to disrupt the garden’s order. Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo, Antonio and Sebastian require constant watching and regulating as they attempt to overthrow the order that he has established on the island.

It’s notable that even here, on this magical island, tamed and ordered by Prospero’s arts as a magician, having restored order after the disruption brought about by the royal visitors from the real world of human politics, the resolution is not perfect. He has to return to that world and assume his old life there – a life that was disrupted by political ambition – with all its threats.

Every one of Shakespeare’s plays can be examined from the perspective of the conflict between order and disorder, whatever its other, and sometimes more dominant, themes are.

Self-knowledge #

Socrates cliamed the unexamined life is not worth living, and advocated “know thyself”.

Aristotle emphasised self-knowledge; Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged.

The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves. Self- knowledge leads to understanding - an apotheosis.

Which of Shakespeare’s many characters gain self-awareness? Not all do, so they are not considered tragedies in the Aristotelian tradition, rather as Hegelian. (1770- 1831)

Law #

Shakespeare on Lawyers and the Law

I will make a Star Chamber matter of it... Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare mentions law more than any other profession. Although we assume Shakespeare did not formally study law, we see from the many references in the plays that he had acquired a significant general knowledge of legal terminology. The legal jargon in Hamlet’s speech in Act 5 is especially impressive.

Hamlet’s predicament is a universal one; as Marcellus states, “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” and Hamlet’s reflection, “O cursed spite that I was born to set it right” forms the basis of this play.

When he contemplates suicide, Hamlet itemises his reasons for despair:

That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, …

Later in the Grave scene, Hamlet picks up a skull:

Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?

The Star Chamber. From Cassell’s History of England, Vol.2 One play in particular contains the bulk of Shakespeare’s writings on the law:

Measure for Measure.

As Daniel Kornstein explains in his book Kill All the Lawyers: Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal:

Measure for Measure is an ideal play for lawyers. It quivers with legal immediacy and raises fundamental questions of law and morality. Legal themes permeate the play and rivet the attention of both lawyers and nonlawyers alike. “Good counselors lack no / clients” one character announces in the first act (1.2.198-99), and we know near the start that we are watching a play about law (Kornstein, 35).

MENENIUS talking to Coriolanus

Why, then you should discover a brace of
unmeriting, proud, violent, testy magistrates, alias
fools, as any in Rome.
II.1.43 - 45

We should remember that Shakespeare became a wealthy man after his acting troupe was granted a Royal Patent by King James I, and would have had many business dealings both in London and Stratford. Moreover, Shakespeare was involved directly in the case of Christopher Mountjoy versus Stephen Bellott.


I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician’s, which is fantastical, nor the courtier’s, which is proud, nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer’s, which is politic. (As You Like It, 4.1.97), Jaques to Rosalind

Portia: “a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree.” The Merchant of Venice

Push him out of doors;
And let my officers of such a nature
Make an extent upon his house and lands:
Do this expediently and turn him going.
(As You Like It, 3.1.16), Duke Frederick to Oliver. Proscriptions. 0f Sully, and 2nd Triumvirate.


Wast ever in court, shepherd?


No, truly.


Then thou art damned.


Nay, I hope.


Truly, thou art damned like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side.


For not being at court? Your reason?


Why, if thou never wast at court, thou never sawest good manners; if thou never sawest good manners, then thy manners must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation. Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd.


Not a whit, Touchstone: those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at the court.

(As You Like It, 3.2.30) manners = morals.

Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will scarcely lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

(Hamlet, 5.1.97), Hamlet to Horatio

quiddities - quibbles; petty distinctions. From Latin quid, meaning what.

Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent
that thou art heir apparent–But, I prithee, sweet
wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when
thou art king? and resolution thus fobbed as it is
with the rusty curb of old father antic the law?
Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.

( Henry IV, 1.2.54), Falstaff to Prince Hal

Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;
Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth;
Between two blades, which bears the better temper:
Between two horses, which doth bear him best;
Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye;
I have perhaps some shallow spirit of judgement;
But in these nice sharp quillets of the law,
Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw.

( Henry VI, 2.4.17), Warwick to Lords

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers

(Henry VI, 4.2.59), Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade

All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen,
They call false caterpillars, and intend their death.

( Henry VI, 4.4.36), Messenger to Henry VI

When law can do no right,
Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong:
Law cannot give my child his kingdom here,
For he that holds his kingdom holds the law.

(King John, 3.1.189), Constance to Cardinal Pandulph

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave.

(King Lear, 2.2.14), Kent

Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer; you
gave me nothing for’t.

(King Lear, 1.4.122), Fool

Help, master, help! here’s a fish hangs in the net,
like a poor man’s right in the law.

(Pericles, 2.1.153), Fisherman

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey.

(Measure for Measure, 1.3.21), Duke Vincentio

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

(Measure for Measure, 2.1.1), Angelo to Escalus

The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes: what know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? '

(Measure for Measure, 2.1.19), Angelo to Escalus

O just but severe law!

(Measure for Measure, 2.2.56), Isabella

The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept. (Measure for Measure, 2.2.112), Angelo to Isabella

You seem’d of late to make the law a tyrant.

(Measure for Measure, 2.4.123), Angelo to Isabella

The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?

(The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.80), Bassanio

A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine: The court awards it, and the law doth give it.

(The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.321), Portia

I will make a Star Chamber matter of it.

(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.1.1), Shallow to Slender

Queen Mab gallops
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees.

(Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.77), Mercutio

And do as adversaries do in law,
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.

(The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.280), Tranio

The law shall bruise him.

(Timon of Athens, 3.5.5), Second Senator

For pity is the virtue of the law,
And none but tyrants use it cruelly.

(Timon of Athens, 3.5.10), Alcibiades

A friend of mine, who, in hot blood,
Hath stepp’d into the law, which is past depth
To those that, without heed, do plunge into ’t.

(Timon of Athens, 3.5.12), Alcibiades

Crack the lawyer’s voice,
That he may never more false title plead,
Nor sound his quillets shrilly.

(Timon of Athens, 4.3.167), Timon

If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patent that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his offer’d homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head.

(Richard II, 2.1.204), Duke of York to Richard II

Words pay no debts, give her deeds: but she’ll bereave you o’ the deeds too, if she call your activity in question. What, billing again? Here’s ‘In witness whereof the parties interchangeably’ – Come in, come in: I’ll go get a fire.

(Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.56), Pandarus to Troilus

He hath ribbons of an the colours i’ the rainbow;
points more than all the lawyers in Bohemia can
learnedly handle, though they come to him by the
gross: inkles, caddisses, cambrics, lawns.

(The Winter’s Tale, 4.4.234), Servant


Kornstein, Daniel. Kill All the Lawyers?: Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Religion #

There is evidence that Shakespeare’s father may have been a closet Catholic. William and his family are all baptised in the Anglican Church, however evidence indicates that his daughter is listed as one who failed to attend church regularly. There is little evidence of any sectarian piety in his writing.

There are some expressions of anti-Catholicism. In King John he speaks of Papal Pardons as:

“a juggling witchcraft”.

In Henry VIII he proclaims:

No Italian priest shall tithe or toll in our dominion
But as we under heaven are supreme head
So under that great supremacy where we do reign.


In 1594, the Queen’s Jewish physician was accused of trying to poison her and condemned to death.

The treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is injudicious. He is portrayed as more comic than villain and as one more sinned against than sinning.

On the surface, it looks like the Christian community has triumphed in the face of an attack from an enemy and restored order to their community. As Shylock slinks away in defeat after he is humiliated in his court case against Antonio though, we are appalled by the nastiness of the Christian characters as they mock him, and we also see the seeds of an even worse disruption of Venetian society as its anti-Semitic character is affirmed.

Christopher Marlowe presented a play called The Jew of Malta, 1590.

Hamlet is a play with a pagan setting, but conscious of a Christian audience.

He accepts that there is “a divinity that shapes our ends..” but he changes the original ending from:

“heaven receive my soul” to:

“The rest is silence”.


Jealousy and the suffering it inflicts on lovers is portrayed in Othello and later romances, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. Few moments in Shakespeare’s plays are as intense as that in which Posthumus comes to believe that Imogen has slept with Iachimo (Cymbeline, 2.4).

Although they bring us to the brink of tragedy, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale end with the defeat of jealousy, and so they are considered comedies.

This is not the case with Shakespeare’s best-known exploration of the “green-eyed monster” – Othello. Iago knows how to manipulate Othello’s suspicions resulting in one of the most poignant tragedies ever.

Iago actively and continually chooses his unconcern. He prides himself on his ability to control his emotions, telling Roderigo, when he is suicidal over Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, that:

“we have reason to cool our raging motions,” that love is “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.”


Much of traditional literature tolerates grisly violence; think of The Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

The Roman gladiators and the Christians in the lion’s den satisfied the blood lust of populations. During the middle ages, cock-fighting and bear-baiting were considered respectable sports. Live executions including torture of being hung drawn and quartered and burning at the stake were entertainment to vast crowds of onlookers. Sexual organs were cut off and displayed as were heads on pikes.

The slaughterhouse of playwrights appealed to the base instincts of all classes.

Shakespeare’s Titus of Andronicus would have pulled the crowds in. Shakespeare appears to have influenced by Ovid and the Roman history and writers more than the Greek.

Dogs feature in many plays, especially King Lear, Coriolanus

Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare. #

To what extent was Shakespeare responsive to his monarch?

Queen Elizabeth was a patron of the arts, especially plays from early in her reign and frequently had them play at court to entertain her free-loading retinue. Her favorites were Edmund Spencer and Phillip Sidney.

Shakespeare was ardently attracted to Elizabeth and her Court, and proved a faithful servant to his royal mistress. The first evidence of this is in his fine eulogy of the virgin queen in that most sweetly poetical early drama, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, as “a fair vestal throned by the west”; the play was probably produced for a special Court performance. The passage in which these words occur is a gem of poetical beauty and is the most exquisite compliment she ever received from any poet of her day. Our poet thus muses —

“That very time I saw — but thou couldst not —
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred-thousand hearts:
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation fancy free.”
— Act II., Sc. i.

In 1598, the Queen witnessed the First and Second Parts of King Henry IV, both new plays, and was very pleased with the performances. Falstaff gave great delight to the royal spectator and her Court, and at her wish to see exhibited the fat knight in love, the poet produced the comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor; this play gave infinite satisfaction to all beholders. The part of Falstaff was written originally under the name of Oldcastle; some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it, upon which he made use of Falstaff, a name that now represents the most humorous character the stage or the world has seen.

Falstaff was a rogue according to the Queen and was she pleased to see him get his come-uppance in Henry V?

In 1594, the Queen’s Jewish physician was accused of trying to poison her and condemned to death. Did Shakespeare write The Merchant of Venice to reprove her?

Shakespeare came under the shadow of the scaffold with his play Richard II, which depicted Richard being deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke and handing over his crown.

This much displeased Queen Elizabeth who was in danger of being deposed by her own cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

The play was at first banned and then allowed to be performed only if the deposition scene was cut, thereby gutting the play.

Elizabeth herself fumed:

‘I am Richard the Second; know ye not that?’

A later writer speaks in her praise for her patronage of the drama and for her regard for the actor’s art:

“Our late Queen Elizabeth of blessed memory, rightly styled the world’s Phoebe; among women a Sibylla, among Queens a Saba, how well she approved of these Recreations, being (as she termed them) harmless spenders of time, the large exhibitions which she conferred on such as were esteemed notable in that kind may sufficiently witness. Neither did she hold it any derogation to that royal and princely Majesty which she then in her royal person presented, to give some countenance to their endeavours, whereby they might be the better encouraged in their action.“2

The following verse from the Threnos, written by Shakespeare and appended to his poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle, appear allusively to refer to the death of Elizabeth —

“Beauty, truth, and
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d in cinders lie.”

“Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.”

All in all, we may therefore well suppose that Henry VIII was written not long after the entreaty by Chettle to Shakespeare upon the death of Elizabeth to mourn for her and —

*“Drop from his honied muse one sable tear,
To mourn her death that graced his desert,
And to his lays opened her royal ear."*3

From the first to the last the poet had an unwavering lofty opinion of the Queen’s supreme goodness, virtue, and purity.

Coriolanus begins with a shortage of food, much the same as occurred in Britain in the late 1590’s.

Several times characters caution women about the use of make up or cosmetics. Evidence indicates that the lead in Elizabethan times caused deep scarring and loss of hair, which meant in later years she was forced to wear even more make-up and use a wig. The Earl of Essex’s greatest crime was to barge into her private quarters to see her without her make-up and wig.

Honest communication #

Evidence from his other works suggests he was quick to condemn flattery, urging at the end of King Lear that we should

“speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”.

He eschews false speech - mind-numbingly empty slogans and hollow, clichéd, pre-packaged platitudes. When people kill each other and then offer a stirring eulogy, it may be fulsome praise.


Empty meaningless phrases used by insincere people for ulterior purposes. Synonyms are: blandishments – flatteries, cajoleries, praises, fulsome, effusive, insincere, disingenuous, rhetoric, oratory, banality, prosaicism, clichéd, bromides, cant, hollowed language, husk, shell,

Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood;
But noble platitudes — ah, there’s a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that’s genuinely good
From one that’s base but merely has succeeded.

W.H. Auden, Collected Poems

“Words empty as the wind, are best left unsaid” Homer

To be successful, you need to be honest and sincere; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made! Groucho Marx


Sophistry, also known as eristic or specious arguments; involve the use of subtle, sophisticated, and sometimes deceptive argument and reasoning, especially on moral issues, in order to justify something or to mislead.

Socrates considered the debate in such settings unedifying, pointless and unworthy—in a word, “eristic”. Eris was the Greek goddess of strife (the Roman Discordia). It was Eris who cunningly dropped a golden apple with the inscription “to the fairest” into a feast, inciting three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—to bicker over who deserved it and thus launching the ten-year Trojan War.

Eris is present in presidential debates, in court rooms and wherever people are talking not to discover truth but to win.

Socratic dialectic attempts a search of honest discussions that lead to truth.

Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it.

Even Socratic dialectic can be misused in an attempt to persuade.

Dogmatic assertion is the tyrant’s “stock in trade”, attempting to confer the air of authority and bully us into grudging silence, compliance and acceptance rather than inspiring confidence and belief in officialdom.

It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittengenstein calls the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language and eristic argument.

Lady Macbeth’s advice to her co-conspirator may have come directly from Macheavelli.

“Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the ‘innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ‘
Free Speech

In Richard II he writes:

Free speech and fearless, I to thee allow.

Music #

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.

(”Merchant of Venice,” V, i, 83-88.)

Equality #

Hamlet claims:

Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:


That is the way to lay the city flat,
To bring the roof to the foundation
And bury all which yet distinctly ranges
In heaps and piles of ruin.
I. 4 256 – 259.



The rabble should have first ⌜unroofed⌝ the city
Ere so prevailed with me.
I. 1. 240 – 241 The elite are worried about equality – the lack of hierarchies

Jealousy #

Jealousy and the suffering it inflicts on lovers is at the heart of Shakespeare’s later romances, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. Few moments in Shakespeare’s plays are as intense as that in which Posthumus comes to believe that Imogen has slept with Iachimo (Cymbeline, 2.4).

Although they bring us to the brink of tragedy, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale end with the defeat of jealousy, and so they are considered comedies. This is not the case with Shakespeare’s best-known exploration of the “green-eyed monster” – Othello..

Violence #

Much of traditional literature tolerates grisly violence; think of The Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

The Roman gladiators and the Christians in the lion’s den satisfied the blood lust of populations. During the middle ages, cock-fighting and bear-baiting were considered respectable sports. Live executions including torture of being hung drawn and quartered and burning at the stake were entertainment to vast crowds of onlookers. Sexual organs were cut off and displayed as were heads on pikes.

The slaughterhouse of playwrights appealed to the base instincts of all classes.

Shakespeare’s Titus of Andronicus would have pulled the crowds in. Shakespeare appears to have influenced by Ovid and the Roman history and writers more than the Greek.

Legacy #

When Shakespeare himself died in 1616, there is no record of any tributes or public mourning. He was buried at his hometown church in Stratford-upon-Avon, but a memorial in his honor was installed at Westminster Abbey in 1740.

When the famous actor Richard Burbage died in 1619, he was mourned with great public display.