The language of the relationship between Proteus and Valentine in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, familiar and natural to Shakespeare’s original audience, creates an ambiguity for readers of the twenty-first century. We may wonder about the true character of their friendship when they address each other as “loving Proteus” and “sweet Valentine” (1.1.1, 11). Should we assume a romantic atmosphere between them? Jane Donawerth’s analysis of sixteenth-century usage of English language sheds light on this ambiguity. In the chapter “What Is in That Word?: The Nature, History, and Powers of Language,” Donawerth observes that “[i]n their etymological elements, words were thought to communicate knowledge not immediately obvious, a legacy of the wisdom of the past” (31). In order to discern between our twenty-first-century reception of the play’s language and its original meaning, I will consider the etymology of the character’s names and examine resulting connections.
All too often scholars and thespians cast Lady Macbeth as a power-hungry, domineering witch who, through acts of coercion, forces her husband to carry out regicide. However, a more careful reading of the Scottish play reveals the Macbeths to be as much partners in crime as they are in marriage.
Though Lady M does encourage her husband to kill the king, she does so not to fulfill her own selfish desires but rather to help her husband realize his own ambition. After reading a letter from Macbeth recounting his intriguing encounter with the witches, Lady M laments, “Glamis thou art and Cawdor and shalt be what thou art promised. Yet, I do fear thy nature is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” (1.4.16).
Acknowledging Macbeth’s desire to ascend through the ranks, Lady M fears that her husband lacks the courage to act upon his ambitions in such a way that would make attaining them easy. She goes on to state, “Thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition but without the illness should attend it” (1.4.19).
The painfully complex and utterly ridiculous play, King Lear by William Shakespeare, scrutinizes dysfunctional parent-child relationships in a way that seemingly disapproves of Early Modern parenting attitudes.
Acting as a cautionary tale, Lear specifically examines the relationship between the titular character and his daughters as well as the relationship between Gloucester and his sons, thus illustrating the universality of familial dysfunction and the unsavory impact of bad parenting. Within the Lear household, Cordelia, the youngest, is prized as the favorite child, a fact so blindingly apparent that Lear thinks nothing of admitting it while his two other daughters are present. In reference to Cordelia, Lear thunders at Kent, “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery” (1.1.122-3).
As a result of these sentiments, Lear displays an unfair bias towards Cordelia, forsaking his two other daughters as second rate. When Lear divides up his kingdom, parceling it out to his daughters, he reserves the greatest and most politically valuable piece of land for his precious youngest child. Though all three daughters are forced to indulge him by playing a can-you-top-this-style-game, Lear divvies up the prizes all too soon and it becomes evident that even according to his own testimony and without having yet said a word, Cordelia is to receive the best allotment. Trying to persuade Cordelia to speak, Lear cajoles, “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters” (1.1.84-5).
Similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the opening of Othello pits a disapproving parent against a couple so in love they must elope in secrecy. However, any similarities between Othello and a conventional comedy end there.
Best understood as the intimate portrait of a marriage wrecked by jealous insecurity, Othello resonates as a poignant tragedy illustrating how distrustfulness ultimately leads to self-destruction. Throughout the story, Shakespeare plays with the audience’s expectations by employing ample foreshadowing to suggest the tragic fall of the titular character. One of the most important instances of this is the implied role of magic in the coercion of Desdemona to elope with “the Moor.”
After hearing his daughter has eloped with his comrade, Brabantio, in utter shock and disgust, issues the allegation that the Moor must have persuaded her to elope under the coercion of magic or spells. He claims his daughter has been stolen from him, abused, “and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; for nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind or lame of sense, sans witchcraft could not” (1.3.62-66).
Often quoted in scrapbooks and on valentines, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream resonates with many audiences as a tale of triumphant and enduring love. However, the play flouts typically romantic conventions as much as it embraces them. More than just a simple tale of boy-meets-girl, Midsummer exists as a particularly complex and politically charged work of literature, especially when considered as a commentary on issues of gender, power and domination.
In Midsummer, the male characters reign supreme exerting their dominance over the female characters and through their acts of violence maintaining control over the fairer sex. Consider, for example, the union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Does he not say he wooed her by doing her injuries? Through this statement, Theseus indicates that he has used his superior strength in addition to some barbaric warrior-minded tactics in order to secure himself a bride. Though the means Theseus resorts to are not what we commonly think of when we consider courting rituals, they seem to be fairly effective in the world created by Shakespeare.
In contrast to the powerful male characters of the play such as Theseus, the women of the play–lacking physical prowess and political power– are relegated to subhuman status, being treated more like property and less like people. Take into account Egeus’s view of his daughter. He attempts to control her choice of partner by subjecting her to harsh Athenian law and even death should she disobey him (1.1.22-45; that’s pretty hardcore).
At some point in your educational career, whether as an awkward teen in high school or an only-slightly-less-awkward student in college, an English teacher has undoubtedly subjected you to Shakespeare- assigning readings of at least some of his numerous plays. Though you probably spark noted most of the material, the whole endeavor was likely one of the most torturous experiences of your life to date, and since then you most likely have filed everything you may have learned about the bard and his writing away in your brain as unessential and uninteresting.
While I most certainly understand your feelings, I encourage you to seize this opportunity to revisit the material which you have so readily dismissed. One of the reasons teachers continue to torture students both college and high school alike with assigned readings of Shakespeare’s plays is because underneath their surface plots, a variety of deliberate mechanisms are at work which make them tension-filled and dare I say even interesting to interpret.
For being an old, dead white guy, Shakespeare and by extension, his writing, seem as pertinent as ever to the discussion of contemporary issues such as class and race. However, my personal favorite lens through which to view shake Shakespeare’s plays is feminism mostly because, as it seems, Shakespeare as a social critic and writer both favors gender equality and yet reproaches it at the same time. The complex relationship his complicated position on gender creates within the texts makes them, in all their unexcavated richness, fun to ponder and play with.
In the next few weeks, I will be reviewing Shakespeare’s most renowned comedies and tragedies and unpacking the gender implications contained therein with the hope of achieving a more sophisticated understanding of gender and its functions within the contemporary society. I invite you to putting your scarring previous experiences with the bard behind you join me in a careful reexamination of these texts. Though I warn you, with Shakespeare, you never know what you might uncover.
Join me next Thursday for a brief discussion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Marketing & Development Editor