Shakespeare’s Universal Language

“A heavier task could not have been imposed
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable:
Yet, that the world may witness that my end
Was wrought by nature, not by vile offence.”

After Aegeon is asked to explain why he came to Ephesus from his native Syracusa, we immediately, after he begins speaking, begin to feel sympathy for him. We don’t know exactly what he is going to say, but we are eager to find out. Things “wrought by nature, not by vile offence” could be multitudinous. This could even refer to (although it doesn’t in this case) sexual orientation—something brought on by human nature harboring no shameful offence. It’s interesting how universal Shakespeare’s language is and how it can apply to all sorts of things in our everyday lives. There’s a quote from Measure for Measure, “Good cousellors lack no clients.” That is an amazing yet simple revelation. It is used to describe lawyers nowadays, but in the play it was talking about prostitution as ‘counselor’ was a euphemism for ‘whore’. The quote from Hamlet, “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” can be used anytime foul play is suspected somewhere. The list could go on and on. The same quote can be looked at from sundry different angles and mean totally different things giving new life to words long since written.

Some Wisdom from Richard II

There is a superstition that people close to death have prophetic insight. In the Merchant of Venice, Portia’s confidante Nerissa tells her, “Holy men at their deaths have good inspirations.” Why is this so? Perhaps one reason is that they have so much alone time to cogitate and put things together in their mind; because they are good men, they have a great will to leave others in a favorable over-all position after they are gone. These people at their end have an acute awareness of things happening around them and rightly so; their insight is all that will soon be left of them as their physical bodies will soon be extinguished. Sometimes prophecy is simple such as, “His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last, for violent fires soon burn out themselves.” Other times it is bloody, “Mothers shall but smile when they behold their infants quartered with the hands of war—” At any rate, someone at the point of death knows they will live on in the minds of others much longer if they offer insight that has  profound impact on others’ lives. This is why they think so hard and so long in their final days. They want to give you the best advice possible. It is their gift to you and their gift to themselves that you will remember them. So before you decide to ignore someone’s words in their final days, remember:

“Oh, but they say the tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony.
Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.” (Richard II Act 2 Scene 1 lines 5-7)

Some Wisdom From Macbeth

“The queen my lord is dead.”

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“She should have died hereafter;
There would of been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tommorow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, A poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Samuel Johnson paraphrases this speech brilliantly, and before I talk more about this speech, I wanted to share his rendition with you. He writes thus:

“Her death should have been deferred to some more peaceful hour; had she lived longer, there would at length been a time for the honors due to her as a queen, and that respect which I owe her for her fidelity and love.—Such is the world—such is the condition of human life, that we always think tomorrow will be happier than today, but tomorrow and tomorrow steals over us unenjoyed and unregarded, and we still linger in the same expectation to the moment appointed for our end. All these days, which have thus passed away, have sent multitudes of fools to the grave, who were engrossed by the same dream of future felicity, and, when life was departing from them, were, like me, reckoning on tomorrow.

We have to realize that although almost everyday of our life has a tomorrow, one of them won’t, and as insignificant as that may seem, it is an important point to realize, for if we are always looking to tomorrow, we will eventually be diappointed when our final day comes. We might say, “O I can do that tomorrow,” when in reality you had a thousand tomorrows to accomplish your goal, but now unfortunately, the time comes where there is no tomorrow. When someone says, “Live every day of your life as if it was your last, we might brush it off and think, yeah—yeah—yeah. But there is some wisdom in that. If there was no tomorrrow, you wouldn’t waste your time with unimportant efforts, I think not; you would do all the things you love from morning ’till night, probably so many different things, that it would make a 24 hour day feel like a week. No one knows when our last day will come. There are people who make it into their senior years and those who die young, but the extent to how much you’ve experienced life is measured by doing the things that bring you consummate joy and maintaining a perpetual philosophy of living in the moment; these are the true tests of whether a life was well lived.  Do the things that will propel you to a life you’ve dreamed of, and avoid what could leave you wishing there was another tomorrow.

The Ghost in Hamlet

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A.C Bradley writes:

“The ghost affects imagination not simply as the apparition of a murdered King who desires the accomplishment of revenge, but also as the representative of a hidden ultimate power; the messenger of divine justice set upon to atone his offences for which it appeared impossible for man to avenge.” (Paraphrased)

The ghost of Hamlet’s father serves as an ominous reminder that although in Theory the perfect crime exists, with murder, it is much different when looked at from the perspective of Practice. Even if you carry out the perfect crime, your conscience lingers and often times consumes your soul. We see this theme in the paranoia of Macbeth and especially Lady Macbeth. There is an omnipotent power in the universe that leads our innately imperfect humanity to their demise. It is a mysterious and vexing force of the cosmos. Before young Hamlet finds out his father’s real cause of death, he admits he had an inkling to the truth: O my prophetic soul, my uncle.The Ghost is the apotheosis of Crime and Punishment and pervades the psyche of the play throughout. When the usurping King Claudius attempts to pray for repentance, he struggles profusely and concludes: my words fly up, my thoughts remain below, words without thoughts, never to heaven go. Claudius only fakes feeling guilty because he discovers his deed has been disclosed and he wants to continue living in his idea of Paradise; incestuous, lavish, lustful, luxury. He’s a virtuoso sociopath and psychopath, but there’s no out-foxing  Divine force. Claudius is stuck in a cycle of vexingly haunting guilt which he will have a hell of a time trying to escape from. As the Jester Stephano says: 

He that dies pays all debts;    The Tempest  3.2

or as Ernest Hemingway wrote: Isn’t it pretty to think so.

Richard II

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In Richard the Second, two noblemen accuse each other of high treason against the King. After exchanging a repartee of insults the King decides that their, “swords and lances[shall] arbitrate” in a challenge. The day of the challenge comes and both competitors are ready to fight; the dispute was on the cusp of being fought and resolved, but the King decides to intervene and stops the fight in its tracks. Right when everything was to be settled, Richard’s cowardice gets the best of him as he couldn’t stand the thought of one of the men having truly treasonous intentions and living on to take him down, so he decides to banish both of the men. This brings me to the theme of this post which I take from Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power: “Do not go past the mark you aimed for; In victory, learn when to stop.” Everything was going to be settled in this challenge with no harsh feelings for anyone involved—the loser would be dead and defeated and the victor would be a proud favorite of the king, but Richard’s fears destroy all that. By banishing both of them he creates resentment and bitter disdain in Bolingbroke. Now Bolingbroke wants to overthrow Richard regardless of what he thought before. Richard goes on to break another rule of Greene’s: “Know who you’re dealing with —do not offend the wrong person.” Not only does he banish Bolingbroke, but when his father dies he seizes all of his goods without giving any to the rightful heir Bolingbroke. Because Richard banished Bolingbroke he feels invincible, but he didn’t consider the magnitude of Bolingbroke’s resolve after being double wronged. Just because someone is banished doesn’t mean they can’t return on their own. In conclusion I want to leave you with one last of Greene’s laws and that is to, “Crush your enemy totally.” If you are in Richard’s shoes, and you truly believe someone dangerous to your throne, you must extinguish them completely. Bottom line. End of story.

Character Comparison: Hamlet and Brutus

"Alas, poor Yorick . . ."A.C. Bradley writes in his classic Shakespearean Tragedy, “It is certainly true that Hamlet, in spite of some appearances to the contrary, was of a most moral nature, and had a great anxiety to do right.” This anxiety to do right is shared by the character of Brutus, and for that reason I wish to compare these two characters side by side.

Hamlet is told by his father’s ghost to avenge his death:

“If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
Revenge  his foul and most unnatural murder.”

After the ghost departs, Hamlet offers some strong words about his strong commitment to keeping the ghost’s commands:

“And thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter…now to my word…I have sworn it.”

Hamlet has just sworn allegiance to his father’s spirit, and then later his resolve comes into question in the praying scene when he has a chance to kill the king but doesn’t. The reason he gives for not offing the King right then and there is that his father was killed:

“With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May.”

He further reasons:

“And am I then revenged, to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage?”

This shows that Hamlet has matured from his philosophy of merely killing the King to getting some real justice for his beloved father by sending the soul of Claudius to hell. This awareness of the justice game here involved shows how far the love for Hamlet’s father truly reaches. The delay in action here further shows Hamlet’s uneasiness with killing the King as he wants to make sure he does it perfectly right to appease his father’s ghost.

In Act two of Julius Caesar, Brutus contemplates in a brilliant soliloquy his uneasiness with the title character’s progression of power:

“It must be by his death, and for my part I know no personal cause to spurn at him, but for the general…but ’tis a common proof  that lowliness is young ambitions ladder.”

Half of Brutus thinks there is no reason to be wary of Caesar and the other half is obsessed with prevention:

“And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg which, hatched, would, as his kind grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell.”

His anxiety to make the right decision is based on doing what he feels is best for the people. Where Brutus’ allegiance is for the people; Hamlet’s is to his father. Both characters are very sincere in their devotion to their respective object of loyalty. Brutus states that he would die for his people:

“I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.”

Hamlet is willing to put his life on the line as well in order to accomplish his objective. This non-fear of death in both of them as well as their constancy to their purpose shows their high level of nobleness.

In conclusion both characters are given moving eulogies:

“Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to a stage, for he was likely had he been put on, to have proved most royal.”

And finally:

“This was the noblest Roman of them all: All the conspirators save only he did that they did in envy of great Caesar; he only, in a general honest thought and common good to all, made one of them, his life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a Man!'”

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Poetic Justice in Hamlet

Johnston_Forbes-Robertson_as_Hamlet,_1897Noted Shakespearean scholar David Bevington notes, “Hamlet needs a way to kill Claudius with grace and style and moral justification.” In Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” speech he is concerned with what is noble:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…”

Premeditated murder is a heinous crime; one of the only crimes which carry the death penalty in the United States, but if a persons’ demise is caused from someone’s self-defense, there is no crime. When Hamlet finds out the King was behind the poisoned weapons in the fencing match, it is no longer a crime to kill him. In fact if he doesn’t kill the King, that would impugn his honor and render him a coward for not doing something about the King’s attack on his life (not to mention Gertrude). He only has so long to kill the King, since he has already been mortally wounded himself. This is a true test of his resolve. When everything is on the line, Hamlet acts without delay. He procrastinates through five acts, but when he must act, he comes through. As Fortinbras says:

“He was likely, had he been put on,

To have proved most royal.”

King Lear and Lessons Taught & Learned

Shakespeare Unlimited

22225545“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love you according to my bond no more, nor less.” In the conclusion of the Tragedy of King Lear, Edgar offers some wise words about how we should, “Speak what we feel not what we ought to say.” We may feel confused as to who Edgar is talking about as Cordelia was frank about her feelings; but dishonest words sprang from her sisters. It was Goneril and Regan who didn’t say how they despised their father and said what they ought to say in order secure their two thirds of the Kingdom. Their dishonesty then prompted Cordelia to be short with her father because she was so frustrated with what what she knew was going on; flattery and manipulation. This lavish flattery was over-the-top: “Sir I love you more than words can weild the matter, dearer than…

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King Lear’s Death

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At the end of King Lear, King Lear along with a slew of other characters dies. He doesn’t die from poison or the painful blade of a sword; he dies on his own, but what exactly does he die of? The general concensus will tell you he dies of a broken heart, but if we examine closely the text, it might paint a slightly different picture:

“Lend me a looking-glass;

If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,

Why, then she lives.”

Lear is in the first stage of grief: denial. Kent can’t believe the way things have unfolded as he questions: “Is this the promised end?” King Lear then continues with this theme of denial as he thinks he sees the feather he is holding over Cordelia’s face flitter:

 “This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,

It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt.”

But as he looks on Cordelia’s lifeless body he becomes more and more resigned to what has transpired:

“And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!”

After this heartwrenching speech, Lear can feel his end knocking on its door–presumably a heart attck from his colossal grief. He can feel his breathing getting shallow and asks for assistance:

“Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.”

As he feels himself fading towards death but not quite there yet, he thinks he is witnessing a most rare miracle:

“Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips”

It is obvious from the text Lear is back to thinking Cordelia is alive as he thinks he is witnessing her lips moving, but this time it is not from denial; it is from his deliriousness (from being so close to death) that has been set upon him from his grief, but what kills Lear is not his grief; it is the overwhelming joy he feels in that last moment when he believes she is alive:

 “Look there, look there!”

King Lear’s grief gets him ripe for death and his delirium leaves the door wide open for him to be fooled into a miraculous resurrection that in reality never took place. His exuberant joy at that point was too much for his heart to take, and that is what finally takes him to the other side.

“Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer.”