Character Development…Emma and Dorrie

Dressed in designer jeans, black heels and a sand coloured cashmere jacket, 30 year old Emma looked the picture of elegance. Her nails were perfectly manicured as always and her make up flawless. Her long blonde hair was swept up into a stylish ponytail and she stood out amongst the many retired couples and mothers with young children. This wasn’t the sort of place she would choose to come to for lunch, but she didn’t mind. No matter how busy she was or whatever else was going on she would always make time for her beloved grandmother and she would happily take her wherever she wanted to go. She looked down at her salad of warm, wilting lettuce leaves and dried tomato slices and laid her knife and fork gently on the side of her plate. Her grandmother was still tucking into her battered cod and chips, something a trim and healthy Emma would never dream of ordering for herself. There was no point in going to the gym three times a week if she was going to spoil it all with a plate of greasy fried food.
Emma looked across at her grandma Dorrie. She was in good health, still sharp as a tack and well dressed in her brown woollen slacks and cream silk blouse. Emma smiled as Dorrie proceeded to tell her about the latest exploits of the “dear little old lady” who lived next door. Did she realise that at 83, she was actually almost ten years older than that “old lady”?

“So, what’s bothering you?” Grandma Dorrie suddenly asked.

“Nothing! What do mean?” She replied.

“You are biting your bottom lip, Emma, and you are unusually quiet. What is it, darling?”

Sometimes Emma wished her grandmother didn’t know her quite so well. She was the only person who would notice this little habit she had when something was worrying her. Should she tell her the truth or make out it was something and nothing? No, Dorrie would see straight through any little fibs she tried to palm her off with.


Othello, the Moor of Venice

Othello and Iago

This week we studied Shakespeare’s Othello and we specifically looked at the way in which Christian Europe relates to the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world of North Africa in the play. What clues does that give us about Shakespeare himself and the world in which he lived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century?

The play is available to read here, but if you had rather watch it there are many films available. This version is the one I watched and I found it free on You Tube. There are parts of the text missing and some things have been shuffled about slightly, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I loved Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal of Othello. That is just as I had imagined him when I first read the play back in college. The picture above is from this particular film and it shows Iago (yep…Kenneth Brannagh again!) whispering into the ear of Othello (Laurence Fishburne), and stirring up his jealousy. I think that is a great picture!

This BBC version is also available free on You Tube. I didn’t watch it, as personally I found Anthony Hopkins difficult to watch as Othello, even though I am sure he did a good job, something didn’t feel right about it! These BBC productions are usually very good and stick faithfully to the original text, though.

Shakespeare%20Othello%20HopkinsOthello Orson WellesOliviersOthello

I have also heard that this version starring Laurence Olivier is very good, although I have only seen some of it, I didn’t watch the whole film for the same reasons. Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles as the “Moor”? Not for me, but that is purely a personal opinion and many disagree.

An Introduction to Venice

In Act I, Scene I, we meet the Venetians, then we meet a Florentine, called Michael Cassio, and Othello, a “Moor”, probably from North Africa, although we are not sure.

Shakespeare’s time was one of exploration and geography was a subject of  great interest. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a book in their library by a man called Ortelius. It is an introduction to geography and has little maps of continents and countries of the known world.

Ortelius says of Italy…

“The description of this worthy country deserves a whole volume to be implied thereon.”

Shakespeare was also fascinated with Italy, although there is no evidence that he ever travelled there. Italy was associated with great sophistication, great culture and fine manners. However, it was also known for its scheming politicians and low cunning. England was also fascinated by the fine artists from Italy, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo. The churches, paintings and palaces of Italy were well known to Londoners.

books Macchiavelli

The Italian, Machiavelli, was well known in England, too. He wrote a book called, “The Prince”, which was a handbook of political scheming. One of Machiavelli’s opinions was that religion was something dreamt up by the powerful in order to keep people under control. Shakespeare would have heard of Machiavelli and might have even read his book as he was an interesting figure, demonised by many. We wonder if the character Iago was a bit of a Machiavellian figure?

Italy was not a unified country at this time. Ortelius’ map shows it divided into a number of states. They were the Florentine Republic, the Dukedom of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples and then, of course, Venice, which was a proudly republican nation.


Venice was small and self-contained and the Elizabethan English were fascinated by it, maybe because it bore a resemblance to London.

Venetian Women

In 1608, Thomas Coryat, from a little village in Somerset called Odcombe, walked through Italy on his travels to India. A replica of his shoes can be seen in Odcombe church.


A few years later, Coryat published a book all about the interesting things he found on his travels, called “Coryat’s Crudities”. He seemed particularly taken by the Venetian women.

Coryat and Margarita Emiliana

This picture shows Coryat with Margarita Emiliana, a Venetian courtesan.

Venetian women were famous for their outlandish clothing. They would wear high platform shoes and very low cut dresses which often showed off their bare breasts. It was difficult to distinguish between the well born fashionable ladies and the courtesans. The picture below is by Paris Bordon and is called “Venetian Women at their Toilet”. It shows a couple of courtesans and was probably painted around 1545 for a wealthy Venetian patron.

Paris Bordon Venetian Women

In Venice, women were thought of as very sexual beings in Shakespeare’s time. This could often make their husbands very uncomfortable. In the play, Iago stirs up the jealousy in Othello by telling him that his wife, Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello is already insecure and Iago plays on this. Othello is a black man in a white man’s world and he is also getting older. While Cassio is a handsome young Florentine and would probably have been seen as far more suitable for the beautiful young lady, Desdemona. Othello still can’t believe that she chose him over all her other suitors.

These terrible visions of Desdemona with Cassio take over Othello’s mind and he eventually believes what Iago is telling him. He becomes convinced that Desdemona is not the sweet, innocent and faithful lady he married, and he goes to her chamber and accuses her of being a whore.

Shakespeare uses the Venetian setting here to help his story. Venetian women have the reputation of being sophisticated, beautiful and very fashionable, but also sexually questionable.

Desdemona, however is sweet and very innocent. She has led a very sheltered life, protected by her father, although I don’t see her as a weak character. She was very brave to stand up to her father and marry a “Moor”. She is very confused by Othello’s change of opinion and attitude towards her and, of course, she can’t work out why he is so angry with her.

Emilia, Iago’s wife, is a different character altogether. She is far more experienced and worldly wise. In Act IV, Scene III, the two women discuss men and their attitudes towards women:


I have heard it said so. O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think,–tell me, Emilia,–
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?


There be some such, no question.


Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?


Why, would not you?


No, by this heavenly light!


Nor I neither by this heavenly light;
I might do’t as well i’ the dark.


Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?


The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.


In troth, I think thou wouldst not.


In troth, I think I should; and undo’t when I had
done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a
joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for
gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty
exhibition; but for the whole world,–why, who would
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.


Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world.


Why the wrong is but a wrong i’ the world: and
having the world for your labour, tis a wrong in your
own world, and you might quickly make it right.


I do not think there is any such woman.


Yes, a dozen; and as many to the vantage as would
store the world they played for.
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.


Good night, good night: heaven me such uses send,
Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend!

Poor Desdemona is shocked to think that such things go on and especially appalled at the fact that Emilia says that she would make her husband a cuckold if it meant gaining the world. She sees it as a small price to pay for something so big. Desdemona believes that faithfulness to husbands is more important than anything.

Emilia’s last speech there reminds us of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice. Just as Shylock asked if Jews bleed, have hands and so forth just as a Christian does, so Emilia takes the same kind of attitude. Maybe women should show their husbands that they are just as clever and have feelings, just like men do. She is basically saying the same as Shylock at the end of her speech there; whatever men teach women, so women will do too.

Emilia is quite a forward thinking feminist. Perhaps this is how Shakespeare saw the Venetian women from all that he had heard and read about them.

Turning Turk

In Act I we discover that the Turks have attacked Cyprus. In Ortelius’ Atlas, there is a map of Cyprus and a page devoted to a description of Cyprus. It is clear that it is in a very strategic position.

During Shakespeare’s time, there was always tension between the two global forces of Christendom and the Ottoman Islamic Empire. It was something comparable to the Cold War in the second half of the 20th Century. Cyprus sat between the two and they were always fighting over it.

After a number of battles, Cyprus eventually fell to the Turks. However, in Othello, Shakespeare imagines an alternative history. Cyprus is saved for the Venetians.

The Christians thought of themselves as virtuous and sophisticated. They thought of the Turks, the Muslims, as somehow savage.

On the night of the celebration of the dispersal of the Turkish fleet, things go wrong for poor Cassio. Iago encourages him to drink far too much and somehow manages to embroil him in a fight, which leads to him losing his position. Othello has to come and break up the fight and says:


Why, how now, ho! from whence ariseth this?
Are we turn’d Turks, and to ourselves do that
Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?
For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl:

The phrase “turning Turk” was often used to mean a change of religious faith. Here Othello uses it to mean that the men have turned into bloodthirsty savages.

Many Christians, in the course of trading between merchants, did in fact, convert to Islam. Historically, that was more common than a Moor, such as Othello, converting to Christianity. However, that is what Othello does.

Questions of conversion, religious faith and their relationship to slavery are at the centre of this play.

Turkish Sophistication: The Iznik Dish

The way that Othello is described in the play might give the impression that, in Shakespeare’s England, Christians were all good, sophisticated people and the Islamic Turks were a bad thing. However, when you study the play more closely, you discover that it is far more complicated.

Othello is described as a “Moor”, which suggests he comes from Mauritania, one of the Islamic states in North Africa. There are also references to “Barbary”. The Barbary Coast was a place renowned for the “Moorish Culture”, although it was also renowned for pirates. It was a dangerous place where people might be kidnapped and sold into slavery. This is where the term “Barbarian” comes from. Throughout the play, there is always the fear that Othello might return to his Barbaric origins. Iago plays on this fear.

There is a beautiful dish in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection. It’s from  a traditional form of Turkish ceramic design known as Iznik. It was made during Shakespeare’s lifetime, sometime between 1575 and 1625.

Iznik plateIznik 2

Thomas Platter, a Swiss traveller, visited London in 1599. As well as writing a very rare account of a performance of Julius Caesar, he also visited a man called Walter Cope. Cope was well travelled and had picked up a number of interesting items which he kept in his “cabinet of curiosities”. Within this collection, Platter found a Turkish dish, much like the one belonging to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In those days this was something rare, something sophisticated and exotic. It showed a completely different side to the Ottomans. They were sophisticated and artistic.


Thomas Platter

It is interesting to note that, at the end of the play, Othello is finally brought down by Iago, the supposedly sophisticated Venetian, rather than by some outside force stemming from his origins.

Once again, Shakespeare leaves us with something to think about long after the play has ended. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.

Othello’s Pre-history and Christian Slaves

Brabantio, the Venetian senator, can’t believe that his daughter is in love with a Moor. He accuses Othello of kidnapping her and putting some kind of spell on her:


O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter?
Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her;
For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, to incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou, to fear, not to delight.
Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion: I’ll have’t disputed on;
‘Tis probable and palpable to thinking.
I therefore apprehend and do attach thee
For an abuser of the world, a practiser
Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.
Lay hold upon him: if he do resist,
Subdue him at his peril.

Brabantio thinks his daughter would be too scared to even look at Othello, because he is so different. However, it is because he is so different that Desdemona falls in love with him. She has led a very sheltered life and so she used to love listening to Othello talk about his adventures. She admired his bravery. He falls in love with her because she is so sweet and so sensitive. He loved the way she used to cry sometimes when listening to some of his stories.

Here he gives us some idea of his history:


Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,–such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse: which I observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively: I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer’d. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.

So, we find out that, at some point in his life, Othello was sold into slavery. This was a real threat in Shakespeare’s day. The Moors were known as a barbaric race who often kidnapped Christians and sold them as slaves.

Othello refers to his history again, later on in the play, when he talks about the handkerchief and his mother. Shakespeare gives characters a past, making the seem more real. He encourages us to care about the characters just through the language he uses.

The Sword of Spain

Of course, almost as soon as Desdemona is dead, Othello realises that he has done a terrible thing and that his poor wife was telling the truth. Iago has lied to him from the start and put all the jealous thoughts in his head. Othello’s first reaction is to kill Iago, but as he goes to murder him, he is disarmed by one of the other men.

This doesn’t stop him, however. He has more than one weapon hidden in his room:


I have another weapon in this chamber;
It is a sword of Spain, the ice-brook’s temper:–
O, here it is. Uncle, I must come forth.

Spanish blades were especially admired in Shakespeare’s day. The swords on stage would most probably have been made of wood, but by describing it as a “sword of Spain”, the audience would imagine how sharp and lethal it was. It suggests that Othello is holding a top class blade.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a sword that was made in Spain around about the year 1600. Unfortunately the makers name, inscribed on both sides of the blade, is now illegible.

Spanish Rapier

For many centuries, much of southern Spain was ruled by the Moors, until they were expelled. Othello, the Moor of Venice, momentarily turns himself back into a Moor of Spain.

He then gives a long speech about how he wants to be remembered, before stabbing himself with the sword:


Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

Stabs himself

It is as though Othello has become the thing he hates most. He sees parallels between himself and the Turk that he talks about as he stabs himself, just as he did the Turk. He feels that, as he has committed the same sins, he should be punished the same way. Yet, the whole situation has been cleverly engineered by the Machiavellian Iago.

I love the story of Othello because of the mix of emotions that run through the play from beginning to end.

Thank you, as always, to Professor Jonathan Bate for another interesting week packed with all this information about Shakespeare and the world he lived in. It is a really interesting course and it makes you look at the plays from a completely different angle. I am desperate to go to Stratford and visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to see all these wonderful collections. Maybe one day!

Next week we are looking at Antony and Cleopatra and discussing why the classical culture was so important to Shakespeare. I have never read this one, so it is all new to me. I have the DVD all ready to watch, too! Professor Bate has also recommended that we read some Plutarch, which I know absolutely nothing about at the moment, so I suppose I had better get reading!

Thanks for reading my blog. xx


Macbeth Art

This week we looked at Macbeth by William Shakespeare, and the attitude towards witchcraft and medicines in Shakespeare’s time. You can read the play by following the link or watch one of the many films that have been made over the years. I watched this version that I found free on YouTube, but found that it had large parts of the text missing. So, I also watched this version on Digital Theatre. It cost £3.99 to rent for two days, but was a very good production. It was filmed at the Everyman theatre and was the next best thing to seeing a live production.

The Weird Sisters


Macbeth would have been performed in the open air of the Globe theatre, so it couldn’t be darkened to create the atmosphere, that had to be done through language alone. Somehow, Shakespeare had to create the darkness and spirit of evil necessary to frighten his audience and get them believing in the magic of the three witches, or “weird sisters” as he calls them.

It is safe to say that in Shakespeare’s day, most people believed in magic of some kind, whether it be angels, the devil, or witches that lived on earth to do the devil’s work. However, this was a time of great change and there was a debate about whether or not magic was real. People who lived in the towns and cities were experiencing a new kind of rationalism, while the country folk still had their superstitions.

Macbeth was not completely a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination. He was a real figure in history who was indeed the Scottish king from 1040 to 1054. Once again, Shakespeare probably would have turned to Rafael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland” for most of his information, although his play bears little resemblance to the true story of Macbeth.

The picture of the three weird sisters in Holinshed’s “Chronicles” gives a very different impression to the one Shakespeare gives us in his play. They are three very elegantly dressed ladies, not our idea of what a witch would look like at all. The picture below is a print from the woodcarving shown in the “Chronicles”. There is a note in the margin of the book about the three sisters, which says:

“…the prophecy of three women supposing to be the weird sisters or fairies.”

Holinshed 3 Weird Sisters

Holinshed describes Macbeth and Banquo riding towards Forres when,

“…they met the three women in strange and fairy apparel, resembling creatures of an elder world”.

So, not very scary at all then! Shakespeare obviously decided to spice them up a little bit.

They speak more or less the same words in the Chronicles as they do in the play when they meet Macbeth:

“Hail Macbeth, Thane of Glamis…Thane of Cawdor…all hail Macbeth that hereafter shalt be King of Scotland.”

However, in Shakespeare’s play, we meet the three weird sisters first, and they are not so fairy-like, but far more evil:

First Witch

Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
Wreck’d as homeward he did come.

Drum within

Third Witch

A drum, a drum!
Macbeth doth come.


The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace! the charm’s wound up.

Of course, the audience would know that three is a magical number in witchcraft. Then Macbeth comes on stage:


So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

In one way, mirroring the witches speech from earlier in the play, but what a strange thing to say. How can a day be both foul and fair? However, we soon realise that the play is full of double language, paradoxes and opposites. They help to give that uneasy, jarring feeling that something is not quite right. Shakespeare uses this clever play on language so that things don’t fit together properly, giving us a feeling that all is not right.

When Banquo notices the sisters, he gives a lovely description of them that is far from the one that Holinshed gives:


What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

When the third witch declares Macbeth King of Scotland, Banquo wants to know what they see in his future:


Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair? I’ the name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show? My noble partner
You greet with present grace and great prediction
Of noble having and of royal hope,
That he seems rapt withal: to me you speak not.
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.

He also asks whether or not they are real, which is another theme that runs throughout the play. What is real and what is “fantastical”? What is really happening and what is imagined?

Macbeth was written at the beginning of the reign of King James. He was already King James VI of Scotland and now was also King James I of England. Shakespeare tries to unite the two countries in his play, to a certain extent. This was probably done to please the King, who was also very interested in witchcraft, medicine and healing. So Shakespeare manages to incorporate all of this into the play. When we know about King James’ fascination with witches, it begins to explain the change in the three weird sisters’ style, from elegant ladies in Holinshed’s “Chronicles”, to the more evil, sinister witches we see in the play. The King was now the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, so, of course William wanted to keep him on side. As the “King’s Men”, they would be asked to perform more at court and so it was very likely that the king would see Macbeth. Shakespeare had to be very careful about how he presented certain themes.

The character of Macbeth himself is a very complex one. He starts off as a hero and is then tempted into murder by both the witches and his wife. The witches put the idea into his head that he will one day be King of Scotland. This fires his ambition, but why not wait and see if the prophesy comes true? When he tells his wife, she virtually demands that he kill the king right now, tonight, and sets the daggers up for him. She gets the guards drunk so that they fall asleep and she even ends up smearing them with blood and planting the daggers on them. Macbeth is not sure at all about this sin he is about to commit and tries to talk Lady Macbeth out of it. He respects the king and feels that, as he has been honoured by him recently, it would not be a very noble thing to do. However, Lady Macbeth insists and she goads him and calls him a coward and basically, tells him to man up:


We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.


Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?


Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.


What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.


If we should fail?


We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail…

macbeth-and-lady-macbeth after the murder of Duncan courtesy of Shakespeare Folger Library

This picture shows Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan. It is by R.T. Bone (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library).

After he has killed once, we see a real change in Macbeth and he goes on a killing spree, murdering anyone who gets in his way or threatens his position as king. The big question that people have asked for, probably, four hundred years, is whether or not Macbeth would have become the murderous villain that he did without the three witches prophesies or his wife’s encouragement. As always, Shakespeare leaves us with many questions so that we go on discussing the play long after it is finished.

The Insane Root



Henbane, or Hyoscyamus niger. Could this be the “insane root”? Click on the picture to find out more about it.






Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?

After the witches have disappeared, Banquo wonders whether they actually ever appeared, or whether it was some kind of a hallucination brought on by eating plants. Nobody knows what the insane root is, but it is believed to be either a plant called Henbane, which was used as a painkiller, or Hemlock. It is possible that after a battle, the soldiers might have eaten Henbane to sooth the pain of the injuries inflicted during the fight. Hemlock was also mentioned in King Lear, so could that be the root that Shakespeare refers to?

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a book by John Gerard called “The Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes”. It is a beautiful book describing all the plants available in Shakespeare’s day and their uses. Medicines at that time were purely herbal and it was often a case of trial and error. Apothecaries would have mixed herbs and plants to create drugs, and wisdom was initially handed down through the ages by word of mouth, remaining unchanged for many centuries. Then people started to write about them. This particular book was very popular in Shakespeare’s day.

The Discovery of Witchcraft

We know already that the belief in witchcraft was varied in Shakespeare’s day. Some were totally against the idea and protested against the torture and killing of so called “witches”. They saw it as barbaric and out dated. One man who was passionate about this was Reginald Scot. He wrote a book called “The Discovery of Witchcraft” and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a copy of this book in their collection. You can read the whole text online here. The book was written in 1584 and Scot stated that these so called witches used conjuring tricks but had no contracts with the devil, could not really conjure up spirits or use special powers to kill and torment men. He believed that there was no such thing as magic and he felt it important to get his message across so that miserable old women would no longer be accused of witchcraft just because they were old, poor or ugly!

Scot had a very modern way of thinking. People had believed in witches and witchcraft for hundreds of years, but he did start to get his message across and he began to influence people, especially in towns and cities.

However, when King James came to the throne, he started to turn things around again. He did believe in witches. In 1590, on his voyage home from Denmark after meeting his new bride, Queen Anne, a number of terrible storms blew up. The king believed that it was caused by witchcraft and that it was an attempt to kill himself and the queen. He had a huge witch hunt in North Berwick that lasted two years. Eventually, seventy people were found guilty of witchcraft. Most confessed under torture. It is not known how many people were executed. 

North Berwick witch trials

This is a woodcut from the pamphlet Newes from Scotland, about the North Berwick witch-hunts of 1590-1. The author was probably James Carmichael, minister of Haddington, who helped to interrogate the North Berwick witches. (

King James then wrote a treatise “Of Demonology”, in which he stated that witchcraft and witches were very real. He urged his subjects to be very wary of anybody they suspected of practising witchcraft or demonology and he told them to ignore people such as Reginald Scot. There is a copy of his treatise online, just follow the link above.

This treatise was initially published in Edinburgh and then reprinted in London. However, by now, in England there was more scepticism about witchcraft and it was believed that it was an out dated belief. This implied that Scotland was more primitive than England and so the king began to back off from his beliefs a little.

In the play, Shakespeare leaves the matter open for discussion. Were the witches real or not? He leaves it up to his audience to decide.

As well as witchcraft and evil magic, James wanted people to believe that good magic was possible, too. He believed that, as God’s representative on Earth, he was capable of white magic and could cure people of a skin disease called ‘scrofula’ just by touching them. This was a custom that dated back to Edward the Confessor, the saintly king of England that was on the throne during the time of the real Macbeth. James also claimed to be able to tell the difference between real witches and false ones.

King James also believed that he was descended from Banquo, so it was important that Shakespeare made sure that Banquo’s son, Fleance, survived in the play.

Health and Madness

Polanski's Dagger

The dagger from Roman Polanski’s production of Macbeth.




Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes…

This is one of the most famous speeches in the play. Macbeth is about to murder Duncan but he still has his doubts about it. Then he sees a dagger with its handle pointed towards his hand and the blade pointing to Duncan. Once again, he asks if this is real or just his fevered imagination.

A medical theory at this time was that the body consisted of four different fluids and, to be in good health, all four should be balanced. If you had too much of one of the fluids, or “humours”, then it would lead to mental health problems.

The four humours were:

  1. Melancholy, which could lead to a depressed, sad state
  2. Sanguine, which meant happiness
  3. Phlegmatic, which meant you were laid back and relaxed
  4. Choleric, which could make you very angry and hot headed

If a doctor believed that your fluids were unbalanced, he would most likely bleed you to try and balance things up. He might use a few leeches, too. This theory dated right back to ancient times.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust own a book called, “The Breviary of Health”, published in the 1550s and frequently reprinted in the following years. Its author was a man called Andrew Boorde. Please follow the link for more information on his work. In the chapter on madness, he says that there are two different states, either a frenzy or mania. A frenzy was just a temporary state, where as madness, or mania, was a permanent illness.

He says in his book:

“In English, it is named madness or woodness, like a wild beast. It doth differ from a frenzy, for a frenzy is with a fever and so is not mania, this madness I do pretend to speak now of.”

So, Macbeth’s state is put down to a frenzy, not mania. Even when he sees Banquo’s ghost.

Banquo's ghost by Theodore Chasseriau 

This is a picture of Banquo’s Ghost, by Theodore Chasseriau. Banquo appears at the table, but Macbeth is the only person who sees him.

It is interesting how the characters personalities, or humours,  change as the play progresses. Lady Macbeth starts out as the phlegmatic, laid back one, encouraging Macbeth to murder Duncan and organising everything for him. She tells him that the deed can all be washed away by saying, “A little water clears us of this deed”.

However, as Macbeth’s ambition grows, he becomes the calm focused one and she eventually goes mad as she is left behind to think about what she has created. She was not prepared for the blood letting that the first murder would create. Macbeth, however seems to know that this one murder would just be the beginning. He wonders beforehand what will happen once he starts this chain of events. Of course, it ends with his downfall, which he seems to suspect from the start:


If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips…

Doctors and Macbeth

There was one physician in Stratford during Shakespeare’s time. His name was John Hall and he happened to marry Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. He kept a journal of all his patients and their medications and outcomes. It was later translated into English and published as a book. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a copy of the book as part of their collection. Hall used medical concoctions made of herbs and spices. This, in combination with bleeding and purgation, seems to have had some effect on his patients.


This is a picture, also owned by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, of “A Doctor Casting the Water”. It is painted by Osias Dyck, probably around the year 1660. It hangs in Hall’s Croft, the home of Susanna and John Hall. Casting the water meant inspecting the urine of the patient to diagnose an illness.



When Lady Macbeth becomes ill and starts to sleep walk every night, continually washing her hands, her husband asks the doctor for help:


Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick coming fancies,
That keep her from her rest.


Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?


Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.


Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it…




Picture of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Henry Pierce.




There was very little to be done about mental health problems in those days. One treatment was to shut the patient in a plain room with no pictures or painted cloths on the wall, as they believed this would inflame their imagination.

Shakespeare seemed very interested in doctors and medicine, especially after his daughter married John Hall in 1607. We wonder if he went to him for advice when writing his plays.

Lady Macbeth then dies, maybe from suicide, but that is never stated. Her husband’s response is very calm and here he gives his famous speech:


She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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.

I think this is the saddest speech in the play. What does anything matter, real or imaginary, if we all die in the end anyway?

Evil, Hell, Macbeth and Dr Faustus

Macbeth is concerned with the questions of good and evil right from the start. Duncan, the good king against Macbeth, the evil tyrant, for example.

Macbeth seems to have a deep interest in evil, maybe that is where the superstitions come from?

On the night of Duncan’s murder, strange things happen. Duncan’s horses go wild and end up eating each other, a small bird eats a larger bird and there are very strong winds creating havoc in the countryside and battering the local houses.

That night, after the murder, the drunken porter answers the knocking at the gate as though he were opening the gates of Hell. He is almost the drunken clown, coming on for some comic relief before the discovery of Duncan’s murder with a series of “knock, knock” jokes. However, what he says is very sinister.


Here’s a knocking indeed! If a
man were porter of hell-gate, he should have
old turning the key.

Knocking within

knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of
Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
time; have napkins enow about you; here
you’ll sweat for’t.

Knocking within

knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s
name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God’s sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come
in, equivocator.

Knocking within

knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith, here’s an
English tailor come hither, for stealing out of
a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
roast your goose.

Knocking within

knock; never at quiet! What are you? But
this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire.

The only other play around this time, so vivid in its realisation of  the world of Hell is Christopher Marlowe’s play, “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus”. Maybe Shakespeare took some of his ideas from Marlowe, as he would probably have been an idol of Shakespeare’s from a young age. Marlowe was the most celebrated figure in theatre in Shakespeare’s youth.

This picture is a print of a woodcarving showing The Devil, and Dr Faustus in his magic circle.


Our Professor Bate describes Macbeth as, “the great psychological thriller of the Jacobean age”. I like that!

I must thank Professor Jonathan Bate for all the interesting information again this week. I studied Macbeth in school, but I have learnt so much this week that I never knew before. I think, being older, there was a lot I understood more, too. It is so interesting coming back to this play after all these years and discovering so much more about it. I loved learning all about the history of witchcraft, too, and King James effect on the whole subject back then. A very interesting week, as usual.

Thank you to all the other students for your interesting comments, too. I always learn a lot from you all.

Next week we are studying Othello, another play I studied in my youth. It will be interesting to see how much more I learn about it this week and how much it can tell us about Shakespeare’s own life and his views on the world.

Thanks for reading!

The Merchant of Venice


This week we studied The Merchant of Venice and looked at Shakespeare’s attitude to money and also the Elizabethan attitude towards Jews. You can read the play by following the link, or watch one of the film versions. I watched this production by the BBC, which stuck strictly to the original text and was performed without all the fancy, elaborate scenery. It allowed me to really focus on the text. I also watched this version, starring Al Pacino, which was very good but played around with the original text, changing words and cutting out some scenes completely.

The Quiney Letter and the Lending of Money

Shakespeare’s time was an important one when it comes to the issue of money and capitalism. Shakespeare himself did well financially. He was a shareholder in the acting company that he helped to establish, he was a popular playwright and he knew how to invest his money well. He bought one of the most expensive houses in Stratford, although he never owned property in London, as far as we can tell. It seems that he used to rent cheap accommodation whilst he was working and had a knack of moving on just before his tax was due.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare. It is from a family friend of his called Quiney, and it basically asks for a loan to help pay off Stratford’s taxes to the national government. Stratford had suffered a bad year with bad weather ruining their crop harvest and two large fires wreaking havoc. In 1598, Richard Quiney was high Bailiff of Stratford, so it was up to him to pay what the town owed the government. He was struggling, so turned to his old friend, William Shakespeare and asked for a loan of £30. As the letter was found among Quiney’s possessions after his death, it is not sure whether or not Shakespeare received the letter. However, it is documented elsewhere that Shakespeare did help Quiney out, so perhaps they met face to face at some time.

Moneylending was a very controversial issue at the time and lending money at interest, or “usury”, was frowned on by the church. Christians were not allowed to lend money, so it was left to outsiders to become moneylenders, most notably, Jews. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the money lending Jew.

The play immediately sets up hostility between Christian and Jew, shown especially between two characters, Shylock and Antonio. However, Shylock very quickly makes his priorities clear when we find that he hates Antonio, not so much because he is Christian, but because he lends money without charging any interest. That affects Shylock’s business because it brings down the rate of interest that he can charge. This is what he says to the audience about Antonio:


[Aside] How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!

Making Money

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a document of the Tithe record of lands belonging to William Shakespeare. As well as putting money into property in Stratford, Shakespeare also bought the right to some of the tithes in the fields around the town. This was a profitable deal and meant that he paid £17 a year, but got £40 a year back. The tithe was a bit like a tax that farmers had to pay. It worked out at a tenth of the value of the agricultural produce. It was initially collected by the Catholic Church, but after the reformation, local corporation took over and they rented it out to local speculators.

So, we know that Shakespeare was a pretty good businessman with his money invested a few different things.

At the beginning of The Merchant of Venice, we meet Antonio, who is feeling very sorry for himself. His friends initially suspect that it must because he is worried about his money, but he says that is not so:


Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.

His money is invested in more than one ship, so he is confident that at least one of them will make money for him. This is not what is making him sad, so what is? Shakespeare seems to be making the point, right at the start, that this is not a play just about making money. Human psychology and emotions are also involved. Antonio then goes on to say:


I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.

He believes that sadness is just a part of his character. Some critics have said that this is because Antonio is in love with his friend, Bassanio, a man he knows he can never have. However, there is no actual evidence of this in the text, so we don’t know one way or another.

The character Portia is left with a lot of money when her father dies. He worries that she might be taken advantage of by a gold-digger after his death. He creates the choice of three caskets and whoever chooses the casket that contains her picture, may marry her.

It is interesting to note that when Bassanio describes Portia, he compares her to women from the classical stories that he seems so fond of:


In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

We are never quite sure whether or not Bassanio really does love Portia. Maybe he is just interested in her wealth? The question is left open for us to discuss, as so often happens with Shakespeare. He mentions her hair hanging like a golden fleece, and when he finally wins her hand he says, “We have won the fleece”, comparing himself to Jason and the Argonauts.


Venice and London

There are many similarities between Venice and London in the play. We don’t know whether Shakespeare ever visited Venice, but he knew London well. Both cities are built on a river and, like London, Venice had an important bridge with houses and shops on it, called the Rialto. Right by the Rialto was the great place of exchange. This picture shows an engraving of the Rialto Bridge by Samuel Prout in 1830.

Samuel Prout 1830 An engraving of the Rialto

At the beginning of the third act, two minor characters, called  Solanio and Salerio, come on stage and Solanio says, “Now, what news on the Rialto?”. He is referring to the Rialto district.

Just like London, Venice was associated with international trade. Different cultures came together there, so it had many traders and immigrants from all around the world.

In 1568, when Shakespeare was just four years old, Thomas Gresham, a wealthy London merchant, established an exchange, a trading place in the city of London. He traded mostly with Antwerp and saw that they had one and wanted London to keep up. Unfortunately, it burnt down in the great fire of London but it was later rebuilt by Wren.

This picture from 1st Art Gallery shows The London Exchange and an elevation plan of the interior, by John Donowell.

The Royal Exchange

Ships were obviously the key to global trade, so Solanio is asking about the news from the sea and the trading ships. It is not good news for Antonio:



Why, yet it lives there uncheck’d that Antonio hath
a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas;
the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very
dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many
a tall ship lie buried, as they say, if my gossip
Report be an honest woman of her word.

The Goodwin Sands are just off the coast of Kent and were notorious for ships running aground there. Many of Shakespeare’s audience would have heard of the perils of the Goodwin Sands, so this brings the play closer to home and gives them something to relate to.

The Value of Money

The play mentions ‘ducats’ many times, especially in relation to Shylock. A ducat was a very valuable coin. It had the Doge of Venice on one side and a figure of Jesus on the other.

There is also reference to an English coin of the time, called an Angel, as it has the picture of an angel on one side. On the reverse is the picture of a ship. It is a very thin coin, minted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have one in their collection.

angel coinangel reverse

When Morocco is choosing which casket to open, he talks about the gold angel coin:

O sinful thought! Never so rich a gem
Was set in worse than gold. They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamped in gold, but that’s insculp’d upon;
But here an angel in a golden bed
Lies all within. Deliver me the key:
Here do I choose, and thrive I as I may!

He chooses the gold casket, but it is the wrong choice and he leaves, unable to marry Portia or any other woman, as laid out in the terms of the agreement set by Portia’s father.

Shylock the Jew

Jews were expelled from England in the Middle Ages. Semi-converted Jews called ‘Marranos’, lived in London during Shakespeare’s time. Throughout Europe, Jews were very significant in the process of capitalisation through money-lending, or ‘usury’. They were demonised because of this, the evil of money applied to the supposed evil of the Jews.

If you read around sources from Shakespeare’s time, you get a mixed view.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a book written by George Sandys on his travels. He set off in 1600 and travelled across Europe and into the Middle East and went to the Holy Land.

In the third section of Sandys’ travels called, ‘Of the Jews’, it becomes evident straight away that they are forced to live as aliens in their own country. Sandys writes with a very thoughtful and sympathetic attitude towards them. He recognises the way in which the Jews have been wronged and abused, but he also recognises their patience and skills at commerce, which enables them to thrive.

There were some very negative stereotypical images of Jews in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time. Particularly in Christopher Marlowe’s play ‘The Jew of Malta’, one of the most performed plays at the time. Shakespeare knew the play well and, apparently,  even quotes from it, although I don’t know Marlowe’s play so cannot verify that.

Is The Merchant of Venice a response to The Jew of Malta? It invites the London audience to think of Jews more sympathetically, not simply to demonise them.

There is a very famous speech in the middle of The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock proposes that he will behave just as the Christians have behaved to him:



... He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

The way that speech is delivered by the actor is very important in how the audience view Shylock. Many critics don’t believe that it is a speech to muster sympathy from the audience. Shylock is very angry by this point and this speech is said in anger. Shylock has had enough of the way he is treated and plans to get his revenge by killing Antonio and claiming his pound of flesh.

Shylock on Stage

We would love to know how Shylock was represented on stage originally. In ‘The Jew of Malta’, Barabas had a long nose and many scholars believe that Shylock would also have worn a large prosthetic nose. This was an archetypal piece of racist stereotyping, the Jewish nose.

Later on, in the 18th Century, Shylock was portrayed in this way.


This is English actor Charles Macklin as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at Covent Garden, London, 1767-68, by Johann Zoffany.

There is a puzzling line at the beginning of the trial scene, when Portia, dressed as the young lawyer, asks, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” There are various different theories on this. Does she ask because there are so many people in the room and she is not sure where they are? Does she ask because she is playing the part of a stranger and doesn’t want anyone to know that she knows Shylock already? Maybe the line is supposed to be funny because it would have been perfectly obvious who was who. The Christian merchant would be standing there with his large crucifix hanging around his neck, and the Jew would be there with his long beard and large prosthetic nose. It all depends on how the stage is arranged and how the men look.

David B. Schajer has written a book called, “Shakespeare’s Premiere of The Merchant of Venice”. It is available to download and it tells the story of The Merchant of Venice, with all the characters playing their parts as a comedy. He even includes the audience’s reactions and their heckling comments. He believes that this is how the play was meant to be told and that Shylock was, in fact, the hero of the play as he is the only one who is straight up from the beginning. Shylock is the one who talks to the audience throughout the play and gets them on his side, according to David’s book.

In 1879, Shylock was played in a new way.


He treated Shylock with a kind of respect. At this point, Charles Dickens would have written Oliver Twist and 19th Century London would be familiar with a Fagan type character as their image of a Jew.

Then, of course, with the Holocaust in the mid 20th century, attitudes changed again.

Nowadays it is very difficult not to watch the play without that uncomfortable memory of the Holocaust in our minds. However, when discussing Shakespeare and his life, we have to remember that he wouldn’t have any of those terrible images in his head.

In the 1920s, scholars were beginning to wonder whether, actually, the most important thing about the character of Shylock, was that he was an alien. It didn’t matter particularly that he was a Jew, he was just different.

In this programme found on YouTube, Patrick Stewart and David Suchet discuss the character of Shylock. They have both played him on stage and they play out some of his scenes, so we can see their different approaches.

However, we should try to focus on the issue of money in The Merchant of Venice, rather than the issue of race. After all, it is not called The Jew of Venice.

We were asked at the end of this week, who we thought the merchant was. The views on the discussion board were mixed, but I still believe that Antonio was the merchant. He was the one who traded overseas while Shylock seemed to make his money through loaning and then charging interest. I think Shylock was good at making money and would have made a good banker. He probably would have been a merchant if he’d had more freedom. I doubt, being a Jew that he was allowed to trade, so he made his money where he could. Obviously, people have always needed loans!

Thanks for reading and thank you, as always, to Professor Jonathan Bate for all his interesting information.

Next week we are studying Macbeth and looking at magic and witchcraft in Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare’s Henry V


This week on our Future Learn course we have been studying Henry V, which is considered to be Shakespeare’s most patriotic play. Please click on the link to read the play online, or it is also available to watch as a film. I watched the 1945 Laurence Olivier version and also this BBC production that I found on YouTube. There are many others to choose from, including this updated BBC film (as seen in the picture) and this 1989 version by Kenneth Branagh.

Henry V BBC Hollow Crown

Historical Context

From the moment Shakespeare arrived in London in 1588, to the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, England was constantly under threat of invasion. War was being fought on the high seas and across the sea in Ireland.

England was a Protestant nation and a small island off the continent of Europe which was, at the time, dominated by France and Spain. The Spaniards were, without doubt, the most powerful. Much of Italy was occupied by the Spanish, as were the Netherlands. In the 1580s, the Dutch began to fight against the Spanish, and the Protestant Reformation meant that the Spanish Catholic monarchy was no longer popular with the northern Europeans.

The English sent troops to fight in the low countries, to help the Dutch with their rebellion. Then in 1588, came the Spanish Armada, 130 ships sent to attack the English coastline. However, the Armada was famously defeated by Sir Francis Drake and his men, with a little help from the stormy British weather, which helped to scatter and sink many of the Spanish ships. The English decided that the storm was sent by God and just proved he was on the side of the Protestants. The picture below shows the Spanish and English ships at war. It is entitled the “Invincible Fleet” and is by an unknown artist from the 16th Century.


Although danger was averted in that particular battle, the Spanish kept coming back until King James I took the throne and signed a peace treaty with them.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns a gilt replica of a medal celebrating the defeat of the Armada. On one side is Queen Elizabeth holding a sceptre and an orb and on the other is a tree, symbolising the queen holding the nation together. Some people believe it is a bay tree, which is said to offer shelter from storms. In the background are little ships, representing the scattering of the Spanish fleet.


There was a play performed shortly after the Armada by the acting company known as ‘The Queen’s Men’. Their play was called “The Famous Victories of Henry V” and, although very patriotic, was not judged to be particularly good. It showed a parallel between the past victories of Henry V against the French, and the recent defeat of the Spanish Armada. We don’t know whether Shakespeare was ever a member of The Queen’s Men, but he would definitely be aware of them and quite possibly saw their play.


We believe Shakespeare wrote his version, “Henry V”, in the late 1590s. Although he doesn’t mention Queen Elizabeth in the play, Shakespeare does make a very specific reference to her general, the Earl of Essex. Towards the end of the play, the chorus speaks of the Earl of Essex returning in triumph from Ireland.

He makes specific comparisons all the way through the play between the military campaigns of Henry V and those of Queen Elizabeth herself.

At the beginning of the play the chorus comes on stage and asks the audience to use their imaginations, as bringing a whole army and a war scene to life on a small stage is not easy…


Enter Chorus


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

The chorus comes on stage several times throughout the play to set the scene and try and take the audience to battlefields in France.

Holinshed’s Chronicles and Henry V

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust own a really interesting document entitled “The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed”. It is a great folio volume which gathers together all the earlier accounts of the reigns of the kings of England in medieval times. It is printed in double column in black letter and, as well as the writing, it contains a number of illustrations. It is believed that Shakespeare gained much of the information needed to write his historical plays from this document.


Click on the picture for more information on the SBT’s Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Shakespeare had already had success with his other historical plays. The audience saw Henry V crowned at the end of the play about Henry IV (part 2). They witnessed Prince Harry as a child and then as a rebellious young man, getting into trouble with his friend Falstaff. Falstaff was a very popular character and it is believed that the audience were not happy that he didn’t actually appear in Henry V. He is referred to by Mistress Quickly and the rest of his friends, but he dies at the beginning of the play, apparently heartbroken by the fact that the king has turned his back on him.

There is a story in the Chronicles about a man named Sir Oldcastle, who was a very good friend of King Henry’s. He was accused of heresy and, even though the king tried to save him, the clergy found him guilty and he was sent to the Tower of London. Somehow he managed to escape and he fled to France where he was protected by some of his loyal followers. It is said that, in the play, Shakespeare did name the friend of Henry’s “Oldcastle”, but he had to change it as one of Oldcastle’s descendants happened to be the Lord Chamberlain, in charge of censoring the plays. He was not happy with the name Oldcastle being connected with this fat, riotous knight, so “Oldcastle” became “Falstaff”.

We aren’t given much detail about what happened between Falstaff and King Henry in the play. We are told that the king has rejected him, and then we are informed of his death. We aren’t sure why Shakespeare didn’t include Falstaff in this play as he was so popular. It might have been because he wanted the audience to focus on King Henry and not be distracted by Falstaff. Perhaps he intended it as a more serious play. Maybe, now that Henry was king, there would be no time for Falstaff in his life. Or perhaps, referring back to the chronicles, Falstaff, if he were based on Oldcastle, had fled to Wales and there was a whole other story going on there that might have distracted from Henry’s story. It might have been easier just to kill the character off, rather than have to explain where he was and what had happened.

There is a picture in Holinshed’s Chronicles of of some traitors being executed on the gallows and the story that goes with it tells of many traitors all meeting, presumably to arrange the execution of King Henry. At the beginning of the play, the King has to deal with traitors at home before he can successfully fight the war abroad. He needs a united country behind him. So, he ruthlessly executes Cambridge, Grey and Scroop, three potential traitors, perhaps as a warning to others. He is now king and not the playful Prince Harry he once was. There is no mention of the larger group, though.

Unifying the nation is the first step before fighting a successful war and there may well be something of a message for Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers. During this time, as Shakespeare wrote his play, there were some unhappy people in England. Elizabeth wasn’t particularly popular and neither was the Protestant settlement. 

The next illustration in the chronicles shows some French ambassadors. Shakespeare wrote into his next scene the story of how the French ambassadors brought tennis balls as a gift for Henry. They were not received well. The French were suggesting that the king stick to playing games as he was not worthy of fighting against the French. This seems to follow the story in the Chronicles quite closely.

The play then moves to France, where Henry makes his famous speech to the soldiers:


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

This is, perhaps the most famous speech in the play. Most people have at least heard, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” Henry defeats the French at Harfleur and takes the town. In the Chronicles there is much more detail about how the people of Harfleur are sent away and the land and property given to English tradesmen, merchants and “plowmen”.

Henry makes it quite clear, in the play and in the Chronicles, that no man is to steal from the French churches. Therefore, he is very hard on one of the men when he takes some silver from a local church. He has the man executed for stealing. The real difference between these two descriptions of events is that Shakespeare writes the thief as one of King Henry’s friends. Therefore, he makes it far more personal.

We notice this difference a lot in the play. The Chronicles are very matter of fact and not very personal. However, Shakespeare, for example,  includes the soldier’s points of view in his play. He creates characters that relate to the lower classes in the audience.

Shakespeare also creates these three characters, Fluellen (from Wales), Jamy (from Scotland), and MacMorris (from Ireland). There are a lot of theories about why these three characters were invented and what Shakespeare intended them for. Maybe, for comic effect as he does write the parts as though the characters have very strong accents. He also makes them very stereotypical, almost cartoon characters in some ways. For example I did notice that Fluellen says “look you” an awful lot. You’ll also notice that, quite often, Shakespeare uses a “p” instead of a “b” in some words when he writes Fluellen’s part in the script. This is to emphasise his Welsh accent.

This scene is from Act III, Scene VI:


Ay, so please your majesty. The Duke of Exeter has
very gallantly maintained the pridge: the French is
gone off, look you; and there is gallant and most
prave passages; marry, th’ athversary was have
possession of the pridge; but he is enforced to
retire, and the Duke of Exeter is master of the
pridge: I can tell your majesty, the duke is a
prave man.

He is a very likeable character, though, and portrayed as a good captain and very competent at his job.

At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, England and Ireland were at war. I wonder if that influenced his idea of what a stereotypical Irishman was. Shakespeare’s Irish character, MacMorris, seems to me a very fiery, almost savage character who can’t wait for the battle to start. He is also very defensive when Fluellen mentions his nation in this excerpt from Act III, Scene II:


Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your
correction, there is not many of your nation–


Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation? Who talks of my nation?


Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is
meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think
you do not use me with that affability as in
discretion you ought to use me, look you: being as
good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of
war, and in the derivation of my birth, and in
other particularities.


I do not know you so good a man as myself: so
Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.

Captain Jamy is Shakespeare’s Scottish character. To me, he isn’t a particularly important or even memorable character. I wonder if Shakespeare only included him as a nod to James I, bearing in mind that it was likely that he would soon take the crown?

There are several other big differences between the Chronicles and Shakespeare’s play. I think a lot of the changes were made and new scenes added to make the characters more human and to evoke sympathy from the audience.

The scene that takes place the night before the battle of Agincourt, where the King dresses in an old cloak and goes amongst the common soldiers, is totally fictitious, but it gives us an insight into how the men are feeling and what their thoughts are on the battle. It causes Henry to question whether or not he is doing the right thing by attacking the French and putting all these lives in danger, especially when one of the soldiers, Williams says:


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
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

Henry becomes a much more complicated character than the one portrayed in the chronicles. Shakespeare wants us to think about whether or not war is justified and he encourages us to care about each of the characters, whether they are common soldiers, nobility or royalty.

The Battle of Agincourt

Then follows the big battle against the French. The English have a much smaller army and many of them have fallen ill. They know it is going to be a tough battle and not all will survive. Here, Henry makes his second famous speech to his men:


What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

These speeches have been compared to those of Elizabeth I, when she addressed her men before the battle of Tilbury in 1588. There are a few different versions recorded, but this seems to be the most popular:

My loving people,

         We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Shakespeare’s speeches have also been compared to those of Winston Churchill’s during WWII.

The Art of War

Henry V is a very patriotic play and it is a celebration of an English military triumph. It is written a decade after the victory of the Armada and things are not going so well for the English in their fight against Ireland. Maybe this play is intended to boost the English morale. In the play, the English are victorious in both battles, even though they have a smaller army than the French and they are tired and many sick by the time they fight the Battle of Agincourt. Still, they triumph, and their win is, to Henry, another sign that God is on his side.

Still, for such a religious man, Henry is very brutal, perhaps even too brutal? He kills two French prisoners in cold blood which went against the “Laws of Arms”. There were many wars in Shakespeare’s day and there were handbooks about the art of war.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have a number of books by different authors from around the world, all setting out the the art of war.

They include an English translation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s, “The Art of War”, from 1588. The picture shows an earlier English translation from 1573.


There is also a translation of another Italian text from 1588, called, “Most briefe tables to know redily how manie ranckes of footmen armed with corslettes go to the making of a just battaile. Next a very easie and approved way to arme a battaile with Harkabuzers.”  A Harkabuzer, or Arkabuzer is a type of long gun.

There is another book from 1588 called “Certaine waies for the ordering of souldiours in battailes, and the setting of battailes. And, moreover, how to make Saltpetre, Gunpowder, and divers sortes of Fireworks or Wilde Fire, with other things pertayning to the wars.” Gunpowder was crucial to warfare at the time.

They also have a treatise from 1587 called “The Art of War”, it is a lengthy treatise by an Englishman called William Gerrard.

What is made clear in all of these treatises is how you deal with prisoners. You were expected to look after them and treat them well. Then you could use them for ransom. If a soldier caught a prisoner himself, he would be entitled to the ransom money as part of his pay.

It is clear that Henry has a brutal side and Shakespeare stresses this throughout the play. Henry is a new king and desperate to show his power. However, is this war a just war? Is war ever just? Shakespeare poses that question to his audience, but it is never answered. This is something he tends to do in all of his plays. He leaves questions for his audience to ponder and discuss even after the play has ended. He often explores the great political, social, historical and human issues of the day. Although, these issues are often timeless. They speak to us as much today as they did to audiences 400 years ago.

I must thank our Professor Jonathan Bate, our course educator for all the information in my blog, although I have explored some of the issues we discussed this week a little more deeply and may have included information from other people, too. I must admit that I have found Henry V the hardest play to read so far, maybe because of my lack of knowledge when it comes to history and warfare. Still, I know far more now than I did at the beginning of the week.

Next week we will be reading The Merchant of Venice and discussing Shakespeare’s London and how finance worked.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

John Anster Fitzgerald, Titania and the Changeling  A Midsummer Night's Dream

This was the focus for week three of our Future Learn online course, Shakespeare and his World. This week we looked at “The Birth of Theatre” and used the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to give us clues as to how a play would have been put together and rehearsed in Shakespeare’s Britain. Please click on the link to read the play, or there are some good film versions if you prefer to watch. I watched this movie starring Kevin Kline as Bottom and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania , but I also heard that this version from 1935 is very good. There are probably lots of others out there, too. If you can get to see it live, then all the better.

Shakespeare and the Theatre

Shakespeare’s first experience of the theatre possibly occurred at school, when he and the other boys would have put on short plays within the classroom. It is most likely that they would have acted them out in Latin. Around this time, touring players travelled throughout the country, visiting market towns such as Stratford. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have the account book of the Stratford Corporation from the time that John Shakespeare, William’s father, was chamberlain. It records all the payments that were made and there is a reference to a payment made to the Queen’s Players for 20 shillings. That was a lot of money in those days. During the time that John Shakespeare was keeping accounts of the Corporation, we see a marked rise in the number of visits from travelling players. Perhaps this means that he, too was interested in the theatre. The plays would have been performed in the local town hall and young William Shakespeare would have had a front-row seat. In later years, the Puritan Protestants took over the town and didn’t like the theatre at all. Interestingly, in 1622, the King’s Men passed through Stratford-upon-Avon and were actually paid by the Corporation not to put on a play! In this respect it is lucky that Shakespeare was born those few years earlier, otherwise he might never have seen a play at all. We can only imagine how this would have changed the history of theatre. Plays were not only staged for the townsfolk. They would also have been put on for the royal family and the aristocracy to mark special occasions. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play is put on especially to celebrate the wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens and Hippolyta.

On the 9th July 1575, Queen Elizabeth I visited Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. He lived in Kenilworth Castle, just down the road from Stratford. This would have been a very exciting event for the young Shakespeare and it is thought that people came to Kenilworth from all over the area, to try and get a glimpse of the queen. I wonder if Shakespeare was one of those people? All sorts of entertainment would have been arranged for the queen’s visit, including dramatic performances. Could a young William have spied some of the actors performing? In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, the king of the fairies, describes to his fairy follower, Puck, the origin of the magical flower called “love-in-idleness”. This magical flower, when put on someone’s eyes as the sleep, ensures that when they wake they will fall in love with the first person they see. The origin, as told by Oberon, is that the magical powers come from the dart of Cupid, the God of love. The dart was originally aimed at a fair queen , but was diverted, landing on the flower instead. The queen remained a virgin.

sir Joseph patons-oberon

This passage is from Act II, Scene I, where Oberon describes the origin of the flower to Puck:


My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememberest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.


I remember.


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 loosed 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.
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

Scholars have often wondered whether this “fair vestal throned by the west…who is chaste”, a reference to Queen Elizabeth I who was, of course known as the “Virgin Queen”. There was a lot of gossip at the time about her close relationship with Robert Dudley, although it was never known for sure what happened between them. The earlier image of the mermaid on a dolphin’s back and the idea of the sea growing civil at the mermaid’s song, is an interesting one, too. It was said to have been taken from a scene that was acted out for the queen during the festivities at Kenilworth during that 1575 visit. This makes it even more probable that Shakespeare did catch sight of the players at some time, although I suppose he may have heard about the plays from the town gossips and kept the idea in his head.

The London Theatre

ElizabethanLondon Scene from Anonymous

In the late 1580s, Shakespeare headed to London and he eventually found himself a job in the theatrical profession. This was a fascinating time for theatre with brand new, purpose-built playhouses putting on plays all year round and charging entrance fees for the first time. Nothing like this had ever been seen before in Elizabethan England. London was dominated by strongly Protestant businessmen who were sometimes quite Puritan in their beliefs. They also didn’t like theatres because they found that often, apprentices would go off for lunch, have a few drinks and end up in the theatre for the afternoon instead of returning to work. So, theatre was banned in central London and pushed out to the suburbs. Some were in Shoreditch, in the East End and others were in Southwark on the South Bank of the River Thames. 


This picture shows London Bridge, the only bridge across the Thames at that time. It would have had houses and shops on it and it was the only way, apart from sailing across the Thames, that you could get to the South Bank. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns a lovely print of London Bridge, by John Norden. It has some lovely detail in it and even shows a severed head on a pole at the gatehouse! You would have been able to see these as you walked across the bridge, a reminder to all that would-be traitors would not be tolerated. All plays were first read by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain, who was the official of the court in charge of public and royal entertainment. Shakespeare had to keep many different people in mind while writing. His plays had to appeal to the everyday city folk who crossed the bridge to come and watch them. They also had to be suitable for putting on in court for the royals and the aristocrats who would have watched them there. Perhaps this is why his plays always have such a mixture of upper and lower class people in them. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, you have Duke Theseus and his Queen, Hippolyta – this is the royal court. Then you have the well-to-do characters, such as Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia. Then there are the so-called “rude mechanicals”, the working men who put on the play. Of course, Shakespeare himself would have been one of these working men and quite often actors were looked down on at the time. They at least had the chance to play the parts of the kings and queens and wear their fine robes.  

This is a picture of the Swan Theatre in Paris Garden, Surrey. de-witt We don’t have any surviving pictures of The Globe itself. However, in 1596 a Dutch traveller and student called Johannes de Witt attended a play at the Swan Theatre in London. He drew a sketch of the theatre and sent it to his friend, Arend van Buchell with a letter. Buchell copied the sketch, and that is the copy we have here. We know from some of his other drawings that he wasn’t very good at perspective! So, some of the dimensions and details are not quite right, but it is all we have. When Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was reconstructed for the new Globe on Bankside, this drawing was very much the model that was used.


The following excerpt comes from this site about The Swan Theatre.

From the diary of Johannes de Witt:

“There are four amphitheatres in London so beautiful that they are worth a visit, which are given different names from their different signs. In these theatres, a different play is offered to the public every day. The two more excellent of these are situated on the other side of the Thames, towards the South, and they are called the Rose and the Swan from their signboards. There are two other theatres outside the city towards the North, on the road that leads through the Episcopal Gate called Bishopsgate in the vernacular. There is also a fifth, but of a different structure, intended for fights of animals, in which many bears, bulls, and dogs of stupendous size are held in different cages and behind fences, which are kept for the fight to provide a most pleasant spectacle to the people. The most outstanding of all the theatres, however, and the largest, is that whose sign is the swan (in the vernacular, the theatre of the swan), as it seats 3000 people. It is built out of flint stones stacked on top of each other (of which there is great store in Britain), supported by wooden pillars which, by their painted marble colour, can deceive even the most acute observers. As its form seems to bear the appearance of a Roman work, I have made a drawing of it”

The Rose Theatre by Johannes de Witt

This is a painting of “ The Rose Theatre” by Johan de Wit. It gives you the idea of what it would have been like inside an Elizabethan Amphitheatre. The Rose Theatre website tells you all about plans to preserve the archaeological site on London’s Bankside and create a visitor and performance centre.  What we can see from both pictures is a foreground, known as the “yard” or “pit”. That is where the people who paid a penny stood and watched the play. They were nicknamed the “groundlings”, after the fish that bob up to the surface with their mouths open! The lower class people would have stood here. They may well have stood, looking up at the performers, with their mouths open, overawed with what they saw on stage and so looking a bit like the fish! In the summer they were often named the “stinkards”, for obvious reasons. If you were a little bit richer or more upper class, you would pay an extra penny and have a seat, maybe even a cushion if you felt extravagant. You would also be sheltered from the rain.

You can see in the drawings, three layers of the gallery. Sitting above and to either side of the stage were the “Lord’s Rooms”. These were private galleries where the nobility sat and they would have been the most expensive, costing around 5d. The audience didn’t have a particularly good view from there, but they could hear the play better in what could sometimes be quite a noisy theatre. Also, it was more important to be seen, than to see. They would arrive in all the latest fashions and show off to the paupers beneath them. I have read, although it could be rumour, that some even used to walk in late, so that everyone would stare at them. They would stop the play and demand the actors start again! Half of the stage was covered by a canopy, as you can see in the top drawing. This would have been covered in something like the signs of the zodiac, clouds or stars. It would represent the heavens. At the back of the stage were two doors where the actors would make their entrances and exits. Often Shakespeare would have actors coming in from either side. This might represent them being on opposite sides during a play about war, for example. Above, there is a raised area, which we can tell from stage directions, was sometimes used for scenes in which people would speak at a window. The most famous example of this is in “Romeo and Juliet”, where Juliet speaks out of her bedroom window. We often think of it now as a balcony, but nowhere in the original  script does it mention a balcony. It was always a window. Right at the top there was a flag that showed a picture representing the name of  the theatre. You can see in the painting a picture of a rose on the flag of the Rose Theatre. What we see is that it is a one room theatre, a place where the actors and the audience shared the same space. The audience were much more a part of the play and when Shakespeare’s characters spoke their soliloquys, they were sharing their thoughts with the audience.


Public Theatre and Court Theatre

In the older days of theatre, the players would perform in the yards of taverns and then pass the hat around afterwards. Once theatre buildings were erected in the 1570s and 80s, you would have a regular repertoire, you’d put on a play at the same time every afternoon, you would charge a fixed fee and people would have to pay to come in.


The money was collected in a cheap little pot with a slot in the side, so that the “gatherers” who collected it couldn’t steal any! When the play had started, the pots would be taken backstage, smashed, and the pennies counted up. The example in the picture is a beautiful original money pot kept at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. There were not many found as, understandably, not that many survived. Sometimes they were called money boxes, which is where the phrase “box-office” comes from. Although women didn’t take any of the leading parts in the plays, it is a myth that they were banned from the stage. There probably would have been women working back stage as make-up artists, dressmakers and wig makers, helping out in the tire room, so called because that is where the actors would put on their attire. Some may have been gatherers, collecting money in their pots and then later on, acting a small part on the stage. Boys would have taken the parts of the female characters. They would have been taken on as apprentices at about 13 years old and then served their apprenticeship for seven years, or until their voices broke, when they would have begun to play the male characters. Boys’ voices didn’t break until they were a lot older in those days because of the unhealthy diet and way of life. So, a “boy” of maybe 19 or 20 year’s old may have played the more challenging roles, such as Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth. By the time they had their elaborate costumes on and wigs and make-up all done, they were apparently quite convincing ladies. In my internet search I have read several times that they would use a lead based product to whiten their faces. Sadly a lot of the boys apparently got lead poisoning which gave them terrible infections on their faces and sometimes even lead to death! The character of Thisbe in the play they put on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a woman who, as there are no ladies in the group, must be played by one of the men. They have no young boys in their group, so they give the part to the youngest man. I think Shakespeare used this to make a joke about boys playing the female roles in theatre. I wonder how he really felt about it and whether or not he wished that women could become professional actors?

Acting companies not only played in the theatres, they would also make money from giving command performances at court. Act V, Scene I, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Theseus and Hippolyta ask for entertainment to be put on at their wedding gives us a lovely insight into the mechanics of court performance:


Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have,
To wear away this long age of three hours
Between our after-supper and bed-time?
Where is our usual manager of mirth?
What revels are in hand? Is there no play,
To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?
Call Philostrate.


Here, mighty Theseus.


Say, what abridgement have you for this evening?
What masque? what music? How shall we beguile
The lazy time, if not with some delight?

The word “abridgement” suggests that plays were flexible in length and could be cut or “abridged” if the court wanted to see a shorter play. There is evidence that sometimes Shakespeare’s plays were abridged. Others, in our discussion, believe that Theseus uses the term “abridgement” to mean something that will bridge the gap between dinner and bed time.

Philostrate, or in some scripts it is the character Egeus, offers a wide choice of entertainment to while away the evening:


There is a brief how many sports are ripe:
Make choice of which your highness will see first.

Giving a paper


[Reads] ‘The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung
By an Athenian eunuch to the harp.’
We’ll none of that: that have I told my love,
In glory of my kinsman Hercules.


‘The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals,
Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage.’
That is an old device; and it was play’d
When I from Thebes came last a conqueror.


‘The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary.’
That is some satire, keen and critical,
Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.


‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?


A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious; for in all the play
There is not one word apt, one player fitted:
And tragical, my noble lord, it is;
For Pyramus therein doth kill himself.
Which, when I saw rehearsed, I must confess,
Made mine eyes water; but more merry tears
The passion of loud laughter never shed.


What are they that do play it?


Hard-handed men that work in Athens here,
Which never labour’d in their minds till now,
And now have toil’d their unbreathed memories
With this same play, against your nuptial.


And we will hear it.


No, my noble lord;
It is not for you: I have heard it over,
And it is nothing, nothing in the world;
Unless you can find sport in their intents,
Extremely stretch’d and conn’d with cruel pain,
To do you service.


I will hear that play;
For never anything can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it.
Go, bring them in: and take your places, ladies.


So, the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” is chosen and played by Peter Quince, Nick Bottom and the other rude mechanicals.


Casting The Play

There was only one master copy of the complete script because, obviously in those days, everything had to be written out by hand. The prompter would have the master copy with all the stage directions in it and he would keep this backstage. He would copy out all the lines of the play and then give out the “parts” to each of the actors. There would be a cue line at the beginning of each part, so that the actor knew when to come in. One of the running jokes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that the actors keep getting their cues wrong and they come in too early, or not at all! Shakespeare worked closely with his group of actors and he knew them all well. He knew their strengths and weaknesses and what types of roles they enjoyed playing. He would have written specifically for his main actors and would have them in mind when creating the characters. The company clown in the 1590s was Will Kempe. In the early 1600s it was a man called Robert Armin. They would have played the fool. An actor would have become typecast then, a little like they might today if they continually play the same kind of character. Of course, some of the regular actors became like modern day celebrities and people would go and see a play just to watch their favourite player. This scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the actors receiving their roles:


Marry, our play is, The most lamentable comedy, and
most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.


A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a
merry. Now, good Peter Quince, call forth your
actors by the scroll. Masters, spread yourselves.


Answer as I call you. Nick Bottom, the weaver.


Ready. Name what part I am for, and proceed.


You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.


What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?


A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.


That will ask some tears in the true performing of
it: if I do it, let the audience look to their
eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some
measure. To the rest: yet my chief humour is for a
tyrant: I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to
tear a cat in, to make all split.
The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus’ car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates.
This was lofty! Now name the rest of the players.
This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein; a lover is
more condoling.

Bottom is the fool in the play and, although he cannot act at all, he feels he is a good all-rounder and can play any part. As the scene goes on he tries to take all the parts on himself and tries to show his diverse acting skills! This is one of my favourite parts of the play.

Pyramus and Thisbe


Click on the picture to read about the original “Pyramus and Thisbe”” story, on which the play within the play is based.               




The scene where the group put on the play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is one of the funniest sequences of all Shakespeare’s plays and he is laughing at himself and the acting profession. He includes some particularly bad poetry in the “script”, mocking himself once again:


O grim-look’d night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisby’s promise is forgot!
And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!

The on-stage “audience”, the reunited lovers and the courtiers, are an important part of the action and they tease the players, sometimes nicely and sometimes quite meanly. Snug plays the part of the lion and he is worried about scaring the ladies in the audience. He feels it necessary to take off his “lion’s head” and show the audience that it is, in fact, just a prop and underneath it is he, Snug the joiner!


You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
Then know that I, one Snug the joiner, am
A lion-fell, nor else no lion’s dam;
For, if I should as lion come in strife
Into this place, ’twere pity on my life.


(Then we hear the “audience” commenting on what they are watching. )



A very gentle beast, of a good conscience.


The very best at a beast, my lord, that e’er I saw.


This lion is a very fox for his valour.


True; and a goose for his discretion.


Not so, my lord; for his valour cannot carry his discretion; and the fox carries the goose.


His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valour; for the goose carries not the fox.


Bottom on Stage


Of course, earlier in the play, Bottom would have worn a stage prop of an asses head, but that was different because it was meant to be real. Puck really did turn Bottom into an ass! Of course the audience know the difference, but on some level the play is trying to get them to believe that man really did become beast in that dreamy, romantic scene in the forest. Now they are back, everything is reality again and a lion is just a man wearing a prop of a lion’s head. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns a lovely sketch of the scene where Bottom’s head is transformed into that of an ass. His fellow actors are all shocked at the sight, while Bottom is completely ignorant of what has just happened and can’t understand their dismay. The picture shown is a similar example.

Quarto and Folio

None of Shakespeare’s original scripts that would have been held backstage have survived. Fortunately, almost all the plays appeared in print. Half were published during his lifetime in pocket editions called Quartos, because the paper was folded four times over. They were cheap little books, sold in book stalls in the yard of St. Pauls Cathedral. Thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays were gathered up after his death by fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell. They put them all together and published them as the “First Folio” of complete plays. The folio was expensive and elaborately produced. 750 copies were printed, out of which it is believed that 230 survive. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have three copies, one of which is currently on display in the “Shakespeare’s Treasures” exhibition. It is interesting to compare copies of the Folios and the Quartos. We find many differences in the words of plays and even the characters. In the 1623 Folio, Philostrate, the “manager of mirth” that we met at the beginning, has disappeared by the end of the play. Instead of calling for him, Theseus calls for Egeus, Hermia’s father to bring the list of entertainment, Egeus then hands it to Lysander. Maybe this is changed deliberately to show that Egeus has accepted Lysander as his son-in-law, as at the beginning of the play he was totally against the marriage. We don’t know why these things were changed over time. Perhaps actors were only available for certain scenes, or maybe the players changed the words as they were often known to, and those words were the ones recorded. We’ll never know.

The Impact of Indoor Theatre


In 1608 the King’s Men leased the indoor “Blackfriars Playhouse”. It was smaller and far more intimate than the Globe, which they still used in the summer months. Blackfriars was originally a Dominican Monastery that got its name from the black habits that the friars used to wear. Click on the picture to find out more about the history of Blackfriars. John Burbage bought the building in 1596 and spent an enormous sum converting it into a theatre. However, residents protested and the Chamberlain’s Men were unable to use it. John’s two sons, Cuthbert and Richard inherited the theatre and were finally able to make use of it for their group in 1608. The residents were still not happy and tried again to close the theatre in 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death. They were unsuccessful this time due to the intervention of the Privy Council.

Now that they had an indoor theatre, the King’s Men were able to do much more. They could put on plays throughout the whole of the year and they could charge much more for entrance fees. This meant that they attracted a different, slightly more upper class audience. Everyone had a seat now and the audience was much smaller, just 700, compared to the 3,000 that they would get at the Globe. They introduced more scenery and had better costumes, too, without the threat of them being ruined by the English weather. Candles were used inside the theatres which created a completely different atmosphere to that of the open air Globe. If they wanted to, the company could put on evening plays, although it seems that they still preferred the afternoons for their performances. The candles would often burn down half way through a long play, which is why intervals were added. This gave the staff a chance to replenish the candles and the audience could buy food and drinks while they waited.

The acoustics in the theatres would have been much better and so the audience probably would have been able to hear the actors more clearly, they wouldn’t have had to rely so much on physically acting out the script to be understood. Words became more important. Also, the indoor theatres provided the opportunity to use more special effects. Of course, they would be nothing compared to what our theatres can do today, but it would have been a whole new experience to Elizabethan theatre goers. Music was included in a much bigger way and trap doors and overhead pulleys and wires could be used to hang props or lower the players onto the stage.

So, we imagine that with all these differences and new opportunities, Shakespeare would have written his plays in a slightly different way. Perhaps he would have been more focused on the language and poetry used. It is said that he wrote “The Tempest” especially for Blackfriars Playhouse. He made use of the in house musicians and magicians to create the atmosphere he wanted and apparently he used to enjoy scaring the audience and making them jump with loud sounds and special effects he used to open the play.

the-interior-of-the-sam-wanamaker-playhouse- by-Pete Le May

This picture shows the interior of the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse which was apparently based on Blackfriars. It is known as the “Indoor Globe” and they use candles to light it, just as they would have done in Shakespeare’s day. This picture was taken by Pete le May. See more photos of the Sam Wanamaker here.  


Next week we will be reading Henry V and looking at Shakespeare’s understanding of the world at war.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

This week we have focused on Shakespeare’s most farcical play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Of all his plays, this is the one that seems the closest to his own experience of small-town life and his upbringing in Stratford.

Christopher Saxton’s Map of Warwickshire

Map of Warwickshire

This map was commissioned in 1579 by Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Chief Minister. Saxton made a map of England and 34 others, each of the counties into which the country was then divided. It was the first accurate representation of the geography of England.

It is believed that Shakespeare was the only dramatist of his time to set plays in rural England, in particular, Gloucestershire.

Stratford was a small town compared to London. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, a Gloucester Justice of the Peace, Justice Shallow, and his friends, come up to Windsor. There are also references to the Cotswolds, the hills around Stratford, and even Banbury cheese, Banbury being a nearby town in Oxfordshire.

When Shakespeare arrived in London, we imagine that he must have been seen as a bit of a country bumpkin. He probably had a strong Warwickshire accent and hadn’t been to Oxford or Cambridge university, where many of the other graduates would have lost their regional accents and learned to speak ‘the Queen’s English’.

John Shakespeare, Bailiff of Stratford

William’s father, John Shakespeare, was born in the village of Snitterfield in 1531. He was born into a farming family.

In 1551, he moved into the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and set himself up as a businessman. He became a very successful glover.

He worked hard and did well, eventually getting a position on the town council, the Stratford Corporation. He started as an ale-taster and worked his way up to constable and chamberlain, looking after the town council’s accounts.

In 1564, William was born and then, in 1568, John became High Bailiff. He was given a silver mace which was a sign of authority and respect. He would have chaired meetings of the town council and served as justice of the peace. This would have made him a well recognised and well respected man in Stratford. His position also meant that his son, William, could attend the local grammar school free of charge. John Shakespeare’s High Bailiff title meant that he was now a gentleman and could call himself ‘Master John Shakespeare’. As class and social status were so important in Shakespeare’s day, this would have been a very important honour for the whole family.

It seems that John had done very well for himself. He had worked his way up from a yeoman farmer, to a businessman and then to a gentleman. However, this title was not to last. John Shakespeare started to overstretch himself and he began dealing in wool on the side, which was illegal at that time. He then got involved in moneylending or, what was called ‘usuary’, also illegal.

In the 1570s there was a credit crunch and John Shakespeare found himself in a lot of debt. By 1576 he had resigned from the town council. He was in trouble with the law and had come very close to being arrested several times. If the rumours are to be believed he became a nasty figure in Stratford and instead of being respected, he ended up hated by many who had lost their homes due to him. He became a disgrace to his family.

William was a teenager at this time and would have had to leave the grammar school. We wonder what other effects his father’s actions had on him. The best way to find out is to look at what he did next and then look into some of his plays for clues.

The Importance of the Coat of Arms

Shakespeare Coat of Arms

We know that William Shakespeare wanted a family coat of arms. After the actions of his father and his family’s decline, it seems clear that one of the reasons he wanted this so much was to restore some family pride.

We believe that Shakespeare wanted to be a gentleman. Perhaps he had had enough of being mocked, possibly by his peers in Stratford and then by his fellow playwrights in London. He was writing The Merry Wives of Windsor at around the same time he applied for his family coat of arms and he shows that it is on his mind as he includes references to them in the play.

In Act I, Scene I, Justice Shallow, the justice of the peace from Gloucester, is in a dispute with another character, Falstaff. In this scene Shakespeare includes a lot of technical language to do with heraldry and coats of arms. The Justice is a gentleman and demands respect. His cousin (or nephew?) Slender, also joins in and backs him up as he says,

Ay, and ‘Rato-lorum’ too; and a gentleman born,
master parson; who writes himself ‘Armigero,’ in any
bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation, ‘Armigero.’”

‘Armigero’ meaning the right to bear arms, a sign of respectability. Justice Shallow then answers with,

Ay, that I do; and have done any time these three
hundred years.”

By this he means that his family has held their coat of arms for three hundred years.

The next few lines are interesting as scholars believe that they refer to an incident that may have been the cause of Shakespeare’s leaving Stratford.

Thomas Brooks - Shakespeare Before Sir Thomas Lucy 1857

There was a local gentleman called Sir Thomas Lucy who lived at Charlecote, just outside Stratford. The story goes that Shakespeare was caught poaching game from Lucy’s deer park. The Lucy coat of arms had three ‘luce’, or pike, on it.

The Lucy Coat of Arms

Some scholars believe that the following reference to the ‘luces’ on the coat of arms and another character, Sir Hugh Evans, mishearing it for “louses”, may have been a joke at the expense of the Lucy family:


All his successors gone before him hath done’t; and
all his ancestors that come after him may: they may
give the dozen white luces in their coat.


It is an old coat.


The dozen white louses do become an old coat well;
it agrees well, passant; it is a familiar beast to
man, and signifies love.


The luce is the fresh fish; the salt fish is an old coat.

Perhaps, by gaining a family coat of arms, Shakespeare wanted to restore his own pride, as well as the rest of the family’s. Also, Shakespeare had two daughters and, as a gentleman, he could marry them off to a better class of man than if he remained just an ordinary playwright. These were all motives for moving up the social scale.

The Horn Book


The ‘horn book’ was what most children in Shakespeare’s time used to learn to read. It had the letters of the alphabet written on it, in both upper and lower case. It also taught them the five vowels and vowel sounds, and would probably have had a copy of the Lord’s Prayer written on it, too. It would have been mostly boys that used a horn book because girls, at that time, did not receive very much academic education and would not have gone to school.

It was made of wood, bone or sometimes leather and was rectangular with a handle at the bottom. It got its name from the thin layer of horn that protected the writing from grubby little fingers, making it durable and reusable. Interestingly, the boys would have learned to read before they started learning to write. As many boys left school early, they may have been able to read and identify all the letters of the alphabet, but they couldn’t write a word. Some may have been able to write their name, but not much else.

The following scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor, mirrors what Shakespeare would have learned at school. Interestingly, the child in the play is called William and his teacher, Sir Hugh Evans, is Welsh. Shakespeare was taught by a Welshman at his grammar school.


How now, Sir Hugh! no school to-day?


No; Master Slender is let the boys leave to play.


Blessing of his heart!


Sir Hugh, my husband says my son profits nothing in
the world at his book. I pray you, ask him some
questions in his accidence.


Come hither, William; hold up your head; come.


Come on, sirrah; hold up your head; answer your
master, be not afraid.


William, how many numbers is in nouns?




Truly, I thought there had been one number more,
because they say, ”Od’s nouns.’


Peace your tattlings! What is ‘fair,’ William?




Polecats! there are fairer things than polecats, sure.


You are a very simplicity ‘oman: I pray you peace.
What is ‘lapis,’ William?


A stone.


And what is ‘a stone,’ William?


A pebble.


No, it is ‘lapis:’ I pray you, remember in your prain.




That is a good William. What is he, William, that
does lend articles?


Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus
declined, Singulariter, nominativo, hic, haec, hoc.


Nominativo, hig, hag, hog; pray you, mark:
genitivo, hujus. Well, what is your accusative case?


Accusativo, hinc.


I pray you, have your remembrance, child,
accusative, hung, hang, hog.


‘Hang-hog’ is Latin for bacon, I warrant you.


Leave your prabbles, ‘oman. What is the focative
case, William?


O,–vocativo, O.


Remember, William; focative is caret.


And that’s a good root.


‘Oman, forbear.




What is your genitive case plural, William?


Genitive case!




Genitive,–horum, harum, horum.


Vengeance of Jenny’s case! fie on her! never name
her, child, if she be a whore.


For shame, ‘oman.


You do ill to teach the child such words: he
teaches him to hick and to hack, which they’ll do
fast enough of themselves, and to call ‘horum:’ fie upon you!


‘Oman, art thou lunatics? hast thou no
understandings for thy cases and the numbers of the
genders? Thou art as foolish Christian creatures as
I would desires.


Prithee, hold thy peace.


Show me now, William, some declensions of your pronouns.


Forsooth, I have forgot.


It is qui, quae, quod: if you forget your ‘quies,’
your ‘quaes,’ and your ‘quods,’ you must be
preeches. Go your ways, and play; go.


He is a better scholar than I thought he was.

William is tested on his knowledge of  Latin ‘accidents’ or ‘grammar’.  While it may be quite autobiographical and something that other boys in the audience might sympathise with, this could have been a dull scene. So, Shakespeare includes Mistress Quickly as a bit of fun. She doesn’t understand Latin, as she wouldn’t have been taught it, so she mishears a lot of the words as English, putting some humour into this scene.

Some of the English words have slightly changed meaning, so this scene is probably not as funny today as we would have found it had we lived in Elizabethan England. ‘Polecats’, for example, was another name for prostitutes. This would have been what the audience had in mind when Mistress Quickly says,

Polecats! there are fairer things than polecats, sure.

Lily’s Grammar

Lily's Grammar

Boys would have gone on to learn Latin grammar from this book, Lily’s Grammar. They would have learned by rote from 8am to 6pm every day. It would have been very repetitive!

Lily taught advanced forms of grammar through quotations, using examples from the great poets of ancient Rome. This would have been Shakespeare’s first taste of poetry. It is very likely that one of the authors most studied would have been Ovid and so Shakespeare would have read ‘Ovid’s Metamorphosis’, the poem that went on to inspire so many of his own poems and plays.

Ovid and The Merry Wives of Windsor

It is easy to imagine that the young William Shakespeare loved all the stories about the Gods and the Heroes that were featured in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In The Merry Wives of Windsor,  he includes a reference to one of these stories in Act II, Scene I, when Pistol warns Ford that Falstaff is in love with Ford’s wife and so Ford is in danger of being a ‘cuckold’, which basically means a man whose wife is unfaithful. He urges him to hurry and do something before it is too late.


Love my wife!


With liver burning hot. Prevent, or go thou,
Like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels:
O, odious is the name!

The story of Actaeon is the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The story goes that Actaeon was hunting when he stumbled upon the Goddess Diana, the goddess of chastity and purity. She was bathing, naked, with her nymphs and spotted Actaeon. She was angry with him for seeing her naked, so, using the metamorphic power of the gods, she turned Actaeon into a stag. He was hunted down and killed by his own dogs, one of which was called ‘Ringwood’.

This translation by Thomas Bullfinch of Diana and Actaeon, tells the story in far more detail and much more beautifully that I ever could. Although, I notice that he doesn’t mention Ringwood as one of the dogs.

Some of the people in the audience would also have studied Ovid’s Metamorphoses at school and would therefore, likely understood the reference to Actaeon. They would all certainly have known what a cuckold was and so understood the reference to the cuckoo in the next line as the play continues:


What name, sir?


The horn, I say. Farewell.
Take heed, have open eye, for thieves do foot by night:
Take heed, ere summer comes or cuckoo-birds do sing.
Away, Sir Corporal Nym!
Believe it, Page; he speaks sense.

As it happens, it is Falstaff who becomes Actaeon, the stag in the final scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor. He is fooled by the two wives into dressing as Herne the Hunter, and appears in Windsor Park at midnight, wearing horns on his head. As this is a comedy, thankfully Falstaff is not torn to pieces by dogs, but he is, instead, pinched and punched by children dressed as fairies.

THE-MERRY-WIVES-OF-WINDSOR-Paul Cox paintingFalstaff by Eduard Gruetzner

In the speech he gives to the audience when he first arrives at Windsor Park, Falstaff mentions even more of Ovid’s characters from the metamorphoses:


The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute
draws on. Now, the hot-blooded gods assist me!
Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love
set on thy horns. O powerful love! that, in some
respects, makes a beast a man, in some other, a man
a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love
of Leda. O omnipotent Love! how near the god drew
to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in
the form of a beast. O Jove, a beastly fault! And
then another fault in the semblance of a fowl; think
on ‘t, Jove; a foul fault! When gods have hot
backs, what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a
Windsor stag; and the fattest, I think, i’ the
forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can
blame me to piss my tallow? Who comes here? my

Falstaff is making the point that if even God’s turned themselves into animals, or ‘beasts’, to seduce the women they loved, what chance do ‘poor men’ have? They, too will do whatever it takes, which is why he is dressed as a stag and, as Falstaff says, “the fattest, I think, in the forest”.

Jove (Jupiter) turned himself into a bull and lured the king’s daughter, Europa to him. When she trusted him enough he persuaded her to ride on his back and he took her into the sea and carried her to Crete against her will.

Rembrandt, The Abduction of Europa, 1632

Jupiter and Leda is another Greek myth included in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this story, Jupiter turns himself into a swan to seduce Leda, the wife of King Tydnareus of Spain. I love this painting of Leda and the Swan by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, showing their children hatching from eggs. Out of interest, one of those children was Helen of Troy.

Leda and the Swan

Merry Wives

It appears that Shakespeare has a lot of respect for the two wives in his play. No matter what Falstaff tries, the women always manage to outwit him. My favourite scene in the play is where the two women trick Falstaff into the buck basket with all the dirty washing and then have him taken out and thrown in the Thames with all their laundry.  This is Falstaff’s account of the incident as he tells it to the character, ‘Brook’, who is really Master Ford, in disguise.


Nay, you shall hear, Master Brook, what I have
suffered to bring this woman to evil for your good.
Being thus crammed in the basket, a couple of Ford’s
knaves, his hinds, were called forth by their
mistress to carry me in the name of foul clothes to
Datchet-lane: they took me on their shoulders; met
the jealous knave their master in the door, who
asked them once or twice what they had in their
basket: I quaked for fear, lest the lunatic knave
would have searched it; but fate, ordaining he
should be a cuckold, held his hand. Well: on went he
for a search, and away went I for foul clothes. But
mark the sequel, Master Brook: I suffered the pangs
of three several deaths; first, an intolerable
fright, to be detected with a jealous rotten
bell-wether; next, to be compassed, like a good
bilbo, in the circumference of a peck, hilt to
point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in,
like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes
that fretted in their own grease: think of that,–a
man of my kidney,–think of that,–that am as subject
to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution
and thaw: it was a miracle to scape suffocation.
And in the height of this bath, when I was more than
half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be
thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot,
in that surge, like a horse-shoe; think of
that,–hissing hot,–think of that, Master Brook.

The scene draws on the everyday women’s work. It shows how the two ladies easily outwit an old letch like Falstaff. As Shakespeare lived in a culture so influenced by Christianity and by the classics, you can often see where he gets his ideas. Perhaps he had Susannah and the Elders in mind when he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Rubens painting of Susannah and the Elders

This painting illustrates the story of Susanna and the Elders. As she bathes in her garden, having sent her attendants away, two lustful elders secretly observe the lovely Susanna. When she makes her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them.

She refuses to be blackmailed and is arrested and about to be put to death for promiscuity when a young man named Daniel interrupts the proceedings, shouting that the elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent. After being separated, the two men are questioned about details of what they saw but disagree about the tree under which Susanna supposedly met her lover. The false accusers are put to death.

Queen Elizabeth I


The Merry Wives of Windsor is full of witty and resourceful female characters who control much of the action in the play. It was thought that this play was written for Queen Elizabeth I,  herself a strong and powerful woman. She apparently loved the character ‘Falstaff’ from Shakespeare’s previous play, “Henry IV”.  She asked him to write another play based on Falstaff in love and so, The Merry Wives of Windsor came about. I just hope the queen enjoyed the result as much as I did!