Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Shakespeare's Five Levels Of Meaning

We are looking at Shakespeare's plays all wrong.

For over 400 years, we have been looking at them only on one single level, we are only seeing the surface and not the meaning below the surface of the plays.

Why is this important?

Because the meaning below the surface is often the reason why Shakespeare wrote the plays in the first place. It’s where the real heart of the play beats.

I would like to explain the levels, and how it is possible to enjoy all of the levels in Shakespeare's plays for the very first time.

Dame Judi Dench as Gertrude with Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet

When we watch Hamlet, for example, we watch a tragedy about a young prince who struggles to decide to take revenge on his uncle for the murder of his father. Everything that Hamlet struggles to do, all the soliloquies, his scenes with Ophelia, the climactic fencing match -- all of that is the surface of the play.

When Shakespeare wrote the play, this surface Hamlet story was one level of entertainment. This first level was aimed for members of the audience who were not very educated, the groundlings. 

Shakespeare had to keep this audience entertained, with drama, with characters, and with humor as often as possible. The gravedigger scene is a good example of foolish humour in the course of the play, to keep the audience from being bored, or worse yet, from leaving and going somewhere else for entertainment. 

David Tennant as Hamlet

The big fencing match at the end of the play would have been advertised, I am sure, so this audience would feel compelled to stay all the way through. Richard Burbage, the actor who first portrayed Hamlet, was known as a very good swordsman, and even if the audience didn't care for the rest of the play, they were promised a display of fencing skill that was itself worth the price of admission.

The second level of entertainment was for anyone in the audience who could read, and would have picked up on the allusions -- literary, biblical, philosophical, etc. -- that are woven into every Shakespeare play.

This audience may have been familiar with the old and popular Scandanavian legend of Hamlet, or Amleth. Perhaps to keep the audience surprised and entertained, Shakespeare changed some of the Hamlet/Amleth legend to fit his Hamlet play.

For example, the Amleth character from the old legend is much more violent and swift in taking revenge upon his enemies. He also pretends to be mad, when in fact he is sane. Shakespeare's Hamlet delays and does not take his revenge in time, and it is not clear if he is in fact sane. Shakespeare's Hamlet may really be suffering from madness.

Jude Law as Hamlet

There are many more reasons why Shakespeare would change the original story, that have to do with the third, fourth, and fifth levels of the play. Whenever Shakespeare changed the details of a story to suit his own plays, we should pay very close attention. 

Shakespeare's use of other literary sources and his use of the Bible in his plays is too complicated to discuss now, but suffice to say that these allusions are meant to enrich his own play, and make it deeper in meaning and effect. Whether it is Ovid, Seneca, Aristotle, or the Gospel of Matthew, Shakespeare was consciously attempting to make his plays as universal as possible.

The third level of the play is for anyone in the audience who knew the politics of the day. 

Shakespeare did not write his plays all by himself on a deserted island. He wrote plays in one of the most bustling and exciting cities on the planet at that time, and during a time of great political, social, and religious upheaval. His plays reflect the world in which he lived and the plays are commentary on that world.

This audience would have been courtiers to the court of Queen Elizabeth, and later to King James, and anyone who was in or connected to the aristocracy.  Also, rumours of the court and gossip about the queen and her life would of course leak and spread throughout the country. 

Shakespeare acted as a conduit between the court and the public, and his plays are full of misbehaving courtiers. Sir Toby Belch comes to mind as an example of the kinds of men Shakespeare knew and used to entertain the public.

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

Shakespeare had some intimate knowledge of the politics in the court. His artistic patrons included the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex, and later the Herbert brothers, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery.

For much of the 1590's, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was Queen Elizabeth's favourite, which made him arguably the most powerful man in England, and who had very privileged knowledge of everything at court.

We do not know how close Shakespeare was to Essex, but from the plays that Shakespeare wrote during this time, many of the feature a heroic young man who is every bit meant to resemble and celebrate Essex himself. The most clear example is Shakespeare's Henry V play, which was written for Essex as he marched off to war in Ireland, in 1599. 

Since Henry V was written for Essex, it would lead us to conclude that the rest of the Henriad series (Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2) were written on behalf of Essex.

Essex was very popular with the public, and his popularity probably increased every time Shakespeare wrote a play about him. In turn, Shakespeare benefited as a playwright. It was a win-win relationship between Essex and Shakespeare. 

Ralph Fiennes as Hamlet

Essex was known to frequent the theatres very often, sometimes many days in a row. We can deduce that the crowds loved him and celebrated him and the characters that represented him.

In a sense, Shakespeare was something of a propagandist for Essex, at a time when Essex was attempting to gather more power at court, and perhaps one day become King Robert I of England.

What does Hamlet have to do with politics? When Shakespeare wrote this particular play in late 1601, the Earl of Essex had just been executed for leading a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth's and her court.

Shakespeare's patron, and probably good friend, had just died. It was a terrible time for Shakespeare, no doubt, and he was probably very politically vulnerable. It is perhaps around this time that the Herbert brothers stepped in and protected him from anyone in Elizabeth's court who would want to throw Shakespeare in prison forever, for having been so close to Essex all those years.

Hamlet is arguably the most political of all of Shakespeare's plays, and it is impossible for us to understand every last drop of meaning in the play, since we are 400 years away from the time the play was first written and performed.

But when it was first written and performed, just about every last person in the audience would understand that Hamlet was Essex, and Hamlet's struggle to overcome his enemies only to meet his own death was meant to mirror the very real tragedy of Essex's failed attempt to overcome his enemies at court.

This audience would see shades of Queen Elizabeth in Gertrude, and would see shades of her Lord Privy Seal Robert Cecil in Claudius. 

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

With Essex dead, Cecil would become the most powerful man in England, arguably even more powerful than Elizabeth herself. It was Cecil who may have been Essex's real target in the rebellion, and not Queen Elizabeth, just as Hamlet never meant to harm his mother Gertrude, but to only take revenge on Claudius.

Hamlet makes an odd and perplexing joke with Yorick's skull: "Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come" Loosely translated this means: "Go to my lady's chamber, and tell her that no matter how much make-up she paints on her face, she will end up like a skull in a grave, too."

What does this mean? To us, today's audience, it is gibberish.

To almost any Elizabethan person in the audience watching Hamlet, it would immediately remind them of the well known scandal of how Essex rashly burst into Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber and saw her without her make-up or wig on, for which she slapped him. 

She was 66 at the time, and her face required a great deal of make-up because she had scars on her face from almost dying of smallpox in 1562, which also made her lose her hair.

I would imagine that when Essex saw her that morning, her face may have reminded him of a skull. He may have said as much to Shakespeare, who turns the moment into a joke at Queen Elizabeth's expense.

In a sense, Shakespeare's Hamlet play was something of a funeral mass for Essex. It was the one and only way the public, which loved Essex, could show their love to him after he died.

The fifth level of entertainment was for one person only, the monarch.

Plays and play-poets like Shakespeare were only allowed to do business because the queen or king allowed them to do so. Despite the performances at the playhouses like the Globe theatre, all plays were really created for the pleasure for Queen Elizabeth, and later King James. 

Ian McKellen as Hamlet

When Shakespeare wrote plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, he made sure that there were plenty of strong and intelligent women. Portia, Titania, Olivia, Juliet, Rosalind and many others were all written with Queen Elizabeth in mind, and most likely are different facets of Elizabeth herself.

These plays for Elizabeth would also need to entertain her on every level. They must have some humor, some drama, some romance, and Shakespeare had to know that a woman as brilliant as Elizabeth would understand every last literary, biblical, philosophical, cultural and political allusion -- and how the original Hamlet/Amleth story was changed for the Hamlet play.

This is where the plays really come alive, and where the truest purpose of the plays may be found. Yes, there is a good deal of speculation, but if we make an effort to figure out when precisely Shakespeare wrote the plays, and how he is holding up a mirror to the time in which he lived, we can see how the plays often catch Queen Elizabeth in the reflection.

Also, if we pay attention, we might be able to hear what Shakespeare was saying to the monarch, what message he was delivering to them.

What was Shakespeare saying to Queen Elizabeth, through his plays?

If we take Hamlet for example, it was likely a play that Queen Elizabeth never saw performed, and never wanted to see. She would have understood it to be an funeral epitaph for Essex. Despite her decision to have Essex executed, she had once loved Essex more than any other man, and the pain of being reminded of him in Shakespeare's Hamlet play would probably have been too much to bear. 

She would, after all, die almost exactly two years to the day after Essex was executed, and about 16 months after Hamlet was performed.

She could have closed the Globe and stopped Shakespeare from performing Hamlet if she wanted. For all we know, perhaps she did. But it seems that she did not stop the play, it became one of Shakespeare's biggest successes, and was frequently referred to by other poets and writers at the time.

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

If there was a single message that Shakespeare was sending to Queen Elizabeth with his Hamlet play, it was probably that while you may have condemned Essex to death, he will live forever in Hamlet

As queen, Elizabeth had guaranteed her place in history forever. With the Hamlet play, Shakespeare was attaching an important footnote to her reign.

There is a final level to Shakespeare's plays -- an autobiographical level.

It is very hard, almost impossible, to determine what if anything Shakespeare said about himself or his own life in his plays. But he can be found here and there. For example, I wrote about how he turned his own name, Shakespeare, into the name of one of his most memorable characters, Shylock. Shylock means Shakespeare.

I also wrote recently about how he was the first actor to perform Malvolio, which he wrote and performed so he could mock himself, and his own ambition.

Then there is the matter of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, which is the same as Hamlet. Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596, when he was 11 years old. Why would Shakespeare write a Hamlet play in 1601 for his son, who had died? 

Well, the more I study the matter, the more I am convinced that the 1601 Hamlet play was the fourth version of the same play that Shakespeare had been writing since he first came to London around 1588. It is plausible that Shakespeare wrote the early 1588 Hamlet for his son, and as the years went by, it became more about Essex than his own boy.

There is so much in Hamlet that could be interepreted as autobiographical for Shakespeare. Most likely, he wrote the Horatio character based on his own relationship with Essex. Horatio arguably knew Hamlet best, and it Hamlet who tells Horatio to report what has happened, just as Shakespeare must have felt compelled to report what happened to Essex, in the guise of a play.

Adrian Lester as Hamlet

If there is anything that Shakespeare wanted to say about his own feelings and thoughts concerning Essex, it might be found in the final words of the play. Prince Fortinbras's says that Hamlet would have "proved most royally" -- he would have made a great king.

Perhaps Shakespeare was saying what many people wanted to say about Essex, that he would have made a great king.

To watch Hamlet on stage or screen today is to lose everything but the surface entertainment of the play's characters and plot.

Everything else is lost.

No matter how good the actor, or excellent the direction, we are blinding ourselves to the true and original purpose of the play.

Watching Shakespeare without the historical context and without considering the other levels to his plays is not really watching Shakespeare as Shakespeare intended.

What’s the solution? How do we watch the play, and understand every level?

The solution I found was to write three versions of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet, Richard III, and The Merchant of Venice.

I set the plays in the playhouses at the time when they were first performed, so we can watch the plays, like time-travellers, and see them in the way that Shakespeare's original audiences saw them. I use the characters on the stage to tell the play that Shakespeare wrote, and I include characters in the audience to instantly translate what is happening for us.

My ambition is to turn these versions into films.

Until then, I invite you to read my versions of the plays. I tried to fit as much into them as possible, and they are positively crammed with historical facts, historical theories, and literary, biblical, and political allusions -- and lots of very entertaining characters, including Shakespeare himself.

But I also encourage you to read about Shakespeare and his life and times, on this blog and elsewhere. The more we know about him, and the world in which he lived, the more we can enjoy the plays he wrote, and finally understand why he wrote them in the first place.


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