Have you ever been interested in the works of William Shakespeare? Perhaps you have read one of his plays or sonnets, but you weren’t sure exactly what Shakespeare was saying. Or maybe you just didn’t get why it was important in the first place. Even if you love Shakespeare, like so many of us do, you may simply want to learn more about the Bard’s immortal works. No matter how your interest has been piqued, welcome to this three-part series about Shakespeare!
In this first article, we’ll be discussing Shakespeare’s language: why it’s important, some specifics about his language, and overall themes of his work.
Why spend time on Shakespeare in the first place? Shakespeare captures emotions more eloquently and creates more complex characters than most writers in the English language. Even though they were created long ago, his characters are often very relatable today. From love to revenge, from jealousy to friendship, Shakespeare’s characters face many of the same issues we do. The differences allow us to see our own issues from a new angle and the similarities allow us to find new meanings in his timeless stories.
The first key to appreciating Shakespeare’s works is understanding his language. Shakespeare wrote in a particularly dense manner, even compared to other authors who lived in his time. His text is full of metaphors, subtle details, and overarching themes that can take a little time to parse. Nowadays, his text has the added layer of using older language, some of which is not in our typical vernacular. In this article, we’ll be covering a few language details and overarching themes of plays so you can get more meaning from Shakespeare!
Shakespeare’s language often contains few details that can be used to deepen the meaning of a scene. For instance, back in Shakespeare’s time, the words “you” and “thee” had different meanings! “You” was considered a pronoun of respect while “thee” was a more informal, or even contemptuous, pronoun. Here is a link to an article that provides more details on the use of “you” and “thee”: http://elizabethandrama.org/primers/you-vs-thee/.
Understanding this particular specificity can unlock a lot of wonderful subtleties in Shakespeare’s stories and the relationships between characters. A great example of the power of this one wording choice occurs in “Much Ado About Nothing.” In the following scene from Act 4, Scene 1, Beatrice and Benedick, after witnessing the failed marriage of Beatrice’s cousin, are confessing their love to each other. Watch how the “you”s and “thee”s are used to portray the comfort level and emotions of the two characters:
“Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you—is not that strange?
Beatrice: As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you, but believe me not, and yet I lie not; I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.
Benedick: By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me!
Beatrice: Do not swear and eat it.
Benedick: I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.
Beatrice: Will you not eat your word?
Benedick: With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.”
That last line is so powerful once the difference between “you” and “thee” is known! It also reveals the difference in mood between Beatrice and Benedick–Beatrice is more reserved and cautious, while Benedick is far more ready to risk it all.
Shakespeare also loved to use fencing metaphors. The fencing metaphor he selected often revealed something about the character who used it or, if applicable, the character it described. One example occurs in “Romeo and Juliet” when Mercutio is talking about Tybalt, an enemy of his friends, in Act 2, Scene 4 Mercutio uses fencing metaphors to attack Tybalt’s character:
“O, he’s the courageous
captain of compliments. He fights as you sing
prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion.
He rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in
your bosom—the very butcher of a silk button, a
duelist, a duelist, a gentleman of the very first house
of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal
passado, the punto reverso, the hai!”
The fencing phrases used have specific meanings: for instance, the “immortal passado,” the “punto reverso,” and the “hai” are all goofy fencing terms–the passado is a thrust with one foot forward, the punto reverso is a backhanded stroke, and the hai is a large, uncoordinated thrust. Joined together, Mercutio is using these terms to say that Tybalt is a pretentious person who doesn’t know how to fence as well himself. This speech also points out that both Tybalt and Mercutio know a lot about fighting, which foreshadows the later duel between the two.
Moving from individual words to general themes, many of Shakespeare’s plays have overarching themes that are still relevant today. In “The Winter’s Tale,” the thorough-line of the entire piece is forgiveness—when is it deserved, and how can it be earned? “Othello” wrestles with different types of love, prejudices, and jealousy. “Julius Caesar” focuses on power— who gets to have it and why? These incredibly human emotions are rarely captured so well, which keeps people coming back to Shakespeare year after year after year.
Shakespeare’s plays can also contain more specific meanings—even modern ones that Shakespeare might not have intended when he wrote them. For instance, “Twelfth Night” has a female character, Viola, who pretends to be a man throughout the play. Many modern productions lean into this element as an exploration of gender and its affect on the self. How is Viola’s story changed if she is discovering things about herself along the way? Is there an added connection between the characters if gender is more or less emphasized? These are all questions Shakespeare might not have intended, but are still questions we can explore through his text thanks to Shakespeare’s virtuosity in creating complex, relatable characters.
Since the first article on Shakespeare discussed broad issues around his language and themes, it is time to go deeper. In this second of three articles, what could be better than exploring one of Shakespeare’s best known speeches: “All the world’s a stage...”
This famous speech occurs in the comedic play “As You Like It.” On the surface, “As You Like It” seems like a strange place for the “All the world’s a stage” speech. Other famous Shakespeare speeches come from equally famous plays— “Double double toil and trouble….” in “Macbeth,” “To be or not to be….” in “Hamlet,” or “If we shadows have offended….” in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” The play “As You Like It” is not typically considered as being on the same level as any of the plays just listed, so the fact that it contains a very famous speech is odd. However, “As You Like It” is the perfect setting for this speech that shifts between comedy and melancholy, especially since it is delivered by the character of Jaques.
Jaques brings the melancholy to “As You Like It.” His level of sadness and his love of wallowing in that despair is discussed so often through the play that it becomes comedic. However, his character serves as a counterpoint to the lighter parts of the play. As one example, his final words and departure bring a bittersweetness to the otherwise joyous wedding scene at the end of the play. Shakespeare loves to offer this contrast—the character of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” serves a similar purpose. Jaques is not easily understood by the audience or his fellow characters. Jaques goes from melancholy to having the time of his life, and even back again, all in one scene. Jaques is the odd one out, the one who isn’t the same as everyone else, and every human being has experienced that emotion.
Moving from comedy to sadness is Jaques’s strongest constant character trait, and it is also his role within the play. This shift between amusing dialogue and heart-rendering concepts is exactly what the “All the world’s a stage” speech does within the play. Here’s the speech, which occurs in Act 2, Scene 7:
“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.
Then the whining schoolboy, 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 honor, 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 slippered 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.”
In this speech Jaques describes the seven stages of life in a sarcastic and often comedic manner. The infant is “mewling and puking,” the schoolboy is “whining.” He takes concepts that could easily be romanticized and shows only their negative side. The soldier is “seeking the Bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth,” which means that the soldier is looking for a good reputation, which is flimsy like a bubble, everywhere—even within the cannon that could kill him.
Jaques takes these stages of life from the characters around him and analyzes them in an amusing way in this speech. Notably, Jacques himself does not fit into any of the categories he describes. The speech eventually shifts, as the stages near death, to a much darker tone, with words that encourage each audience member to ponder their own mortality. He points out the cyclical nature of life, by saying, “his big manly voice, turning once again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in its sound,” and describes death as a “second childishness... mere oblivion.”
It’s hard to believe all these pieces occur in one speech—puke humor and the contemplation of death don’t typically go together! But Shakespeare makes it work.
Jaques is a stark contrast to the rest of the optimistic cast. He serves as a voice of realism (or closer to realism), and “All the world’s a stage” is the perfect example of this.
Finally, this speech comes directly after Orlando, the leading man in “As You Like It,” hits one of his lowest points. Orlando has been an upstanding guy, the one we want to root for, but when his friend Adam is on the brink of death, Orlando attempts robbery to obtain food for Adam. Orlando’s threats are not taken seriously and he is eventually talked down, but it seems fitting that Jaques’s big speech comes directly after this scene. Jaques is inherently tied to the realistic melancholy of the forest, even if the melancholy comes from other characters.
Overall, “All the world’s a stage” is a complex speech. It is packed full of commentary and meaning relating to Jaques, the play as a whole, and the story Jaques is telling, all in a relatively short, fast paced speech. The speech is such a wonderful piece of writing that ideas from it turn up in all kinds of books, movies, and plays. Enjoy!
For our final article, we’ll talk about where to enjoy Shakespeare: where to read, listen, and watch his works!
If you prefer to read Shakespeare, all of Shakespeare’s works can be found online! To see the pure texts, all of Shakespeare’s work can be found at: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/. His full anthology, which also includes the background for each play, is online at: https://shakespeare.folger.edu/.
If you’d like to watch full productions of Shakespeare plays, look no further than the Globe itself! Located in London, the Globe is one of the primary creators of Shakespearean productions today. The Globe even hosts its shows in a replica of the original theatre used by Shakespeare. The Globe combines the tradition of Shakespeare with new twists on the material. To explore buying DVDs or a subscription to their streaming service for all their productions, visit https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/watch/#full-length-productions.
For a quarantine take on Shakespeare, look no further than the productions produced by “The Show Must Go Online.” This group hosted and recorded Zoom readings/productions of every one of Shakespeare’s plays with casts from around the world. Watching these productions is fascinating as each actor was recording within their own home and had to create costumes, sets, and props with what they had on hand. The fact that these plays are all available for free is incredible. I strongly recommend their version of “Hamlet” as the actors used Zoom to create action that wouldn’t be possible in any other format! Read more about the project and view their recordings of every single Shakespeare play.
If you enjoy reading along, there are many audio productions of Shakespeare. To see a list of the best Shakespeare monologues, visit The Folger Shakespeare Library is also a great resource for audio productions! Here is a list of all their audio productions–you can even listen to select scenes!
Movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays are very common, and provide another great way to watch Shakespeare’s works in action. The personal aspect of film allows the viewer to experience the emotions of Shakespeare in a new light, while still learning Shakespeare’s language.
Some popular Shakespeare adaptations include Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) and “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), which are staples of Shakespeare adaptations. Branagh directs and stars in both of these classic tales, and they are absolutely incredible to watch. (Both of these movies are rated PG-13, so please talk to a guardian and/or check the warnings if young people are interested to make sure it is age appropriate.)
There is also Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” which was absolutely groundbreaking because it cast real teenagers in the roles, which served to highlight how tragic the play is. (This movie is rated PG, and is a tragic play with many mature topics covered, so please talk to a guardian and/or check the warnings if young people are interested to make sure it is age appropriate.)
Additionally, movies with modern interpretations are a great way to enjoy Shakespeare’s stories. One example is the 1996 version of “Romeo+Juliet.” This teenage take on the classic tragedy was set in a modern world of rival gangs and costume parties. The movie used the original Shakespearean language, but put the characters in our era, allowing the viewers to understand the world of Romeo and Juliet with ease, making it easier to relate to the characters on a deeper level. This version is available at many libraries. (This movie is rated PG-13, so please talk to a guardian and/or check the warnings if young people are interested to make sure it is age appropriate.)
Apparently the 90s were a big time for Shakespearean adaptations since 1999’s “10 Things I Hate About You” is a very popular adaptation of “Taming of the Shrew.” Set in a late 90s high school, the movie follows a similar plot to the play, but modern language and rom-com tropes make the story more accessible. (This movie is rated PG-13, so please talk to a guardian and/or check the warnings if young people are interested to make sure it is age appropriate.)
“The Lion King” is a wonderful and well-known Disney movie. But did you know the plot is based on one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays? That’s right, “The Lion King” was inspired by “Hamlet.” A few key moments, especially at the end of the story, were changed to make the movie less of a tragedy than the original play. And Shakespeare did write his play for humans rather than animals! Watch the movie again after reading or seeing the play and you’ll be sure to spot the similarities between the two. Shakespeare is everywhere!
Thanks for joining us on this exploration of Shakespeare! Which are your favorite pieces of Shakespeare’s writing?