Who Is William Shakespeare?

We know remarkably little about the life of William Shakespeare, the greatest English playwright and incomparable Renaissance writer. He was baptized on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is located approximately 100 miles northwest of London. He was, therefore, likely born several days prior to his baptism (his birth date is traditionally given as April 23rd, or Saint George’s Day). William was the oldest surviving child of John and Mary Shakespeare. The Shakespeares previously had two daughters -neither of whom survived. The Shakespeares later had five more children along with William: Gilbert, Richard, Edmund, and two younger sisters -Anne (who died at age seven) and Joan.

Copper engraving of Shakespeare completed for the First Folio by Martin Droeshout, seven years after the death of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s father, John, was a prosperous leatherworker (a “glover”) who eventually became a local politician in Stratford. John was first appointed an alderman and then he became the town bailiff (akin to a modern city mayor). Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, descended from the Arden family, a prominent farming and landowning family. As the son of a prominent businessman and official, young William likely attended the Stratford grammar school where he would have been required to memorize the Latin classics.

In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of the nearby village of Shottery. She was already pregnant with their first-born -a common scenario for the time. Anne was 26 and William was 18 at the time of their marriage. After their first child, a daughter named Susanna, the Shakespeares had twins in 1585: Judith and Hamnet (who died at age 11). The Shakespeare family died out in the coming years leaving no direct Shakespearean descendants. The years before Shakespeare appeared in the London (1585-1592) are something of a mystery. The English poet Nicholas Rowe compiled the first 18th century edition of Shakespeare’s play, and he wrote a brief biography entitled “Some Acount of the Life &c. of Mr. William Shakespear” -the first biography of Shakespeare. In it, we are given apocryphal tales of Shakespeare fleeing prosecution for illegal deer poaching and working as a country school teacher and so on. prior to his theatrical workin London.

In the 1590s Shakespeare divided his time between Stratford-upon-Avon where he owned a home, and London where he worked as an actor and playwright. Some have speculated about whether Shakespeare’s significant time away from his family caused strain on his marriage, but this rumor is merely the speculative rumblings of modern academics and nothing more. Shakespeare was accused by at least one reviewer of attempting to punch above his weight as a playwright with university-educated elites like Christopher Marlowe. At some point Shakespeare apparently fully moved to London. As time went by, Shakespeare became a reputable actor and playwright, as well as a shareholder and partner in the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” (later renamed the “King’s Men” in 1603 upon the accession and patronage of James I). In time Shakespeare’s name became a selling point for his plays -he began to be listed listed on title pages and quartos. Shakespeare’s partnership in the company brought significant financial security and Shakespeare bought real estate back in Stratford-upon-Avon, including the “New House” in 1597, the second largest house in town.

One of Shakespeare’s final plays was The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1611 which was likely a collaboration between Shakespeare and his frequent partner, John Fletcher -Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as head playwright for the “Kings Men.” William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 (his wife Anne had died seven years prior). His death occurred within one month of signing his own will which described him in perfect health at the time. His health and death have been the cause of much speculation. Shakespeare was age 52 when he died. There are two known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare that have survived: a bust that was paid for by friends which sits at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), and the engraving by Martin Droeshout as featured in the First Folio of 1623 -seven years after Shakespeare’s death.

Introduction to Macbeth

In all likelihood The Tragedie of Macbeth was first performed in 1606 at the court of King James I. Its first public performance likely occurred at the Globe Theatre in 1611 (a review of this performance was given by the sometimes misleading astrologer, Simon Forman). Macbeth was first published in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, seven years after the death of Shakespeare. In the First Folio, Macbeth follows Julius Caesar and precedes Hamlet. At the time, Shakespeare’s play company was changed from “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” into “The King’s Men” in 1603 when James acceded the throne.

Considerable scholarly work has been devoted to ‘discovering’ interpolations and revisions from the original hand of Shakespeare in Macbeth, and while it seems there have been some changes made to the play (such as Thomas Middleton’s supposed addition of Hecate), I find these arguments mostly unhelpful and uninteresting. In the same way that certain philosophical dialogues from antiquity have come down to us as Platonic despite dubious authorship, we should also consider the full breadth of literature that has come down to us as Shakespearean. A similar case should be made with respect to Homer. Too much skepticism about the Bard detracts and distracts from engaging fruitfully with his plays.

Apparently, Shakespeare’s chief source material for Macbeth comes from Raphael Holinshed’s popular Chronicles of Scotland, England, and Ireland (first published in 1577). The Chronicles was also a source for King Lear and Cymbeline, however, it was merely a source of inspiration for Macbeth, not a direct reflection on which the play is based. The Chronicles offered a dark tone and atmosphere filled with Celtic legends of superstition, betrayal, and violence that was wonderfully captured in Macbeth. We can also see glimpses of archaic views on witchcraft (i.e. the ‘weird sisters’) as found in King James’s Daemonologie and perhaps taken in part from the mythical sibyl from classical antiquity (the scene of the weird sisters may have been a latter addition). The occult plays an important role both within the story of Macbeth, as well as offstage. The play has come to be known as “the Scottish play” for fear of uttering “Macbeth” and thus bringing a curse upon the production. Rumors abound as to mysteries occurring during early productions of Macbeth.

In the Shakespearean universe, Macbeth shares a certain kinship with Richard III as both plays explore the idea of regicide, however Richard III comes to light as an unrepentant claimant to the throne, while Macbeth is plagued by Aeschylean furies over his decision to dethrone a king. While we feel a considerable distance from the cold-hearted King Richard III and his machinations, in Macbeth Shakespeare brings us deep into the mind of the murderer -so much so that we share a certain Aristotelian pity for Macbeth’s struggle. Macbeth also shares kinship with Antony and Cleopatra -in which Antony envisions a new world against the rule of his enemy, Octavius, not unlike Macbeth. The idea of witchcraft also appears in Henry VI part II. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, in contrast to Hamlet -one of Shakespeare’s longest plays.

Outside the Shakespearean cosmos, classical allusions abound in Macbeth: Lady Macbeth shares a great deal in common with Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra, as well as certain similarities with Seneca’s Medea, and also Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.

The Context
Macbeth was first performed perhaps around the year 1606 before the court of King James I, three years after his coronation (James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen who led a rebellion against her cousin Queen Elizabeth that failed and Mary was beheaded). James’s kingship represented a turning point for England -a Scottish King at the end of the Elizabethan epoch. Macbeth is a play for a post-Elizabethan England, with a Scottish king that is not divinely authorized but rather received his approval from Parliament. One of the central questions is guilt and punishment of Macbeth -was he justified in killing the king? Shakespeare apparently fused several stories from the Chronicles to form the narrative, particularly Macbeth and the story of the murder of King Duff by Donwald and his wife -a conspiracy in which Banquo was an accomplice. This allusion is particularly striking because King James I considered himself a descendent of the true Banquo, though in Macbeth Banquo is far less of a villain.

The other chief historical event that was contemporaneous with Macbeth was the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a conspiracy of Catholics sought to blow up Parliament and overthrow the Protestant King James I. The idea of usurpation, mutiny, conspiracy, and high treason were fresh on the minds of many Englishmen at the time. Indeed Shakespeare, himself, may have been concerned about his own position with the nascent king. His father (John Shakespeare, a Catholic) was friends with William Catesby, father of Robert Catesby -the head conspirator in the Gunpowder plot. In a word, Shakespeare’s family was covertly Catholic in a time when Catholicism was repressed in Protestant England. Additionally, some have suggested that Shakespeare frequented “The Mermaid” tavern in London -a watering hole that was the preferred meeting place for the Gundpowder Plot conspirators.

Shakespeare’s decision to stage a Scottish play at the court of a Scottish king about treason against the Scottish crown entitled Macbeth (or “son of Beth” or Elizabeth) was a choice to highlight parallels between the two Scottish kings -especially in light of the fact that James had betrayed his Catholic mother’s rebellion and instead followed in the footsteps of the ‘tyrannical’ rulership of the late Queen Elizabeth. However, in another light Macbeth is a plea for England to unite under the new king -a reimagining of Duncan as a noble and heroic king (in reality he was a feeble king) and a somewhat empathetic portrayal of Macbeth as well as Banquo, especially considering James’s claim to inheritance from the line of Banquo. Personally, Shakespeare is elusive and I have not yet found a partisan angle one way or the other.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale: Autobiography and Arthurian Parody

The Wife of Bath is the most famous albeit the most troubling character in Chaucerian literature. As with other storytellers in The Canterbury Tales, we are initially given only her title: the “Wife of Bath.” Later we learn her name is Alysoun, and that she sometimes goes by the name “Aly” (recall that she shares a name with the carpenter’s wife from the “Miller’s Tale”). The “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is brief, but her autobiographical prologue is substantial (more than twice as long as the tale, itself). In her prologue, she expounds on her desire for authority in marriage –for political supremacy over men– a desire which is born from her many worldly experiences and having been married five separate times beginning at the age of twelve (‘not including company in her youth’).

Prior to her personal prologue, in Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” we learn that the Wife of Bath is a “good” wife, though ‘somewhat deaf’ (in her prologue we learn her deafness is the result of a violent fight with one of her “bad” husbands). She is also skilled in ‘cloth-making,’ surpassing even the cloth-makers of ‘Ypres and Ghent’ (both Flemish cities known for their textiles in Medieval Belgium). She is described as a charitable person, often first in line at the Offering but angry if another woman beats her to the Offering first (in other words she is a vain person). Her integrity is questionable: she values charity only when others notice. She carries a large collection of fine kerchiefs she wears on Sundays, Chaucer guesses her kerchiefs weigh about ten pounds. She also wears red stockings and new shoes. She is described as having a ‘bold face,’ because she is a cosmopolitan woman, having been three times to Jerusalem, across foreign seas to Rome and Boulogne, Cologne, as well as to Galicia for the Compostela (the pilgrimage through the Pyrenees to St. James Cathedral in Spain), and she knows a great deal about “wandrynge by the weye” (467). She wears a large medieval head covering, and she sits on an ambling gait horse (trotting slightly above a walk), She has wide set teeth and large hips. She knows about “remedies of love” as she is well familiar with that “old daunce” (476), or playful romance.

At any rate, in her prologue, the Wife of Bath defends her many marriages by citing the biblical injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ as well as Solomon’s, Abraham’s, and David’s numerous wives (contra Jesus and Paul’s preferences for chastity, virginity, and womanly maidenhood). The Wife of Bath’s idea of perfection is diverse, global, and multi-faceted. A perfect scholar is educated in many schools of thought, and a perfect craftsman knows many different styles of his art, in the same way the Wife of Bath has been schooled in five different men -and she is now looking for a sixth! Naturally, contemporary academia has found kinship with the Wife of Bath, a so-called “medieval feminist.” She portrays her desire as follows:

“I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
I will bestow the flower of all my age
In the actes and in fruyt of mariage.
In the acts and in fruit of marriage” (113-114)

The Wife of Bath offers a scandalous thesis as to why men owe their wives a debt of sexual gratification in marriage. She views marriage as an economic transaction rather than a just and happy union. Instead, her lust is for authority. She justifies force and dominance over her husband, a man whom she views as both a debtor and a slave. Her true desire is for “power” in marriage.

At this point, the Pardoner jumps in and expresses concern for his pending nuptials. He is set to be married soon, and he wonders why should he get married only to become a slave, “By God and Saint John” The Pardoner is no slave! The Wife of Bath responds that soon he will be drinking from a different barrel, so to speak, when he hears her tale. ‘Please do not be annoyed,’ she says to him, because her only intent is to “amuse” (however in saying this the Wife of Bath has disqualified herself from winning the prized meal at the Tabard Inn. Recall, that the Host initially called upon the travelers to both “amuse” as well as “inform” the group with their chosen tales).

The Wife of Bath proceeds with her lengthy autobiography. Three of her husbands were good (she skips over these three, because she is not interested in sharing the good qualities in men. Goodness is not worth mentioning). Two of her husbands were bad –what is a bad husband according to the Wife of Bath? The three good husbands were old and rich, but they could not satisfy her sexual appetite. She discusses various verbal tricks she played on these old men and the reasons why she never cared about their love. The Wife of Bath describes her soul as follows:

“In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.
In feeling, and my heart is influenced by Mars.
Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
Venus me gave my lust, my amorousness,
And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;
And Mars gave me my sturdy boldness” (610-612)

The most blessed of men are not controlling whatsoever, but rather the best of men free her to do as she pleases. She yearns for personal freedom yet complete subservience from her husband. ‘One of us two must bow, doubtless’ (440).

“I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun,
I never loved in moderation,
But evere folwede myn appetit,
But always followed my appetite” (622-623)

The Wife of Bath is honest and open to the world, presenting her deepest, most taboo desires in the most direct form -an autobiography (recall that Plato’s Republic and Apology might be called Socrates’s autobiography, as well).

At any rate, regarding the Wife of Bath’s two “bad” husbands: her fourth husband had a mistress, but she still remembers her romance fondly with this young man. She catches herself in a moment of nostalgia, and then recalls her many infidelities, but her fourth husband died while she was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her fifth husband (named “Jankyn”) was a poor scholar. He was the only one of her husbands she wed out of love, however he was a violent man and in fact he may have killed her fourth husband (the question is left unanswered). Once married, Alysoun and Jankyn tormented one another. He read aloud stories of troublesome women (Eve, Delilah, Clytemnestra) to badger his wife. Stories can be weaponized to affect people. The couple fought violently with one another, until finding ultimately finding a political truce –the truce is that Jankyn shares his estate with his wife, and the Wife of Bath treats him kindly. Thus, the Wife of Bath concludes her personal history before telling a tale.

There is a brief interlude in which the Friar and the Summoner argue with one another just prior to the start of her tale (mediated by the Innkeeper), until the Wife of Bath asks for permission to tell her tale. She proceeds to tell a story that makes a mockery of friars: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a parody of an Arthurian romance. The story takes place ‘many hundreds of years ago’ when magical creatures, like elves, roamed the English isle. Today, she tells us, those creatures have been replaced by begging and licentious friars.

A ‘lusty bachelor’ in King Arthur’s court comes home after a day of “hawking” when he suddenly rapes a maiden (recall the Knight’s son in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” is also called a ‘lusty bachelor’). King Arthur, a “just” king, sentences the man to death, but when the women protest, King Arthur allows the Queen to decide his fate. The Queen says she will spare his life if this man can name what women desire most of all. He is given one year to respond (recall the premise in “The Green Knight”).

During the year, he searches high and low, but no one can provide a satisfactory answer (though the Wife of Bath admits that women are certainly more susceptible to flattery). The Wife of Bath offers a brief interlude of a story from Ovid about King Midas’s wife who shares a secret about two asses ears which grow under his hair. Her digressions are important. The Wife of Bath suggests that women are susceptible to both vanity and gossip. She has a high opinion of herself but a low opinion of women.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath continues her tale: the man returns to King Arthur’s country, dismayed at not finding his answer, when suddenly he comes upon a group of twenty-four women dancing in the forest. As he approaches, they disappear and an old hag now sits in their stead. She offers to teach the man any skill if he will only swear an oath in return. So he asks her to teach him what women desire most of all, and, upon learning the secret, he returns to King Arthur’s castle. The thing women desire most of all is sovereignty and mastery over their husbands. When this answer meets approval the old hag demands the knight marry her as recompense. He is distraught because she is old and poor and lowborn, but he reluctantly marries her anyway. She offers him a choice to have her -old and haggard- but she will humbly support him all her life, or else have her as a young and attractive maiden but she will be unfaithful to him. The knight ultimately leaves the choice up to her, which pleases her so greatly that she gives him both: her youth and her fidelity. Thus they live in ‘perfect joy’ and the Wife of Bath closes by placing a curse on men who refuse to be governed by their wives.

The great irony of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is that she offers marital advice, though she clearly has failed to uphold her matrimonial oaths on numerous occasions. Another irony is that the hero of the story is a wicked man (a rapist), and that he only finds true happiness when he marries an old hag. The Wife of Bath is the polar opposite of the previous tale-teller, the Man of Law, an austere attorney who values fulfilled-oaths and honored obligations above all else.

Politically, the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” differs from the “Knight’s Tale” because it has no Theseus pulling the strings. King Arthur merely steps aside so his Queen may decide one man’s fate, and in the end a happy marriage results not from submission to a king, but rather submission to a wife. The Wife of Bath teaches that justice begins in the household.

In continuing with the recurring theme of marriage, unlike the Knight, the Wife of Bath does not want courtly love. She desires a certain type of marriage, but only one that she cannot truly have. An old woman cannot magically become young again, and a marriage cannot find true happiness if only one spouse relinquishes authority. Thus, the Pardoner’s defense at line 163 still stands. The Wife of Bath, in her Epicurean and cosmopolitan experiences, is something of a hedonist. She is well-traveled in more ways than than one, yet for all of her worldliness, she has never managed to discover true happiness in love. In marriage, she views herself as a debt-collector, and if she is unsatisfied sexually, she will simply find another husband. In fact, she defines ‘perfection’ as a diverse array of experiences. Good clerks (scholars) are well-read, and good craftsman are builders of many different styles. Therefore, the perfect scholar has read everything, and the perfect craftsman can build anything. But such experience is an impossibility because each person is ensouled with a perspective and is raised within a single culture. No single person can possess such a global and encyclopedic knowledge. Similarly, in marriage no person can achieve this standard for perfection. Perhaps she realizes this problem, so the Wife of Bath longs to be like the old hag in her story -a woman who forces a young man to marry her not out of love, but rather compulsion, or obligation. The Wife of Bath believes in self-gratification, rather than love. Like Thrasymachus’s denial of justice in Plato’s Republic, the Wife of Bath lacks belief in love. When people believe in neither love nor justice in life, compulsion and tyranny reign. Hence, why the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is merely a parody of an Arthurian legend, or another instance in which the Knight is shown to be a mere caricature. She has proven her own prophecy to be true: she longs for what she cannot truly have. After all, she tells the Pardoner, her only hope is to “amuse” with her story.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Aristotle, Oedipus, and Greek Tragedy

There has been a longstanding debate, dating back to Aristotle, regarding the purpose or telos of tragedy, and whether or not the key “tragic” element is the result of a unique or particular character flaw caused by the protagonist. In other words, is Oedipus merely a flawed human being who has brought about the destruction of himself, his family, and his city of Thebes? Is King Lear’s madness, and the subsequent downfall of his kingdom, the result of his own tragic undoing? It is a popular scavenger hunt for modern academics to search through the psyche of King Lear or Oedipus to find some fatal flaw -some poor decision they made as in the case of King Lear and his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The purpose of this mode of scholarship is to uncover a convenient and easily digestible moral lesson from the tragedy.

Truly, a case can be made that Sophocles and Shakespeare offer tragedies to educate the polis, though perhaps not by mere moral allegory. Or at least this is not an Aristotelian reading of tragedy, according to Aristotle’s Poetics.

In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that all art is mimesis (imitation) and that all forms of tragedy are imitations of “actions and life” and not of “people” (1453-1454b). A tragedy is an imitation of one whole action, not a person. What is key to a story like Oedipus Tyrannus, is the changing of opposing and unpredictable events, such as when the old Corinthian messenger appears at Thebes to ease Oedipus’s mind, but his story actually does the opposite and sends Oedipus’s life into a tailspin. The action has already been complete. Oedipus merely realizes the tragedy of his life. This scene is composed of reversal, discovery, and suffering. In this way, tragedy imitates “fear and pity” (1452b). Everything Oedipus believes is reversed, and the oracle is proved right.

Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert (1842)

Tragedies, according to Aristotle, ought not to show men going from good to bad fortune as this is “repellent” and is not pitiable, and also not the converse for this is un-tragic. Therefore, Aristotle famously claims that a tragedy must beautifully show men “not surpassing in virtue and justice” so that they do not fall on account of some character flaw,  for they are imperfect by nature, but rather “on account of some missing of the mark” (1453b10). What does he mean by missing the mark? He uses this language elsewhere in the Politics as well as the Rhetoric. For Aristotle, there is a certain “mark” or “telos” in all things: nature, politics, art, and so on. The aim of human life is excellence or virtue understood as happiness by contemplation, the aim of the city is happiness and harmony in parallel to human happiness, the aim of poetics is catharsis.

In order to clarify, Aristotle uses Oedipus as an example to show how the spectator experiences katharsis – perhaps a purging of pent up primal desires, or also a kind of cleansing. This word, now written as catharsis, is meant to convey what he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is that all virtues of character are directed at an action that is beautiful, in itself, and this is the good. Therefore, the tragic action befalls an ignorant person who comes to realize the highest purpose of his life is no longer possible: his happiness in life is made impossible. He has “missed the mark.” The tragic hero must be relatable in his complexity, and the tragic elements cannot merely be the result of petty character flaws. In a word, the downfall of Oedipus is not a fault of his own, nor susceptible to modern psychoanalysis (for Aristotle had no notion of anger or spiritedness –thumos– as being a kind of character flaw as defined in the Nicomachean Ethics) but rather the destruction of Oedipus and his family is terrifying, just as the suffering in his life is pitiable. This is the teaching of Oedipus: that people in the audience are elevated (katharsis) when reminded that they, noble and pious people, can see a tragic fate, despite all their best efforts to appease the gods and do what is right. Amor fati is the teaching par excellence.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.