Essays

Rape of Lucrece – Shakespeare’s Lucrece

Rape of Lucrece – Shakespeare’s Lucrece

In 1592 a massive outbreak of the plague hit London (over the next two years 15,000 people would die). As was common during times of plague, the theaters were closed in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. Acting companies were forced to leave the city on tour and the demand for new [...]

Merchant of Venice – The Soul of Shylock

When Shakespeare sat down to write The Merchant of Venice, he was tapping into the well-established Elizabethan genre of the “Jewish Villain”. After The Merchant of Venice itself, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is the most famous example of the genre, but it was only one among a dozen or more plays of the same [...]

Merchant of Venice – The Great Conversion

The source of the Jew’s alien threat in the Elizabethan consciousness, of course, lies in their religious ostracism. Curiously, however, the religious perception of Jews in Elizabethan England was a double-sided one of both villification and hope. On the one hand, the ancient slander that the Jews had murdered Christ and were thus cursed by [...]

Merchant of Venice – The Pound of Flesh

One of the two main plots in The Merchant of Venice, of course, revolves around the pound of flesh which Anthonio forfeits to Shylock when he fails to repay his bond. Although an Italian collection of stories entitled Il Pecorone is usually cited as the primary source of this plot (insofar as it most closely [...]

Merchant of Venice – Elizabethans and the Jews, Part 2: The Jewish Boogeyman

The exiled Jew could be treated politically, religiously, and racially as the antithesis of “Englishness”. He was simultaneously a secret, corrupting threat. As James Shapiro expresses it in Shakespeare and the Jews, “The Jew as irredeemable alien and the Jew as boogeyman into whom Englishmen could be mysteriously ‘turned’ coexisted at deep linguistic and psychological [...]

Merchant of Venice – Elizabethans and the Jews, Part 1: The Dark Reflection

Elizabethan England was a fundamentally tumultuous society. By the time Shakespeare started writing his plays in the last decade of the 16th century, the country had been completely disrupted by a century of successive crises. Its success in rising to these crises had transformed England into a nascent world power, but in the process its [...]

In a Web of Tragic Flaws – Hamlet the Anti-Tragic Hero

As the 16th century came to a close, Shakespeare began to experiment with tragedy. On the Elizabethan stage, there were two dominant forms of tragedy: First, the classical tragedy. Derived from the Aristotelian theatrical principles of Ancient Greece, a classical tragedy features a protagonist possessed of a “tragic flaw” which creates a catastrophe in which [...]

Hamlet Writes (Never Trust an Editor)

Hamlet offers an excellent example of why many modern editions of Shakespeare’s plays can’t be entirely trusted. While the traditions of emendation which have arisen around each play over the past 400 years have generally improved the texts, some of these traditions are both radically incorrect and yet rabidly stubborn in their persistence. It can [...]

Hamlet – Disasters in the Sun

I think that anyone who spends a fair bit of time hanging out with Shakespeare’s plays ends up accumulating a few choice phrases that will restlessly bounce around the inside of their skulls. I’m not necessarily talking about the big quotes. (Those are pretty much culturally ubiquitous.) What I’m talking about are the snatches of [...]

Much Ado About Nothing – John the Bastard

A couple centuries worth of editorial work have worked marvels in cleaning up the text of Shakespeare’s plays. Elizabethan foibles, errors, and hack jobs have been turned into polished, perfected texts — the result of perhaps the most thorough and extensive analysis of any text in the history of civilization. (Only the King James’ Bible [...]