Bertram – Shakespeare’s Worst Boyfriend?

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So, every now and then, there’s an article that floats up on my Facebook news, that’s about Shakespeare’s worst boyfriends (it usually pops up somewhere around Valentine’s Day).  It’s a fairly mainstream list (Hamlet’s quite high up there, mostly for killing his girlfriend’s dad), but they NEVER mention Bertram, and in our discussion today, I am reminded of this grave injustice.  So, I thought I would go off the well-worn path, and offer my opinion of Shakespeare’s most useless boyfriends, culling especially from our course listings.  I’m not going to count murder as a worthless-boyfriend criteria, because a) it’s Shakespeare and everyone’s at it, and b) to be fair, Polonius did start it.

 

1 – Bertram.  Bertram takes the cake.  He is the James Franco of the French Nobility – a sense of entitlement, buckets of arrogance, and but nothing that resembles actual talent for anything.  He mistakes being born into a good family for actual virtue and nobility, in spite of EVERYONE in the play pointing out to him what a piece of crap he is.  He’s too noble to take any interest in Helena, even to talk to her in the betrothal scene, but thinks nothing of giving his family ring to the first Italian chippie he finds. He can’t even bring himself to pretend to care, and all of this comes about a day after he and the King had a lovely long chat about the fact that his father was an all-round decent guy.  Let’s presume he’s really hot, because oh my god, is he dumb.  Plus, he considers Parolles one of his best friends.

2- Petrucchio.  Starves his wife.  That kind of should be all you need to know, but I constantly find myself amazed that he thinks sex with him is an adequate reward for her enforced submission.

3 – Demetrius. Ohhhhhh, Helena.  Helena, Helena, Helena. Have some self-respect, woman. Honey, if your boyfriend needs to be high to be in a relationship with you, then you might want to rethink your criteria.  Seriously.  This is good advice.

4 – Richard III.  Woos his first wife over the corpse of her murdered husband (although I’m not sure who I judge more in that situation), drowns his brother in a bucket of wine (although that sounds like a fairly decent way to go), tries to marry his teenage niece (although….eew.  Can’t really justify that).   To be honest, I don’t know who I’m trying to kid here.  I love Tricky Dicky.  And the two princes were kind of bratty, so he gets a free pass from me.

5 – Troilus.  Troilus and Cressida goes on and on about what a noble man Troilus is, and then we meet him.  It’s like he’s any the One Direction boys that’s Not Harry Styles, or if you’re of my generation, Andrew Ridgley.  If the sons of Troy were a rock band, he’d be the drummer (and they’d have a cool hipster name).  So, not only does poor Cressida get the second most insignificant prince of Troy  (the dubious title of most insignificant goes to the one whose name I can’t even be bothered to look up), but she gets the one who is willing to sacrifice himself for his brother’s girlfriend while she get send to the Greek camp and gets passed around more than the Olympic flame.

 

Honorable mentions: Antony.  He’s a maudlin drunk, who leaves his girlfriend to marry another woman.  I’d kick his ass for that.  Richard II.  The insinuations of his interest in men might make him a good boyfriend to someone, but that someone isn’t poor Queen Isabella.  Although, she’s an utter wet blanket, so I don’t feel unduly sorry for her.  Orlando.  Nice boy; probably the world’s most annoying boyfriend, in spite of Rosalind’s best attempts at training him into being a man.  Prince Arthur.  Lady Blanch had a lucky escape.  Anyone who doesn’t realize that is’t not a good idea to jump off a castle wall onto paving stones below doesn’t deserve to be King.  Or get a wife.

Radical Shakespeare?

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So, this week’s blog post isn’t that connected to the course – I hope you’ll forgive me.  This past weekend, I attended the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference in St. Louis.  It’s actually worth becoming a Shakespearean just for the opportunity to attend the SAA annually.  The conference consists of half a dozen panels of speakers, and dozens of seminars, which (successfully, I think), aim to tackle the big questions in our field each year.  This year, the seminars were dominated by two themes: Shakespeare online, and Shakespeare in contemporary culture.  Both of these intersect in interesting ways.  I often thing that in spite of Shakespeare’s status as the ultimate Dead White Male, Shakespeare studies continues to be on the cutting edge of theoretical and cultural development.  Seeing the work of the Taiwanese performance database, alongside the Folgers extraordinary new textual apps reinforced the way in which cutting edge thought consistently looks to Shakespeare as a barometer of its academic viability.

Which is what made the plenary session so provocative.  This year marks the thirtieth year anniversary of Jonathan Dollimore’s seminal text, Radical Tragedy, and Dollimore, Ania Loomba, and Graham Holderness gave a kind of retrospective on the experience of the book.  Dollimore, in particular, was eager to lambast us all on our lapsed radicalism, as we continue to watch the corporatization of education unfold in front of us, implying that we are failing to reach our left-wing potential. While there is much of Dollimore’s argument that I would challenge, it got me thinking about the radicalism of Shakespeare, which I would argue, is mainly found in performance.  Watching Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar, last year, which all took place in an unnamed East African country, I was struck by how contemporary and how dangerous the play felt – it became apparent how this play might be seditious, played under an oppressive regime.  I wonder which other plays are painfully relevant to today’s society – certainly Timon of Athens (the man, not the character) would find much to critique in today’s society, yet the play never sees the light of day.  A staging of Titus, for example, with its artistic patronage, might easily turn the spotlight on the bourgeois audience members (and let’s face it, with ticket prices the way they are today, that’s not an unfair label).  Or, how might The Taming of the Shrew talk to us about our increasingly misogynist popular culture?  I wonder if we haven’t fallen into the habit of appreciating Shakespeare, rather than using the texts, in the way they want to be used.

Hallucination or Ghostly Truth: Who Do We Trust? by Michelle Shimonova

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Michelle Shimonova

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as readers we are left confused with respect to the ghost of Hamlet Senior. We are very aware that the ghost does in fact exist since Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo had encounters with him before Hamlet does. The hesitation and skepticism is brought about as soon as the ghost asks to speak privately with the protagonist and essentially tells Hamlet everything he wants to hear.

Normally, it would have been safe to assume that the main issue at hand is that Hamlet was not crowned. The secondary issue would be that nobody really gives Hamlet the support he needs with regard to his birthright being taken from him (not that he puts in an effort at any time to protest in the first place). The last issue should be the fact that Gertroud chose to marry her brother-in-law merely a month after mourning her dead husband.

Why the odd reversal? Why is Hamlet Senior’s main concern not his country and who is ruling it? If he was a soldier and a fighter, why is jealousy the driving force while he is in purgatory rather than passion for his son to be a successful ruler?

If Hamlet Senior was not royalty, and had not spent years as the king of Denmark, we would judge his ghost from a more human perspective. We would be more understanding and show more sympathy for a man whose wife married his blood brother a month after he was murdered…by said brother. Kings, however, are supposed to be supernatural and chosen to rule by God. Hamlet Senior’s principal reason for revenge should have been to encourage his son to take what is rightfully his and continue his legacy properly. For this reason, did Hamlet hallucinate the conversation with the ghost? Is this why the ghost was somewhat irrational and has the exact same issue that we heard from Hamlet earlier in the play?

I suppose what makes the play so brilliant is the fact that we will never know. There is no solid line between Hamlet’s madness and his reality, much like the famous line from Polonius: “though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” (II.II.199). I was in a constant battle with myself about believing the status of his well being because we never really know if he’s pretending or if he truly fell off the wagon. Hamlet warns Horatio after his encounter with the ghost that he will act strangely and oddly, but his actions stretch beyond that.

He goes through periods of depression, when he contemplates suicide, to periods of rage, when he goes to Ophelia and again in his mother’s chamber, which resulted in Polonius’ death, to moments of sanity, when he speaks to the actors about performing a scene of Hamlet Senior’s murder. What remains constant is his jealousy toward his mother’s affairs, which may very well cause his outbursts and mood swings. His incomplete Oedipus complex leads to his mental instability. Hamlet puts his father on an idolizing pedestal and knows not what to do when the universe is basically telling him that not all is as it seems.

I’m sure Hamlet’s behavioral matters are scrutinized and hypothesized about because it is indeed questionable. With regards to the ghost situation, however, I truly believe the ghost of Hamlet Senior was distressed about his wife. I guess purgatory makes even the divine, mortal.

Ophelia’s Suicide: The Action of A Woman Undone or a Woman in Control? By Amanda Mullen

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In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, readers and spectators obtain a strong understanding of Hamlet’s psyche and the reasons behind his choices. We do not, however, get much more than a glimpse into the thought processes of the other characters within the play. This is especially true of the women in Hamlet, who make decisions without ever verbally offering an explanation for them. For this reason, I’d like to take a closer look at Ophelia’s behavior in Hamlet, particularly her decision to take her own life. The audience sees Ophelia become unhinged after Polonius’ death, beginning when she sings to random individuals and hands them flowers. The main theme of her songs seems to be abandonment, but whether this concerns Hamlet or Polonius, the audience is not told. Ophelia drowns herself after this odd spectacle, which allows the audience to infer that her suicide is a result of her father’s murder and Hamlet’s disappearance from her life. However, her choice to commit suicide can still be interpreted in two ways: either as a desperate escape from her unfortunate circumstances or as a form of female empowerment.
Judging by Ophelia’s feelings of abandonment, it is entirely possible that Ophelia drowns herself in the brook because she feels that she has nothing left worth living for. Her father, who cares for Ophelia and appears to be her primary source of survival, dies and leaves her to fend for herself. Hamlet also departs, possibly taking Ophelia’s virtue with him. It is repeated throughout the play that the two were lovers, though no one ever definitively states whether the relationship was sexual or not. However, based on Ophelia’s songs, it seems that the lovers may have had a physical relationship. During one of her songs, she says “Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, / you promis’d me to wed'” (IV.v. 62-63). The sexualization of the song, as well as the concern with not being wedded, appears to be aimed at Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet and his departure. Assuming the two did have sex outside of marriage, Ophelia would essentially be worthless in the marriage market. If she is no longer chaste, she is no longer a commodity for men. This leaves Ophelia fatherless and unlikely to marry. Ophelia loses her social status, as well as her place in the world. As women during this time rarely lived independently, Ophelia would not be left with many choices for survival. Thus, she may have taken her life as a last resort to resolve these problems. Ophelia may have believed death to be the only way out of such a sticky situation.
A more feminist way of reading Ophelia’s suicide is to look at it in terms of control and empowerment. Throughout the play, Ophelia frequently seems incapable of controlling her own destiny. Her relationship with Hamlet is out of her own hands, as her father informs her of when she is and is not “allowed” to speak with her previous lover. Furthermore, her lack of social status prevents her from marrying Hamlet, regardless of their feelings for one another. He also begins to hate her for reasons that are out of her control, such as the actions of his mother and Polonius’ insistence that they do not contact one another. Furthermore, Ophelia remains helpless as she loses all of the people she truly cares about. Hamlet and Laertes both take off without her, and her father dies, leaving her without status or a place in the world. Due to this course of action, it seems plausible that Ophelia would wish to take back even the smallest amount of control over her own life. She cannot determine the fate of her loved ones or the society she was born into. She does, however, have authority over her own life and death. Her suicide is the only choice that Ophelia makes on her own throughout the entirety of the play. Therefore, it can be argued that Ophelia’s drowning was a final statement of power from an otherwise powerless individual. Unlike the previous argument, this would then allow spectators to believe that the play is meant to criticize such a patriarchal society.
It is impossible to say whether either interpretation of Ophelia’s death is correct, due to the fact that Ophelia never explicitly announces her thoughts or feelings before she acts. Like many other issues in Hamlet, this remains ambiguous. However, this ambiguity may be intentional. It may not matter which way we look at this Ophelia’s decision. No matter which lens we choose to view the suicide from, it always comes back to the discussion of feminine power at the time (or the lack thereof). Whether Ophelia is fighting against her oppression or giving into it, it leaves the audience to ponder and discuss the consequences of a patriarchal society, particularly for the women trapped in it.

The Performance of an Action by Tarjei Berg

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Hamlet is quite possibly the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s plays, languishing as it does up there in the canon of literature along with his other great works like Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. It is also one of the longer plays that Shakespeare wrote and is accordingly abundantly rich in subject matter to delve into if one were so inclined.

The most principal theme that courses through the play is arguably that of death – and that which follows. The death of Hamlet Senior stands at the base of the dramatical construct of the story, and the prompt appearance of his ghost becomes the catalyst for the events that follow.

It becomes interesting, then, to stop here for a moment and contemplate the historical backdrop from which the play surfaced. We are in the early stages of the renaissance and the religious paradigm of the time is at the cusp of one of the greatest shifts that we’ve seen since the approbation of Christianity as official state religion in the Roman Empire. Man and the view of his identity, theoretically and theologically, is about to be completely revised from a theological standpoint.

Let us take a closer look at what I purport to be the thematically climactic scene in the play and a culmination of many of the ideas that have been ruminated upon in its build-up: The first scene of the final act, 5.1.

The movement of characters in the scene is interesting in itself, starting with two clowns and coming to a head in the penultimate confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet. The performance-related nature of the landed nobility has already been established both directly and indirectly earlier in the play, such as when Polonius affirms that he “did enact Julius Caesar. [He] was killed i’th’ / Capitol. Brutus killed [him].”(104-05.3.2.) Getting back to 5.1, we are shown a ridiculous performance in the guise of rivalry between Laertes and Hamlet as they struggle to demonstrate who loved her most. “Dost come here to whine,” declares hamlet, “To outface me with leaping in her grave? / Be buried quick with her, and so will I.” (277-79.5.1.)

Now, I have allowed myself this slight thematic digression from the discussion of religion in the play in an attempt to ascertain that the construction of this scene was made to contrast the affected vanities of the noblemen. In this scene these vanities are put in juxtaposition for the audience by Hamlet, Laertes, and even the King, against the more – if you will excuse the beggared pun – grounded philosophy of the grave-diggers. They enter the scene with a question that effectively spells out our most important dilemma that we are confronted with in the play: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial, / when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?”(1-2.5.1.) The wording of this question is especially interesting when we consider the practical applications, or how they are presented by the play, of salvation.

Salvation is something you attain by being a good person. Being a good person involves doing good acts, or so we must assume when faced with a play that focuses so much on the metaphysical implications of ones actions. We see this exemplified by Hamlet Senior as a ghost when he asks his son to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”(25.1.5.) An action has an inherent property that spawns a reaction which nature is determined by the circumstances in which the action is performed. We see this again when Hamlet sees his opportunity to murder the King his uncle while in apparent prayer: “A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven.”(76-78.3.3) Murder, or revenge if we choose to call it that, is shaded with a different color of judgement based on the setting of the act itself.

This second example of actions being submittable to varying interpretations based on the manner or the setting of the act is particularly useful to my argument. This because the next stage of my reasoning will, aided again by our most wonderful grave-diggers in 5.1, move to the presentational essence of an action. Fore, as the grave-digger argues, and as Shakespeare seems to echo by the force of the mechanisms at work in his play, “an act has three branches – it is to / act, to do, to perform.”(31-2.5.1.) An act, in other words, is something which is given shape in the mind, acted upon, and finally comes into fruition as a display for others to see, even if the only one to witness it is God. This is evidenced by the ghost of Hamlet Senior. His brother was home free. He had gotten away with it. Everything was fairy tale happy in olden Denmark. That is, until the ghost appeared.

To aim for a conclusion to this very shallow take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, let us for a moment return to the notion of salvation. If Ophelia’s salvation lies in her being buried as if she had not committed suicide, in the performance of ritual, what does that say about the morality of religion and of the church? If salvation lies in being murdered on your knees in a church instead of at the end of a poisoned rapier in the throne room, what is the function of Christianity in this society? That the play’s inception is dated to the throes of a paradigmatic shift of religion in renaissance England is interesting in this respect. For what was one of the most principal critiques of the Catholic Church if not its pension for giving salvation in exchange for performance?

Shakespeare might not give us an answer to the question, but he does well enough, I think, to pose it.