Unconventional Shakespeare

Writers have absolutely no control over how people read their works.

This is the hardest part of writing, for me.  You can write whatever you want, sneak in whatever meanings strike your fancy, but it’s inevitable: someone’s going to read your work and totally misinterpret it. And you know what? That can actually be pretty fun.  Half the work is in the reader anyway, and sometimes you can come up with an entirely different character… Or an entirely different story.

Related: I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since middle school, when I was first old enough to parse through the words.

So in this blog post, I’m going to do a little misinterpretation.

 

The Conventional Shakespeare

William Shakespeare has two faces.

The first is the face the world sees: hoity-toity, elegant, posh.  This Shakespeare is declaimed in horrible English accents by those not well-educated in the literary arts.  He can be fun, but he’s sort of the Star Trek of the literary world: fairly misinterpreted and not well-understood by those who aren’t well-versed in his canon.  The second face of Shakespeare is bawdy as hell.  As in, oh my god I can’t believe they taught us this in middle school and how in the world is it considered high art?  I mean, some of his double entendres make 14-year-olds look chaste.

William Shakespeare’s characters, however, often have one face.  Don’t get me wrong, those faces are often incredibly complicated.  They are brilliant and deep and multifaceted.  There is a reason I’m such a huge fan of his work.  But many of his characters have hit a rut over the years, and are interpreted in similar ways over a wide span of productions.

I’m going to talk about two: Hamlet and Lady MacBeth.  Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is often played as an overdramatic teenager type.  He’s flamboyant and tragic and, well, the actor usually hams it up.  Which is where that saying comes from.  Lady MacBeth, on the other hand, is often portrayed as a cold-blooded bitch.  Born to be a murderess with no sense of conscience.

These are great interpretations, and there’s a reason they’ve survived so long.  But there’s textual evidence that could be used to play up the same characters as entirely different people.

 

Hamlet

Hamlet’s soliloquies and monologues are incredibly passionate, the stakes of his character are entirely emotionally-founded, and his treatment of his situation is frankly childish at best.  He has lines about fishmongers and maidenhoods. There is plenty of reason for his overdramatic portrayal.

And yet, he has this very famous monologue…

Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing—
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her?
Here Hamlet’s referencing an actor who just gave an incredibly moving performance, bringing real tears to his eyes over something he’s never experienced.  For someone famous for his dramatic impulses, this seems… out of place, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t someone like Hamlet, someone who’s literally acting for his life right now, pretending to be insane, maybe find all this a bit… mundane?
…What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
And here, Hamlet bemoans his own inability to express his emotion. This actor, he’s saying, would play my part so much better than I myself can manage.  This is usually interpreted as Hamlet being ever-more ridiculous, and saying that even in his drama he can’t express the deep emotions that he’s feeling.
And yet…
Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to have an actor really play that up?  Have someone play Hamlet as awkward, mopey, almost with a touch of Polonius to him? His madness could be outright jarring, not eccentric but downright out of character.  And as an added bonus we would see him adjust to his act, which would just accent the bit in the middle of the play where he starts to doubt his sanity himself.
I have never seen a Hamlet do this.  But I really, really want to.
Lady MacBeth
Lady MacBeth is my second-favorite Shakespeare character, coming in at a close second to Othello’s Iago.  She’s a force of cunning in the play, arguably one of the strongest (if cruelest) female characters in Shakespeare.  But she’s constantly played as very one-dimensional, despite the complexity of her character, and this baffles me.
Let’s set the stage, no pun intended.  Lady MacBeth is a well-respected lady.  She’s a bit smart, perhaps, and the second we meet her she’s talking about how her husband is too docile a man to do what he needs to if he wants to gain power…
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.’ Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear;
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.
This certainly sounds like something a Disney villain would say, if Walt had been born back in the 14th century.  And what she goes on to say certainly warrants some swirling green lights and cowering animals.  This is easily one of my favorite soliloquies in all of Shakespeare.
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
For those who don’t want to parse the language, Lady MacBeth calls upon evil spirits to give her the strength she needs to do what her husband’s too much of a coward to pull off.  It’s often played up much like a Disney villain would do it: lots of black magic imagery and evil crowing into the night.
But she has another incredibly famous monologue that overwrites that entire idea.  See, later in the play, Lil Miss Disney Villain feels guilty.
Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him…
…The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?–
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?–No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.
In the above, Lady MacBeth is sleepwalking, trying to wash the blood off her hands with incessant sleep-hygiene.  This doesn’t make so much sense with a cold-blooded killer, does it?  I think it’s usually written off as Shakespeare meaning that women are innately good, that there’s some inner maternal hippie inside her that’s mortified at what she’s done.
And yet…
Lady MacBeth’s second long passage, literally a minute after we first see her on stage, is in fact calling on evil spirits.
 How cool would it be to see her start out as someone who’s perhaps a bit smart, a bit ambitious, but not necessarily evil… And watch her become corrupt over the course of that soliloquy, literally filled “top to toe” with the strength she’s praying for?
That would be so much more interesting than Lady MacBitch.  She’d have an actual fleshed-out side plot.  We could see her flip like a switch between Possessed Lady MacBitch to Housewife MacBeth at a moment’s notice.  It would make a lot more sense that no one really suspects her of corrupting her husband– sure, they see her as masculine as strong, but no one seems to see her as evil. And that soliloquy serves an actual purpose to the story, rather than just establishing her as 14th-century Cruella DeVille.
I’ve seen this idea hinted at before, but never fully fleshed out.  And that one was apparently slightly-inspired by something I did back in high school, so I’m not sure it counts.  I just think it would be really really cool to see someone play it up.
In Conclusion…
…I don’t really have a conclusion, actually.  No connection to life, the universe, or anything.  This blog just didn’t have enough Shakespeare in it.
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2 thoughts on “Unconventional Shakespeare

  1. Alex, you had plenty of Shakespeare in your blog. It was so interesting and inciteful. Strange, I had just watched Hamlet a couple of months ago. And what a mix of emotions it is. I guess, sadly, we’ll never have another Shakespeare or the like in our midst… No time for this kind of thought anymore.

    Like

    • I hope we see another writer like him someday. There are other poets and playwrights that are comparable, in other cultures– Homer comes to mind, or Pushkin. We’ll see one again.

      Like

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