Showing posts with label Peter Ackroyd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Peter Ackroyd. Show all posts

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Holding a Mirror up to Hamlet

It was the worst of plays; it was the best of plays

Hamlet is either the best play ever written or the worst, depending on your perspective. I have, at different times, held both opinions. T.S. Eliot was very critical of the play and of critics of the play. Ultimately he was categorical that “the play is most certainly an artistic failure” (Hamlet and His Problems. T.S. Eliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism).

The problem of many Hamlets

Eliot reminds us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a “revised” version of earlier Hamlets, most notably one by Kyd—and Eliot seems convinced that the play is inferior for this among other reasons. Eliot also points out the tendency of “creative critics” (he mentions Coleridge and Goethe) to imagine a Hamlet character rather than the one actually in the play. Hamlet is so vague and inscrutable that the character invites speculation, confabulation and imaginative interpretations of his “true” nature.  Hamlet is a young man's play--at least, that's when it spoke most deeply to me.  Suicide is a young man's disease--the second leading cause of death in the 15-to-35-year-old age group behind accidents, but a lot of accidental deaths could easily be interpreted as suicides.  "To be or not to be" is bound to have purchase with this age and gender.

Hamnet and depression

In Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd suggests that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in a fit of depression over the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet. I see lots of evidence in the play to support this view. When you stop to consider, as objectively as one can, the various elements of the play, it turns out to be incredibly self-indulgent. 

Hamlet:  the model not to follow

If you were giving a play-writing course and wanted a model to show students how not to write a play, Hamlet would work. We teachers of English are accustomed to referring to "Hamlet's procrastination," but what about Shakespeare's procrastination?  "Come on, Will, get to the point!" The play is too long, the mood is morose, meandering and depressive, the plot travels all over the place (literally) without any sense of direction (Eliot suggests it was written by a committee), the playwright (through his central character) criticizes the audience (the Globe theatre smells foul) and actors (they tear an emotional line to shreds).

Holding a mirror up to Hamlet

 It amazes me that Shakespeare uses the play to give fairly condescending instructions to actors. It amazes me even more that in the typical production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directors don’t seem to know what Hamlet’s instructions about “holding a mirror up to nature” mean. The allusion is to Renaissance painters who used mirrors as a trick to get the proportions right in large scene painting. The instructions are "don’t exaggerate the emotions" and "maintain perspective," but still I’ve seen Hamlet writhing on the floor over and over again in paroxysms of emotions in both amateur and professional productions. On the other hand, in this play, the playwright didn’t seem to follow his own advice either.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the   [enunciate, don't mumble]
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air [don't shout]
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; [no excessive gestures]
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it [understate emotions]
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who [don't shout, then Shakespeare/Hamlet insults the audience]
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it. [overdoing exaggerated characters]
First Player
I warrant your honour.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is  [don't exaggerate]
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the [maintain perspective, get the proportions right, as they are in nature, "nature" here means in the neoclassical sense]
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful [overdone is lowbrow]
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
players that I have seen play, and heard others
praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
nature's journeymen had made men and not made them
well, they imitated humanity so abominably. [act normally; in short, avoid exaggeration, avoid excess in volume, manner and gesture]

Monday 13 November 2017

Why Did Shakespeare Make Juliet Thirteen Years Old?

"I might've fallen for that when I was fourteen and a little more greenBut it's amazing what a couple of years can mean "

                                                Avril Lavinge's  "Nobody's Fool"

Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?

Whenever I lectured on Romeo and Juliet, I always started by asking “Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?”  As I fielded answers from students they generally fell into two broad categories.

In Shakespeare's time, people married young.  Not really.

Category 1: “People in Shakespeare’s time married young.”  Actually, they didn’t.  Shakespeare himself was 18 when he married Anne Hathaway who was 26 and pregnant with their first child, Susanna, but Shakespeare needed permission from his father to marry at such a young age.  Shakespeare’s own daughters, Susanna and Judith, were married at 24 and 31 respectively.  

Our ideas of English girls’ marrying at thirteen (or younger) being common practice was likely provoked by infamous cases of royal betrothals.  For example, Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France to marry Francis, the Dauphin, when she was six.  She married him when she was sixteen and he was fourteen—he died three years later.  In 1480, ten-year-old Prince Edward was betrothed to the four-year-old daughter of Francis II, Duke of Brittany.  (According to another Shakespeare play, young Edward was murdered by his uncle, Richard III.) Such marriages were entirely intended to forge political alliances and tell us little or nothing about common attitudes concerning the appropriate age for marriage. Best estimates are that attitudes, though relative to life expectancy, were not wildly different in Shakespeare’s time from those of today.

The real Juliet was thirteen

Category 2.  “The ‘real Juliet’ was thirteen.”  Tourists visiting Verona today will be invited to see the balcony purported to be the one where Romeo proposed to Juliet.  That a “real Juliet” ever existed is doubtful.  The age of the woman who might have inspired the “Romeo and Juliet” story, if such a woman ever existed, is shrouded in a deeper level of the unknown.  

Sources for the Romeo and Juliet story

Juliet is twenty-one in the Italian version of the story.  In the narrative poem in English by Arthur Brooke, THE TRAGICALL HISTORY OF ROMEUS AND JULIET, which is generally accepted to be Shakespeare’s source for the story, Juliet is sixteen.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life

The question remains: Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  I would invariably tell students that the answer was quite obvious, and once they saw the answer they would better understand the play.  Imagine my surprise, shock and even dismay, reading Bill Bryson (who happens to be one of my favourite writers these days) who claims in At Home:  A Short History of Private Life that the reason Shakespeare made Juliet thirteen years old “is, like most of what Shakespeare did, unknowable” (397).

Shakespeare had a 13-year-old daughter

Unknowable?  Granted some inference is required, but in this case it is more a matter of arithmetic than literary theory.  Romeo and Juliet, the first quarto, was published in 1597—we can reasonably surmise that it was written and first performed around this time.  Shakespeare’s daughter was born on May 26, 1583.  1597-1583 = 14!  Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  Because from May, 1596 to May, 1597, when he was writing the play, he had a thirteen-year-old daughter.

Shakespeare was obsessed with father-daughter relationships

As Peter Ackroyd points out in Shakespeare: A Biography, the relationship of “father and daughter” was one of Shakespeare’s “most enduring preoccupations” (449): Polonius and Ophelia, Shylock and Jessica, Lear and Cordelia, Brabantio and Desdemona, Baptista and Katherine, Duke Senior and Rosalind, Duke Frederick and Celia, to mention but a few.  (For more see

Typically, Shakespeare portrays these relationships as troubled and casts the fathers in an unflattering light.  The one extraordinary exception to this rule is Shakespeare’s last complete play, The Tempest, in which Miranda’s father, Prospero, has magical powers with which to grant his daughter her every wish and happiness.

In Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet, we see Capulet firmly defending his daughter against an early marriage on the grounds that “too soon marred are those so early made.”  However, by Act III the political climate has obviously changed.  Although never explained in the play we are left to infer that a marriage to a relative of the Prince has become politically exigent, as Capulet now threatens to disown Juliet and abandon her in the street if she doesn’t “get to church o’ Thursday” to marry Paris.

Shakespeare drops lots of hints that he is thinking about Susanna

Shakespeare makes the age thirteen a repeated discussion in the play, and if we need an additional hint that he was thinking of his own thirteen-year-old daughter,  Susanna, he introduces the name Susan—somewhat tangentially—into the dialogue about Juliet’s age.

She is not fourteen. How long is it now
To Lammas-tide?

Lady Capulet:
A fortnight and odd days.

Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Susan and she--God rest all Christian souls!--
Were of an age: well, Susan is with God;
She was too good for me: but, as I said,
On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.*

Shakespeare's spelling of names was always approximate (including his own)

If “Susan” and “Susanna” strike you as completely different names consider, as Bryson points out in Shakespeare:  The World as Stage, in extant documents, Shakespeare never spelt his name the same way twice.  Ackroyd among others is categorical that “Hamlet” is a variation of the spelling of “Hamnet”—the name of Shakespeare’s son who died at age eleven.  And, of course, if  Shakespeare was following the Brooke poem he should have called his eponymous hero “Romeus” not “Romeo.”  In short, precision in the spelling of names was not part of Shakespearian culture.  The dialogue above explicitly tells us that “Susan”—a name we can reasonably surmise that Shakespeare called his own daughter—if she were in the play, would be thirteen.  How much of a wink and a nod do we need?

The theme of Romeo and Juliet is haste

Once the idea that the author was the father of a thirteen-year-old daughter takes hold, it becomes impossible to view the play as anything other than a cautionary tale about the risks of succumbing to enflamed passions, of rushing to hasty judgments, solutions and actions.  Haste, in a word, is the theme of the play—and haste, in the play, invariably leads to disaster.

Haste equals disaster

Mention of the play invariably brings to mind the “balcony scene” but, in context, Romeo and Juliet knew no more than these few minutes of happiness in the entirety of the play.  From beginning to end in the play, their lives were replete with unrelieved anxiety, conflict, and sadness.  Even the consummation of their marriage is unable to alleviate the newfound misery of their existence as they immediately imagine each other “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.”

Every major character in the play is guilty of haste

Romeo and Juliet provide the most poignant example but, in this play, every agent acts in haste and shares in the guilt of the disasters it provokes.  The passionate hatred between the Capulets and Montagues provides the ambiance for the drama, but the underlying folly of haste is repeated by each of the characters in turn.  Tybalt is an icon of choler—boundless, unruled, passionate anger.  Mercutio, as his name suggests, is mercurial.  Even the Prince is hasty in his declaration that any Capulet or Montague caught fighting in the streets will be put to death, and must retract his declaration when Romeo kills Tybalt.  Paris pushes to marry thirteen-year-old Juliet and is supported in his haste by Lady Capulet and the Nurse.  Capulet at first resists this haste, then becomes its most egregious provocateur when he threatens Juliet with abandonment if she refuses to marry in two days' time.  The tragedy could not have occurred without the active, ill-conceived, precipitous participation of the Nurse and Friar Lawrence.

Friar Lawrence is ultimately responsible for the tragedy

Friar Lawrence is the play’s raisonneur, providing the underlying ratiocination of the entire drama that “they stumble who run fast.” In other words, he is the author’s mouthpiece telling us that this play is about haste, but he is also the worst example of the haste which he platitudinously opposes. He marries Romeo and Juliet, then proposes that Romeo consummate the marriage, then devises the half-baked plan for Juliet to feign her own death, then fails to ensure that Romeo is informed of the plan, then, worst of all, abandons Juliet in the mausoleum where she eventually commits suicide.  In short, more than anyone else, Friar Lawrence is responsible for the tragedy, while paying lip service to the reasoning which could have prevented it.

Some readers might find it odd that Shakespeare made his spokesman the unwitting cause of the tragedy, but self-mockery seems a common feature of his plays.  The terrible or feeble fathers which populate his plays are clear examples of his self-effacement.  One particularly visual example is the Shakespeare crest which William Shakespeare commissioned, the motif of which—black diagonal against a yellow background—he mocked mercilessly in his comedy Twelfth Night.   The butt of endless jokes, Malvolio is lampooned for believing that his Mistress will admire his being “in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered.”

Maybe my students were right all along

Upon reflection it occurs to me as it often does, maybe my students had it right in the first place.  Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  Because the "real Juliet" was thirteen.  The "real Juliet" was Susannah Shakespeare.

Some editors reduce Susanna Shakespeare's "presence" in the play

In The Norton Shakespeare Greenblatt glosses this speech as meaning "The Nurse evidently suckled Juliet after her own daughter died." However, another possible interpretation is that Susan was Juliet's sister--a sister of similar age or even a twin--the child that Capulet is referring to when he tells Paris that Juliet is an only child because "Earth has swallowed all my hopes but she."  Greenblatt removes this quote from the play and, in a footnote, claims "probably rejected by Shakespeare in the writing process."  Removing Capulet's explanation of how Juliet came to be an only child reinforces Greenblatt's interpretation of the Nurse's speech.  Most versions of Romeo and Juliet that I have read or seen retain Capulet's claim, including the online version at

Eliminating Shakespeare from the study of his plays is a mistake

If we continue with this process so unfashionable in postmodern literary criticism (see After the Death of the Author)  of connecting the text to the author, we would note that Shakespeare's son Hamnet, died in 1596, the year before the quarto publication of Romeo and Juliet, and that he was a twin.  Nothing precise or definitive, but additional reason for us to imagine that Shakespeare was thinking about his own children when he wrote the play.

What Does Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Actually Say?

In The Room Where It Happened , John Bolton points out that "This provision [Article 5] is actually less binding than its reputation [....