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’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 conceitThat from her working all his visage wanned,Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,A broken voice, and his whole function suitingWith forms to his conceit? And all for nothing—For Hecuba!What’s Hecuba to him or he to HecubaThat he should weep for her?
…What would he doHad he the motive and the cue for passionThat I have? He would drown the stage with tearsAnd cleave the general ear with horrid speech,Make mad the guilty and appall the free,Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeedThe very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peakLike John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,And can say nothing—no, not for a king,Upon whose property and most dear lifeA damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
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.
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!’
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