By Peter Winsley, December 2016
William Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright and poet. He is also the greatest psychologist, because he reflected human nature as he observed it, not as it was later theorized to be.
Shakespeare wrote around forty plays, 154 sonnets, narrative and other poems. A key theme in Shakespeare is never to waste time: “I wasted time and time wasted me”. “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late”.
He was a gifted poet, but as a friend observed, poets are made as well as born – he worked hard at his craft.
Some think of Shakespeare’s characters as fictional creations, some as real people, some as possible people. Those of his plays with original plots were the exemplars of the imagination: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The first celebrates language and word-play for its own sake:
This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons pease, And utters it again when God doth please: He is wit’s pedler, and retails his wares At wakes and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs… To show his teeth as white as whale’s bone…
O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d, Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue…
The latter two plays assert the human mind’s unbounded capabilities, the joy of language, rhymed or unrhymed, staying with you even without the story:
Before the time I did Lysander see, seemed Athens as a paradise to me.
I’ll follow thee and make a heaven of hell, to die upon the hand I love so well.
I am as ugly as a bear, beasts that see me run away for fear.
…Do thy best, to pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.
What a dream was here – Lysander look how I do quake with fear, methought a serpent ate my heart away, and you sat smiling at his cruel prey.
…those things do please me, that befall preposterously.
Since night you loved me, yet since night you left me.
Lord, what fools these mortals be
She was a vixen when she went to school, though she be little she is fierce.
…be thou here again, before the leviathan can swim a league…
…I’ll put a girdle around the earth in earth in forty minutes.
You minimis of hindering knot-grass…you acorn.
Shakespeare believed in individual uniqueness, in human rights and dignity, and in the universality of human consciousness. His works cannot be captured by any cultural, religious, political, ethnic, or other identity group that divides people. He is the supreme poet and dramatist of humanism; humanism as a belief system, and as a guide to how to live.
Shakespeare’s works elevate humanity beyond what it thinks itself capable of: “we know what we are, but not what we might be”. He tells us things can get better – then leaves it up to us.
Shakespeare’s language is still modern English, but some words and phrases are unfamiliar, or their meanings have changed. The No Fear Shakespeare website gives you all his works with parallel translations into today’s easy to understand English. Take Shakespeare to heart by reading his words quietly to yourself, and then read them aloud so you listen to yourself in Shakespeare’s words. Memorise lines and scenes you especially like. Refer to No Fear Shakespeare only when you don’t understand the meaning, and then go back to his original words.
There is no powerful human experience, emotion or relationship that Shakespeare does not shed light on and help you to understand better. Throughout your life, in good and bad times, lines you think you’ve forgotten will come back to you. They will also become more meaningful as your life changes, and you understand more. You will find that Shakespeare is teaching you more.
You should value Shakespeare for such reasons as:
Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language
Shakespeare observed social psychology (human nature in action), and saw it so much more clearly than others that he had to invent new language to describe what he saw.
Shakespeare coined something like 1,700 English words, and much of the English language’s most memorable and commonly-used sayings, phrases and metaphors. Phrases such as stalking horse, hobby horse, green-eyed monster…
Many Shakespeare lines have evolved: “the cat will mew and dog will have his day” becomes “every dog will have his day”. The expression “weasel words” comes from the lines:
I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.
Few English-speaking people go a day without quoting Shakespeare, typically without realising it. Expressions and sayings from Shakespeare include:
I shall be loved when I am lacked.
All that glisters is not gold.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.
Out of the jaws of death.
The world’s mine oyster.
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.
More sinned against than sinning.
The better part of valour is discretion.
In the end, truth will out.
The be all and end all
The mirror up to nature;
Nothing can come of nothing.
It is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.
A little more than kin, and less than kind. –
Neither rhyme nor reason.
Trippingly on the tongue
Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.
As mad as a March hare.
In my mind’s eye
There is no virtue like necessity
As dead as a door nail.
Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. –
Who alone suffers, suffers most in the mind.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Cleft my heart in twain.
The apparel oft proclaims the man,
I must be cruel only to be kind.
When sorrows come, they come not as single spies but as whole battalions.
That was laid on with a trowel.
Shakespeare’s support for human rights and dignity
Shakespeare judged people as individuals, not on their race, ethnicity, wealth, status, family affiliation or gender. He understood that individuality is almost infinitely variable, even within the same family – two of King Lear’s daughters are evil; one is an angel, and “good wombs have borne bad sons”.
Everyone is ultimately what they are: “I am that I am”, and no-one can really see truly inside someone else:
You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.
Shakespeare tells us to stand up for our rights, even if we are outgunned:
The poor wren, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.
An excerpt of Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare wrote expresses sympathy for refugees, recognising their common humanity.
Shakespeare treats all with dignity. He notices the servants, fools, shepherds and “rude mechanicals”. He confers on them as well as on the great and mighty the power of his words.
Shakespeare saw how multi-faceted people can be. We sympathise even with evil characters such as Claudius in Hamlet when we see them from different angles, or eavesdrop on them as they reflect on being trapped by circumstances or the consequences of past action.
Shakespeare notices the nondescript and invisible people ignored by the powerful. Shakespeare treated even his minor characters as worthy of his genius and his sympathy. In The Tempest, although Caliban has sought to burn his books and kill him, Prospero says “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. Caliban draws from the innate dignity Prospero has helped foster within him, and his last words are “to seek for grace”.
Shakespeare’s worse characters degrade good people to overcome their own feelings of inferiority. Shakespeare understood the consequences of humiliating people.
Iago in Othello feels slighted by being passed over for promotion. Iago knows that a brazen lie, spoken with confidence, will often be believed, and this leads to tragedy. In King Lear, Edmund’s dignity is violated by his branding as an “illegitimate” son. “Fine word, ‘legitimate’ …Now, gods stand up for bastards!’ Only as he lies dying and reflects on the deaths of Goneril and Regan, who both desired him, does Edmund discover his humanity: “Some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature”.
Shakespeare never stereotypes, and is not callous to individuals in his pursuit of higher causes. Shakespeare is with his characters, and has an understanding and moral feeling for them.
Human individuality is infinite and people should not demean themselves by surrendering their individuality to groups. Shakespeare understood that individuality is selfish and destructive unless it relates to one’s wider social connectedness. “To one’s own self be true” is actually quite shallow advice. After all, Hitler and Stalin were “true to themselves”.
Shakespeare portrayed mental health issues with empathy. He acknowledges the stigma and ill-treatment associated with mental illness in Twelfth Night, but also sees mental disorders as deeply human, affecting both the dove Ophelia and the preternaturally intelligent and noble Prince Hamlet. Hamlet pretends to be mad, perhaps becomes mad, but recovers his composure:
I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.
King Lear’s madness in the storm is depicted with love and sympathy:
Why, he was met even now As mad as the vex’d sea, singing aloud, Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow weeds, With harlocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flow’rs, Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow In our sustaining corn.
Shakespeare is in his element portraying feigned madness, as in the “ravings” of Edgar when pretending to be a Tom o’Bedlam mad beggar:
Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch’d bridges…
Pillicock sat on Pillicock’s Hill.
Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp’d from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish’d and imprison’d; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body, horse to ride, and weapons to wear… But mice and rats, and such small deer,have been Tom’s food for many a long year
Child Rowland to the dark tower came; His word was still Fie, foh, and fum! I smell the blood of a British man…
Be thy mouth or black or white, Tooth that poisons if it bite; Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim, Hound or spaniel, brach or lym, Bobtail tyke or trundle-tail- Tom will make them weep and wail; For, with throwing thus my head, Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled
Shakespeare lived at a time of rising awareness of the New World and its possibilities. In The Tempest, Miranda has been stranded on an island since three year’s old. She sees a “primitive” in Caliban, yet also sees her father’s art and books, and then visitors from his former old world. She comes to see the old world as new: “O wonder, how many good creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!”
People are shaped by social norms and what is around them. Edmund commands the murder of Cordelia because “men are as the time is”. He obeys the social norms of the time, and does not see beyond them, until his last act of redemption. In Corialanus, uncritical adherence to custom is criticized: “What custom wills, in all things should we do it, the dust on antique time would like unswept and mountainous error be too highly heaped for truth to o’verpeer”.
People can be objects of circumstances as well as the creators of them. Macbeth does not begin as evil, and is a reluctant and morally-torn murderer. However, once he has committed his first murder his character changes, and it becomes easier to kill again. He then becomes an irredeemable monster who grows weary of the sun and of life itself; “this tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
The nature of the mind, emotions and human creativity
Shakespeare saw the mind as related to the brain, and not for example to an imaginary spirit world.
A core theme in Shakespeare is that poetry, love and madness are related, and are part of unbounded human imagination. He saw that they come from people not from spirits, devils and witchcraft or cold rationality. “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact”. He knew that imagination can misfire, people can see things that are not there: “…or in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear”.
Shakespeare used devices such as staging scenes from a play within his plays, having characters disguise themselves, or pretend to be mad. He makes his audience do much of the work by using their imaginations.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream some workers stage a play and make a mess of it. One pretends to be a wall, another a lion, unconvincingly! However the audience within “the play within a play” loves it, as they have used their imaginations to “create” for themselves a fine, entertaining play. What they “see” is different to what is “the reality”, yet is just as real… “The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic potions see men and women fall in and out of love based on mistaken identities, including a lady falling in love with a man turned into an ass. In As you like it, genders are muddled, men and women fall in love with illusions, with the deeper irony that in Shakespeare’s time boy actors played the female parts.
Life as acting and drama
Shakespeare’s life was poetry and above all drama on the stage. He saw the stage as life itself:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms; Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lin’d, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.
People are actors, play different roles, and shift between different identities in life. This is why we should not encourage people to confine themselves to one dominant role such as ethnic, religious identity. Acting also requires an audience and others on the stage – life is inherently social. Shakespeare almost certainly began professional life as an actor. Hamlet says of visiting actors:
Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.
Hamlet then watches a play within a play:
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit … And all for nothing! For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, … He would drown the stage with tears …The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King
The play that is life can also have its weepy moments:
When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.
Shakespeare’s last play reflects on acting and its effects on the imagination:
These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air…We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
And at the play’s end, Prospero’s farewell to the audience, and perhaps Shakespeare’s goodbye to the stage:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.
Shakespeare’s stimulation of others’ creativity
Shakespeare’s works inspired many other creative contributions, including art, music, poetry and novels. Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story, and Taming of the Shrew, Kiss me Katie. The Tempest alone inspired around 37 operas. Countless novels from Dogs of War, Brave New World, Owls do Cry to Pale Fire take their titles from Shakespeare lines.
The rising power of the internet and multi-media mean that Shakespeare’s works, and the works he has inspired will continue to trigger more creative achievements, and these in turn will spawn others in an unbounded way. This reflects and helps to drive ever-lasting creative achievement in literature, music and other arts.
His inspiration for you when things go wrong
Shakespeare’s mind roamed so freely that anyone immersed in his work can think of Shakespeare scenes or quotes that provide insight into all major events and emotions in their lives. These insights can answer questions, or give you another way of thinking. They may help you see you are not alone, that others have faced similar problems and got through them. They also allow you to see yourself from outside, as if you are observing another person.
Shakespeare is inspiring when things go wrong. When you are out of luck and a social outcast, read sonnet 29 and realise that Shakespeare too was once at the bottom, and rose from it to touch the stars. When you look back, angry and bitter at bad things that have happened in the past that you can’t forget, turn to sonnet 30. When annoyed by criticism or by shallow, insincere flattery, sonnet 112. When disgusted by others’ bad behaviour, sonnet 66. When you are depressed for no good reason, remember it’s not real and it’s all in your head: “there is nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so”.
Shakespeare also makes clear that suicide is never acceptable:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!
…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-
… 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,
…. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office… But that the dread of something after death- The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn No traveller returns- puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of…
Shakespeare knew that sometimes we have to accept that bad things happen, even to the best people such as Cordelia:
We are not the first Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.
When you have to act quickly and only you can do so, know that “the time is out of joint, Oh cursed spite, that I was born to set it right.”
Shakespeare is the supreme poet of love, with its complexity, power, its focus on the bond between unique individuals that overrides all else, its ineffability, its immunity to other’s understanding, and its relationship with the mind’s imaginative powers.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Love can turn tragic, as in Romeo and Juliet from which we draw some famous lines:
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.
But soft what light through yonder window breaks, it is the East and Juliet is the sun…
O Romeo, Romeo, where art thou Romeo?
Take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night.
Death, that have sucked the honey of thy breath.
…parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow. –
Shakespeare can also be pragmatic and not allow love or its loss to consume all: “no one ever died for love”. Sonnet 30 sees Shakespeare brooding over the past, even over things that should be long forgotten, such as “love’s long since cancelled woe”, overcoming past sad times by thinking of someone he cares for:
Then a while when I think of thee, dear friend, all losses are restored and sorrows end.
Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are his most heart-felt personal statements and may not even have been intended for publication. Most of them are love poems that capture how his feelings for the one he loves free him from despair, anger with things that have happened in the past, sadness, cynicism, fear of death or world-weariness.
For Shakespeare, “love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds’. In sonnet 124, his love is immune from short-term political conniving, and he contrasts this with those who die repentant having spent their lives being sinful:
It fears not policy, that heretic, Which works on leases of short-number’d hours, But all alone stands hugely politic, That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers. To this I witness call the fools of time, Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime
His love and his expression of it in verse out-lives marble and gilded monuments of princes (sonnet 55) and tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass (sonnet 107).
For Shakespeare, “music was the food of love”, and love inspired music:
It was a lover and his lass https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPOz01Ckxvo
Shakespeare knew that love could be puzzling, that it sometimes passed with youth, but it should be embraced when it is there.
What is love? ’tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter; What’s to come is still unsure: In delay there lies no plenty; Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
He warned that love often brought all kinds of trouble with it:
Lysander: Ay me! for aught that I could ever read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth; But, either it was different in blood,—
Hermia: O cross! too high to be enthrall’d to low.
Lysander: Or else misgraffed in respect of years,—
Hermia: O spite! too old to be engaged to young.
Lysander: Or else it stood upon the choice of friends,—
Hermia: O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.
Lysander. Or, if there were a sympathy in choice, War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, Making it momentany as a sound, Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say ‘Behold!’ The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion
Polonius in Hamlet, intercepts a love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia:
Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love. ‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans; but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. ‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, HAMLET.’
Relationships between children and parents
Shakespeare understood the power of love between children and parents. He captured the poignancy of the love between the elderly King Lear and the daughter he had banished and become reconciled with:
Cordelia: O my dear father, restoration hang Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made!
Lear: You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave. Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead…
I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant What place this is; and all the skill I have Remembers not these garments; nor I know not Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me; For (as I am a man) I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.
Cordelia: And so I am! I am!
Lear: If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
Shakespeare on friendship
Shakespeare’s plays are full of close friendships, and the role they play in good times, in advice and counsel, and in helping in times of need. He understood the difference between friends you could rely on, and those you couldn’t:
Every one that flatters thee Is no friend in misery. Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find:
He that is thy friend indeed, He will help thee in thy need: If thou sorrow, he will weep; If thou wake, he cannot sleep; Thus of every grief in heart He with thee doth bear a part. These are certain signs to know Faithful friend from flattering foe
Overcoming fear of mortality
Shakespeare lived in a time of high infant mortality within large families, and much lower life expectancy due to illnesses that in many cases can now be treated. Many of his sonnets and plays are concerned with overcoming mortality, by having children, creating great immortal art, affecting other people positively, or through a life narrative or reputation that survives you.
The fact that you are reading this tells you that Shakespeare is immortal, and is still with us, that people affect each other and the future in all kinds of ways that live beyond us.
Who tried to censor Shakespeare?
Shakespeare has been pilloried, censored or banned for centuries, and for all kinds of reasons. These include ignoring prevailing moral codes, atheistic tendencies, contempt for inherited privilege, internationalism, disparagement of identity politics, exposing the shallow nature of kingly power, promotion of market trade, usury, suspected grain-hoarding, lack of a class angle or socialist realism, unpatriotic sentiments, portraying black people and continentals in too favourable a light, and promotion of teenage sex, homoeroticism and cross-dressing.
The common grievances all censors, banners and book burners have with Shakespeare are his humanism, the unbounded nature of his intellect, his love of life, and belief in human potential. There is also jealousy from minds inferior to Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare in his plays often exposed tendencies by the mean-spirited to drag others down.
The common aim of those who censored or banned Shakespeare has been to limit human consciousness as revealed and expanded in Shakespeare, in order to promote narrow moral, religious, nationalistic, cultural or racial codes or world views, or simply for small-mindedness itself.
What Shakespeare admired and despised
Shakespeare valued honesty, integrity and loyalty. In sonnet 25, beauty is truly beautiful when it comes with honesty and integrity. Sonnet 105 encapsulates Shakespeare’s view of an ideal lover; someone who is “fair, kind and true”. Cordelia is “so young my lord, and true”. Rosalind and Celia, Orlando and Adam are loyal to each other, without instrumentality or likely reward. Kent and the Fool are loyal to King Lear, at risk to their own lives.
Shakespeare did not elevate intelligence above human character, concern for others and honesty:
No legacy is so rich as honesty.
Iago and Edmund are intelligent, and evil. They easily outwit more admirable characters such as Othello, Cassio and Edgar. The fool in King Lear has the emotional intelligence to realise things will end badly when Cordelia is banished from the kingdom. He pines away when Cordelia has left, feeling early what others cannot see.
Corin in As you like it, the old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, and the servants in King Lear are of kindness and character. Rosalind in As you like it needs composure, self-regulation, prudence and agility as well as her intellect to survive in the Forest of Arden.
Shakespeare saw love between individuals as something that survived time and shallowness. In sonnet 18 it lasts “as long lives this and this gives life to thee”.
Shakespeare also knew that the mind can play tricks. Psychology can misfire, and romantic love can distort judgement or stumble over the tedium of domestic life.
For Shakespeare, the worse sins are cruelty, deception and flattery. Shakespeare values compassion and despises its absence in Goneril, Regan and Iago. It is often the humble people who are most horrified by cruelty, such as the servants who are disgusted by Cornwall and Goneril in King Lear.
Shakespeare despised superficiality, insincerity, and “dwellers on form and favour.” Ophelia in her “madness” gives fennel, signifying flattery to Claudius. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear, and Cordelia is banished for she lacks that “glib and oily art to speak and purpose not” and cannot heave her loving heart into her mouth. She says:
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness.
Lear bitterly reflects on his two oldest daughters:
They flatter’d me like a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to everything I said! ‘Ay’ and ‘no’ too was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not men o’ their words! They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie- I am not ague-proof.
Shakespeare despised fair weather friends:
That sir which serves and seeks for gain, And follows but for form, Will pack when it begins to rain and leave thee in a storm But I will tarry; the fool will stay, And let the wise man fly.
Power and governance
In Shakespeare, the cream does not always rise. “Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall”. It is often the power-hungry and sociopaths who seize power, and the humble people who hold them to account.
Shakespeare did not believe in mob rule. He was a man of order, and a constitutionalist. He was acutely aware of how disorder can bring out the worst in people. In Julius Caesar and Corialanus he sees how crowds can be gullible, easily swayed, capricious, and subject to mass neuroses.
Shakespeare was nuanced enough to understand that pacifism can invite attack, and that some good people shed blood, including their own. There are few pure angels or devils in his works. People have reasons for what they do.
Some of the deepest humanism in Shakespeare comes from simple people who stand up against personal malignity, for no reward, and at risk to their lives. It is a servant who comes to the defence of Gloucester when he is being maimed by Cornwall, dying as a result. Another servant understands the corrupt effects of top leaders such as Cornwall being vicious psychopaths: “I’ll never care what wickedness I do if this man comes to good”. A servant says of Goneril: “If she live long, and in the end meet the old course of death, women will all turn monsters”.
Later on in King Lear, Regan realizes that good people are horrified by cruelty, and rues letting the blinded Gloucester “smell his way to Dover” for “where he arrives he moves all hearts against us”.
Shakespeare’s histories are often extended narratives on the creation of order, perhaps through successions of rulers, and often involving unethical behaviour. Henry IV tells his son and future successor: “God knows, my son, by what by-paths and indirect crook’d way I met this Crown.”
Richard 111 is written for an audience within a power structure that wanted to brand the king as an evil tyrant. Shakespeare plays to the gallery, but often parodies the narrative. Richard 111 was born with teeth fully formed in his mouth!
Shakespeare recognises the importance of the “genuine authority” that Kent saw in King Lear. Shakespeare attacked illegitimate and unconstitutional power achieved through murder in Macbeth, Richard 111 and Hamlet. In King John “there is no sure foundation set on blood, no certain life achieved by other’s death”.
Lear finds that his evil daughters and their followers do not respect him but only his kingly power, and when he gives this away he no longer has authority. Order then breaks down, and is only restored at the end of the play by those who respect constitutionality and reestablish it over the dead bodies of those who have destroyed Lear, Cordelia, and the fool.
In King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Edmund and Oswald live in accord with savage law. The good characters are fools, have blind spots, or refuse to flatter and connive. However, they have the affiliations, affinities and truth that make people highly developed humans and make civilized life possible. Albany himself is disgusted with his brother-in-law, Cornwall. He says if there is no punishment for Cornwall “humanity must perforce prey on itself.” He then sees the black heart of his own wife Goneril, and turns against her.
Shakespeare, his father, and no doubt others in his social circle were often victims of petty tyranny, hierarchal privilege, imperiousness or mendacious use of the law. Hamlet reflects on the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the law’s delay and the insolence of office. In Shakespeare’s late play, Cymbeline, death is seen as a liberation from the tyrant’s stroke:
Guiderius: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Arviragus: Fear no more the frown o’ the great; Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke; Care no more to clothe and eat; To thee the reed is as the oak: The sceptre, learning, physic, must All follow this, and come to dust.
Guiderius: Fear no more the lightning flash,
Arviragus: Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Guiderius: Fear not slander, censure rash;
Arviragus: Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
Guiderius: All lovers young, all lovers must Consign to thee, and come to dust.
Guiderius: No exorciser harm thee!
Arviragus: Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Guiderius: Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Arviragus: Nothing ill come near thee!
Guiderius: Quiet consummation have; And renowned be thy grave!
Economics and economic justice
William Shakespeare was good with money and property, believed in trade, a market economy and strong property rights. He saw the relation of these things to liberties, human rights, self-determination and artistic freedom. Shakespeare saw the relationship between property and power.
In Shakespeare’s time, a merchant class was emerging from feudalism. It was supported by new forms of property right, including those over such abstractions as loans and creative works. Shakespeare’s own father had been accused of usury (charging excessive interest), and this is a theme in Merchant of Venice. The bard himself understood the time value of money and the need for a premium for risk.
You can imagine Shakespeare as a salesman:
Lawn as white as driven snow; Cyprus black as e’er was crow; Gloves as sweet as damask roses; Masks for faces and for noses; … Come buy of me, come; come buy, come buy; Buy lads, or else your lasses cry: Come buy.
In the mediaeval times that preceded Shakespeare, the major barriers to human advancement were lack of tradeable property rights, of open markets and of trade betterment. In Shakespeare’s own time hierarchy unrelated to merit was the biggest barrier to betterment.
Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and merchant and his mother a prosperous farmer’s daughter. Shakespeare came from a rising but still insecure middle class which wanted to do better, and which was constrained and in some cases threatened by both privileged hierarchies and by poorer people jealous of success.
Shakespeare was fascinated by the cultural and economic achievements on the continent, especially in the Italian city-states which were settings for some of his plays. The Renaissance had begun in Florence in the 14th century. It was in Italy that the modern banking system emerged, and trade betterment gained the momentum that would over time drive economic growth and rising per capita incomes throughout the western world. Shakespeare mandated commerce, trade, and a justice system that enforced contracts.
There are more trading states than castles in Shakespeare, and he saw that trade betterment through market exchange needed individual rights as well as prosperity.
Shakespeare saw money as a means to an end, not a higher human value or a substitute for the person herself. “Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor…”
He understood how poverty often compromised behaviour. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo buys poison from a reluctant apothecary (pharmacist):
Romeo: I see that though art poor. Hold, there is forty ducats….Art though so bare and full of wretchedness and fearest to die? Famine is in thy cheeks, need and oppression starveth in thine eyes, contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back. The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law; the world affords no law to make thee rich; then be not poor, but break it and take this.
Apothecary: My poverty but not my will consents.
Romeo: I pay thy poverty and not thy will…There is thy gold – worse poison for men’s souls, doing more murther in this loathsome world, than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell. I sell thee poison; thou has sold me none. Farewell. Buy food and get thyself in flesh.
Shakespeare sees how money can be used to gloss over bad character: “O what a world of vile, ill-favoured faults looks handsome on three hundred pounds a year”. He sees how it can: “place thieves and give them title, knee and approbation, with senators on the bench”.
In Shakespeare’s time, scientific and rational ways of thinking were challenging religion. This was supported by rising capabilities in measurement, of time and money and of people’s lives, and the quantification underlying trade and the betterment it created for people. Forms and symbols of quantitative measurement abound in Shakespeare, typically with multiple meanings. Coins are associated with men’s character and mettle, in King Lear love is divisible by thirds and Cordelia’s “price has fallen”. In Macbeth, Shakespeare characterises time as linear, sequential, grammatical and physically moving:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time…
Shakespeare did not confuse kindness and decency at the individual level with abstract political or religious causes. He was no socialist. Shakespeare in Corialanus satirizes the credulity of the public masses understanding of economics: “let’s kill him and we will have corn at our own price”.
Shakespeare spoofs the political logic, consistency and denial of agency of those who banished Corialanus: “….though we willingly consented to his banishment it was against our will…”
Public uprisings, overthrows of government and referenda can blow back and harm the very people who supported them.
Shakespeare moved to London to make his money by combining different words in new ways. He retired to Stratford-on-Avon to invest in houses, farmland and other tangible properties. He was successful because he was able to trade in markets that rewarded his talents. His humanism and feeling for the poor was reflected in his will. However, his mindfulness of poverty came through most strongly in works such as King Lear.
The banished aristocrat Edgar escapes with his life, disguising himself as a Bedlam beggar.
To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots, And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary; And with this horrible object, from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills, Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity. ‘Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!’ That’s something yet! Edgar I nothing am
As so often in the topsy-turvy world of King Lear, it is the fool’s commentary which is the wisest and least foolish:
Fathers that wear rags Do make their children blind; But fathers that bear bags Shall see their children kind. Fortune, that arrant whore, Ne’er turns the key to the poor
King Lear shows compassion to the poor only after his fall into poverty and dissolution. Reduced to destitution he sees for the first time the wretched poverty of his former subjects, and feels compassion for them. Approaching a hovel he tells his fool:
In, boy; go first.- You houseless poverty… Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…
Lear understands others through affinity with the suffering of those in the “poor, pelting villages”. Shakespeare understood that an economy must ultimately deliver acceptable outcomes for the poor if it is to support a good society.
Cordelia reflects on what he has been through when Lear is rescued from being an outcast in the storm:
Was this a face
To be opposed against the warring winds?
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder
In the most terrible and nimble stroke
Of quick cross lightning? … Mine enemy’s meanest dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire. And wast thou fain, poor father,
To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn
In short and musty straw
Nature of justice
Shakespeare understood that life was not a morality tale, that good did not triumph in every instance, and that there was no inevitable justice.
Shakespeare understood that justice is a human creation. As such it is flawed, but better even with its imperfections than no law, or the law of the jungle. Shakespeare felt injustice at times in his life, and he also defended his legal rights in disputes with others. King Lear in his “madness” sees the potential for hypocrisy within a justice system:
Lear: See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
Gloucester: Ay, sir.
Lear: And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office… Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it. … Get thee glass eyes And, like a scurvy politician, seem To see the things thou dost not.
Measure for Measure contrasts large-minded and small-minded justice, while Portia in the Merchant of Venice sees mercy as integral to it:
Portia:. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
Witchcraft, astrology, predestination, luck and magical thinking
Shakespeare did not believe in ghosts or witchcraft but drew on it for its dramatic effects. From Hamlet:
‘Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
But that I am forbid To tell the secrets of my prison house, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotted and combined locks to part, And each particular hair to stand on end Like quills upon the fretful porcupine…
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abus’d. But know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown…
Fare thee well at once. The glowworm shows the matin to be near And gins to pale his uneffectual fire. Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.
And from Macbeth:
First witch: When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second witch: When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.
A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap, And munch’d, and munch’d, and munch’d:— ‘Give me,’ quoth I: ‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries. Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger: But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, And, like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.
And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know … Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost…
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…
Shakespeare challenged astrology, predetermination and magical thinking that denied people’s individual responsibility. In sonnet 14 he writes: “not from the stars do I my judgement pluck”. Helena says in All’s well that ends well: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie which we ascribe to heaven”. Julius Caesar tells Brutus: “Men at some time are master of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Edmund in King Lear listens to his father Gloucester attributing human discord to mysterious forces and higher powers. He soliloquises:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.
An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing
Shakespeare understood the risks of speaking truth to people in power. Kent stands up to the imperious King Lear, defends Cordelia, and is banished. Kent is the model of a high integrity public servant.
Relationships based on gratitude cannot be relied on, any more than King Lear could buy loyalty by giving away his lands. People, especially the vulnerable, must take care of themselves, and not depend on others for protection.
The strongest characters in Shakespeare are individuals who think for themselves, who refuse to adopt uncritically the views of others, who see things as they are and stand up for themselves. They do what it takes to survive in a harsh world.
Humanism and human potential
William Shakespeare is the poet, dramatist, psychology and philosopher of the humanist world view. He is above cultures and above race. At the heart of his humanism is the dignity of individuals, their individuality and autonomy, human capacity to love, and the power of human imagination. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
Language, music, and high culture
Shakespeare understood that language, music and high culture are what distinguishes humanity from base nature.
Music is the soul of love, and is integral to such plays as As you like it and The Tempest. Cordelia and a doctor use music to try and restore Lear to health. Shakespeare distrusts action men who have no time for music and poetry and creations of the higher mind. Julius Caesar mistrusts Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” (would he were fatter!), for thinking too much: “he reads much, looks through the deeds of men, loves no plays, hears no music… Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves and therefore are they very dangerous”.
The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus:
Shakespeare’s love for music even permeates plays unrelated to it, such as Merchant of Venice.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st But in his motion like an angel sings…,
While Shakespeare loved folk music, he also parodied its overly fantastic flourishes:
Here’s another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids.
Shakespeare was influenced by Christian culture, yet his world view was secular and humanistic. He was deeply sceptical of the integrity of priests and others who claimed to be God’s representatives on earth:
When priests are more in word than matter; When brewers mar their malt with water; When nobles are their tailors’ tutors, No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors; When every case in law is right, No squire in debt nor no poor knight; When slanders do not live in tongues, Nor cutpurses come not to throngs; When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field, And bawds and whores do churches build: Then shall the realm of Albion Come to great confusion… This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time
King Lear’s deep current of irreligious thought and scepticism is set in pre-Christian times, and Lear and the fool in a dream-like conversation ask whether something can come from nothing, distantly challenging the Genesis account of creation.
Shakespeare understood that religion can be used for evil purposes:
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
There is a sense in Shakespeare that things can and will move on and will get better. This theme is reflected in sonnet 32 where Shakespeare imagines his lover outliving him, that future poets will exceed Shakespeare’s heights, but that this will not take away from the love Shakespeare had while he lived. His lover who outlives him can admire another living poet for his achievement, and Shakespeare for his love…
Tragedies such as King Lear are incompatible with a belief in God or in divine justice. The gods are appealed to in King Lear; all of them are silent.
O you mighty gods,
This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathèd part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!
Ophelia responds to Laertes’ cautions about her relationship with Hamlet:
But, good my brother,do not as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.
Ophelia is victimised by hypocritical and life-denying religion even after her death. The priest minimises the rites for Ophelia’s funeral. She is given a Christian burial against the priest’s objections that her death was a suspected suicide, and therefore should condemn her to lie in unsanctified ground.
However, Shakespeare acknowledged his Christian cultural heritage in his will.
Shakespeare was acutely conscious of the stages of life, how different ages face different challenges, and that we must enjoy life when we have it:
When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, A foolish thing was but a toy, For the rain it raineth every day. But when I came to man’s estate, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, ‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate, For the rain it raineth every day But when I came, alas! to wive, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain By swaggering could I never thrive, For the rain, it raineth every day But when I came unto my beds, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain With toss-pots still had drunken heads, For the rain, it raineth every day A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain But that’s all one, our play is done, And we’ll strive to please you every day.
He understood that teenage years were difficult ones:
I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting—
King Lear is partly about despised old age. Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund see old people’s existence as a burden on themselves, “the old must give way to the young”. They hunger to inherit Lear and Gloucester’s property and power. “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it had its head bit off by its young.”
King Lear himself satirises his two older daughters’ contempt for him:
Dear daughter, I confess that I am old. Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.
“Ingratitude, that marble-hearted fiend.” “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”. King Lear ends:
The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest have borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Elderly people may give away their property to their children, only to find their children suddenly lose interest in them, or even secretly hope they pass away. This is a timeless issue.
Shakespeare brought out some of the best in humanity in those such as Cordelia, Edgar and Orlando (in As you like it) whose love and fidelity to elderly relatives or servants was ineffable but truer and less instrumentalist than those with the “oily arts” of the Gonerils and Regans.
Family tyrannies, both internal and between families
Shakespeare’s plays are full of authoritarian parents, especially fathers, tyrannising their children. Desdemona in Othello, Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Cordelia in King Lear are all bullied or threatened with death or banishment if they marry someone they love, refuse to marry someone they don’t love, or fail to give all their love to an imperious parent, even at the expense of reserving at least some love for a future husband. Desdemona is a victim of her father and husband. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHT7WM2nsFk
Romeo and Juliet is of course the supreme indictment of the tyranny of feuds between families and branding through a family name: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Hamlet, driven up the wall by his mother Gertrude, says “frailty thy name is women.” However, Shakespeare himself has extraordinary sympathy with female characters. They are often the most powerful and intelligent people such as Rosalind and Viola, or those with the purest, deepest character such as Cordelia.
Rosalind is at Hamlet’s intellectual level, but has far more self-control. She sustains her strong self and character while disguised as someone else, parlays a weak hand of cards into a winning one, and gets the last words in, in the epilogue where she looks the audience in the eye. Interestingly, Celia in As you like it is the only character who maintains her autonomy from Rosalind, while also being her great friend and forest sister. Celia is the one person Rosalind cannot command.
Rosalind is also very down to earth. She is in love but will not die for love, she is in control of her own self, not maddened by the teeming brain of lovers. She cures a youth of puppy love:
…full of tears, full of smiles…would now like him, now loathe him, then entertain him, then forswear him, now weep for him, then spit at him…to forswear the full stream of the world and to live in a nook merely monastic…
Even in the superficially patriarchal play Taming of the Shrew, Katie is really in control, while feigning subservience.
That Shakespeare was passionate about women is clear, and he fathered the first of his three children out of wedlock at age eighteen. However some of his sonnets are addressed to one or more men, whether as patronage or authentic love. He may have been bisexual, and arguably there is a homoerotic theme in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in Merchant of Venice.
Racism and cultural identity politics
Othello is a deeply anti-racist play. https://winsleys.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/the-upstart-crow-and-why-i-feel-i-belong-here/
It was banned in Nazi Germany and in some southern US states, at least where Othello was played by a black actor. In Merchant of Venice, Launcelot the servant is expected to make an honest woman out of the black girl he has gotten pregnant, and the black Morocco is a credible suitor for Portia. In contrast the racist Gratiano is portrayed as venal and corrupt.
Shylock is portrayed with humanity and sympathy:
Shylock: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? …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?
Nationalism and group identity politics
Shakespeare always put individuals and relationships between them as paramount in his works, and never put political theories, national, racial or cultural pride ahead of them.
Hamlet is a man alone facing a tyrannous rule and consumed by the need for a just revenge against one murderer. He contrasts this with an invading army where thousands may die purely for a worthless symbol:
Witness this army of such mass and charge, Led by a delicate and tender prince, Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d, Makes mouths at the invisible event, Exposing what is mortal and unsure To all that fortune, death, and danger dare, Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw … to my shame I see The imminent death of twenty thousand men That for a fantasy and trick of fame Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain?
Plays such as King John, Richard 11 and Henry V include some fine rhetoric that seems admirably patriotic at first blush. England in Richard 11 is “this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle…” In King John: “Nought shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true.”
Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry V are full of heroic speech. “The youth of England are on fire…they sell that pasture now to buy the horse…”Tomorrow is Saint Crispian day … we few, we happy few” are portrayed as lucky because honour and glory are a fixed quantity and so the fewer there are the more honour and glory they get!
However, in King Lear, the French army are on the “good side” and the British on the “bad side”. Shakespeare’s Henriad plays are subtle attacks on nationalism and its relationship to abuse of political power. Henry V is an ironic attack on megalomaniacal state power. Henry V threatens a French town’s inhabitants with mass murder if they do not surrender. French prisoners are massacred. Shakespeare exposes the evil of war and deflates its “heroism”.
A key device in exposing nationalism’s dark underbelly is Falstaff, a larger than life, drinking and womanizing hedonist. Falstaff teaches us not to moralise. Lear laments his age while Falstaff transcends it.
In Henry IV part 1, Falstaff is told that he “owest God a death” and should die with honour. Falstaff replies:
What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.
Shakespeare hates the “churlish knot of all-abhorred war…contumelieous, beastly, mad-brained war”. Shakespeare’s military figures are typically deeply flawed and come to bad ends. In Troilus and Cressida Greek classical heroes are shown in an unflattering, unheroic and unvirtuous light. Heroes such as Edgar and Hamlet only take up arms reluctantly.
In Henry 1V Part two King Henry warns his son Hal he may have to pursue foreign quarrels to protect himself against civil strife. “…be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels…” At the end of the play Hal rejects Falstaff so he can become a serious-minded, war-mongering monarch.
Despite the bombast of “once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead” Shakespeare does not gloss over the horror of war. At the end of Henry V the audience is reminded that “they lost France and made his England bleed”.
Aristocratic privilege, bloodline and inheritance
Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies show kings, nobles and other aristocrats in a human and often unflattering light. While individuals can murder other individuals, only people in positions of great power can do harm on a mass scale. There are kings and aristocrats who murder their way into power – Richard 111, Macbeth and Claudius. Others can lose their power, lands, sanity and lives through imperiousness and vanity (Lear).
Above all, kings and aristocrats are shown in Shakespeare not as having divine rights but as flawed human beings who make mistakes, can be ineffectual, mad, outsmarted, misunderstand things, have fatal flaws or behave capriciously, irrationally or with bad intent.
The histories and tragedies eroded the distance between the human and royalty. They removed the artifice and the divine justification for power and its aura of invincibility. They paved the way for the English revolution.
False pride and spurious and shallow honour and show of appearances
Shakespeare attacked pride, spurious and shallow honour displays and shows of appearances: “Small things make base men proud”.
The world is still deceived with ornament. In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, But, being seasoned with a gracious voice, Obscures the show of evil? In religion, What damned error, but some sober brow Will bless it and approve it with a text, Hiding the grossness with fair ornament? There is no vice so simple but assumes Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
In sonnet 25 Shakespeare notes that those patronized by the aristocracy, and famous warriors with honour and privilege are all vulnerable to having these baubles stripped away. In sonnet 91 Shakespeare shows how people can be proud of the wrong things – wealth, inherited social status, clothes, hawks, hounds and horses. Sonnet 125 disparages those who favour appearances and covet powerful people’s favours.
In the history plays Hotspur is in love with honour, Falstaff with wine and womanizing. Pistol, Nim and boy in Henry V comment cynically on honour, militarism and conflict. They are characters who are happy to trade off the chance of fame for a mug of beer, and safety.
Insecurity of power and greatness
A powerful theme in Shakespeare is how everyone is human, and that death conquers and levels all, the beggars and kings. In Hamlet, “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away”.
Richard 11 in a meditative moment reflects upon the underlying human frailty even of kings:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings; … I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?
Henry V reflects that, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.
Shakespeare as a humanist was deeply suspicious of power that comes from inheritance and ambition for power.
Shakespeare’s plays often contrast power-hunger and the destruction it unleashes with humble, sane people ordering their lives around their family, friends, their loves and there making a living. Shakespeare celebrates those “who doth ambition shun and love to live in the sun”, and woodland fellows “that always loved a great fire.”
Such people, and sometimes nature itself constitute the real world rather than a political fantasy world. The porter scene in Macbeth is the only humorous scene and the only one where sane, balanced humanity is represented in a world of vaulting ambition, murder, witchcraft and power struggles.
Shakespeare’s attacks on tyranny are enduring and everlasting and take new forms as new tyrannies emerge. This is reflected in the fate of Shakespeare’s works in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Russian writers were long the conscience and abstract chronicles of that long-suffering nation, embodied its soul, and were often in the forefront of challenges to tyranny.
During the 1940 blitz when the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany, Anna Ahkmatova telegraphed which side Russia’s literati were on in To the Londoners. https://creativeconflictwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/anna-ahkmatova-1889-1966-conflict-poem-to-the-londoners-1940/
As George Orwell revealed in his essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, Tolstoy could never abide Shakespeare’s unbounded love of life and wideness of mind, refusal to agonise over his soul and over death, and his exposure of hypocrisy. Above all, he never forgave Shakespeare for the lessons from King Lear: if you give away your money and power as a way of getting an indirect advantage for yourself, don’t be surprised if others play by different rules and you live to regret it. Loyalty to family does not always exist, especially with “pelican daughters” such as Goneril and Regan.
Stalin hated Hamlet, ostensibly because “Hamlet’s indecisiveness and depression were incompatible with the new Soviet spirit of optimism, fortitude, and clarity”. Stalin banned Hamlet from 1941 till his death. The great Soviet theatre director, Meyerhold was obsessed with Hamlet and had plans to stage it. He was murdered by Stalin’s secret police and his wife stabbed to death.
Hamlet was too close to the bone for Stalin. Like Claudius, Stalin had murdered for power. He believed the ends justified the means. Shakespeare never believed that individual dignity, rights and lives should be sacrificed for some collectivist mass project or delusion. Hamlet was a highly intelligent, sceptical observer who was close to power, and just a sword stroke away from the head of state…
Hamlet retains his autonomy in the midst of a tyranny, and this is dangerous to an autocrat: “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..”
In Shakespeare’s England, except in London and a few larger towns, people lived close to and as part of nature. He loves the “cuckoo buds of yellow hue that paint the meadows with delight”, the owls’ ‘tu-whit too whoo’, the icicles hanging by the wall, as Tom drags logs into the hall…
In places his works shows an awe of the stars and night sky, but his love for nature is mainly expressed through man living in and with nature, in farms, “poor pelting villages”, in the forest of Arden where there are books in brooks and words in streams and poems on trees… Shakespeare alludes to herbal remedies, and to the use of egg white and cobwebs for their antiseptic or healing properties.
Shakespeare delighted in nature, the colours, dynamism, plants and what they connoted, birds, their calls and animals. So much of his love involved people interwoven in and interacting with nature, the “shepherds piping on oaten straws” and “merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks”:
Where the bee sucks. there suck I: In a cowslip’s bell I lie; There I couch when owls do cry. On the bat’s back I do fly After summer merrily.
He did not see nature as separate from people:
Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease; Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep, And flat meads thatch’d with stover, them to keep; Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims, Which spongy April at thy hest betrims, To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom -groves, Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves,
He was the supreme poet of man as part of nature, drawing meaning from what plants stood for and what birds’ songs meant, and how nature’s storms and cold felt for people.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy world transcends human brick and mortar existence and merges with a magical world where plants and insects live their own lives to be admired in themselves and as they relate to human needs for medicines, for wonder, for lighted candles, for peaceful children, and for sheer delight:
Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear, When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
The contending world of humans and spirits are intertwined:
Puck: How now, spirit! whither wander you?
Fairy: Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, I do wander everywhere, Swifter than the moon’s sphere; And I serve the fairy queen, To dew her orbs upon the green. The cowslips tall her pensioners be: In their gold coats spots you see; Those be rubies, fairy favours, In those freckles live their savours: I must go seek some dewdrops here And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear. Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone: Our queen and all our elves come here anon.
Puck: The king doth keep his revels here to-night: Take heed the queen come not within his sight; For Oberon is passing fell and wrath, Because that she as her attendant hath A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling; And jealous Oberon would have the child Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild; But she perforce withholds the loved boy, Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy: And now they never meet in grove or green, By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen, But, they do square, that all their elves for fear Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there.
Fairy: Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he That frights the maidens of the villagery; Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern And bootless make the breathless housewife churn; And sometime make the drink to bear no barm; Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck, You do their work, and they shall have good luck: Are not you he?
Puck: Thou speak’st aright; I am that merry wanderer of the night. I jest to Oberon and make him smile When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile, Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab, And when she drinks, against her lips I bob And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me; Then slip I from her bum, down topples she, And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough; And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh, And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear A merrier hour was never wasted there.
Oberon: Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania…
Titania’s rebuff to Oberon is eerily predictive of climate change:
Titania: These are the forgeries of jealousy: And never, since the middle summer’s spring, Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead, By paved fountain or by rushy brook, Or in the beached margent of the sea, To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind, But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea Contagious fogs; which falling in the land Have every pelting river made so proud That they have overborne their continents: The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain, The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard; The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are undistinguishable: The human mortals want their winter here; No night is now with hymn or carol blest: Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound: And thorough this distemperature we see The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose, And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which: And this same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original
Shakespeare can turn giving someone directions into supreme naturalistic poetry:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight
Titania’s last act before wishing others goodnight is not something mundane, like putting the cat out, but:
…a roundel and a fairy song; Then, for the third part of a minute, hence; Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds, Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings, To make my small elves coats, and some keep back The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep; Then to your offices, and let me rest…
You spotted snakes with double tongue, Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen; Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong, Come not near our fairy queen. Philomel, with melody Sing in our sweet lullaby; Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby: Never harm, Nor spell nor charm, Come our lovely lady nigh; So, good night, with lullaby. Weaving spiders, come not here; Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence! Beetles black, approach not near; Worm nor snail, do no offence.
And she is so imaginative in her kindness:
Be kind and courteous to this gentleman; Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes; Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries; The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees, And for night-tapers crop their waxen thighs And light them at the fiery glow-worm’s eyes, To have my love to bed and to arise; And pluck the wings from painted butterflies To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes..
In Romeo and Juliet, the headstrong and mercurial Mercutio has a flight of imaginative fantasy where he communes with an imaginary fairy world:
Mercutio: O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep; Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs, The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, The traces of the smallest spider’s web, The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, … Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight, O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
In As you like it , Orlando, Rosalind, Celia and others are banished to the Forest of Arden, where “there is no clock in the forest”. Orlando loves Rosalind, and nature becomes the paper on which love poems are written:
O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books, And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character…, Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree, The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she. If a hart do lack a hind, Let him seek out Rosalind. If the cat will after kind, So be sure will Rosalind…
And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Those who live in harmony with nature can enjoy a simple and contended life:
Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck…
the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep; and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun…
he that doth the ravens feed, yet providentially caters for the sparrow be comfort to my age
Even the worse weather causes less pain than bad things that happen between people:
Blow, blow thou winter wind, though art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude…thou sting is not so sharp as friend remembered not.
Life must be lived, and love of life
The Middle Ages asserted a supremely powerful and all-creating God who lay in judgement on our immortal souls, and who divinely mandated the earthly powers of royalty and aristocracy. In contrast, humanism was more concerned with living life as it was, and the nature of human relationships, rather than treating life as a transitional preparation for an after-life.
Shakespeare’s loved life for itself and within its bounds. He accepted the conditions of life, and that it is there to be lived. Shakespeare had no obvious belief in an undiscovered country from which a traveller may return. You have to enjoy live now, enjoy all things around you, and knowing that some things survive: poetry, children, others’ memories of you, and your enduring achievements.
Shakespeare plays with the image of time moving in one direction only, “if as a crab I could go backwards.” He uses distance in time and sequencing of events and lifetimes to protect himself from accusations of heresy, apostasy or political subversion. “These prophecies Merlin shall make, but I live before his time.”
There is no evidence he believed in an immortal soul in a strictly literal and religious sense. In his poems and in the last lines of Hamlet and Othello his tragic heroes want to be remembered after their deaths, for the right reasons.
There is no greater lover of life in Shakespeare than Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV and in the Merry Wives of Windsor. He is an intelligent and quite learned man. He debunks honour, glory, and nationalistic cant. He is allegedly a coward but defends himself, pointing out that discretion is the better part of valour. Rather than a “victory of death” rhetoric on the battlefield, his cry is “give me life”. He praises drinking and has a bottle of Spanish wine rather than a pistol on the battle field.
Falstaff appears in three plays, and Mrs Quickly has known him for over 29 years, has seen all sides of him, and still loves him. In her account of his death she told of how Falstaff:
…babbled of green fields…and all was as cold as stone.
While Lear and Ophelia are garnered with weeds or drowned with them, Falstaff engaged with flowers and symbols of life to the end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PedB0DWay0
However, Shakespeare knew the danger of excessive drinking, warning “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains”. He alludes to “falser than vows made in wine”. The porter lines from Macbeth are famous:
it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him
Shakespeare’s bad characters are often motivated by “vaulting” or “blown” ambition, motivated by power for its own sake, not for what the exercise of justice, fair dealing or human advancement. “Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder whereto the climber upward turns his face”. Macbeth reflects that, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other.” In contrast, Cordelia says, “No blown ambition doth our arms incite, but love, dear love and our ag’d father’s right.”
The love of language and poetry for its aesthetic powers
Shakespeare loved words, language and poetry for the aesthetic beauty, how they sound. The poetry was in his head and he had to write his plays and poems to express them, even when the plots and themes do not require them.
If you read and relish Shakespeare, understand him and take him to your heart he will always be with you. The following includes some lines memorable for their poetry, and some for meaning that may only come later in life, so you can read them and reflect on them as you live life to the full:
I go, I go, look how I go, swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.
Hence, away! now all is well, one aloof stand sentinel.
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
The moon’s an arrant thief, whose pale fire she snatches from the sun.
I am constant as the Northern Star.
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.
Winter of our discontent
Put out the light and then put out the light.
Deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book
Rising and cawing at the gun’s report.
I have set my life upon a cast and will stand the hazard of the die.
How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.
Give me that man that is not passion’s slave.
Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Is’t possible a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?
Let the stricken deer go weep, the hart ungalled play; for some must watch while some must sleep: so runs the world away.
What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is)
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss. So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.
Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none.
Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear every bush an officer.
The night is long that never finds the day.
I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.
O God! that one might read the book of fate
And what makes robbers bold, but too much lenity.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones;
When majesty stoops to folly.
Thus Kent, o princes, bids you all adieu, he’ll shape his old course in a country new.
He hath ever but slenderly known himself.
If our father would sleep till I waked him.
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl.
Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.
I do not like the fashion of your garments, you will tell them they are Persian but let them be changed.
And I’ll go to bed at noon.
You have been sunshine and rain at once.
I know you what you are.
Love, and be silent.
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.
To be acknowledg’d, madam, is o’erpaid
Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; ripeness is all.
I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; If it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.
The lady protests too much.
This is the very coinage of your brain.
More matter, with less art.
Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low- an excellent thing in woman.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me; I must not say no.
On a day–alack the day!– Love, whose month is ever May, Spied a blossom passing fair Playing in the wanton air: Through the velvet leaves the wind, All unseen, can passage find; That the lover, sick to death, Wish himself the heaven’s breath.
All my pretty ones…
Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.
Out, damned spot!
But what’s his offence? Groping for trout in a peculiar river.
How far that little candle throws his beams – so shines a good deed in a naughty world.
And the country proverb known, that every man should take his own, in your waking shall be shown, Jack shall have Jill, naught shall go ill..and all will be well.
The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.
It’s not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but it’s enough,’twill serve: …
A plague on both your houses!.
Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid; Fly away, fly away breath; I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
I have drunk, and seen the spider.
This is fairy gold, boy.
If ever you have looked on better days…and know what tis to pity and be pitied.
Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy of the living.
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
This quarry cries on havoc.
I shall not look upon his like again.
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.
Fortune, turn thy wheel.
It is as easy as lying.
When a father gives to his son, both laugh. When a son gives to a father, both cry.
Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
Love thrives not in the heart that shadows dreadeth.
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.
Read and immerse yourself in Shakespeare for a lifetime and he will always be ahead of you!
 That is, the last play he wrote entirely himself; in semi-retirement he collaborated with some other writers on other plays.
 There are wonderful dramatized, and often set to music versions of Shakespeare sonnets at http://sonnetprojectnyc.com/
 Bedlam beggars were often mentally people left to roam the countryside begging for survival. They were the subject of one of the most famous anonymous poems in the English language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_o%27_Bedlam
 These lines are set to music by Vaughan Williams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFBj-qWLrsw