In 1532 a philosopher poet diplomat named Machiavelli who lived during the Italian Renaissance published a little book called The Prince. This was about 30 years before Shakespeare was born. In it, he describes the arts by which a Prince, can retain control of his realm. He focuses primarily on what he calls the “new prince”, under the assumption that a hereditary prince has an easier task since the people are accustomed to him. All a hereditary prince needs to do is carefully maintain the institutions that the people are used to; a new prince has a much more difficult task since he must stabilize his newfound power and build a structure that will endure. This task requires the Prince to be publicly above reproach but privately may require him to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals.
Here are some insights my students came up on their own with from The Tempest. I haven’t shared their names, but will when I get permission. Great job!
Making the best of a bad situation
It’s in human nature to make the best of a bad situation, as many do in The Tempest. What comes of it depends on the way you go about achieving it. Two groups of characters in The Tempest show two different approaches: The first group, Stephano, Trinculo, Antonio, and Sebastian, goes about it in a way that exploits others for their own personal gain, while the second group, Prospero, Ferdinand and Gonzalo goes about in a different way. They change their perspective on things. It turns out, making the best of a bad situation does not necessarily have anything to do with changing things.
Introduction to Metaphors and Similes
What is a metaphor? Probably the simplest way to define it is to use one. We use metaphors and similes every day, often without realizing it:
This house is a zoo – beehive of activity
Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter – now we’re getting to the sore spot
Your words are music to my ears – your words are bitter medicine.
Some are spending their time poorly – Time waits for no one.
What do all of these have in common?
In each one of these, we have described something by comparing it.
- Macduff is the only character who shows real humanity in the play
- Contrast his character with the lack of humanity showed by others, highlighting the specific points in which he shows “true” human emotion)
- The Witches are responsible for all the evils of the play
- Explain why the responsibility lies on them instead of on Macbeth for his own actions.
- Lady Macbeth’s rejection of her feminine traits while attempting to adopt masculine qualities is the root of all the unnatural and evil events in the play, leading to the downfall of herself and her husband.
- Through the use of gender stereotypes in the play, Macbeth, Shakespeare sends a message that straying from one’s culturally assigned gender expectations is dangerous.
- Through the use of gender stereotypes in the play, Macbeth, Shakespeare sends a message that straying from one’s culturally assigned gender expectations is dangerous, but only for women.
- Without the presence of overwhelming guilt, Macbeth’s ambition would have led him to true success
- Explain how the actions that lead most directly to his downfall are committed out of guilt and/or paranoia
- Macbeth’s guilt leads to the loss of his sanity and ultimately his downfall.
- When Macbeth’s honor is at its highest points, his sanity is also apparent, but when his ambition overtakes his honor, his signs of insanity show.
Alliteration: the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of a word, such as the repetition of sounds in “bag and baggage,” “bed and board,” “primrose path,” and “through thick and thin” and in sayings like “look before you leap.” There are also specialized terms for other sound-repetitions. Consonance repeats consonants, but not the vowels, as in horror-hearer. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, These indeed seem.
Allusion: a reference to a person, event, place, or phrase. The writer assumes will the reader will recognize the reference. For instance, most of us would know the difference between a person being as reliable as George Washington or as reliable as Benedict Arnold. Allusions that are commonplace for readers in one era may require footnotes for readers in a later time.
Ambiguity: a statement which has two or more possible meanings or whose meaning is unclear. Writers often use it to reflect the complexity of an issue or to indicate the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of determining truth. Many of Hamlet’s statements to the King, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and to other characters are deliberately ambiguous, to hide his real purpose from them.
Irony: the discrepancy between what is said and what is meant, what is said and what is done, what is expected or intended and what happens, what is meant or said and what others understand. Sometimes irony is classified into types: in situational irony, expectations aroused by a situation are reversed; in cosmic irony or the irony of fate, misfortune is the result of fate, chance, or God; in dramatic irony. the audience knows more than the characters in the play, so that words and action have additional meaning for the audience; Socractic irony is named after Socrates’ teaching method, whereby he assumes ignorance and openness to opposing points of view which turn out to be (he shows them to be) foolish..
Sarcasm is one kind of irony; it is praise which is really an insult; sarcasm generally involves malice, the desire to put someone down, e.g., “This is my brilliant son, who failed out of college.””
Satire is the exposure of the vices or follies of an individual, a group, an institution, an idea, a society, etc., usually with a view to correcting it. Satirists frequently use irony.
Figurative language changes the literal meaning, to make a meaning fresh or clearer, to express complexity. Figurative language is also called figures of speech. The most common figures of speech are these:
A simile: a comparison of two dissimilar things using “like” or “as”, e.g., “my love is like a red, red rose”
A metaphor: a comparison of two dissimilar things which does not use “like” or “as,” e.g., “my love is a red, red rose.”
Personification: treating abstractions or inanimate objects as human, that is, giving them human attributes, powers, or feelings, e.g., “nature wept” or “the wind whispered many truths to me.”
Hyperbole: exaggeration, often extravagant; it may be used for serious or for comic effect.
Apostrophe: a direct address to a person, thing, or abstraction, such as “O Western Wind,” or “Ah, Sorrow, you consume us.”
Onomatopoeia: a word whose sounds seem to duplicate the sounds they describe–hiss, buzz, bang, murmur, meow, growl.
Oxymoron: a statement with two parts which seem contradictory; examples: sad joy, a wise fool, the sound of silence, or Hamlet’s saying, “I must be cruel only to be kind” or “crafty madness”.
Paradox: a statement whose two parts seem contradictory yet make sense with more thought. Christ used paradox in his teaching: “They have ears but hear not.” Or in ordinary conversation, we might use a paradox, “Deep down he’s really very shallow.”
Shakespeare is at first frustrating, initially because he is hard to understand, but later on, when one begins to understand the language and plot, he becomes frustrating because one never quite knows where he stands on things. As I struggled to figure out the answers contained in some of this plays, I gradually came to realize that these plays are all about teasing out the dividing line between the good or admirable and the bad or shameful. The dividing line is drawn along so many aspects of a particular question of life, and this leads to a very nuanced view of the human experience. Where does contemplation become an excuse for or cause of inaction? At what point does professed love become falsehood? Where does confidence dissolve into self doubt or become corrupted into arrogance? In Hamlet contemplation is obviously a good thing, when one compare Laertes’ reaction to his plight with Hamlet’s. But it becomes a bad thing when Hamlet overthinks his predicament and allows the king to live once he has all the proof he needs. Living the good life is all about towing the narrow line. Shakespeare is good, and so universally revered though the ages, because he tries to tease out a rough idea of this line though stories and characters and language. It is the universal, timeless question. People who give us easy, ready answers are popular but not lasting.
Have you ever fancied yourself as a bit of a Hamlet? Wanted to strut your stuff around a gloomy Danish castle, annoying your uncle the king and insulting his advisor? Thought of having your school friends murdered or fighting your dead girlfriend’s brother? Want to muse for hours over the question of mortality and existence?
If your answer to any of these questions is “I’ll have to think about it”, then you just might have the qualities necessary to make you one of the growing band of procrastinators much in demand in local government.
At the Elsinore University of Hamlet we will undertake to train you to fully fledged Hamlet in under a month at very competitive rates. We pledge that you will be able to avenge your father’s untimely death in under six weeks – or your money back!!
Still not sure? Excellent! You’ve obviously got what it takes.
How to be a Hamlet
Becoming a Hamlet is very easy, but before we enroll you, you need to follow the simple questions below in order to test your suitability for induction into the world of high quality dithering. It’s very simple. Just read the questions and decide which action you would take. At the end add up your score and compare it to the reports written by our especially trained Hamletologians.
1: You think your father is murdered, your Uncle did it and he has married your mother six weeks after your father’s funeral. Do you:
A) Run your uncle through with a sabre at the first opportunity?
B) Seek legal advice on the correct procedure to bring about a warrant for his arrest?
C) Do nothing except glower and talk a lot?
2: A ghost has been seen wandering around the ramparts of your family’s castle. It turns out to be your father who exhorts you to revenge his “Foul and most unnatural murder”. Do you:
A) Immediately kill your uncle and avenge your father, thus bring the play to a rapid conclusion?
B) Seek the veracity of the ghost’s words by exhuming your father and checking his ears for poison?
C) Do nothing but talk some more, then pretend to be mad.
3: Your girlfriend is a little strange but certainly no worse than the rest of her family. She obviously likes you a great deal and needs some sort of sign from you that everything will be okay. Do you:
A) Treat her with tenderness, love her and protect her from all evils?
B) Form a self-help group with her and some other female courtiers in order to better understand each other’s feelings?
C) Confuse her totally by never giving her a straight answer and being in turns tender, miserable, cruel and intractable?
4: It’s nearing the middle of the play and something has to be done to try and prove your uncle’s guilt. Do you:
A) Hold him at gunpoint, stare into his eyes and accuse him man-to-man?
B) Indicate that you are reopening the inquest into your father’s death?
C) Have a troop of actors that you once knew when you were at university come and act out a long play with a part of it showing a method of death similar to the one that killed your father, and then watch for your Uncle’s reaction?
5. You put on the play and it works; Your uncle is guilty as sin as you and your father’s ghost knew it. You find him kneeling at prayer, unprotected. Do you:
A) Fill him full of hot lead uttering the immortal line: “There’s something rotten in the State of Denmark, and it’s you!”?
B) Employ a Lawyer to see whether the circumstantial evidence you have collated would hold up in court?
C) Do nothing, then go to talk things over with your mother?
6: While in your mother’s bedroom you see someone behind a curtain. Do you:
A) Decide not to just kill whomever’s randomly behind there.
- B) Open the curtain, find Polonius, and confide in him about the possible guilt of your uncle. With him on your side you convince him to reopen the murder enquiry.
C) Recklessly kill the unseen old man and then talk a whole lot more with your mother, exhorting her not to sleep with your uncle, then lug the old man’s guts out of the room?
7: You are arrested and sent off to England with two old schoolfriends, neither of whom you like very much. Do you:
A) Jump ship and return to Elsinore Castle with a huge quantity of weaponry and lay waste to the castle and its contents, killing your uncle and rescuing Ophelia?
B) Stoically accept your fate and make contact with a distant aunt in England to put you up for a few years?
C) Trick the English into killing your two old schoolfriends and return, an ambiguously long or short length of time later, to Denmark?
8: You arrive back home to find a grave being prepared for someone neither a woman nor a man, but dead. After a long battle of wits with a gravedigger, you discover that the grave is for fair Ophelia who was driven mad by you and drowned herself. The funeral party arrives and you and Laertes get into a scrap over you killing his father. Do you:
A) Kill everyone in sight?
B) Apologise to Laertes for killing his father and being the agent for his sister’s death and hope he forgives you?
C) Declare that you did love Ophelia – more than her brother – and that you have been grossly misunderstood and now, near the end of the play, you can reveal that what we were all really confused about was just part of a bigger plan – and that right now it is payback time? Then, you say nothing.
9: Your uncle decides to kill you off during a rigged fencing bout with Laertes. He is planning to kill you with a sword that has been poisoned and in case that doesn’t work, he has left a cup of poison within reach for you. How should the drama unfold?
A) Everyone dies except Hamlet, who rides off into the sunset ready to take on the world.
- B) No-one dies but all agree to sort things out by of arbitration?
C) You die a dramatic end, along with Laertes and your mother and the king.
SO …. HOW DID YOU DO?
Add up your scores and compare with the notes below as I haven’t figured out the java scripting that allows you to press a button and have it done automatically.
All or mostly “A’s”: Oh dear. You’ve been watching a few too many Chuck Norris/Arnold Schwartzenegger/Bruce Willis movies. This bold, heroic crowd-pleasing stuff is totally unsuited to life as a Hamlet. To be a Hamlet you need to be “all thought and no action” rather than “all action and no thought”. You had better look for another part.
All or mostly “B’s”: Well, you’ve tried hard but you are obviously too sensible and analytical to be able to undertake a sustained career in indecision. Try again next year after practising long pauses and saying whatever comes into your head. But well done anyway.
All or mostly “C’s”: Congratulations! You have all the skills necessary to become a fully fledged Hamlet. In only six short weeks you will have a wild and contradictory character, be able to talk the legs off a donkey, and brood for hours in silent introspection. You will find simple decisions impossible and may get an eight week run with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Liz and I performed the following skit in class recently:
Did you research that subject we were going to talk about today?
Oh no; I meant to do that!
But anyway I had no wifi the last few days.
Why didn’t you call me?
I meant to. But my phone broke
And Aidan got his wisdom teeth out so I’ve been busy.
I didn’t prepare any lecture.
I wasn’t feeling well yesterday
and I’ve had a really busy schedule the last week.
Tom surprised me with a movie last night.
Did you do that other thing?
I haven’t read email for the last couple days.
Can you pull up the lecture you were going to do a few weeks ago on your phone?
I wrote it, but I forgot to save it so I don’t have it.
Sorry, I keep forgetting to save my documents.
When I read Shakespeare in high school, I felt… completely lost. I actually skipped school one day; not to get out of doing what I was supposed to do, but to get some work done! I figured if I could just stay home for a day I would finally have the time to figure it out. Did I? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I figured out the plot, looked up enough of the words that I could understand some of the meaning, and remembered enough that I could pass a test. But No, in the sense that I never did figure out why we were reading Shakespeare. I didn’t understand why on earth we were reading something that was so hard to follow. Why couldn’t it just be translated into modern English? I now have a modern translation in fact. Why not just assign that instead?