Shakespeare’s Preoccupations

Inspired partly by this post, in which Shakespeare Geek asked what Shakespeare’s favourite ‘go to’ tricks are (and, alas, only yours truly answered), and partly by our other conversation over here, I thought it would be fun to share my list of things I have noticed Shakespeare does repeatedly, and ask if you have any others. I am not focusing on literary techniques (you can look up hendiadys anywhere), but on what appear to be thematic preoccupations. What are the things that he found either intriguing or theatrically effective enough to return to again and again? I have thrown in a few theatrical devices when they seem distinctive enough, and when they blur into thematic issues, as they sometimes do. Please add your own ideas and responses, I can’t have spotted all this playwright’s many flourishes and quirks.

– Doubles/mirror images. This is probably his number one thing. We are constantly being shown characters and incidents reflected back with a twist.

– Pairs of brothers who mirror each other. Comedy of Errors (two sets of twins), Titus Andronicus (no fewer than four pairs of brothers, believe it or not), Hamlet (good king/bad king).

– Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. It has been noted that there is as much a shortage of mothers in Shakespeare as in Disney. There are a few mothers, here and there, but the playwright gets a lot more mileage digging into the relationships of fathers with their children.

– Fathers needing to cope with intelligent, independent-minded daughters who are newly women. This is particularly true of the late plays. Miranda, Perdita, Marina, Cordelia, Innogen. Note, too, that each of these young heroines has a name that tells us something key about her (admirable, lost, of the sea, lionheart, innocent).

– Vulnerability of children to murder. Edmund of York, Edward of Lancaster, Edward & Richard in Richard III, Arthur in King John, Macduff’s children; also the children of Aaron, Banquo, Hermione and Pericles are threatened with murder. The pathos of a threatened child is the one point where Shakespeare feels uncharacteristically Victorian. I bet Dickens adored King John.

– The supposedly dead turning out to be alive. (Also, reunions of family long separated; drowning or supposed drowning.) This is the other big one. If Ben Jonson was the city comedy guy, and John Webster was the sex-and-murder guy, Shakespeare would have had a reputation among his theatre goers as the resurrection guy. Then he did Lear and more-or-less said, “tricked you!”

– Seeming, seemers. People being deceived by externals. The idea of a mismatch between someone’s presented face and their true self is at the core of many of the plays, along with the question of who has the skill to see through the mask.

– Men falsely believing infidelity of their women. This is the central plot point in five of Shakespeare’s plays (or six if you think that is what is going on in Troilus and Cressida). The women never are unfaithful, the men are completely doing it to themselves.

– Insufficiently repentant men being rewarded with great women.

– Puritans being taken down a peg.

– Young women gaining access to the world by dressing as men.

– Marginalised figures as the truthspeakers of the play, particularly in situations of speaking truth to power: fools, bastards, (presumed) lunatics, and shrews tend to be the characters who make the cynical commentary, see through the seemers, or call out the tyrants on their shit.

Now the more ‘theatrical device’ examples:

– The 180 degree turn. When someone completely reverses their position, after being persuaded by a really good display of rhetorical fireworks from an antagonist. In addition to the examples at Shakespeare Geek’s post, there is Hector in Troilus and Cressida, and Joan of Arc persuading Burgundy to change sides in 1 Henry VI, after which she ‘asides’, “Done like a Frenchman, turn and turn again.”

– Asking the same question over and over, very quickly. When a character in Shakespeare has to make a sudden, drastic reassessment of what someone is capable of, they often ask for the bad news to be re-confirmed several times in a short space: MacDuff hearing that Macbeth has murdered his family, Emilia hearing that it was her husband who slandered Desdemona, Albany hearing that Gloucester’s eyes were put out, Cleopatra told that Antony has married Octavia, Cressida seeing that Troilus is going to let her be sent to the Greeks. In each case that character then, abruptly and completely, revises their strategy for negotiating the world.

– Metatheatre. Plays within plays, layers of observers, references to acting, and to the actors being actors.

– People addressing inanimate objects (Clint Eastwood didn’t think that one up himself).

– Freaky double time frame. There are several plays which technically seem to occur over the space of only a couple of days, but simultaneously give the impression that several months has passed. It doth mess with one’s head. Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida are all culprits. However the most awkward is Othello, because if you follow the ‘short’ time frame it’s obvious that Desdemona has never had the time to cheat on Othello with Cassio at all.

– Putting comedy in tragedy and the reverse. Shakespeare was much criticised for this by his contemporaries. Nowadays it’s one of the things we love the most.

So, what have I missed?

Puppet Shakespeare behind footlights, with a large basket full of props, and a cutout bear.

Still from Barry Purves’ wonderful short animation “Next”.

Categories: arts & entertainment, history, language

Tags: , ,

14 replies

  1. Actually I have a question. Please forgive my fogginess it has been a while since I read any Shakespeare. I think it is in Henry 5 pt2 – he writes of a woman (barmaid?) who is trying to argue with someone and the person she is arguing with turns her words back on her so that she ends up essentially agreeing with his point. Does Shakespeare do this often? It is always something that annoyed me, mostly because it had all the boys in my English class sniggering and saying ‘yes, it is exactly like that.’
    Although I could have the play completely wrong too 😦

  2. REALLY AWFUL PUNS. Seriously. He must have been so annoying to his colleagues at the Globe. “Oh, SHUT IT, William!”
    …. which of course I fully appreciate and support, since my puns are even worse. 🙂

  3. Tim T – maybe, maybe not! 😀

    (This is from the wonderful Hark, a Vagrant, of course.)

  4. “Next” was pretty much my kids’ first exposure to Shakespeare, other than the random quoting that is part of normal conversation. (That is normal isn’t it, habitual Shakespeare quoting? Along with Monty Python?)

  5. mimbles – if it isn’t, I don’t wanna be normal! (Disclaimer: I quote Python far more than Shakespeare.)

  6. This probably covers some of the same point as TimT made but…double entendres, sometimes very sneaky ones…

  7. In responding in entirely my own terms and ignoring the question, it struck me how many of the themes you identify are popular in wider early modern culture, and particularly in balladry, so:
    Vulnerability of children to murder
    The supposedly dead turning out to be alive (especially from drowinings- also a popular motif/excuse in real life bigamy cases)
    Seeming, seemers. People being deceived by externals
    Men falsely believing infidelity of their women (and conversely men who falsely believe in their fidelity – that’s a huge theme in chapbook literature)
    Young women gaining access to the world by dressing as men (also happens in real life)
    What was the 16th/17thC problem with tragicomedy – is it just Philip Sydney’s issue that the two effects cancel each other out, so that they’re a mismatch? If so, is this just because it’s done badly by many playwrights of the period? I guess i’m wondering because you can read some medieval plays as comi-tragedies and they’re usually considered to be quite sophisticated pieces and were popular. By the 18thC, it’s a very popular genre, so that Samuel Johnson notes approvingly that ‘no plays have oftner filled the eye with tears, and the breast with palpitation, than those which are variegated with interludes of mirth’.

  8. Of course, the puns! Dear god, the puns. I may have blocked that one out.
    @Mindy, you’ve hit on the one play I probably know least well, part 2 of Henry IV. You’re probably thinking of the scenes where Mistress Quickly gets talked around into lending Falstaff even more money, even though he already owes her a huge sum that she is never going to see again.
    @FA, thank you, that’s a really good reminder of the fact that Shakespeare was just one of many people trying to write something popular by tapping into the vein of fashionable issues.
    I think there is something exceptional, though, about Shakespeare and the plot of a false accusation of infidelity. Actual cuckoldry was far and away the most indispensable mainspring of theatrical writing until someone (also probably Shakespeare) came up with existential angst, but this fear of cuckoldry which proves completely unfounded, is a more distinctive plot type.
    The grumble about genre mixing was just that the “university wits” liked their Aristotle, and so felt that perfect drama stuck to his (or what they interpreted as his) rules. They also disliked Shakespeare’s peccadillo for subplots, and felt his construction lacked purity. I generalise, of course.
    If I can find a Youtube link, I think I should put up “Next”.

    • I wonder whether the repeated theme of an unfounded fear of cuckoldry might have had something to do with the notoriety and doubts lingering from the reasons given for the execution of Ann Boleyn. It’s still a very open question whether she was at all likely to have engaged in adultery, after all.

  9. I reckon that having had Catherine die, Henry realised that if he did away with Anne B, he could legitimately marry again and try for a male heir. Which he did. I think it would be an easy accusation to make and one which no one would dare to counter given that the King had the right of life and death over you.

  10. “Seeming, seemers. People being deceived by externals”
    That was very much a thing in real life, too, and later than Shakespeare’s times. When gender roles were very rigidly defined and clothing equally so, people mostly just didn’t look any further than what they expected to see. Think of the number of women who lived as men and served as soldiers for years, and whose sex was only discovered after they died. (“Monstrous Regiment” is pretty factual in that regard!)
    I always think it would be doubly strange to see a young male actor playing a young woman disguised as a young man, were Shakespeare’s works played now as they were then. Makes me wonder how anyone old enough to remember all-male casts from before the closure of the theatres, would have reacted when women were allowed on stage at the Restoration.

  11. @ Orlando- you may be right that jealous husbands of faithful wife’s were inspired by Shakespeare, but they do pop up a fair bit in the 17th and 18thC. At the end of the 18thC, there is a flurry of writing about jealous husbands (of both faithless and faithful wives) that shows active concern with their jealousy, viewing it an unproductive emotion, regardless of its merit.
    For your enjoyment, I give you the Scots ballad Jamie Douglas, the lament of a faithful wife of her jealous husband. It dates to the 1680s, but this is a 19thC rendition. It is also a bit of cheat as it’s based on real events, that took place within a couple of miles of where I was brought up.
    Lord Jamie Douglas, Agnes Lyle’s rendition c.1818
    O waly waly up the bank
    And waly waly down the brae
    And waly by yon riverside
    Where me and my lord was wont to gae
    An I had wit what I wit now
    Before I came over the river Tay
    I would have staid at Lord Torchard’s yetts
    And I nicht hae been his own lady gay.
    When I lay sick and was very sick
    A friend of mine came me to see
    When our Blacklywood told it to my lord’s ears
    That he staid too long in chamber with me
    Woe be to thee thou Blacklywood
    I wish an ill death may thou die
    For thou’s been the first and occasion last
    That put strife between my good lord and me
    When my father heard of this
    His heart was like for to break in three
    He sent fourscore of his soldiers brave
    For to take me home to mine own countrie
    In the morning when I arose
    My bonnie palase for to see
    I came unto my lord’s room door
    But he would not speak one word to me
    Come down the stair my lord Jamie Douglas
    Come down and speak one word with me
    I’ll set thee in a chair of gold
    And the never a penny it will cost thee
    When cockle shells grow silver bells
    And grass grows over the highest tree
    When frost and snaw turns fiery bombs
    Then will I come down and drink with thee
    O what need I care for Jamie Douglas
    More than he needs to care for me
    For the lord of Murray’s my father dear
    And the duke of yorks daughter my mother be
    Thou thocht that I was just like thyself
    And took everyone that I did see
    But I can swear by heavens above
    That I never knew a man but thee
    But fare thee weel my lord Jamie Douglas
    And fare you weel my sma’ children three
    God grant your father grace to be kind
    Till I see you all in my own countrie
    Quickly quickly then rose he up
    And quickly quickly he came down
    When I was in my coaches set
    He made his trumpets all to sound
    As we came in by Edinburgh town
    My loving father came to meet me
    With trumpets sounding on every side
    But it was not comfort at all to me
    O hold your tongue my daughter dear
    And of your weeping pray let a bee
    A bill of divorcement I’ll to him send
    And a better lord I will choose for thee
    Hold your tongue my father dear
    And of your flattery pray let abee
    I’ll never lye in another man’s arms
    Since my Jamie Douglas has forsaken me
    Its often said in a foreign land
    That the hawk she flies far from her nest
    Its often said and its very true
    He’s far from me this day that I live best.

  12. Gorgeous! Thanks, FA. That Jamie Douglas sounds like a right pillock.

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