Tag Archives: Elizabethan

All’s Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare’s Expression of Machiavellian Ideology

This is a very strange play and does not fit into the structure of a typical Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage (conversely, tragedies end in death), but this play, even though considered a comedy, does not end in marriage. In fact, the marriage happens at the beginning, and ends with the consummation of the marriage through trickery. On a very high level, Bertram is ordered by the King to marry Helena, which he does, but then decides to leave her and go off to war so as not to have to “officially” become her husband. Helena later tricks Bertram into having sex with her by pretending to be another woman that Bertram was wooing. Helena gets pregnant and Bertram finally has to acknowledge her as his wife.

Viewed from the post-MeToo perspective, this play does anything but end well. Bertram is a weasel, a liar, and a womanizer, and Helena would have been better off without him. I suppose you could present the play as satire, but I don’t think that is how Shakespeare intended it. Ultimately, marriage and the consummation of the marriage is the goal, even if this is accomplished via deception.

At the heart of this play is Machiavellian philosophy as expressed through The Prince.

Yet, I pray you:
But with the word the time will bring on summer,
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.

(Act IV, scene iv)

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, and All’s Well That Ends Well was written sometime between 1598 and 1608, so Shakespeare would have known about Machiavelli’s famous quote: “The ends justify the means.” Shakespeare is paraphrasing Machiavelli in this quote, “the fine” meaning the finish or the crowning achievement. Additionally, the last line of the quote reemphasizes that whatever the course of events, it is the end result that matters most.

Overall, I did not hate this play, nor did I love it. It has some interesting aspects, particularly surrounding the character Parolles (hint – his name is a play on the French word “paroles” meaning “words”). But the play has problems, and personally, I could not find myself relating to any of the characters. They all seemed deeply flawed in their own ways. But maybe that is another message to be gained from this play, that we all have our issues and problems, and ultimately, it’s what we do in the end that matters.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading cool stuff.

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“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare: All the World’s a Stage

This was my first time reading this play, although I did see it performed on stage once. The play is fun and whimsical, and pretty accessible. Anyway, I figured for this post I would focus on one passage, possibly the most well-known from this particular play.

DUKE SENIOR

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

JAQUES

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.
And 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 lined,
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 saved, 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 everything.

(Act II; scene vii)

Let’s begin with the Duke’s lead in. He mentions “This wide and universal theatre” which in a way is almost a triple entendre. On one level, he is referring to Earth, the theatre on which we all live out our lives. But also, I would assert that a reference is being made to the cosmic play being acted out in the heavens. In Elizabethan England, the concept of the Great Chain of Being was a central tenet, basically asserting that what happens on Earth is a reflection of what is happening in the divine realm, and vice-versa. And finally, Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theatre, and this appears to be an allusion to the Globe where the play would have been performed.

Now, Jaques’ response is a brilliant piece of writing, and if I wanted to, I could go line by line and tease out all the symbolism and metaphors, but instead, I want to hone this down and focus solely on the symbolism of the number seven. First off, if you are astute, you will have noticed that this passage occurs in Scene 7 of Act 2, something that I doubt is a coincidence. The next thing to note is that Jaques states “And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages.” He goes on to explain the seven stages of human development, which culminate in the final stage where man returns to “second childishness and mere oblivion,” implying the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

Now, if we remember the concept of the Great Chain of Being, we are immediately reminded of God’s divine play in which he creates the world (or the Globe) in seven days, or in seven scenes. The correlation is being established between the seven stages of a human lifespan and the seven days of creation.

Finally, there is another level of significance for the number seven that I feel connects the divine with the mundane, and that is the known heavenly spheres, which were believed to have influence over the events on Earth. At the time Shakespeare was writing, there were seven known heavenly spheres: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The movement of these seven spheres created what was thought of as the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that was prevalent in Shakespeare’s time.

The musica universalis (literally universal music), also called music of the spheres or harmony of the spheres, is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of music. This “music” is not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to scholars until the end of the Renaissance, influencing many kinds of scholars, including humanists.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I hope I didn’t go too far down the rabbit hole in my analysis. As I said earlier on, this really is a fun and accessible play, which is both witty and romantic. If you have not read it or seen it performed, I encourage you to do so. Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.

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Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.

Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act I, scene i)

It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.

As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.

Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Act IV, scene i)

So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

(Act IV, scene i)

In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.

Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.

(Act V, scene i)

I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?

In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.

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“Sonnet 15: When I consider every thing that grows” by William Shakespeare

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and cheque’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

So I really enjoyed this sonnet. The imagery that Shakespeare employs really connected with me.

This falls into the category of “fair youth” sonnets and is one of Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets. What struck me as different in this sonnet is his entreating to the youth to become a father is much more subdued than in his other ones, where he sometimes vehemently urges the youth to procreate. This one is much more subtle, only claiming that he perceives that “men as plants increase,” simply implying that reproduction is natural.

But the part of this poem that I found most interesting is lines 3 and 4:

That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

This echoes the famous line from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage.” But it also implies a connection between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, an idea that was reflected in the concept of the Great Chain of Being (see The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard). Essentially, everything is connected. What happens on earth is a reflection of what happens in the heavens, and vice versa. So according to English Renaissance thought, what happens on earth is reflected in the heavens.

I’d like to close with my thoughts on the ending of this poem. Time is the great enemy of life, and will ultimately bring old age, decay, and death to all of us. But Shakespeare tempers this with a positive image. Through his poetry, he grafts the fair youth anew. What he is saying is that through his poems, the youth will remain forever young.

Thanks for stopping by and have an inspired day!

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