Shakespeare Solved® versions of these plays solve the mysteries surrounding them by taking us back in time to see the plays as they were performed for the first time in history.


This blog explains these new versions, and explores the life and times of Shakespeare, in order to build support for my new film versions of the plays.


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Articles Written For:


The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company


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Friday, August 28, 2015

Ben Kingsley Shakespeare Muse of Fire Interview


I just watched a great interview with Ben Kingsley

The documentary is part of the fantastic Shakespeare documentary, Muse of Fire -- which you can view on demand -- here.


I love these interviews because it is always interesting to hear artists discuss their craft, but also because these interviews focus on Shakespeare.

And Ben Kingsley has some great things to say about Shakespeare.

If you are an actor, I can think of no better interview to inspire and motivate you. He is one of the greatest actors in the world, and he has a lot to say about how to become an actor, and how to live an actor’s life.

as Othello
RSC 1985

I have always admired his work and I have seen him in interviews before, but this one is the very best — and it is the most personal for him.

He discusses how, when he was a teenager, he saw Ian Holm as Richard III at Stratford-upon-Avon — and it made him want to be an actor.

Ian Holm as Richard III
RSC 1964

I don’t want to ruin the story, but the experience of watching Ian Holm made the teenaged Ben Kingsley faint!

I just loved his story about the film that first inspired him to be an actor — when he was only 4 years old!

It’s a very touching story, and you can really see the 4-year-old boy inside of him, as he speaks in this interview.

Ben Kingsley in Merry Wives of Windsor
BBC 1982

It really seems like his biggest challenges to become an actor were between the ages of 4 and 19. As soon as he decided to go and make himself an actor, one door after another opened for him, and he was given the nod over and over again by some of the greatest figures of the stage — like Peter Brook.

And it is wonderful to see how humble and genuinely thankful he is to all those mentors and people who shaped him as an actor and helped move him towards a full-blown career as an actor.

Yet, the moment of truth, the moment that made him decide once and for all to become an actor was because of Shakespeare.

And he has done so much Shakespeare — by his count, he has been in 17 of the plays.

with Judi Dench in Cymbeline
RSC 1980

He also carries Shakespeare into just about every role he plays — like Don Logan in the film Sexy Beast — which he equates with Iago.

Yet, he would really cry when he was faced with a new Shakespeare role. Shakespeare did not come easy for him, and it seems that all of his success with the Bard’s plays were the result of very hard and long work.

It was 13 years of primarily stage work, and primarily Shakespeare, before his big break-out role as Gandhi.

He speaks of having to build a mental stamina through stage work, and with Shakespeare, and he never finds a sense of complacency with any role of his. Every role is hard work.

Peter Brooks' Midsummer Night's Dream
RSC 1970

Perhaps the greatest part of this interview, and there are many great moments, is what he has to say about his performance as Hamlet, in 1975. (It was this performance which caught the eye of Richard Attenborough, who would then choose him for the role of Gandhi.)

He describes how terrified he was to play Hamlet, how it was like the highest mountain an actor can attempt.

And then he found that what Shakespeare had written was perfectly suited to every actor who fears climbing this mountain — Hamlet himself is terrified of the mountain he must climb within the story of the play.

The fear that Ben Kingsley felt in playing Hamlet was the fear that Hamlet himself feels. 

I can not think of a better insight for playing Hamlet than this.



Hamlet
RSC 1976

This also reminds me of what I read about his performance in 1975. He had tried to make Hamlet as funny as possible, and he also tried to really get a connection with the audience. If there was no connection, then the whole production was not a success.

He speaks about this again here in this interview, and how hard he works to make the audience feel what Hamlet feels. You must connect — it is a win or lose game, and the audience knows when you have not connected with them.

There is a great story he tells about how he met one person who had watched his Hamlet the night before, and how much it moved her. I don’t want to ruin the story, you just have to hear him tell the story himself. It is very moving.

I love how, as an actor, he started out acting in front of 7 year old children — who would walk away if they were bored, or would talk louder than the actors.

Perhaps that is the greatest lesson of all, how to entertain the impatient and loud child’s mind within us all, and keep us distracted long enough to tell a story.

I hope you take the time to watch and listen to what he has to say in this wonderful interview. He has much to say, not just about Shakespeare, and it is full of wisdom.

Cheers,


David B. Schajer

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Shakespeare and Ghosts


Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts?

He probably did, as it was a very common to believe in ghosts in the 16th century.



He refers to ghosts quite often in his plays and he certainly liked to put ghosts in his plays — with ghosts in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard III, Cymbeline and most famously in Hamlet.

Did he ever see a ghost?

Or did he know of a ghost who haunted a house somewhere in England?

I have never personally been haunted by a ghost, and I am not attempting to convince you that ghosts do exist.

My opinion on ghosts doesn’t matter. Our modern-day opinions on ghosts don't matter. 

What matters is whether Shakespeare and his fellow countrymen -- 400 years ago -- believed in them. And yes, they did believe in them, arguably much more than we do today.

The Elizabethans were very superstitious, and there was great interest in the occult.


Dr. John Dee was probably the most famous figure of the age who dealt in the occult. He was the Court astronomer to Queen Elizabeth I, and she consulted him often, for any number of reasons, including astrological readings.

Shakespeare probably was aware that she was interested in the occult, and therefore part of his motivation to include ghosts and the supernatural in his plays was to entertain her. 

After all, all plays written and performed in the theatres in London were not officially written for the public. They were written for Elizabeth. The public performances were considered “rehearsals” to prepare the plays to eventually be played before the Queen and her Court.

Therefore, Shakespeare was writing about ghosts ultimately because his sovereign wanted to see them.

Shakespeare could have only written about ghosts, and included them in his plays because he was allowed to. His plays would have been censored otherwise, and all references to ghosts would have been removed. 

He still had to submit his plays, filled with references to the supernatural, to the Office of the Revels to be approved or not. If a play was not approved, it would not be allowed to be performed, period.

The Master of the Revels served at the pleasure of the Queen.

It would appear then that it was her pleasure to watch ghosts and see them in plays.

Queen Elizabeth, ca 1595

So the question then becomes: what was Queen Elizabeth’s interest in ghosts?

Did she ever see one?

She may have. 

After all, the royal palaces have a history of ghost sightings.

Windsor Palace

Windsor Palace has 25 ghosts that have been reported over the centuries.

Queen Victoria has been seen. So has Charles I. And George III.

But more interesting are the sightings of a ghost of Queen Elizabeth I.

Allegedly, King George III saw the ghost of Elizabeth, and even spoke with her. King Edward VII saw her, too.

George VI — the present Queen’s father — saw the ghost of Elizabeth on eight consecutive nights, during the beginning of WWII.

But most importantly, the earliest royal ghosts to have been seen at Windsor are of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I’s parents.

Henry III and Anne Boleyn

Who saw them? When did they see them? When were the first sightings of Henry and Anne?

Is it possible that Queen Elizabeth I saw the ghosts of her own parents?

Is this one of the reasons she consulted Dr. Dee?

If she did see these ghosts, who knew about it? Could it have possibly been known across London, or throughout England that the Queen was visited by ghosts?

Did Shakespeare know?

Herne the Hunter

One of the other ghosts at Windsor is Herne the Hunter, who has been seen in the Great Park. 

He was King Richard II’s favourite huntsman. He committed suicide, after being falsely being accused for theft, by hanging himself from a tree, an oak.

There is painting here of oak and other paintings online

Shakespeare mentions Herne in Merry Wives of Windsor, the only play Shakespeare wrote which we believe Queen Elizabeth specifically commissioned him to write.

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

Why did Shakespeare include Herne in this play, and have Falstaff disguise himself as Herne? For all we know this play may have been first performed at Windsor Palace for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth.

Falstaff at Herne's Oak
by James Stephanoff

Was Shakespeare just entertaining Her Majesty, or is there more to it? Did he know or suspect that Queen Elizabeth was superstitious enough to believe in ghosts, or had seen ghosts?

When Shakespeare turned to Hamlet, he included the most famous ghost of all — the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

It is unknown when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but what is known is that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is not in the sources which Shakespeare used for his play.

Shakespeare changed many things from the original sources when he wrote Hamlet — he changed the character Amleth or Hamblet to Hamlet. He changed Gerutha or Geruth to Gertrude. He changed Feng or Fengon to Claudius.

But Shakespeare invented the ghost, and put it in the story.

from the Olivier Hamlet film

There may be many reasons for his decision to put a ghost in a story that didn’t have a ghost to begin with. But one of the reasons may have been for the purpose of entertaining Queen Elizabeth, whom he probably knew had a fascination with ghosts.

Did Shakespeare’s ghost of Hamlet’s father perhaps mean to represent the Queen’s own father, King Henry VIII?

Did Shakespeare create the ghost to somehow haunt the mind of the Queen?

It would make a certain sense, since the entire play of Hamlet was primarily about the Earl of Essex, the Queen’s royal “favourite” whom she had executed in 1601.

Essex

The entire play might be considered an effort to haunt her, and remind her of the young man whom she had loved so dearly, but had to execute.

If the Hamlet play was written for this reason, then it appears to have worked.

In 1602, the year after Essex was executed, the Queen was witnessed to “sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex.”

In March 1603, in the days right before she passed away, the Earl of Nottingham spoke with her and she said to him  "My Lord, I am tied with a chain of iron around my neck. I am tied, I am tied, and the case is altered with me.”

It is unclear what she meant by a chain of iron, but it does certainly suggest the image of a ghost who drags chains as he haunts people. Also, this is a very similar image to the one which Shakespeare drew when he wrote of Herne the Hunter.

Athenodorus and the Ghost


Nottingham tried to get the Queen to sleep in her bed but she replied “If you were in the habit of seeing such things in your bed as I do when in mine, you would not persuade me to go there.”

Queen Elizabeth, ca 1601

It is unclear what she saw, but apparently she does suggest witnessing something supernatural. 

Was she being haunted by Essex, by a ghost of him, or merely by the memory of him?

He had died just over two years before she died, and it would seem that he was clearly in her memory to her final days.

As you can see, I don’t have many answers to these questions, but I do think that this is a rich area to investigate. 

Cheers,



Related Links:


http://www.bbc.co.uk/berkshire/content/articles/2005/10/12/windsor_castle_ghosts_feature.shtml



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Friday, August 21, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Claudius


Who was the real Claudius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet play?

Did Shakespeare base his Claudius character on a real person?

If so, who?

Patrick Stewart as Claudius
with David Tennant

Whom did Shakespeare know in his lifetime that would seem to fit the character of Hamlet’s uncle, the man who murdered his father, and who marries her mother, Gertrude?

As I wrote recently, Shakespeare based his Hamlet character on at least two men he knew personally, the Earl of Essex and King James. 

Also, Shakespeare based his Gertrude character on at least 3 different women: Queen Elizabeth I, and her cousins, Lettice Knollys and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Essex’s father may have been poisoned to death by the Earl of Leicester, who then married Essex’s mother, Lettice Knollys.

King James’s father may have been murdered (in a garden as was Hamlet’s father) by the Earl of Bothwell, who then married Mary, Queen of Scots.

So, is Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the real Claudius?

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Or is James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the real Claudius?

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

Or is it both?

Leicester, who died in 1588, shortly after the great victory over the Spanish Armada, had been the most powerful man in England. He was Queen Elizabeth’s first and arguably most favoured royal “favourite.”

He had a reputation for violence, and was even suspected in having murdered his wife, Amy Robsart, in order to improve his chance at marrying Elizabeth.

Years later, he was rumoured to be having an affair with Lettice Knollys, even during the period of time when she conceived her son, Essex.

Some time later, Essex’s father, while on duty as Earl Marshal of Ireland, died. The fact that Essex’s father was a soldier may be significant, since Hamlet’s father appears in armour.

Leicester

There were suspicions that Leicester poisoned him, but an medical examination concluded that no foul play was done. How an examination could be unbiased as it related to Leicester — the Queen’s favourite, and the most powerful man in England — is open to debate.

Whether or not Essex’s father was really murdered or not is almost beside the point. The point is that Essex grew up with some doubt — even if it was the smallest seed of doubt — about who his step-father was. Was he a serial murderer? Did he kill his first wife and Essex’s father? Or was he truly innocent?

The scene in the Hamlet play that perhaps best describes the gnawing doubt which Essex must have suffered regarding Leicester’s guilt or innocence is in Act 3 Scene 3, when Claudius prays about his having murdered Hamlet’s father. 

Claudius at prayer

Claudius confesses to murder, but only the audience hears it. At that point we the audience know more than Hamlet himself. Hamlet only has the ghost of his father’s word that Claudius murdered him.

If only Hamlet had entered a moment sooner he would have heard the truth, and probably would have plunged his dagger into Claudius, whether he was praying on his knees or not.

But Hamlet enters only to see a man silently at prayer. Hamlet struggles whether to kill him or not, and decides against it.


Essex must have spent his entire life with creeping suspicions about Leicester, probably in the much the same way that King James would have struggled over the murder of his father.

King James was a child when his father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered. Bothwell was immediately suspected of the murder, and so was James’s mother, Mary.

Mary did nothing to repair her reputation, and certainly did nothing to clear Bothwell of guilt, when she was either abducted or she ran off with Bothwell. To make matters worse, she married Bothwell, about 3 months after her husband had been killed.

It seems that Bothwell’s and Mary’s guilt is much more clear, but it must have been something that haunted James. And despite how he may have felt about his mother, she was his mother, and it would be hard for him to entirely abandon any love or affection for her.

So, are Leicester and Bothwell both Claudius?

I think there is one more candidate.

But first — why did Shakespeare give the character the name Claudius?

Shakespeare based his Hamlet play on an old Scandanavian legend, in which King Horwendil is murdered by Feng, who wants to take his throne and his queen, Gerutha. The king’s son is Amleth.

Shakespeare changed Amleth to Hamlet, Gerutha to Gertrude, and King Horwendil to King Hamlet. These changes seem natural, without mystery.

But why did Shakespeare change Feng to Claudius?

Of all the names Shakespeare could have chosen, he chose the name Claudius. Why?

Emperor Claudius

It may be that Claudius in Hamlet is based on Emperor Claudius, whose incestuous marriage to his niece Agrippina is similar but significantly different to Claudius’s not really incestuous marriage to Gertrude. 

Agrippina also was believed to have poisoned Claudius, which is also similar, but significantly different than the events in Hamlet.

The fact that Agrippina was later murdered by her own son Nero, also seems relevant but is there anything in the Hamlet play to suggest that Hamlet really wanted to murder his mother?

Hamlet does refer to Nero: “let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.’

But Hamlet does not want to be “cruel” or murderous like Nero was: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.”

What perhaps is even more puzzling is why Shakespeare’s Claudius character would never be called Claudius by any character — in the entire play!

The name Claudius is not spoken even once. Why?

Perhaps the answer is found in the name Claudius itself. Claudius means “lame” and “crippled.”

Emperor Claudius was disabled with a limp, he had weak knees, and his body and head shook. He had a stammer and apparently slobbered when he spoke. 

It is believed that his disabilities made him appear unthreatening, and it probably saved him from being murdered by his enemies.

While the struggle for power raged on his entire life, he was overlooked as harmless, while he amassed enough power to one day seize control of the empire all for himself.

Was Robert Cecil the real Claudius?

There is one man whom Shakespeare knew who truly resembles Emperor Claudius in this regard — Robert Cecil, the Queen’s Secretary of State, and Lord Privy Seal.

When Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, as we know it today, was first performed in 1601, Cecil was the most powerful man in England. It can be argued that he was even more powerful than Queen Elizabeth herself.

All of her other great councillors, Lord Burghley (Cecil’s father), Christopher Hatton, Francis Walsingham, Leicester — all of them were dead. Only Cecil remained. Walter Raleigh was not in Her Majesty’s Council and had little political power. 

Also, Cecil was the unlikeliest man of all to assume such power. He was short, weak, and had a hunch-back. He was overlooked for much of his career at Court, but as the older men died off, he soon became the only one left, and he had amassed almost all the power of the government.

He was so powerful that almost single-handedly paved the way for King James to succeed to the throne after Queen Elizabeth died.

Cecil

It has been commonly, and correctly, assumed that Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain King Richard III character was written as an unflattering depiction of Robert Cecil.

It was not uncommon for Shakespeare to write unflattering portrayals of Cecil. Cecil was the greatest nemesis that Shakespeare ever had because Cecil was the greatest nemesis that Essex ever had.

Shakespeare wrote plays for Essex. In that capacity, Shakespeare wrote plays to make Essex popular and Cecil not.

During Shakespeare’s career during the 1590s, there were two great factions in Elizabeth’s Court — the Essex faction and the Cecil faction. During those years, Essex was often away on military campaigns, while Cecil was back in Court, pouring poison into Elizabeth’s ear against Essex.

When Essex was executed in 1601, it was a great loss for the country. But it was a great victory for Robert Cecil. He was widely hated in the streets of London, and he feared for his life. To most Englishmen, Essex had been a hero and Cecil was a villain.

When audiences watched the first performance of the Hamlet play in 1601, after Essex had died, it was crystal clear whom Claudius represented. The crowds knew all too well that Cecil was Essex’s enemy, his greatest nemesis.

If there was any man the entire country whom the audience would have wanted to stab to death, it would have been Cecil.


In other words, if Shakespeare was not trying to draw a connection between Claudius and Cecil, he did a poor job of it.

Also, it may explain why no character in the play speaks the name Claudius. Shakespeare may have realized that the name Claudius would be too clear and direct a reference to Cecil, and Shakespeare would have every reason to fear the power of a man like Cecil after Essex died.

The first time that the Hamlet play was put into print was in 1603 — right after Queen Elizabeth had died, and after King James had become King of England.

But most importantly, it was printed right after King James had made Shakespeare a King’s Man, the official royal playwright to the King. His artistic patron was none other than the King of England.

Perhaps it was only then, when Shakespeare felt some security and safety, that Shakespeare felt confident to reveal the name Claudius in print.

Also, it is very likely that Shakespeare did not approve this printed version in 1603 which supports my theory that he did not want the public to know the name of the character for as long as possible. This also suggests that whoever may have perhaps stolen a copy of a playscript or wrote the play out from memory, that person knew the character’s name as Claudius. It was obviously an “inside job.”

In conclusion, just as Hamlet is based on several men, and Gertrude is based on several women, Claudius is clearly based on several men, the most important of which is Cecil.

If you would like to know more about why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, I invite you to read my version of the play.

Cheers,




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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Gertrude


Who was the real Gertrude, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet play?

Did Shakespeare base his Gertrude character on a real person?

If so, who?

Whom did Shakespeare know in his lifetime that would seem to fit the character of Hamlet’s mother, whose husband was murdered, and who marries her brother-in-law, Claudius?

Eileen Herlie as Gertrude
with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

As I wrote recently, Shakespeare based his Hamlet character on at least two men he knew personally, the Earl of Essex and King James.

Both of these men had fathers who died under very suspicious circumstances.

Both of their mothers married the men who were suspected of killing their fathers.

Essex’s mother, Lettice, married the Earl of Leicester, and caused controversy at the court, especially for Queen Elizabeth who was very close Leicester, her favourite.

Was Lettice the real Gertrude?

Mary, Queen of Scots married the Earl of Bothwell and caused a civil war.

Was Mary, Queen of Scots the real Gertrude?

It is tempting to think that Gertrude is based on Lettice or Mary.

To this day it is unknown if either Lettice or Mary were involved in the deaths of their husbands. They may have been entirely ignorant and innocent of their deaths — or they may have conspired to murder them. We don’t know.

Just as we also don’t know if Gertrude was involved in her husband’s murder. Shakespeare doesn’t make it clear if she conspired with Claudius.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father does give us a clue when he refers to Gertrude as a “most seeming-virtuous queen.” Also, the ghost instructs Hamlet:

But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. 

The ghost doesn’t want Hamlet to take revenge on Gertrude, only Claudius. 

But this doesn’t mean that Gertrude is innocent, since the ghost says that she will suffer after she dies for some unspecified reason. 

The fact that the ghost says that she will go to heaven suggests that whatever she has done will not make her go to Hell.

Shakespeare has created a contradictory knot of meaning: Gertrude will go to heaven but will suffer.

Dame Judi Dench as Gertrude
with Daniel Day-Lewis

Shakespeare does not want to tell us if Gertrude is guilty, but wants us to decide for ourselves.

It is impossible to know if Shakespeare based his Gertrude character on either Lettice or Mary. 

However, Shakespeare’s audience at the time would have instantly understood Gertrude to be both women. The murders of Essex’s and James’s fathers were some of the greatest scandals of the age, and widely known. There was even a book published that accused Leicester of murdering Essex’s father.

In other words, if Shakespeare did not want to draw comparisons between Gertrude, Lettice and Mary, he did a very bad job.

But there is more. Shakespeare complicates the true identity of Gertrude.

Francesca Annis as Gertrude
with Ralph Fiennes

In Act 3 Scene 4, Hamlet storms into the Queen’s closet, and argues with her: “Mother, you have my father much offended.”

This is a fascinating scene, full of drama. But Shakespeare’s audience would have understood this in a way we do not.

There was a famous incident that was well known at the time, in 1599, where the Earl of Essex stormed into Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, before she had applied any make-up to her face. 

Since she was 66 years old, and she had scars on her face from a bout of smallpox, she was very upset at being seen like this by her royal favourite.

Queen Elizabeth as she wanted to appear, ca 1600


Queen Elizabeth as she probably really looked, ca 1601

There were other tempestuous moments between Essex and Elizabeth, but this was the greatest breach of etiquette and propriety of all. It was the last straw, and it led to Essex’s fall from grace. 

Not long after, Essex would lead a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth and her Court, and he would be executed for this treason.

As soon as Hamlet enters Gertrude’s bedchamber, Shakespeare’s audience would have seen the parallel, and it created a new question in their minds: was Gertrude based on Queen Elizabeth?

As the audience no doubt struggled with this question, Shakespeare made it even more clear to them, that yes, Gertrude is Elizabeth.

David Tennant as Hamlet

In Act 5 Scene 1, in the churchyard, Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick. 

As he holds the skull he has one of his most famous speeches, during which he says:  "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that."

My rough translation of this is “go to your lady’s bedchamber and tell her that no matter how much make-up she puts on her face, one day she will look like a skull. Let's see if she finds it funny."

This rather odd line makes doesn’t seem to make sense, at least to us. But for Shakespeare’s audience, many of whom had heard of the story of Essex in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, the joke is very clear.

In this moment, Hamlet’s joke is really Essex’s joke at the expense of Queen Elizabeth.

Therefore, twice in the play Shakespeare draws a connection to Queen Elizabeth.

Was Queen Elizabeth the real Gertrude?

Does that mean Gertrude is Queen Elizabeth, and Lettice and Mary, Queen of Scots?

Yes, perhaps. After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet character is based on perhaps 4 or more men.

Is there any significance to the fact that Elizabeth and Lettice were cousins? Also, Lettice looked very much like Elizabeth.

Is there any significance to the fact that Elizabeth and Mary were also cousins?

Yes, I think there is.

But there is one more mystery to the identity of Gertrude.

Her name. 

Shakespeare based his Hamlet play on an old Scandanavian legend. Shakespeare’s Gertrude character is based on the character Gerutha.

But Shakespeare changed the names King Horwendil to King Hamlet, and Feng to Claudius.

Shakespeare didn’t have to keep Gerutha. He could have changed it. But he didn’t. He kept it for a reason.

Gertrude derives from the German roots ger meaning “spear”  and thrud meaning “strength.”

Gertrude means “spear of strength” or “strong spear.”

Why would Shakespeare create the Gertrude name?

Was it just because of the obvious allusion to his own name?

Did this spear of strength refer to a monarch’s sceptre?

Was Shakespeare alluding to his own mother, Mary Shakespeare?

I don’t know. It could be for all of these reasons, or none of them. 

But Shakespeare chose his words with care, and chose the names of characters with even greater care. 

We may never know all of the reasons why Shakespeare chose this name for this character, or who the real Gertrude was.

But for his audience, the people who understood his plays far better than we ever will, the people for whom he really wrote these plays, a queen named Gertrude on stage would have instantly brought Queen Elizabeth to mind.

If you would like to know more about why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, I invite you to read my version of the play.

Cheers,