Category Archives: Shakespeare

Fairy lore in Shakespeare

‘Tis the season (for magic!) While this is not a Christmas themed post, Christmas is often referred to as magical, so here is some background on the magical history of Shakespeare!

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow…
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he? (
Midsummer 2.1. 32-34, 40-42).


Basics of Fairy lore in England, Ireland, and Scotland


The origins of British/Celtic fairy lore are not clear, although many critics believe them to be left over from some older pagan religion. Because of its lost origins, fairy lore has several explanations for its existence, including:

Ghosts or Spirits of the Deceased: bean si (Irish) or bean shith (Scottish) translates as “fairy woman” and is generally described as a ghost and is either an omen from the dead for an impending tragedy or simply as an omen for death.

Fallen Angels: Several legends, based on sketchy biblical tidbits, tell that when some angels revolted, the gates of heaven were shut and those in hell became demons while those on earth became fairies.

Demons: Some beliefs held that fairies were demons, but most critics believe this to be a result of the growth of Christianity, especially Puritanism. For instance, although Puck is sometimes called “hobgoblin,” which, though originally a friendly household spirit, became an evil goblin. Many older folk beliefs similarly became demonized by church tenants, as with witchcraft and other forms of magic. Consequently, part of subsequent folklore is that fairies are scared away by church bells. However, in Midsummer, Oberon states that his people are not driven away by church bells, reaffirming their status as non-demons to Shakespeare’s audience. More on this further down.

Pagan Deities: Tales of the Tuatha De Dannan tell of a magical people coming to Ireland on black clouds, only to eventually be chased underground or to the sidhe (fairy mounds) by the ancestors of Irish folk. Most critics believe that the stories contain evidence that these beings were once considered gods and goddesses by local pagan religions. More than likely, this is the belief regarding fairies that dominates in Shakespeare’s play. Due to the increasing influence of Christianity, fairies were relegated to the realm of folk tales, not deities, but remained powerful nonetheless.


Peasants often divided fairies into two courts, the Seelie Court and Unseelie Court. The fairies of the Seelie Court were believed to be more kindly toward mortals, often helping them or giving them gifts. However, that did not keep faeries from playing cruel tricks on mortals or from showing their wrath when feeling they had been injured in some way. However, unlike the Unseelie Court, when given the choice between benevolence or malice toward mortals, they would more than likely choose benevolence. The Unseelie Court, on the other hand, while occasionally kind toward mortals, generally chose malice toward humans. Members of the Seelie Court often wore bells on the harnesses or their steeds to distinguish them from their harsher relatives, who were frightened off by the sound of bells, thus further explaining Oberon’s assurance that his people were “spirits of another sort” (Midsummer 3.2.388) when Puck reminds him that dawn is near, when “damned spirits all” (3.2.382) must flee from daybreak.


Common Traits, Tricks, and Gifts 

Fairies of Shakespeare’s time were not pictured as more modern fairies. Rather than having wings, they often appeared gnomish or elfish in appearance. The few that flew did so by magic or by harnessing birds or insects as steeds.

Brownies and hobgoblins, both types of fairies, were generally considered house or hearth fairies. They would help housewives with chores and other duties if they deemed the household worthy by its cleanliness. This is why Puck states, “I am sent with broom before, / To sweep the dust behind the door” (5.1.389-90). Puck, in his kindly persona of Robin Goodfellow, often helped around the hearth and home according to his mythos, but he could quickly change to his more impish persona if displeased. In Ben Jonson’s ballad “Robin Goodfellow” the punishments inflicted by Puck for uncleanness are described:

When house or hearth doth sluttish lie,

I pinch the maidens black and blue,

The bedclothes from the bed pull I,

And lay them naked all to view. (Dyer 19).

Brownies could be driven away by a gift of clothing; however, the clothing was to be of good quality, otherwise the giver risked incurring the wrath of the Brownie.

Fairies also could not stand the touch of iron, thus the practice of hanging an iron horseshoe above a doorway or entrance.

Often, the good graces of fairies were entreated with bribes or fresh cream and honey, a particular favorite.

It was particularly important not to impede the pathways of fairies, thus front and back doors of houses were often built in alignment so that they could be left open and night, allowing the fairies to pass through.

It was also bad luck to step into a fairy ring, as the fairies might still be dancing within it. If they were, you would be sucked into their dance, unable to get out until they let you go. You could be missing for a few minutes or for decades.

Puck’s favorite game of leading travelers astray was called will o’the wisp. It could be avoided by not following the light or sound that attempted to lead travelers astray, often to their death in the marshes or swamps.

According to Scottish tradition, Millers were thought to be friends of the fairies thanks to their ability to control the forces of nature. Often, they were believed to grind grain for the fairies at night or allow the fairies use of their machinery. This belief was no doubt encouraged by millers to keep thieves away.

An infant who was not baptized was in danger of being stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling or fairy-child. Changelings were often believed to be sickly, dying soon after birth. This belief probably arose out of the high rate of infant mortality among the poor. Older people could also be taken and would be unable to leave if they ate fairy-food. This belief was probably due to the late influence of Greek and Roman mythology (Persephone anyone?).

It was also bad luck to reveal the kindness of fairies to others. If a fairy chose to favor you that favor could quickly turn to malice if you shared the knowledge of your gift and their favoritism to you.


Shakespeare’s Influence on Fairy lore

While it was a common belief that fairies had a courtly system similar to human royalty, the specifics changed by region. Shakespeare gives the name Oberon to his fairy king, which was a common mythology passed on from German or Nordic myths of fairies or elves. Puck too can be found throughout fairy mythology, as well as his counter-personality, Robin Goodfellow. Puck was often seen as the trickster while Robin was highly benevolent to humans, helping them with chores or giving them gifts around the house. However, Shakespeare’s queen, Titania, is of his own naming. While in fairy tradition, there is often a queen with Oberon, she remains either unnamed or called Queen Mab (as she is in Mercutio’s speech in Rome and Juliet). However, even her name Mab was not traditional in Shakespeare’s time.Usually, she just remained unnamed. However, due to Shakespeare’s influence, the name of Titania is commonly seen in literature and theatre after Shakespeare. (The poet William Blake also had a great deal of influence on modern fairy lore, but that is for another day!)

What’s unique in all this is Shakespeare’s mixture of peasant folklore of fairies, on the one hand, with the mythology of the Greeks and Romans that would have been part of upper-class education, on the other. Just as the royalty and upper class mixed with the lower class in the theatre (although they were still separated, they were nonetheless in the same building and area), so too are the mythoi of the lower and upper classes mixed onstage in Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It is described by Mr. Knightley as an attempt to blend the elves of the village with the fays of romance” (Dyer 2). That is not to say that those of the upper class were unaware of fairy mythology or the lower class unaware of some of the major Greek and Roman myths. Rather, both were particularly popular at this time, much to the consternation of the clergy and much to the entertainment of Shakespeare’s audience.

Works Cited and Consulted

Buccola, Regina. Fairies, Fractious Women and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early

Modern British Drama and Culture. Cranbury: Susquehanna University Press,


Bush, Douglas. Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry. New York:

W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. , 1963.

Dyer, Rev. T.F. Thiselton. “Fairies.” Folk-lore of Shakespeare. New York: Harper &
Bro., 1884. p. 1-24.

Oatley, Keith. “Simulation of Substance and Shadow: Inner Emotions and Outer Behavior in Shakespeare’s Psychology of Character”.
College Literature, 33:1. Winter 2006: 15-33.

Rogers, L.W.. The Ghosts in Shakespeare. Wheaton: The Theosophical Press, 1925.

Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Stephens, James. Irish Fairy Tales. New York: Abaris Books, Inc., 1978.

Wall, Wendy. “Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairy-lore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle”.

Shakespeare Quarterly 52- 1 Spring 2001: 67-106.

Illustrations by Arthur Rackham



Filed under Fairies, Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Sources

Happy Birthday Willy Shakes!

So, traditionally Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated on April 23. This date is probably not accurate, but let’s face it, it is certainly convenient since he also died on April 23. For Shakespeare to have lived exactly 52 years just seems serendipitous. And it is certainly one less date to memorize. His actual birthday is unknown. Birth certificates were not issued during that time, but the parish register records Shakespeare’s christening on April 26 with a simple entry, “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere,” or William, son of John Shakespeare. He was more than likely born in April, although the idea that children were baptized three days after birth is not precise.

April 23 has anther enticing draw. It is also St. George’s day, the patron saint of England, as well as a major saint in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions. Surprisingly, he is also known and respected in many Muslim traditions, a true rarity among religious figures. What better imagery to associate with Shakespeare—England’s national poet, the Bard of Avon, the crosser of traditions, time, and borders—than the venerated saint that also crosses time and cultures? Shakespeare may not have slain a dragon, but he explored and conquered almost every aspect of the human psyche within his plays and poems. Quite a feat for the son of a glover in little Stratford.

Some authors and scholars, like Professor Dennis Kay, propose that there may have been another reason for associating Shakespeare with the 23rd and Saint George. Kay suggests,

If Shakespeare was indeed born on Sunday, April 23, the next feast day would have been St. Mark’s Day on Tuesday the twenty-fifth…St. Mark’s Day was still held to be unlucky, as it had been before the Reformation, when altars and crucifixes used to be draped in black cloth, and when some claimed to see in the churchyard the spirits of those doomed to die that year. (Shakespeare 54)

But what of birthdays in Shakespeare’s time? In early Christian traditions, the idea of celebrating one’s actual day of birth was reviled, due mostly to the extraordinary extravagance and self-indulgence associated with birthdays in pagan Roman traditions. (On a side note, the idea of raucous parties and noisy toys on birthdays is a vestige of pagan tradition born of the belief that evil spirits would visit on the anniversary of birth. The noise and crowds would scare them away.) In place of these celebrations, Christians instead celebrated “name days,” that is, the feast day associated with the saint whose day falls closest to one’s birthday. In fact, in some strict Orthodox traditions, name days are still preferred.

During the English Renaissance, when religious traditions were still in upheaval, thanks mostly due to the in-fighting between Anglican, Puritan, and Catholic powers, many common folk still embraced the idea of the traditional “name day.” For one thing, it certainly made naming one’s child easier as many children were simply named for the saint whose feast day fell closest to their birth. It also made remembering such dates much easier. And hey, celebrations were built in! However, celebrating birthdays or christening days became extremely popular with the noble classes during the Renaissance in England, especially among royalty. In fact, Chaucer makes note of King Cambuskan’s birthday celebration in “The Squire’s Tale” in his famous Canterbury Tales.

Shakespeare, if he celebrated his birth at all, would probably have been more prone to the tradition of the “name day.” Though he was baptized by a Protestant, his mother was from a long line of Roman Catholics, and his older sister, Joan, was baptized in the same parish by a Catholic priest. Again, religion was a constant source of upheaval and danger throughout England for those on all sides. More than likely, Shakespeare wouldn’t have given a hoot for his birthday, especially since he seems to have been a shrewd businessman and would have cared more for his investments in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, as well as Blackfriars Theatre and the Globe.

Yet, Shakespeare fanatics like me truly enjoy celebrating his birthday simply because we love him. We have readings, throw theme parties, have dress parades, bake traditional Renaissance sweets or even modern goodies, anything to celebrate the Bard and his glory. Somehow, I don’t think Shakespeare would mind the hoopla. After all, if any author ever had a sense of humor, it was Shakespeare. His mind invented not only some of the greatest tragedies in the English language, but some of the most riotous and side-aching comedies, not to mention the character of Falstaff, who speaks for himself: “To the latter end of a fray, and the beginning of a feast, / Fits a dull fighter, and a keen guest” (King Henry IV Part 1 4.2.78-79).

If you enjoy Shakespeare and his birthday, or just Shakespeare alone, please join in the celebration

Happy 448, Willy!


Filed under Shakespeare

Anonymous, or, a Fool’s Rewrite of History.

I’ve gotten many questions about the new Shakespeare-oriented movie Anonymous from my students, and while I’ve tried to avoid the topic as a blog entry, it simply won’t go away. Let me preface this blog by admitting I have not seen the film, nor do I plan to. As movies now cost ten bucks or more a pop, I try to limit the ones I see to those I know I will enjoy. And I know I would merely sit in the theatre and fume during this one. Therefore, this blog will not be about the film, but the conspiracy theory on which it is based because, in all fairness, I don’t want to write about things I know little about

Now, I like conspiracy theories as much as the next person. Truly, I do. They’re entertaining, like science fiction, anchored in fact and dosed heavily with vigorous imagination. I find them intriguing, largely because the good ones are so fanciful. However, the problem with movies woven from the threads of conspiracy theories is that the majority of movie-goers have neither the interest nor the tools to research the proffered fabric of idea and history behind them. Instead, they merely take the offered threads as the whole cloth of truth and wear it, and therein lies the rub. Admittedly, this is the issue with any movie loosely based on historical proposition. But I am not nearly so concerned in this blog with the unwillingness of the average movie-goer to demand truth when it comes to movies toying with history as I am to disparage Hollywood’s willingness to spoon-feed a gullible public with a lame conspiracy theory and advertise it, however so subtly, as real history. What I mean to say is that I am merely concerned with Shakespeare’s legacy.

The biggest problem inherent in the conspiracy of Anonymous is that it is based on the weakest of the theories that Shakespeare of Stratford did not write “Shakespeare.” This particular theory is that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was actually the author of Shakespeare’s works, while the Shakespeare we know today was merely a front. The most glaring problem with this theory is that Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write and produce plays until 1613, some of which were known to be collaborations with other authors of the day. The Oxfordian’s answer to this seemingly insurmountable problem is that the Shakespeare’s plays were written much earlier than they were produced, and that the later plays were “unfinished”, thus explaining some of the incongruities with known works by the Earl of Oxford. They also insist that the current accepted timeline of the plays is incorrect, developed by Stratfordians to fit their own theories. It should be noted here that famed Shakespearean Dr. Stanley Wells and Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson proposed the following in their new e-book, “Shakespeare Bites Back”:

We should use the term ‘anti-Shakespearian’ to describe those who propagate this particular conspiracy theory. In the past they have more usually been referred to as ‘anti-Stratfordians’, which allows the work attributed to Shakespeare to be separated from the social and cultural context of its author. We wish to insist that no artists should be divorced from the work they have produced. To deny Shakespeare of Stratford’s connection to the work attributed to him is to deny the essence of what made that work possible. Michelangelo cannot be separated from Florence and Rome; Charles Dickens wouldn’t be Charles Dickens without London. Shakespeare was formed by both Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The phrases ‘the Stratford man’, ‘actor from Stratford’, and even ‘anti-Stratfordian’ itself perpetuate the kind of divide with which we are here taking issue. These terms concede that such a division between an artist and his or her background and cultural context is possible. ‘Anti-Shakespearian’ reminds us that in attempting to separate Shakespeare from his place of origin you are in effect vandalizing the works themselves and the world’s appreciation of them. We call upon anyone involved in this discussion who is speaking up for Shakespeare to call those who are attacking him ‘anti-Shakespearian’. (Wells & Edmonson 32).

At this point, it should be indicated that the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was never questioned until the mid-19th century, which saw an upsurge in popularity of the plays. At this point in history, the general consensus was that only truly “educated” men could truly be geniuses of pen to paper. This view was later rejected by many of the more extreme Romantics, who sought to lift the “common man” into the light, though that is another debate all together.

But let us look at Shakespeare of Stratford’s education. Shakespeare, as the son of a member of the local gentry, would have been entitled to a free education at the King’s New School, which was less than a mile from John Shakespeare’s home. Few records survive from the school at this time, so there is no clear and stated record that Shakespeare attended. However, given that the chance at real education was still rather rare at that time, it is easy to suppose that John Shakespeare would have jumped at the chance for his son to attend school, especially since John himself was illiterate. Yes, this school was considered a “public” school, but let’s not confuse the current reputation of public schools with modern standards of public schools. The fact is that in Elizabethan and later England, “public school” meant what we today, in modern United Sates, mean as “private school.“ The curriculum for such schools was regulated by law, and Shakespeare would’ve been exposed to the classics of Latin and Greek culture, including but not limited to, Plautus, Ovid, Aristotle, Virgil, Plato, and to others whose influence can easily be seen in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare would have also learned to read and write in Latin. In fact, he would have been totally immersed in it, a chance that every man in England would have envied. After all, according to Elizabeth I’s tutor, Roger Ascham, “all men covet their children to speak Latin” (Greenblatt 24), yet another indication that John Shakespeare would have certainly sent young Will off to his lessons. On top of that, we know from separate sources that Richard Fiel, the famed printer, was also educated at the King’s New School at Stratford, thus proving that education there was extensive enough to produce a more-than-competent professional. Incidentally, Field was closely associated with the troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatre company, and printed many of Shakespeare’s plays.

So, why are there no records of Shakespeare’s attendance at this school? The answer is actually quite simple. The King’s New School did not keep a running record of its students at this early time in its history. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that John Shakespeare had placed William “for some time in a free school.” Because the King’s New School was so close to John Shakespeare’s home and because of John’s role in the community, his sons would likely have been granted a tuition waiver. In sum, it seems thoroughly plausible that Shakespeare attended this school. 

Of course, we have contemporary references to Shakespeare that testify to his authorship. Robert Greene, an already established playwright of the day wrote “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” The tiger’s heart reference points to Shakespeare’s own Henry VI Part 3, and the “Shake-scene in a country” is a play on Shakespeare’s name and country-bumpkin origin.

There are other objections to the Oxfordian theory. Oxfordians claim that a playwright who had never ventured out of England could not have written the detailed scenes of foreign lands; yet, if one looks closely at Shakespeare’s descriptions, they are often wrong: for instance, coast lines where there are none, among other issues. More than likely, Shakespeare heard of these places by word of mouth and allowed his imagination to do the rest, an idea that seems foreign to many modern authors, since they are taught to “write what they know”. However, that theory is a fairly modern one, whereas authors of Shakespeare’s era allowed their imaginations to abound. If you don’t believe me, simply read a few fairytales, or better, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest. They are centered around images of the mind, and even Theseus tells us as much:

More strange than true: I never may believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination, That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.2-22).

Therefore, we may assume that Shakespeare, a poet, knew himself capable of such imaginations and images without any reasonable and concrete seed.

Moreover, one of the more popular forms of literature in Elizabethan England was travel literature. Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations was extremely popular, along with the memoirs of author/explorers like Raleigh, Gilbert, Drake, Cavendish, or Frobisher. Of course, we mustn’t forget that John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, published his A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia in 1608, leading many modern critics to speculate on Caliban’s origins in the Native American barbarian. However, that is another argument all together. Nonetheless, the point here is that foreign lands and their descriptions were the talk of Shakespeare’s day, much as tales of the barbarian Gauls and Celts would have abounded in ancient Rome.

Yet, all these issues aside, does the true authorship of Shakespeare matter? On some level, yes. Obviously, historians and literary scholars have a vested interest in the authorship question. However, on another level, a man of Shakespeare’s humble origin not only rising to reclaim his father’s pride but also rising to such fame that his name is synonymous with greatness is an inspiration for those who do not have access to the great halls of classical education. Shakespeare of Stratford gives them hope that with the will and a seed of talent, they too might make their mark on the world, despite the odds against them. Furthermore, it spits in the eye of those that insist an expensive education is the only way to produce anything of value or genius in the world.

Nevertheless, on many other levels, the authorship question is unimportant. Whether Shakespeare of Stratford or some other Shakespeare wrote these great works is a miniscule matter compared to the great and enduring legacy of the works and words themselves. Shakespeare’s characters have grown to have a life of their own. Hamlet is no longer Shakespeare’s, but a man and persona in his own right. The same is true for Macbeth, Lady M, Othello, Iago, Lear, Cordelia, and so on. All have a life and being of their own, greater than any author or actor that touches them. The identity of whoever gave these characters life is a concern far smaller than the life of these characters themselves. Indeed, scholars, critics, actors, and directors speak of these characters as people and friends of the flesh, not mere personas of the stage and page. In this way, the authorship is irrelevant. It is the words that are essential.

* If you are interested in an even more in depth look at the history of Shakespearean authorship issues, the pitfalls of such anti-Shakespearean theories, or the known background of the man himself, I would recommend 60 Minutes with Shakespeare or the recent free e-book mentioned here, “Shakespeare Bites Back” by Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson & Prof. Stanley Wells, CBE, which is also available for download on the Blogging Shakespeare website. I would also highly recommend Dr. Greenblatt’s amazing biography of Willy Shakes Will in the World.

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Filed under Earl of Oxford, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Authorship, Shakespeare's Education

What is Evil?

I know. If this were a graded project, I’d be failing. But every time I start to write, I come up with a different idea. So I stopped for a bit to let my thoughts settle. This is one subject that has kept coming up over and over, so hopefully it sticks.

How do we define evil? In truth, evil, like good, is one of those words often defined by an opposite, such as light/dark or tall/short. Such words and concepts are dependent each other and on the context in which they are used. The common definition of evil is dependent on our culture and personal mores. My or your evil might differ slightly from someone else’s evil, or, when compared, it may be far fetched.

I bring this before you because in a few days we will recognize the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Certainly, our culture and the majority of cultures around the world define the tragedy of 9/11 as an act of pure evil. Thousands of innocent people died, people of various religions and cultures and races, all for someone else’s idiom. However, the men who planned and performed the attack believed THEY were right. They believed they were striking a blow at a country that has done more to degrade the moral center of the world than any other. In their minds, they were doing God’s work by killing those who do not embrace the “correct way.” How is their belief any different from those of our ancestors who spent generations fighting in the Crusades, killing innocent people as well as armed combatants, all in the name of religious conviction? So, I ask again: How do we define evil?

What of wars in general? America refused to enter WW I until it was apparent to a majority of the American populace that the European conflagration really was a matter of “national security,“ and WW II not until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We were willing to allow others to fight what we now see as an ultimate evil, sacrificing their lives and homes in the process. We became involved only when our own military installations, both in Hawaii and in the Philippines, were bombed, and the national motive was in no small part revenge. Even here, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an act designed to cripple the U.S. forces in the Pacific, was done in the name of what the Japanese thought was “right.” They believed it was their manifest destiny to conquer the Pacific world. Their ideas of superiority were no different from those of American settlers who slaughtered thousands of Native Americans in the name of a manifest destiny. This country was not ours when we arrived. We conquered, we displaced, we murdered. Is this not evil? How were our ancestors any different?

We also dropped the worst of modern weapons on Japan in order to end the war, arguing that it would be better for hundreds of thousands of civilians to die than millions counted among our soldiers, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians. That debate continues as one of the great moral conundrums of our age. But is the loss of millions truly more evil than the loss of hundreds of thousands? Is one soldier’s life worth any more than a civilian? Are two lives worth more than a single one? So again, what is evil?

Like all greats in the humanist disciplines, Shakespeare never offers an answer to such large and philosophical queries. Instead, he merely expands the questions. In Macbeth, he gives us not an evil incarnate to oppose a hero, but rather a descent into evil that should be pitied. He argues and justifies his descent into evil, just as we have often done with our own descent.

Macbeth begins as the archetypal hero. He has just conquered a traitor, that is, treason against a king, a sin worse than any other in Shakespeare’s time. While returning from the battlefield, unaware of his newly earned title, he encounters three witches who make predictions regarding his current and future titles. Macbeth scoffs at these sisters until he receives news that he is now “Thane of Cawdor” (1.3.055), just as the sisters predicted. Our Western minds, molded by centuries of teachings that witches are a form of evil, are quick to judge the grotesque women as the focus of evil in the play. However, the witches never perform a single act of evil. To the contrary, they merely make predictions, and Macbeth responds with murder and a plot against those who stand in his way. Macbeth, who began in the image of a hero, is revealed in possession of an evil mind seizes on murder as a solution, despite his initial declaration, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.143-144).

Other critics argue that Lady Macbeth is the epitome of true evil within the play. After all, it is she who first places the thought of murdering the king in her doting husband’s head. Yet, her burgeoning guilt eventually drives her to insanity and suicide. We find Lady Macbeth so compelling because we so easily resonate with her guilt. The purest evil is little troubled with guilt. Nevertheless, the image of Lady Macbeth with which we are left is that of a tortured soul, rubbing her hands, madly demanding,

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.

Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
little hand. O, O, O! (5.1.35-40, 42-45, 50-52).

Lady Macbeth’s hallucination-filled rambling comment not only on the deeds of the Macbeths, but also on her extreme guilt in their aftermath. Is she evil incarnate? Or is she merely a weak soul overcome by evil and left to be pitied?

Cultural differences across the globe make narrow definitions of evil impossible. I’m reminded of the climax of Boondock Saints, where Murphy declares, “Do not kill, do not rape, do not steal, these are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.” However, even these crimes are not embraced by every faith as evil. In fact, within some cultures, murder and rape are used to punish what some perceive as worse sins. So can we, as a human race, truly embrace any singular definition of evil? And if we can, can we also acknowledge our own evil as well as the evil of others?

Our Supreme Court might argue that, like porn, we cannot define evil, but we know it when we see it. By that reasoning, Macbeth is truly evil, and Shakespeare forces us to witness a good man’s descent into evil. And, as evil as Macbeth and Lady M become, it can also be argued that Banquo is equally evil. After all, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” However, for all three, they receive what we might call their just desserts. Is such a conclusion our answer to evil? Or should we conquer it with pity and compassion instead? Is that possible?

Let us apply the view of a descent to evil towards the hijackers of 9/11. We label these men as evil. Yet, they were seduced by words and rhetoric of zealots in their own religion. They laid their own lives and the lives of thousands of innocents on the altar of the rhetoric of their leaders. Does their memory deserve condemnation or pity?

Perhaps the answer is both. History is filled with leaders whose gift of blarney inspires others to commit evil acts. These doers of evil become mere marionettes of their silver-tongued leaders. Perchance, we should strive for a condemnation of their acts and leaders while simultaneously reacting to these poor puppets with compassion and pity for their downfall. After all, Shakespeare ends Macbeth with a mixture of grotesque celebration and dismissal of the evil when, while seeing Macbeth’s head displayed, Malcolm declares he “shall not spend a large expense of time” on Macbeth’s actions before embracing his loyal countrymen in grateful arms.

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Shakespeare’s Kitchen

     It has taken me a while to decide on a topic for my newest entry. In fact, I have partially written several blogs in my head while walking Tug in the quiet nights. A few were rants, inspired by the various idiots in government speaking on radio and TV. In fact, I nearly wrecked my car screaming at the radio when one particular politician was interviewed. However, I don’t intend this blog to take on a politic tone. There are far too many of those around lately, though, I’ll admit, Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves rather nicely to the current political climate. It’s funny how things haven’t changed much over the centuries.

But I digress. Actually, I’ve just always wanted to say that and never seem to catch myself speaking to my classes when I actually do digress. The topic I finally decided on is one everyone can relate to, that is, food.

To begin, I find it absolutely amazing that so many people in the world have never tried my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, yet claim they know what a good blueberry tastes like. The best blueberries come from Michigan. All the others are far too small or too seedy. The Michigan blueberries of my childhood were always large and juicy with tart skin and sweet flesh. And they never had the annoying habit of depositing seeds in my teeth. Yet, as good as they were fresh, they reached their peak in my grandmother’s pancakes. Her pancakes were large and fluffy with berries cooked just to the bursting point. Instead, they would explode in your mouth or under your fork, mixing with the butter and syrup, which created the most intoxicating of substances. She had several other blueberry recipes, but her pancakes surpassed them all. She taught me herself how to make them, yet somehow mine still aren’t quite as excellent as hers.

Food invokes memories, which is why most modern scientists believe it can bring about the same feelings as other more dangerous drugs. Marcel Proust called it “involuntary memory.” That is, the taste and smell of the food involuntarily stimulates memories, which, as scientist have determined, triggers the release of various chemicals in the body, thus producing an effect similar to that of some drugs. Thus, no pancake I can make will ever be as perfect as my grandmother’s, simply because each time I eat my own, I remember hers and inevitably compare them. Yet, within those memories I also find a comfort from my childhood, remembering those mornings around the table with Papa’s commentary, Grammy’s clinking and clanging in the kitchen, and my older brother stumbling up the stairs toward the kitchen from his basement bed.

The first time I ever really linked Shakespeare and food was as an undergrad when my lovable and eccentric professor surprised us by celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday with homemade goodies baked from Elizabethan recipes. She brought fresh strawberries, clotted cream, short cakes, Shrewsbury cakes, marmalade, and pound cake. It was a very tasty two hours.

No, Shakespeare does not have a play about food. However, his plays are littered with the references to various foodstuffs and drink, and they are placed in a way to invoke those “involuntary memories” in the audience. For instance:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle

And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best

Neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality:

And so the prince obscured his contemplation

Under the veil of wildness; which, no doubt,

 Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,

Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty.  (Henry V, I.1.99-105)

So, Shakespeare mentions strawberries, big whoop, right? What he is truly doing is invoking the audience’s memory. Strawberries were a late spring and early summer treat for all classes. They grew in the undergrowth of these “baser quality” plants, yet they provided a perfectly sweet treat for those that searched for them. In the same way, the Prince, now in the “spring” of his manhood, though he has grown under the influence of “baser” men, i.e. Falstaff, will begin to rise and fulfill the ripeness of his promise. Without the memory of the strawberry in the audience’s minds, this reference is no where near as powerful.

Some of Shakespeare’s most powerful food references are to drink. Just as now, some of the most amusing bits of humor tend to be alcohol induced. That’s right, little has changed. Most of Shakespeare’s foolish characters are, at some point, inebriated, causing comic exchanges. One of the most memorable occurs in The Tempest when Caliban, the island savage, is given his first taste of alcohol by the two fools, Trinculo and Stephano. In a raucous scene, Caliban assumes the beverage to be magical, and so, too, its owner.

CALIBAN: Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?
STEPHANO: Out o’ the moon, I do assure thee: I was the man i’
the moon when time was.
CALIBAN: I have seen thee in her and I do adore thee:
My mistress show’d me thee and thy dog and thy bush.
STEPHANO: Come, swear to that; kiss the book: I will furnish
it anon with new contents swear.[Caliban drinks.] (II.2. 137-143)

Change the time and place, and the scene would resemble a college frat party wherein a brother corrupts one of the innocent pledges during rush week. Vulgar yet funny, as long as you aren’t Caliban/college frosh.

Shakespeare also cleverly uses drink and drunkenness to lighten the terrible darkness of his tragedies. For instance, in Macbeth, we are suddenly introduced to the porter just after the audience has witness Macbeth and Lady M washing their hands of Duncan’s blood:

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there,
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com-
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.
(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith,
here’s an English tailor come hither, for stealing
out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
roast your goose. (Knock.) Knock, knock! Never
at quiet! What are you? But this place is too
cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further: I had
thought to have let in some of all professions that go
the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)
Anon, anon! [Opens the gate.] I pray you, remember
the porter. (II.3.1-21)

Here, Shakespeare lightens the mood with a drunken porter bumbling about onstage; yet he uses the fellow to set the scene. Will the Macbeths be caught by those knocking? Are we still in a Scottish castle, or are we truly in hell? He might have added these thoughts in some more serious form, but the addition of a drunkard allows him to create a multi-layered moment of humor and fear. We are meant to laugh at the porter, but with a tinge of fear in the back of our minds.

For those, like me, who spend their spare and professional time studying Shakespeare’s works, one of the many things that can be noticed about his methods are that he is a master at manipulating the senses and memories of the audience. One method he employed was food and drink. So, next time you go to see Shakespeare in the park, pack a picnic, carry a bottle of wine. As you listen to the actors spotting various references, try taking a bite of those foods or sipping those drinks and reflecting on the memories they invoke in you. Then see how you might link those memories to the scene before you. In the meantime, enjoy this lovely 17th century recipe. Bon Appetit!

To make Clouted Cream:

Take Milk that was milked in the morning, and scald it at noon; it must have a reasonable fire under it, but not too rash, and when it is scalding hot, that you see little Pimples begin to rise, take away the greatest part of the Fire, then let it stand and harden a little while, then take it off, and let it stand until the next day, covered, then take it off with a Skimmer. (Taken from “The Queen-like Closet OR RICH CABINET Scored with all manner of RARE RECEIPTS FOR Preserving, Candying and Cookery” by Hannah Woolley, 1672).

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Shakespearean Horror

I recently read Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. I’d say I don’t know why I took so long to read it, after all, I’ve read and reread the other classics like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and all of Poe’s tales, but I know the truth. When I was younger, I saw a clip of the classic film, Nosferatu. Frankly, it scared the shit out of me. For over a year, I slept with a clove of garlic on the window frame by my bed, a silver cross around my neck, and my blankets wrapped tightly around my neck and shoulders. Once I outgrew my terror, I did become fascinated by the legends. I’ve long enjoyed the various documentaries on Dracula, as well as the films, including Bela Lugosi’s famed 1931 feature. Yet, I never read the actual story, and I’m sure that in the back of my mind, it would terrify me all over again. And it did, but in a good way. Indeed, I stayed up all evening reading page after page, unable to put it down, even though I had to play nanny at 8:30am. The story was wonderful, intriguing, and exciting. Far superior to anything Ms. Meyer could produce, but I’ll leave that rant for another day. Unlike the various film adaptations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula allows little sympathy for the monster. He is truly evil, and yet, Mina continually reminds the reader and her men that they must pity Dracula’s soul for it has been lost for centuries. It’s a conflict in the book that invades the reader’s subconscious as well. Can such a villain be pitiful? Other versions of the vampire myths have played up their sexiness and their long-lost human side, but the original tales of vampires paint a much different picture. They are truly terrifying and pitying them is the hardest act of all.

The horror genre has gone downhill in the last few decades. Even some of the old B-movie horror films have better plot lines than the current summer blockbuster blood baths. More and more the film makers rely on shock and gore for their ratings and forget the plot line. Perhaps they should read Bram Stoker, or better, Poe. Edgar A. Poe has long been known as the master of horror stories, and it’s true. Even at 25, Vincent’s Price’s portrayal in the film version of Ligeia scares the pants off me. There is very little blood in the entire thing, and the special effects are some of the worst the 70’s ever produced. Yet, every time I find myself startling from sleep having seen that damn black cat in my dreams.

However, Poe was far from the first to produce a good scary tale. Ghost stories and the like have been around to frighten small children when stories were merely an oral tradition, passed from generation to generation. Just read a few classic Irish or German fairy tales if you want proof. Not to mention numerous tales and legends of fallen warriors, haunted woods, evil witches, and cursed lands can be found in nearly every tradition worldwide.

How did Shakespeare use these stories? Well, as the son of a glover, he would’ve heard the old folk tales from customers and suppliers. But he would’ve also known the church’s teachings on the occult since his mother was a member of the Roman Catholic gentry, even though the religion had fallen out of political favor since the death of Mary I. He would’ve also learned the many legends and tales of monsters and the like from Greek and Roman myths in school. Truly, he had a vast array of sources.

But, unlike other playwrights of the time, Shakespeare usually steered clear of the occult. That is, except for one play, Macbeth. Most critics believe that Macbeth was written to gain favor with the new king, James I. The king’s fascination with the occult, especially witchcraft was widely known. He even published the foremost scholarship of the day on the subject. He also had a great interest in his family’s history, as did most of the Tudors. In order to cement his claim on the Scottish throne, he had long claimed a lineage from an ancient Scotsman named Banquo, who helped the supposedly historical Macbeth in gaining the ancient throne. Shakespeare merely altered the story a bit, added the survival of Banquo’s son Fleance and the prophecy of Banquo’s lineage, and boom, instant success, right? Wrong. Or at least, in theatre lore, it’s wrong. While there are many stories on how Macbeth became a cursed play, the two prominent ones feature its first performance. Many actors believe that first and foremost, the play is cursed because Shakespeare used actual witches’ incantations in the play, thus calling their power and curse to the play. The other legend is that after the first performance for James I, the king hated the entire thing, loathed it, actually. There is little historical evidence to back up this claim, but the general belief is that the play flopped. Indeed, the only historical mention of a performance came in April 1611, when it was performed at the Globe. However, since it is believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606, many believe the 1611 performance to be the second. Perhaps Shakespeare hoped that in the intervening years, James might have forgotten his original dislike.

For those outside the theatre world, don’t think you’re being funny and mention Macbeth in a theatre to a theatre nut. We will forcibly remove you, turn you three times, make you spit, utter an obscenity or two, and then wait until you are invited back in. It really isn’t funny to mess with our superstitions.

However, as horror stories go, Macbeth is incredible. It has it all: plotting, murder, witches, dark stormy nights, bloody ghosts, prophecies, and battles. The play even ends with a head on a stake, or sword, depending on the production. But as scary as the weird sisters are, it is Macbeth’s inability to withstand their temptations and the temptations of his wife that produces the most horror. He descends into madness because, at his core, he was a weak man.

Speaking of Lady M, she is by far one of the most terrifying characters in literature. Just listen to her words as she begins to hatch a plan to help her husband usurp the throne.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (I.iii.40-47)

Yet that’s tame compared to her hissing retort to Macbeth’s hesitation to kill King Duncan.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.54-59)

That just sends shivers down my spine. In fact, I’ve often wondered if Shakespeare had a little Classical inspiration for his Lady M in the form of the infamous Medea. In Euripedes’s famous play, Medea kills her children after they have delivered a poisoned diadem to the young princess who Jason, Medea’s husband, has recently announced he will marry in place of Medea. She even takes the bloody bodies of her children with her so Jason cannot properly mourn them. Hell hath no fury, right?

All in all, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a pretty good horror tale. As much as I love him, I wouldn’t say he surpasses some of the other greats of the genre, but he is up there.

“Hell is murky!… Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V.i.36, 39-40).

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Good Fathers

Since Father’s Day was just a few days ago, I’ve been thinking a great deal about them. I have had the privilege of having a wonderful father my entire life. I say privilege because I’m acutely aware that the number of bad fathers in the world outweighs the good ones, and I know I’m lucky that I got a good one. My father has always been there for me but has never been overbearing. He has always been thrilled to let me be myself and to learn from my own falls. He’s the type of father that let me choose my own clothes for school, even when it meant I proudly wore two different colored socks. When I was little and in ballet, he patiently took me to all the practices and recitals when mom worked late, even when it meant he got called a pervert by the other mothers in the dressing room. He simply smiled and straightened my feathered/sequined/whatever-the-costume-was.

While I was walking Tug last night, I witnessed another prime example of a good father. In the humid summer evening air, a father was taking his usual run, but pushing his daughter in a stroller. Now, since she was NOT an infant that meant she added a bit to his load. But there he was, heaving and wheezing, but pushing her along at a good pace in the heat. But even better, he talked to her the whole time. They had complete conversations; he even patiently answered all her toddler questions, like, “why are there stars?”, “do ducks ever sleep?”, “why is that dog so interested in the tree?” etc. Since it was a typical summer evening in Tennessee, there was heat lightning in the sky, and they were counting the flashes. That’s right; he kept count amid his gasps for air. Now that’s a good father. It’s those nights that his daughter will remember when she’s older.

So, what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Old Willy was himself a father and, by all contemporary accounts, a good one although often absent. Indeed, most scholars believe his first pursuits in the theatre were not due to some deep desire but to the need for a simple paycheck since at 21 he was already married and the father of three. Indeed, at the beginning of his career, his contemporaries, like Robert Greene, considered him an “upstart Crow.” Greene himself had had the best of educations, whereas poor old William had only been entitled to an education at the King’s School. It was more than many men in England at the time, but not quite to the standards of Greene. I guess Shakespeare got the last laugh there.

In 1596, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died. What probably compounded this tragedy was not just that he was away so often, but that he was also reaching the pinnacle of his career. Yet, Hamnet’s death perhaps added a bitter taste to an otherwise happy time. Indeed, shortly after he had made enough to not only pay off his own father’s debts but also to buy “The New Place,” a large new house in Stratford. After Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays, and unsurprisingly, most concerned relationships of fathers and children. Hamlet in 1600, King Lear in 1606, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest in 1610 all center on the relationships between fathers and children. The closeness of Hamnet’s name and Hamlet’s was probably more of a coincidence as the story of Hamlet was not original. In fact, it was taken mostly from Saxo’s legend of “Amleth”. However, its timing, even though the story was at the time, popular, probably at the very least hit a personal note with Shakespeare. After all, not only did his only son die in 1596, his father died in 1601 after a long decline. Indeed, Shakespeare had probably long felt some degree of guilt about his own father’s decline while he succeeded. Evidence suggests John Shakespeare was probably illiterate, a cruel irony considering Shakespeare’s career.

Shakespeare was by no means a traditional family man since he spent more time in London than at home, not to mention evidence that he was rarely faithful to his wife. Yet, I do believe that he loved his family, wife included, and they were continually on his mind. No artist can write so movingly and convincingly about family tragedies and relationships without knowing that familial love himself. And in this light, a reread of The Tempest or A Winter’s Tale can be seen in a whole new light. Try it and think of your own fathers. I promise his words will reach you.

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