Hamlet ~~ Act III Scene IV

Hamlet  ~~  Act III  Scene IV

Hamlet and his Mother
Eugene Delacroix
source Wikimedia Commons
Polonius instructs Gertrude on how to manage Hamlet and hides as he enters.  With Hamlet’s words to her, his mother suspects that he may murder her, and Polonius, answering her cry from behind the arras, is killed by a thrust of Hamlet’s sword. Gertrude is distraught, but Hamlet, while expecting his sword to find the flesh of the king, does not appear particularly disturbed that he has instead slain Polonius.  Instead, he turns to his mother’s crime, bringing her attention to it by a somewhat circuitous route, showing her the pictures of her dead husband and her current husband, and comparing the two with her deeds.  She appears to admit her crime, or at least her sins.  He punishes his mother, flaying her with his words of conviction of her black deeds and Claudius’ heinous actions.

The Ghost enters the room and admits that he has come to agitate Hamlet’s tardy actions, but he also shows concern for Gertrude’s horrified reaction and instructs Hamlet to calm her.  Hamlet speaks to the Ghost, but Gertrude does not see it and fears for Hamlet’s sanity.  Hamlet declares that he is not mad, warning his mother not to turn the focus to madness, but remember her crime and repent of it.  By refraining from going to his uncle’s bed that night, she can begin cultivating good habits within herself.  He cautions her not to tell Claudius that his madness is all contrived, yet for a purpose, to which his mother promises her silence.  And off to England, he will go with his school chums whom he trusts like adders.  Exit Hamlet, dragging away the body of Polonius.

Hamlet devant le corps de Polonius
Eugène Delacroix
source Wikipedia Commons


When speaking with his mother, Hamlet attempts to deny his own heritage, emphasizing how repugnant her action of re-marriage is to him.

While Hamlet seems to regret the death of Polonius on one level, he appears to think that his death was willed by Heaven or fate.  I can understand why Hamlet believes himself a scourge, or executioner, but I’m a little unclear as to why he is a “minister”.  Does he think he is administering justice because Polonius, in effect, is supporting Claudius and Gertrude, and therefore supporting their actions?  He obviously sees Polonius as a brainless busybody, but he also calls him a fool, which perhaps excuses him from some of his actions.

With regard to the Ghost, it is interesting that in this case, Hamlet can see him, but Gertrude cannot.  It might be useful to remember the people who can see the Ghost and those who can’t; it may have some sort of bearing on their character or position in the play.

There are more references to words in this scene.  Polonius was full of them, but they were often meaningless and ridiculous.  Hamlet’s words are twisted, often appearing ridiculous but usually pregnant with meaning.  Does Gertrude use words to cover the realization of her actions, even from herself?

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~~ Act III Scene III

Hamlet  ~~ Act III  Scene III

Claudius concludes that Hamlet is too dangerous to be allowed to remain in Denmark and employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to assist with his removal to England.  Polonius offers to observe Hamlet in his mother’s chambers and, upon his exit, we are treated to a lamenting regret from Claudius that is an insightful commentary on his crime.  He wants forgiveness, wants to be able to continue free from guilt, but his crime lives on, attached to what he has gained from it.  Is forgiveness and purification even within his grasp?  Hamlet comes upon Claudius during his prayers and contemplates murder.  His father had no time to confess his sins before his death, yet here is Claudius confessing his, a perfect time to kill him.  But Hamlet decides to wait until he finds Claudius in the grip of sin and then he’ll despatch him to hell.

La reine sans Hamlet (1895)
Edwin Austin Abbey
source Wikiart


At least Claudius is not so malevolent as to try to bring about Hamlet’s death; at this point he is only prepared to banish him.

I hadn’t realized before how repulsive were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s sycophantic actions.  They claim to be Hamlet’s friends, yet how quick they are to work against him.

What is becoming more clear to me in this play is the theme of thought vs. action (or perhaps inaction vs. action).  Hamlet has been thinking and agonizing, perhaps overmuch, and bemoans his insufficient action, yet in this scene Claudius perhaps feels that his action (the murder of the king) was done with much force of will, yet little thought and is now regretting his precipitous behaviour.  They are both experiencing guilt but from two different, and really opposite, causes.

I was a little confused at Hamlet’s reasoning for not revenging himself on Claudius; because Claudius was at prayer, he’d go to heaven, but if Hamlet could catch him sinning and murder him then, he’d go to hell.  Is this more prevaricating by Hamlet?  Or is it influenced by a Catholic understanding of faith?

Claudius at prayer (1844)
Eugene Delacroix
source Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~~ Act III Scene II

The Play Scene (1897)
Edwin Austen Abbey
source Yale University Art Gallery

Hamlet  ~~ Act III  Scene II

Hamlet gives extremely detailed instructions to the players on how they should be performing the play.  Horatio enters and Hamlet lauds his friendship:
“………………. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee …..”
He entreats Horatio to watch Claudius’ reaction during the murder scene of the play to determine if he is guilty; if he does not react, the ghost that they saw may have only been a figment of their imaginations.  Horatio promises that nothing will get by him.
All enter and sit for the play, Gertrude entreating Hamlet to sit next to her.  He chooses to sit next to Ophelia instead, bantering with her about sex, and then the death of his father.
The players begin their performance, bringing to light the death of the king and having the queen renounce remarriage on the grounds that it’s a confession of murder of the first king.  The play continues and when the murderer pours poison into the king’s ear, Claudius calls for lights and the performance is ended.

Rosencrantz approaches Hamlet at his mother’s bidding to ask his audience in her chamber, then he begs Hamlet to tell him what is bothering him. Guildenstern gets somewhat impatient with Hamlet’s prevaricating and Hamlet responses in anger, accusing him of trying to play him, as he would play a recorder.  Polonius enters and Hamlet spews more nonsense before agreeing to see his mother.  To himself, he promises to be “cruel, but not inhuman,” referring to Nero, who carved out his mother’s womb to see where he had lived before his birth. 

The Play Scene from “Hamlet” (1841)
Daniel Maclise
source Wikimedia Commons


Hamlet’s advice to the players and his careful attention to detail, highlights the importance of the play to him.  It requires a detailed structure and a believable reality to make it highly effective.

Hamlet admires Horatio for mastering his passions, which is curious because Hamlet has so far shown all throughout the play that he has little control over his.  He is admiring what he is not.

With regard to Hamlet’s confession that if Claudius does not show guilt, that the ghost might not have been real, highlights that he is still unsure of his position.  This uncertainly perhaps explains his inaction so far in the play.

As for Claudius and his guilt, Hamlet, in effect, supplies a one man jury, which I suppose is better than nothing, as he is wanting confirmation from someone, other than himself, of the culpability of Claudius.

Why Hamlet concludes Claudius’ ire over the play confirms his guilt, is uncertain.  Claudius could be innocent and simply be angry that Hamlet is obviously accusing him of the first king’s death.  However, the fact that Guildenstern is still asking Hamlet what is the matter with him is suspect.  After the performance, it was blatantly obvious what was on Hamlet’s mind.  That fact indicates that Guildenstern, instead of being concerned about Hamlet, is, in fact, prodding him to confess.  His motives are suspect and Hamlet is certainly justified in his suspicion.

Hamlet ~~ Act III Scene I

Statue of Hamlet from the monument to
William Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon
source Wiki

Hamlet  ~~  Act III  Scene I

Claudius and Gertrude cross-examine Guildenstern and Rosencrantz as to Hamlet’s state of mind.  Claudius senses a purpose in Hamlet’s mad responses and the friends somewhat confirm his suspicion.  The king and queen are delighted that Hamlet has taken interest in the players, unaware of his duplicitous plot.  When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take their leave, Claudius reveals that he is plotting with Polonius to spy on Hamlet & Ophelia to see if his madness has sprung from his love of her, or if there is another possibility.  Polonius gives Ophelia what appears to be a prayer book, so she looks natural, then muses how often pious actions cover up devious intentions.  His words stir up Claudius’ guilt.  They hide and Hamlet enters, delivering the most famous speech in the play:
To be or not to be?  That is the question —
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?  To die, to sleep —
No more — and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to — ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished!  To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream  — ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.  There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?  Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regards their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. —- Soft you, now,
The fair Ophelia! —- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.”
Ophelia reveals that she has mementos of Hamlet’s to return, but Hamlet claims that he has no memory of them.  His words become harsh to her as he tells her he didn’t love her and, since all men are knaves, become entangled with none.  He entreats her to go to a nunnery, since her womanly form and wiles only will cause complications for all.  When Hamlet exits, Ophelia laments his state of mind, and the contrast of his previous self to this madman, which, in her, stirs regretful emotion.
Claudius, with clear insight, concludes Hamlet is not mad for love, but that his actions spring from unknown intent that could be dangerous, therefore, he decides to send him far away to England.  Polonius, however, still believes that Hamlet is lovestruck, and suggests that Gertrude attempt to discover the truth from him.
Hamlet – the “play-with-a-play” (19th century)
Pascal Adolphe & Jean Dagnan-Bourvet
source Wiki


Ophelia (1910)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart
We now have Ophelia reading a book, once again bringing the theme of words again into the play.
While Hamlet’s “lunacy” has appeared rather benign and sometimes silly, Claudius has come to the conclusion that it is dangerous, evidence that he believes that it is cloaking another intent.   While (in the last scene) Hamlet is preparing to set a trap for Claudius, Claudius now sets a trap for Hamlet by spying on him.  Part of Claudius’ suspicions of Hamlet, appear to stem from his own guilt.  When Polonius remarks that people who appear good can act badly, Claudius agonizes:
                       Oh, ‘tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!”
So both Hamlet and Claudius have set or are setting traps, and both have guilt and are struggling with their consciences.
Hamlet’s “To Be” speech is electrifying.  The fear of death keeps people in a life of drudgery and toil and prevents him from commiting suicide.  The unknown is more fearful than the known.  Again he mentions conscience.
Hamlet’s words to Ophelia seem severe and hurtful, but one must remember that Hamlet is so encased in his troubles that Ophelia, being a woman, is, in effect, Gertrude to him, and he has transposed all his mother’s perceived wicked qualities to this young woman. 

Hamlet and Ophelia (1883)
Mikhail Vrubel
source Wikiart

Hamlet Read-Along

Finally, Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice is having her promised Hamlet Read-Along and I am so in!  This play is one of my favourites of Shakespeare’s.  Is Hamlet mad or is he incredibly deceptive, that is the question?

I’ve read this play one and a half times already, so this time I’ll be able to dig even deeper into the characters’ psyches.

Hamlette has also compiled a list of books to read which deal with the play in her post Hamlet 101.  If you are looking for some extra reading, please check out her list.

So whether you are a Shakespeare aficionado or are reading him for the first time, please join us on October 1st for the Hamlet Read-Along.   Personally, I can’t wait!

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

“What’s gone and what’s past help, should be past grief.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, grew up together in a type of idyllic paradise, becoming as close as brothers.  At the opening of the play, Polixenes has been visiting Leontes and his queen, Hermoine, and is ready to return home after his nine-month stay.  Leontes begs his friend to remain longer, yet when he refuses, the king employs the queen’s pleading to try to change his mind.  And change his mind, Polixenes, does, unwittingly sparking a torrential storm of jealously within Leontes, as he, with Gollum-like psychosis, convinces himself that Hermoine has been unfaithful to him with his friend, and that the child she is about to give birth to does, in fact, belong to Polixenes.    Attempting to gain the sympathy of a Sicilian nobleman, Camillus, Leontes reveals his plot to poison the Bohemia king, but Camillus’ sensible and gentle nature will not allow him to commit such an atrocity and instead, he warns Polixenes and they both escape to the kingdom of Bohemia. Yet their escape leaves Hermoine at the mercy of her husband’s wrath and, against all the protests of his noblemen and, in particular, the wife of Antigonus, Paulina, Leontes tries Hermoine with the intent to condemn her to death.  While imprisoned she bears the child, a girl, who Leontes entrusts to Antigonus to abandon it in the wild, whereupon Antigonus leaves the child in the kingdom of Bohemia.  But tragedy strikes when part way through the hearing, Leontes learns of the death of his only son, Maxmillus.  Hermoine faints, then dies and Leontes suddenly realizes his foolish behaviour and repents.

Act II, Scene III
John Opie/Jean Pierre Simon
source Wikipedia

The child of Hermoine, Perdita, grows up in Bohemia as the daughter of a shepherd and we meet her again when she is sixteen and the love of Florizel, the son of Polixenes.  Through a quarrel with his father, Florizel and Perdita seek sanctuary in Sicilia, where Leontes has been spending the last 16 years doing penance for his harsh actions.  Paulina, in control of the situation as ever, makes Leontes promise not to marry unless a women in the likeness of Hermoine is approved by her, and he consents.  She then takes him to see a statue of his dead wife but lo!  This statue moves and Hermoine is alive again! There is much rejoicing and more when the identity of Perdita is discovered.  Winter has melted away from Sicilia and spring has come once again!

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
source Wikipedia

I really felt that this was certainly a weaker play of Shakespeare’s.  The audience was asked to immediately accept Leontes intemperate jealousy without any back-story or obvious proof of unwise behaviour on either the part of Hermoine or Polixenes.  What would cause a person who has always trusted and had the best relation with this friend, to suddenly question his character and honesty?  No other character believed in Hermoine’s guilt, yet Leontes persists in his delusion.

I also was taken aback by some of the staging of the play.  One senses that much of the important action takes place off stage:  the reason or backstory for Leontes’ jealousy; a reason for his immediate contrition; and shockingly, the climax with the reunion and reconciliations is not shown to us but told to us through a third party medium.  I’m still trying to grasp Shakespeare’s purpose in this structure.  The lack of all these critical ingredients cries lack of development and therefore, a lack of impact.  It’s not sensible, it’s not plausible and it’s certainly far from Shakespeare’s usually masterly grasp of his material and his audience.  I remain, puzzled.

I read this play for my Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course.

Othello ~ the Movies

I don’t usually do movie reviews on my blog, but it was necessary that I complete one for my Back to the Classics Challenge for 2014.  So I moved the books on my list around a bit to target a movie that I’d want to watch and came up with Othello.  And instead of watching only one DVD version, I watched four!

Play/Performance:  The first one was a 2008 production by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, starring Eamonn Walker as Othello and Tim McInnerny as Iago.  While I liked this production, I would probably term it as adequate.  In Othello, Iago is the hub of the story and I have to admit, McInnerny’s performance was not outstanding.  His lines were delivered with a good amount of monotonal yelling (this could be because the production was performed at the Globe and the actors needed to project), but overall, he acted on one level with very few nuances or investigation into the character. Walker’s performance of Othello was more engaging as he embodied an intensity of character which added to the play.  With a better Iago, I would have given it four stars.

Rating:  ★★★


Movie:  Next I watched the 1981 BBC Production starring Anthony Hopkins as Othello and Bob Hoskins as Iago.  Needless to say, it was a little hard to see Hopkins as Othello.  He’s quite slight and came across more dainty than I was expecting.  The personality of a forceful Moorish military commander didn’t quite break through and the darkened face was sometimes distracting rather than credible.  However, Hoskins as Iago was fantastic.  He lent just the right charm, teasing, roughness and pathological bent to a character that is as varied as he is hateful.  His performance made the play for me.  Without him, I would have only given it 3 stars.  The character of Emilia was also well performed and her speech to Othello at the end of the play is truly electrifying. In fact, most of the lesser characters gave great performances.

Rating:  ★★★


Movie:  Put me out of my misery.  Honestly, I couldn’t finish this 2008 movie adaptation.  No one gave a stellar performance and the actor who played Iago was atrocious!  Is there a worse word than “atrocious”?  If so, I’d use it.  Carlo Rota played Othello and Matthew Deslippe was Iago.  Too bad they didn’t give him “de-slip” right out of the movie.  Ha ha! …… Okay, that was a bad joke!  In any case, he delivered his lines woodenly, yet also like he was struggling to fit them into a comfortable syntax.  I’d never heard of him before as an actor, and now I perhaps know why.  It just wasn’t worth my time to complete watching this one.

Rating:  ★★


Movie:  And the last performance watched was the 1995 movie production of Othello starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.  How can you go wrong with Branagh?  Seriously, you just can’t.  There is slight embellishment, or perhaps interpretation is a better word, and, of course, there was the prerequisite sex scene where in the play it is uncertain whether Othello and Desdemona have consummated their marriage, but really, it’s a solid performance by all. Bravo!

Rating:  ★★★

Richard II by William Shakespeare

” For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings ….”

Why do they call this play a “history”?  It was an absolutely tragedy …. gut-wrenchingly tragic, and I still feel depressed about the outcome.  Dare I say this is my favourite Shakespearean play so far?  Isn’t that weird?  An historical play about a king of whom I knew little about ……..  Yet Shakespeare’s verse is astonishingly beautiful.  The words flow around you like a bubbling river, conveying the anguish, terror, loss, loyalty, courage, deception, abandonment and hopelessness.  Not only is the play alive, but the story is alive and the words have a life of their own.

Richard II, King of England
portrait at Westminster Abbey (mid-1390s)
source Wikipedia

The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bullingbrook (Bolingbroke), cousin to King Richard, and Thomas Mowbray, Bullingbrook accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money and claiming that he was part of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (which was probably orchestrated by Richard), yet before either can accomplish a duel, King Richard decides to banish both, Bullingbrook for 6 years and Mowbray for the term of his life.  John of Gaunt, is broken hearted at the exile of his son, Bullingbrook, and soon becomes sick with grief.  Upon Gaunt’s death, Richard decides to expropriate his estates and money, thereby defrauding Bullingbrook of his inheritance.  As Richard leaves to deal with the wars in Ireland, Bullingbrook gathers supporters and lands in England for the purpose, it appears, of regaining what is rightfully his.  Because Richard has taxed his subjects without remiss, and has fined the nobility for errors of their ancestors, most of the nobles rise up against him.

John of Gaunt
father of Henry IV
source Wikipedia

When Richard returns to England he is left with a small contingent of supporters including his cousin Aumerle, the Duke of York’s son, and lords Salisbury and Berkeley and other retainers.  Upon meeting with Bullingbrook, Richard relinquishes the throne to him, and Bullingbrook wastes no time in appointing himself King Henry IV.  Immediately, Richard is placed in prison.  When an uprising by Aumerle is discovered by his father and vehemently exposed, Aumerle is graciously pardoned by Henry IV, yet with dire threats towards the other conspirators.  In prison, Richard attacks his warden in frustration and is killed by Exton; when Henry hears about the murder, he is distressed and the play ends with his sad lament.

When I finished this play, I was so anguished by Richard’s sad end and how he’d been treated, yet reading some pre-history would have perhaps measured my emotions, as the good king was not entirely as innocent as he is made out.  Richard inherited the title of king when he was 10 years old and spent many years of his reign under the control of counsellors and advisors.  It wasn’t until later on, that he appeared to throw off their power and come into his own.  However, the fact that he taxed the populous to such extreme extents to finance his wars and royal coffers, contributed to the fact that he was not well loved or respected.  He was a king who ruled by impulse and without a justness that would have connected him to the people.  In fact, in the play, when he is walked through the streets, people dump garbage on his head, not a very fitting display for a monarch who truly believed that he was anointed by God.

Richard being taken into custody
by the Earl of Northumberland
source Wikipedia

Another consideration is that Shakespeare is writing drama.  He is known for taking the framework of history and then chopping and changing and perhaps, speculating for dramatic and political effect.   It is interesting that at the end of the play, Richard is seen as a pitiful figure who has voluntarily given up his kingship, and Bullingbrook condemns his murder, leaving the new king innocent of the crime and helpless to stop its culmination.  A very safe and uncontroversial tact on both sides for our playwright!

My favourite speech of Richard’s pulses with foresight, nostalgia and lament:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.
All murdered.  For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnible.  And humoured thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle walls, and farewell king!”

As Richard begins to realize the possible outcome of the circumstances and tries to reconcile them with his belief that a king is sanctioned by God, we see his syntax begin to break down, with his pronouns of “we”, being reduced to “I”.  It is truly pitiful.

Richard II
Anonymous impress from the 16th century
source Wikipedia

On a political note, this play was used to stir up populous support for Robert, earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favourite, during his rebellion against her.  On the eve of the uprising, his supporters paid for the play, Richard II, to be performed at the Globe Theatre, but Essex’s attempt to raise a coup against her failed. Retaliation was swift, however.  On February 25, 1601, Essex faced his execution and was beheaded on the Tower Green.  His was the last beheading at the Tower of London.

This was another wonderful experience with one of Shakespeare’s historical plays.  I had expected to like them least in the canon, but they are certainly quickly becoming by far my favourites!

Watched:  The Hollow Crown:  Richard II

Othello by William Shakespeare

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Othello the Moor is lauded over Venice for his help in attempts to rid them of the pesky Turks in their battle over Cyprus.  Yet when Othello weds the beautiful Venetian Desdemona in secret, some opinions of his prowess change, notably those of Desdemona’s father.  And unbeknownst to Othello, Iago, his third-in-command, is plotting a dastardly revenge for being passed over for promotion, the position being given to Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio.  Hence proceeds perhaps the most shocking example of manipulation in literature, as Iago takes possession of Othello’s mind and emotions, like a beast taking possession of its prey, transforming our noble Moor from a honest, straightforward, respected man into an enraged, vengeful monster who believes every evil of his innocent wife, including her unfaithfulness with his second-in-command, Cassio.  Othello’s jealousy manages to eclipse anything within our understanding.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
ben Mohammed Anoun,
Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I
suggest inspiration for Othello
source Wikipedia

Iago reveals that, as well as the injury of being passed over for promotion, he also harbours a suspicion that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia, who is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.  There is no proof of this accusation in the play, and it is likely that Iago is expecting people to act with the same lack of integrity and base bestial urges, that he himself would, in the same circumstances.

How does a gentle and admired military leader allow himself to be reduced to a maddened beast, his fury leading him to commit the worst atrocity against a perfectly innocent human being, and one who has loved and supported him through their short marriage?  What hidden button inside Othello’s psyche has Iago discovered and pushed, knowing that it will make him snap?

Maria Malibran as Rossini’s
Françoise Bouchot
source Wikipedia

Certainly there are various issues that come into play and work against Othello.  He is used to being a commander, yet is unused to being a husband and obviously, when in love, is out of his depth.  Perhaps he sees Desdemona as a possession that he has conquered and, instead of being able to relax in his marriage, he, like a military leader, feels that he must wage battle to keep her.  And when difficulties do arise, instead of trying to search out the truth, he acts like a military leader and attempts to “conquer the enemy”.  He has insecurities that lead to him being a willing pawn of Iago’s machinations. The jealousy that Iago is able to set aflame within him, corrupts his normal good sense and his actions become intemperate.  I certainly have compassion for his state, as I believe these aspects have severely affected his decison-making and emotional state, but, that said, he is still human and he still has the option of choice.  He knows right from wrong, yet he decides to allow his emotions to rule and himself to be led down the tragic path of mindless jealousy.  In reality, he allows himself to turn into a beast.

Othello & Desdemona
Antonio Muñoz Degrain
source Wikipedia

Shakespeare’s exhibits an uncanny ability to weave endless possibilities into a Gordian knot of drama and draw the reader into his poetic spell.  Will we ever know exactly what motivated Othello and his spiral from an honourable man to a madly jealous murderer.  Will we ever understand why he believed Iago without any “ocular proof”?  What happened to the military commander that must have been used to exhibiting self-control?  Do intense emotions subvert our ability to act as a human beings?  There are so many avenues to explore and no obvious or set answers.

Of all the characters in the play, my favourite character was Emilia.  While she remains surprisingly unaware of the plotting and intrigues of her husband, upon realizing the truth, she becomes the voice of the audience, who has until this point been mute in horror, and satisfyingly spews vile recriminations on the head of Othello.

T.S. Eliot had a different view of the last actions of Othello than many older critics:

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello.  I am ignorant whether any one else has ever adopted this view, and it may appear subjective and fantastic in the extreme.  It is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature. What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”

I read this play as part of a Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course that I’m taking online, and it’s definitely moved in among my favourites!

Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branaugh
Othello 1995
source Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

“O, Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Of, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Of course, we all know the story.   In Medieval Verona, the Capulets and Montagues are feuding, their hatred spilling over into battles in the streets; revenge and killings abound.  Yet Romeo, the Montague, meets Juliet, a Capulet, and all thoughts of his former love, Rosaline, fly from his head as his heart is captured by her beauty.  Will Romeo and Juliet’s love survive the heated rivalry and secret machinations of the houses of Montague and Capulet?

Well, no, of course not!

John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

While Romeo and Juliet is certainly a story of young love, it is also a cautionary tale against letting one’s heart (and other body parts) rule one’s head with unhealthy intensity.  Friar Lawrence cautiions Romeo during his effusive praise of Juliet after only one glance of her:

“These violent delights have violent ends 
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, 
Which, as they kiss, consume.  The sweetest honey 
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately.  Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”

Romeo and Juliet the tomb scene (1790)
Joseph Wright
source Wikiart

Later, when Romeo’s friend, Mercutio is slain by the Capulet, Tybalt, cousin to Juliet, love is forgotten in the passions of revenge and Tybalt’s life is forfeit under the steel of Romeo’s sword.  A sentence of exile is pronounced as the lovers’ hopes spiral into a well of despair.  A message gone astray, culminates in the deaths of these two lovers, echoing a tragic pathos that the reader can sense building throughout the play.  Right from the beginning, when you view their impulsive, forbidden love, blossoming amongst the fields of vendettas, discord and enmity, you know that it cannot last.  It’s like an explosion of fireworks that streak across the sky in a pattern of colours and textures and beauty.  But eventually these grand passions burn themselves out and in place of the awe-inspiring spectacle, darkness remains.

Yet while there is tragedy in the fateful story, Shakespeare also shines rays of hope.  With the deaths of the two heirs of both the Montagues and Capulets, all animosity melts away as the families share the pain of a double grief.  So instead of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths being merely tragic, the lovers’ demise turn out to be a kind of sacrifice, two deaths that culminate in the saving fate of the two families.  Is Shakespeare alluding to the belief that peace in society is more important than a passionate love of two individuals?  Who knows, but it’s a thought that resonated with me long after I turned the last page …….

Juliet and her Nurse (c. 1860)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
source Wikiart

I read this play for my edX Shakespeare: On Page and Performance course, play 1 of 6.

Productions Watched:
         Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare Stratford Collection    (★★★☆)
         Archangel Audiobook – Romeo & Juliet (★★★★★)