Action v. Inaction: Laertes v. Hamlet

Hamlet and Laertes are in similar circumstances throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both men of around the same age, Laertes and Hamlet come into conflict during the play because Hamlet (accidentally) murdered Polonius, Laertes’s father. This becomes a distinct similarity between the two men because Hamlet’s father was also murdered. Hamlet has been asked, by his father’s ghost, to avenge his murder but Hamlet fears acting on impulse alone; Laertes does not need to be told to take revenge but instead intends to spring into action immediately after he hears that Hamlet has killed is father.

Hamlet’s most famous speech begins, “To be, or not to be; that is the question:”; while Hamlet is referring to taking his own life in this soliloquy, he is contemplating his ability to act as a whole. Hamlet is so unsure of his ability to murder his uncle that he believes it may be better to take his own life. In killing his uncle, Hamlet is committing treason which means his path to revenge is more or less a suicide mission. Hamlet goes on to say, “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,” (3.1.59-62). I interpret these lines as Hamlet asking whether it is worth the worry and suffering to kill his uncle, or if it will be as useless as attempting to fight the ocean only to lose. Hamlet then says says, “To die, to sleep-/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to-’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wished,” (3.1.62-66); he is almost longing for death, asking to sleep for eternity. Hamlet equates the heart’s suffering to the “thousand natural shocks” that humans are handed from generation to generation. By saying death is “consummation”, Hamlet relates dying to having sex after one is married. This metaphor is directly related to the pleasure that he believes dying would bring him.

The speech that Laertes makes about his plans for revenge is completely different from Hamlet’s speech. Laertes proclaims, “I will do’t,” (4.7.112); this bold, blunt and determined statement is evidence enough of the juxtaposition between Laertes and Hamlet: there is nothing wishy-washy about Laertes’s opening line. He then goes on to say, “And for that purpose I’ll anoint my sword./ I bought an unction of a mountebank/ So mortal that, but dip a knife in it, Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,/ Collected from all simples that have virtue/ Under the moon, can save the thing from death/ That is but scratched withal,” (4.7.113-118). Every word that Laertes speaks is in relation to his determination and references the action he is going to perform. Where Hamlet talks of sleeping and wishing he were dead in order to save him from doing what his father’s ghost has asked him to do, Laertes is ready to fight. Before this speech is given, Laertes wanted “To cut his throat i’th’ church”. This powerful and sacrilegious act that Laertes wants to perform juxtaposes Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle while Claudius is praying. Instead of being frightened that Hamlet will not go to hell, Laertes wants to kill Hamlet in the most unholy and gruesome way he can.

Although the two men want the same thing, Laertes is more interested in taking action and while Hamlet calculates and schemes in order to enact his plan successfully. Both men’s fates are discovered at the end when both end up dead by the other’s hand. I suppose you could argue that both men are successful as they each avenge the deaths of their fathers…

Beware the Ides of March: The Signs and Symbols of Julius Caesar

The characters in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are faced with signs and symbols that create an atmosphere of fear and superstition. However, these symbols are interpreted and often reinterpreted to be less than ominous. Caesar and Brutus are the two characters that are struggling to find a balance between logic and reason and the supernatural and superstitious. This struggle is most evident when both characters are faced with obvious magic and voodoo.

The Soothsayer’s warning is the first evidence of the supernatural; he warns, “Beware the ides of March,” (1.2.23). Caesar is interested in listening to what the Soothsayer has to say, but does not heed his warning with much caution. When the ides of March finally arrives, Calphurnia has a prophetic dream which Caesar recounts to Decius Brutus: “Calphurnia here, my wife, stays me at home: She dreamt to-night she saw my statua,/ Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts,/ Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/ Came smiling, and did bath their hands in it:/ And these does she apply for warnings and portents,/ And evils imminent; and on her knee/ Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day,” (2.2.85-92). The certain doom that Calphurnia feels for her husband after having this predictive dream is not reflected in the way Caesar feels. Calphurnia is sure that her dream means that Caesar is going to be killed, but Caesar is not convinced; he has a level of hubris that makes him believe he is immortal. Decius Brutus reinterprets Calphurnia’s dream as the people bathing in the wealth of their great leader, Caesar. Caesar does not need anymore convincing, he immediately calls Calphurnia foolish for ever worrying about his safety. This, ultimately, leads to Caesar’s death; if he just stayed home with his wife, he may not have been murdered (at least at that moment…). The appearance of the Soothsayer and Calphurnia’s prophetic dream are referencing Caesar’s fate, who’s life is bound to end in a bloody conflict.

Brutus comes in contact with Caesar’s ghost during Act 4, an apparition attributed to Brutus’ guilt and honor. As the spirit appears, Brutus exclaims, “How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?/ I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/ That shapes this monstrous apparition./ It comes upon me. Art thou anything?/ Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/ That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?/ Speak to me what thou art,” (4.3.320-326). It is clear from his anxious response that Brutus does not treat her visions as Caesar treated Calphurnia’s. As egotistical and pompous as Caesar is, Brutus is logical and honorable. Brutus’s reaction to the supernatural is related to his natural instinct to be logical and reasonable. Of course it is hard to tell whether or not Brutus’s vision is only in Brutus’s mind or if a ghost has really appeared to him. If it Caesar’s ghost did really appear to Brutus, it was more than likely a sign of Brutus’s fate which he realizes is more than likely his life ending at Philippi. If the apparition was in Brutus’s mind, his subconscious is probably responding to the guilt he feels from killing Caesar unjustly. At a certain point, Brutus probably admitted to himself that his actions were not as honorable as he convinced himself they were.

The fates and the supernatural go hand in hand with logic and reason in Julius Caesar. It is hard for the characters to separate signs and coincidence. In this play, the two things are inseparable. There is no coincidence, only fate and human will.

Richard III’s Success

We talked a little bit about how Richard III and Iago differ from one another in class. Iago is a well liked character in Othello. He has many allies, who believe that he is genuine and supportive of their causes, including Othello himself. Richard, on the other hand, is universally hated despite anything that the York family gained from Richard’s prowess in battle during the Wars of the Roses. Why, then, is Richard so successful in his ruthless plots to attain the throne? Shakespeare’s characters know that Richard is willing to do whatever it takes to become king and it appears that Richard is destined to have this coveted seat of power.

One of Richard’s successes is in the wooing of Lady Anne; he manages to convince her to marry him even though at the beginning of the scene she is clearly in favor of his death. Anne calls out her men and says that Richard is the devil, “What, do you tremble? Are you all afraid? Alas, I blame you not, for you are mortal, And mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.— Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell. Thou hadst but power over his mortal body; His soul thou canst not have. Therefore begone” (1.2.44-49). Anne says that Richard is not a mortal, that he cannot be completely killed because his spirit would live on even after his mortal body is gone. On top of his “devil-hood”, Anne even has proof of Richard’s murderous actions: “In thy foul throat thou liest. Queen Margaret saw Thy murd’rous falchion smoking in his blood” (1.2.99-102). Queen Margaret is aware of exactly what Richard has done, and Lady Anne does not seem to be wavering AT ALL from Richard’s begging. At this point in the scene, it appears as though Anne is very strong and aware of what sort of “devil” Richard is. However, when Richard pleads with Anne to kill him, she cannot do it. Richard continues: “Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry— But ’twas thy beauty that provokèd me. Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward— But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on” (1.2.196-200). This is when Jane drops the sword that could have been used to slay Richard and she agrees to marry him. I do not think that Jane is tempted because she is suddenly in love with Richard. My belief is that Lady Anne is aware of how much Richard is willing to do to gain power. Marrying Richard is almost a sure plan to get her closer to the security of being queen.

Margarette is the character that most obviously predicts Richard’s rise to power. It seems as though Margaret is one of the “fates” from ancient Greek mythology; she speaks about Richard’s destiny in terms of who will be hurt and, quite obviously, points out that it will be by Richard’s hand. Margaret predicts that history is about to repeat itself: “Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales, For Edward our son, that was Prince of Wales, Die in his youth by like untimely violence. Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen, Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self.” (1.3.208-213). This foretelling of “past will be future” is equivalent to the predictions of the Soothsayer in Julius Caesar and the 3 Witches in Macbeth. The otherworldly-ness of Richard’s success is illuminated by Margret’s curses: “Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses! Though not by war, by surfeit die your king, As ours by murder to make him a king” (1.3.204-207). This line makes me think of Margret as a sort of ominous, supernatural weather-woman. She tells the characters that even though the war is over, the death, destruction and fight for the throne has not quite run its course. Richard is the perpetuator of the “dull clouds”.

Irony and Frenemies

In Shakespeare’s Othello the most interesting and dubious character is Iago. A master of manipulation, Iago is able to subtly convince each character to do exactly what he intends them to do. Iago is the driving force of the course of action in Othello; Shakespeare seems to have given this scheming character an almost devil-like presence in the play by giving him the uncanny ability to obtain trust and trick people into doing his bidding. The scene in which Iago’s treachery is most prevalent is when he convinces Othello that Desdemona is not a faithful wife; “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy./ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss/ Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger./ But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er/ Who dotes yet doubts, suspects yet fondly loves!” (3.3.169-174). Iago never comes right out and says “your wife is cheating on you”, but rather implies, making Othello work for the answer he wants. Iago makes it seem that it was Othello’s idea all along by assuring Othello he has his best interest at heart. This speech leaves Othello, who claimed lines earlier that he had such passionate feelings for his wife, saying “I’ll tear her all to pieces,” (3.3.437) and “Damn her, lewd minx!” (3.3.478). Although this sudden shift of emotions reveals certain things about Othello’s character, the audience mostly gets a view of how good Iago is at manipulating others.

The audience becomes aware of the Iago’s bad intentions in the first scene in the play when it is revealed that Iago wishes to bring Othello down. It is, therefore, exceedingly ironic when Iago characterizes women as being tricksy and untrustworthy. Iago says, “Come on, come on. You are pictures out of door,/ Bells in your parlours; wildcats in your kitchens,/ Saints in your injuries; devils being offended,/ Players in your housewifery, and hussies in your beds,” (2.1.112-15). Iago’s point is that women are constantly playing whichever role suits their situation. Iago’s words would have been ironic despite the context of Iago’s character, because men would have been playing the role of a woman in this scene. On top of that, women were not allowed to be actors on the stage! Women are often characterized as having many different “faces”, but the irony in this case is alluding to the shady actions taken by the shady character that is saying these lines. The audience knows that Iago is two-faced, so the claims he makes about women’s inability to be genuine are further evidence of his incredible capabilities to manipulate. Iago’s words are almost confirmed by Desdemona when she says, “I am not merry, but I do beguile/ The thing I am by seeming otherwise,” (2.1.125-6). These two simple lines sum up all of Iago’s scheming and manipulating; Desdemona seems to be one of the more genuine characters in the play which makes the situation steeped in even more irony!

Viola and Olivia: No Strings Attached

At the beginning of Twelfth Night, Olivia and Viola, the female leads, find themselves independent of the men to whom they were once subservient. Olivia, who has lost her father and her brother, deals with her losses by “mourning” and refusing to speak with the high-status men who wish to marry her for her money and power. Viola, who believes that her brother was lost in a shipwreck, decides to dress as a man and make her own way in a new land. Women during the early modern period did not have the power or freedom to make their own decisions and travel on their own. Having gained new mobility, the women in Twelfth Night find ways to exercise their freedom during a period in which women had very little.

Viola disguises herself as Cesario and becomes the courtier of the Duke Orsino of Illyria. Orsino immediately takes to Cesario, trusting him with his most delicate task: wooing lady Olivia. Being the confidant of a powerful Duke gives Viola a level of influence that she would never have as a woman. When Cesario goes to Olivia to speak with her about the Duke’s love, he is able to speak with Olivia by using a persistence that would have gotten a woman into trouble. Malvolio reports to Olivia, “Madam, yon young fellow swears he will speak with you. I told him you were sick-he takes on him to understand so much, and therefore comes to speak with you. I told him you were asleep-he seems to have a foreknowledge of that too, and lady? He’s fortified against any denial,” (1.5.123-128). If a woman were to contradict a man in that manner, she would not be as well received as Cesario when he insists on seeing lady Olivia. When Hermia, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, speaks against her father’s wishes, she is threatened with death or banishment to a nunnery. Even Olivia’s attendant Maria, who has great wit, has to be reserved and sneaky with her witticism, where as Viola is able to be persistent toward Malvolio because she is impersonating a man. Because of the way Hermia and Maria are received, it is surprising to me that Viola is able to act so bold as a man. Her boldness is attributed to how clever she really is. If she had been meek and shy, there is a chance she would not have gained the Duke’s favor. The power Viola gains in being a man is to act in whatever way she chooses.

After losing her father and her brother, Olivia finds herself able to choose her own husband, a privilege which most early modern women did not have. Olivia uses these deaths as a way to gain power through choosing a husband who is of lower social status than she. Olivia uses her mourning as an excuse to ward off men who want her money and power. The audience is first introduced to Olivia through news that is given to Orsino by one of his confidants, “So please my lord, I might not be admitted,/ But from her handmaid do return this answer:/ The element itself till seven years’ heat Shall not behold her face at ample view,/ But like a cloistress she will veiléd walk/ And water once a day her chamber round/ With eye-offending brine-all this to season/ A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh rememberance,” (1.1.23-31). This account is indicative of the spectacle that Olivia is putting on in order to get what she wants. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, attempts to take control of her fate as well, but she is not in a position to actually change the mind of the man she is in love with. Viola’s need to act boldly as a man is paralleled with the acceptance that surrounds Olivia’s cold demeanor as a woman in mourning.

Viola and Olivia are given opportunities in Twelfth Night that women in the early modern period were not given. Women today take for granted being able to speak freely and decide who they marry, but the women in Twelfth Night take control of their lives with the power that they receive.

The Lovers’ Rhyme Scheme

There are three classes exhibited in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare has created a “voice” for each of the classes that make them distinct and unique. Hermia and Helena, the young lovers of the story, speak in rhyming couplets. No other characters in the play, up until the moment we meet these young women, speak in this way. The first time we are introduced to this kind of language, the two young women are in love. Hermia has just decided to elope with her love, Lysander and Helena is pining over Demetrius who, unfortunately for Helena, has feelings for Hermia. The first exhibition of rhyming couplets begins on line 171 in Act 1 Scene 1 when Hermia says:

“By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,/ By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,/ And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen/ When the false Trojan under sail was seen;/ By all vows that ever men have broke-/In number more than ever women spoke-/In that same place thou hast appointed me/ Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee.”

The simple AABB rhyme scheme Hermia speaks in creates a sing-song quality to her speech. Hermia’s love for Lysander seems magical and melodic because of the rhyming couplets that she speaks to him in. The romantic way that Hermia speaks is also an indication of the magical adventure that she, her friend Helena, her love Lysander and her adversary, Demitrius are about to embark on. Hermia makes references to several greek myths, Gods and events that give the impression that her love with Lysander is equal to the power of these Gods and their elopement will be equal to events that she mentions in her speech.

When Helena enters, she is upset because the love she feels for Demetrius is not reciprocated. The rhyme scheme Helena speaks with contradicts the tone of her speech, which is unlike the way Hermia’s rhyme scheme enhanced the words that she was saying. Helena begins in like 181, Act 1 Scene 1:

“Call you me fair? That ‘fair’ again unsay./ Demetrius loves your fair-O happy fair!/ Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue’s sweet air/ more tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear/ When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.”

After Hermia’s loving words and excitement at the prospect of eloping with her true love, Helena’s depressed moans about not being loved seem almost out of place. The rhyme scheme creates a tone like a lament rather than a love song. The rhythm of the speech, though the same as Hermia’s original rhythm, creates the tone similar to that of a funeral march. The self deprecating way that Helena describes Hermia indicates the envy and spite that she is feeling. The clichés Helena uses, which she obviously wishes Demetrius would use in regards her, are almost spit at Hermia. As soon as Lysander calls her “fair Helena” she is immediately set off complaining about her love that has not been reciprocated. At the end of her speech, Helena says, “Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,/ The rest I’d give to be to you translated./ O, teach me how you look, and with what art/ You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.” I think many young people know what it is like to have feelings for someone who has feelings for a close friend. It’s so awkward! I think that Helena is so relatable in this moment when she asks Hermia what she is doing wrong in relation to Demetrius.

The young lovers in this story are unlike all of the other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They do not seem to have many responsibilities and are all quite wealthy. The rhymes they speak in are indicative of the cushy lives they live. These women are privileged enough, even when complaining of unreciprocated love, to speak with flowery language.