Tag Archives: Queen Elizabeth

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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