Tag Archives: Queen Elizabeth

“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare: On Politics and Literature

This was my first time reading this particular play, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The introduction said that the play is a “pageant to be seen rather than a play to be read,” and the abundance of stage directions confirms this. Still, there are some interesting passages, especially in regard to the politics of that age.

The play essentially takes place as King Henry VIII was getting divorced from Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn (spelled Bullen in Shakespeare’s text). Toward the end of the play, Queen Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future queen, and this is where the text gets really interesting for me.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote this play, James I had succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and was reigning over England. In the final act, Shakespeare pays homage to the two monarchs that ruled during his time, a move that was politically savvy and ensured that he remained within the good graces of the ruler. He did this by crafting a prophesy, asserting that Elizabeth and James were both divinely ordained to do great things during their lifetimes. It is a long passage, but worth sharing.

Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth.
This royal infant–heaven still move about her!–
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be–
But few now living can behold that goodness–
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.

(Act V, scene v)

Shakespeare eloquently validates the rule of James I, while evoking the praise of Elizabeth, and at the same time, connects both of them to the idea of “divine rule,” that the King and Queen of England were God’s manifestation of power on the temporal plane.

I hope you found this passage interesting. If you are not a Shakespeare buff, you may want to watch instead of read this one. I also will look for a good version to stream online.

Thanks for stopping by, and try not to let the crazy politics of these times overwhelm you. Cheers!

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

It is believed that Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607 or 1608, not long after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who died March 24, 1603. In the play, Shakespeare paints a disparaging image of Cleopatra as the Queen of Egypt, implying that women are not suited to be rulers. It is possible that Shakespeare was reflecting on the reign of Elizabeth and criticizing her through the character of Cleopatra.

Early in the play, Caesar criticizes Antony, claiming he is womanly and therefore not a fit leader.

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know,
It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate
Our great competitor: from Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(Act I, scene iv)

When Antony is preparing to go to battle against Caesar, his friend Enobarbus speaks with Cleopatra, who plans on assisting with the war effort. Enobarbus makes it clear that he does not respect Cleopatra as a leader and views her as nothing more than a sexual plaything for Antony.

Cleopatra:

I will be even with thee, doubt it not.

 Enobarbus:

But why, why, why?

Cleopatra:

Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.

Enobarbus:

Well, is it, is it?

Cleopatra:

If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?

Enobarbus:

[Aside] Well, I could reply:
If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.

(Act III, scene vii)

In the same scene, Antony’s lieutenant Canidius tells one of the soldiers that they are “women’s men” after Antony places the naval forces under Cleopatra. The disdain that the military personnel feel at having to serve under a woman’s command is evident.

Soldier:

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

Canidius:

Soldier, thou art: but his whole action grows
Not in the power on’t: so our leader’s led,
And we are women’s men.

(Act III, scene vii)

Finally, in the last scene, Cleopatra tells Caesar that the limitations of her gender are the causes of her frailty; in other words, the reason why she lacks the power to rule in the manner of Caesar, who represents male patriarchal leadership.

Sole sir o’ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

 (Act V, scene ii)

Clearly, we have made vast strides toward gender equality since the days of Shakespeare, although we are not yet where we need to be. But I am grateful to be alive in a time where I have seen women leaders assuming their rightful place in the world. I look forward to the day when there are no longer male leaders or women leaders, but just leaders.

Thanks for stopping by.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

Metatheatricality in “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare: A Play within a Play

I read this play many times when I was in college, because it was part of my senior thesis, which I called “Order and Authority in Shakespeare’s Comedies.” I basically argued that Petruchio was a play on words and symbolized Patriarchy, and that the play sought to reestablish patriarchal rule that was being challenged by the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Needless to say, I didn’t feel the need to read it again for a long time. But reading it again, I realized that I had totally forgotten that this is the classic example of metatheatricality, or a play within a play.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, metatheatre is “theatre which draws attention to its unreality, especially by the use of a play within a play.”

Shakespeare places an Induction before Act I. Basically, it has a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly who passes out, and as a trick, is dressed up as a lord and treated as such when he awakens. His “servants” then have him seated to watch a play performed, which is “The Taming of the Shrew.” So unlike “The Mousetrap” within “Hamlet,” here we have the entire play set within a play.

The Induction also functions as a foreshadowing of the events that will transpire in the play itself. For example, the main theme of the duty and obedience which a wife is expected to show to her husband.

Sirrah, go you to Barthol’mew my page,
And see him dress’d in all suits like a lady:
That done, conduct him to the drunkard’s chamber;
And call him ‘madam,’ do him obeisance.
Tell him from me, as he will win my love,
He bear himself with honourable action,
Such as he hath observed in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished:
Such duty to the drunkard let him do
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say ‘What is’t your honour will command,
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?’

(Induction, scene i)

And when the page meets Sly disguised as a woman, he reiterates the idea that a woman must be subservient to her husband.

My husband and my lord, my lord and husband;
I am your wife in all obedience.

(Induction, scene ii)

In addition to the obedient wife theme, there is also the theme of clothing, and changing of clothes to change or disguise a person. This is a key component of the Induction, and then plays out in the actual play. For example, Lucentio disguises himself and takes on the name Cambio, which is Spanish for “change.” It is in this changed manner that he woos Bianca.

His name is Cambio. Pray accept his service.

(Act II, scene i)

I suspect that Shakespeare used metatheatre to create an additional layer of protection for himself. If the play was intended to be a subversive jab at the Queen’s authority, he could argue that it was not intended to be taken seriously, hence twice removed from reality. Artists challenging authority do so at grave risk, so one cannot be too cautious, especially in a time and place where sedition is dealt with in the harshest of ways.

8 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Sonnet 3: Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

This is a sonnet that encourages procreation. The woman who is the object of this poem seems to be reluctant to give up her virginity. It is pointed out that procreation is part of a cycle, where she must create life just as her mother before her created life, and how her daughter will also procreate when the time comes.

In lines 5 and 6, Shakespeare incorporates images of planting. It seems that he is using the symbol of the divine feminine to represent the earth, which brings forth new life and growth after the seed is planted. And just like the earth, a fertile womb brings forth new life once the man’s seed is planted.

In lines 9 and 10, Shakespeare makes a reference to the month of April, which is spring and usually when Easter is celebrated. It is a time of rebirth and regeneration. It is also worth noting that at the end of April is the pagan celebration of Beltane (held on either April 30 or May 1), which is often associated with sexuality and fertility.

The final couplet reminds the woman that if she fails to fulfill her role as a mother, then her matriarchal lineage dies with her. Since Shakespeare lived in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who remained unmarried, this couplet makes me wonder if Shakespeare may have had Elizabeth in mind as he composed this. Certainly there must have been concern about what would happen to the royal lineage.

Overall, I liked this sonnet. It is simple enough to enjoy without a lot of analysis, yet it leaves just enough open for interpretation to make it interesting.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

Unholy Trinity: The Number Three in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

MacbethThe last time I read Macbeth was in college, so I was long overdue to read it again. It is the perfect Shakespeare play to read during the month when the veil between worlds is thinnest. I was barely into the play when I decided what I would be writing about: the symbolism of the number three in the play.

Before looking at the text, I want to provide a little bit of historical information which I think is important to understanding the meaning of the number three in Macbeth, which I refer to as the unholy trinity. During the time when Shakespeare was writing, England was experiencing profound social upheaval, which was the cause for much concern. The primary cause for this concern was the Elizabethan belief that what happens on earth is a reflection of what is happening in Heaven, or, “on earth as it is in heaven.” So the displacement of the nobility by the merchant class, and the fact that the traditional patriarchal rule of England was now controlled by an unwed woman, led many to speculate that the realm of the divine was also being turned upside down and that unholy beings were possibly assaulting the divine throne of God. This idea is key in the play and is expressed in the very first act when the three witches say in unison: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” If you want to find out more about this, I highly recommend The Elizabethan World Picture by E. M. W. Tillyard. (Click here to view the book on Amazon).

OK, now on to the number three. First, it is a fairly common belief that bad luck comes in threes. I have personally noted that when someone I know dies, the death is usually followed by two more deaths of people to whom I am acquainted. This idea, accompanied by the possibility that the Holy Trinity in Heaven may be usurped or turned topsy-turvy by an unholy trinity, sets the stage for Macbeth.

The first use of the number three relates to the number of witches. The three witches appear together throughout the play and generally portend dire events. In fact, much of their predictions and conjuring has to do with three. When the witches first meet Macbeth, they address him by three titles: Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and finally, King. Then, there is the classic cauldron scene, which opens with the following lines:

1. Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.
2. Witch: Thrice and once the hedgepig whined.
3. Witch: Harpier cries “’Tis time, ‘tis time.”

Finally, as Macbeth joins the scene, the witches conjure three apparitions, and each of the apparitions shouts Macbeth’s name three times: “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!”

I mentioned earlier the idea that deaths come in threes. It is worth noting that there are three murderers who are employed by Macbeth to carry out the foul deeds. There are also three murders that are actually performed on stage, those of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s son. Even though there are other murders (such as that of Lady Macduff and the rest of her children), there are only three that are actually acted out as part of the play.

In addition to the ones I mentioned, there are many more instances of three throughout the play, mainly the repetition of words three times. There is also a great discussion between the Porter and Macbeth regarding the three things that drinking alcohol provokes in a person. I encourage you to dust of your copy off the cursed play and read it during this dark season, and when you do, take notice of how often the number three appears, directly and indirectly.

25 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Shadow of Night” by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy. I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, a while back and loved it (click here to read my review of that book), so when this book came out, I immediately bought it. I did, though, have to wait for my wife to read it first.

The book is set in Elizabethan England where the two protagonists, a witch and a vampire, have traveled back in time to locate a mysterious book. Since Harkness is a history professor at the University of Southern California, she is able to weave in historical events and descriptions of the period in a way that really brings the tale to life. As a historian, she focuses on details that I would not have considered important; for example, she explains that the characters in the story wrote personal records and journals in shorthand as a way to conserve paper and ink, which were scarce and expensive during that time. As a result, historians pored over these records trying to piece together fragments of history (p. 41). I found facts like this fascinating.

The tale itself is steeped in magic and the occult. Many of the characters are historical figures from that time who were magicians, witches, alchemists, and so forth. These characters include John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, Edward Kelly, and many others. Harkness asserts that there is a parallel between magic and history: “the practice of magic was not unlike the practice of history. The trick to both wasn’t finding the correct answers but formulating better questions” (p. 340).

The story changes narrative voice throughout the book, which keeps it interesting. The majority of the narrative, though, is presented as first person through Diana. Diana is an accomplished, strong, and self-reliant woman in current times, but when she finds herself in Elizabethan England, she must act in the subservient manner which was expected of a woman. This creates a great dynamic. There is a line that succinctly expresses how it must have been for women in that period: “We women own nothing absolutely, save what lies between our ears” (p. 271).

Books are strange things. Often, when I am going through something in my life or contemplating an issue, the right information will make itself known through a book I am reading. This happened to me while reading Shadow of Night. I had been discussing empathy with some friends in the wake of the recent election and then came upon this passage: “Empathy is the secret to most things in life–including magic” (p. 530). This resonated with me on such a deep level that it almost seemed magical that the words were presented to me at the time.

I could easily write more about this book, because it is really that good. But, since I hate to put spoilers into my posts, I’ll stop here. I will say that I highly recommend this book (and the first one in the series). I am already itching for the third book. When it comes out, I’ll be sure to read it before my wife gets a hold of it.

1 Comment

Filed under Literature