Shakesperian Connundrums – or are They?

I’ve just finished reading a book, Henry V, War Criminal and Other Shakespearian Puzzles, which explores a number of puzzles, and apparent contradictions, in some (or in fact most) of Shakespeare’s plays. I guess when you happen to be this hugely famous author any little mistake, or apparent mistake, is suddenly scrutinised extensively, and debated over by academics of all stripes. Then we have somebody like Shakespeare, who in many cases is viewed as not just one of, but the greatest, writer that the English language has ever produced, and we are speaking of a language that has produced countless numbers of great writers. However while writers such as Charles Dickens can produce a love/hate relationship, Shakespeare seems to be loved by all (except for those high school students who are forced to study his plays).


I guess when somebody is held in such high regards, their works will tend to be studied a lot closer – there are countless libraries of books written about Shakespeare and his various works, and if you have a look at some of my previous posts you will see that a number of them are about some of Shakespeares’ plays, but then again that does have something to do with me going out to see these plays, and then writing about them when I get home (though to date I have yet to get around to writing about the production of the Scottish Play that I saw at The Globe – probably because it is The Scottish Play). Anyway, for those who are new to the blog, here is a list of the published Shakesperian posts so far:


The thing with Shakespeare is that his plays are so in-depth, and the characters so realistic, that it is hard not to be able to write, and continue to write, about his plays, and to continue to perform them in new and imaginative ways. It is also hard to see meanings and ideas that are still relevant today, whether it be in the halls of the power, in the boardrooms, or even just in the family home – in fact, Hamlet need not be performed in a castle in Denmark, but in a house in the outer suburbs of a major city.


Yet Shakespeare is also scrutinised, but that is not surprising because people do hold him in such high regard. In fact one could even consider him to have been deified by the Anglo people – he holds the position of a god of literature. Mind you, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Anglo-European world is a Christian world, Shakespeare probably would have become a god, though I do note that the great philosophers and writers of the ancient world were never deified, whereas the Roman emperors where (but then again that is probably because the Roman Emperors actually claimed to be gods).


In a way, this probably also answers the question as to why the Bible is scrutinised so much more heavily than other books. Christians are forever crying unfair that the Bible is scrutinised much than the Odyssey when we have so many more source materials that were written much closer to the original manuscripts of the Bible than we do for the Odyssey. The reason for this is because the Odyssey does not purport to be a holy book or claim to have the answers to life, the universe, and everything, whereas the Bible does. In fact, the Bible claims to be about this guy who runs around first century Palestine purporting to be God in the Flesh, and then died, and came back to life. With claims like that, of course, it is going to be scrutinised.


Poetic License

Each of the chapters of the book explores an aspect of one of the plays that appears to be, on the surface, quite puzzling. One of these things happens to be why time seems to be so compressed. For instance, in Richard II, we have, within a very short space of time, King Richard forming an army, crossing the Irish Sea, subduing the Irish, and then coming back home. In the meantime we have the banished Henry Bollingbrooke suddenly raise another army of supporters, cross over to England, and seize the throne. All in a matter of months (or even within a much shorter space of time).
Well, the answer to that was simply ‘warp speed’. That is that like in Star Trek, where the writers created warp speed so that the immense distances between the stars can be travelled in a reasonable amount of time to actually make the series work. If, for instance, it took hundreds, or even thousands, of years for a message to get from the Enterprise to Earth, and back again, then the show wouldn’t work. Similarly, if it took the same amount of time to get from planet A to planet B. Further, due to problems such as inertia, if the Enterprise even went from a stationary position to impulse speed, pretty much the entire crew would find themselves as splats on the back wall.
The authors suggest that this is a similar case with Shakespeare, though I have to admit that this, like a number of their suggestions, is a little disappointing. The reality is that Shakespeare is compressing quite a lot of action into what is in effect a play that would probably last between two to three hours. Furthermore, all of this action is happening on a small stage with little in the way of props. As such this whole compressing of time is actually unnecessary. Mind you, when I watch Richard II the last thought that goes through my mind was ‘gee, how did Henry Bollingbrooke raise an army in such a short amount of time’. Instead, I explore how the characters interact, and the ideas that come out of the play.
In the same way, is the question of what season it is in Denmark. It is bitterly cold up on the battlements, but King Hamlet was killed while relaxing in his garden. If it was the middle of winter, then it is highly unlikely that the king would be sleeping in the garden – he would no doubt have died of frostbite or pneumonia without Claudius even needing to raise a finger. Once again, we have poetic license, and to be honest, when I am watching Hamlet, the last thing I am asking is ‘gee, how was it that King Hamlet didn’t catch a cold’. Actually, because I have seen the play so many times, the question I’m usually asking, especially if it is a particularly bad performance, is ‘when is this going to end?’

The Ghost

Well, on the subject of Hamlet, let us raise the question of the infamous ghost, especially since this is something that I have queried and explored in the past. In Julius Caeser, and Macbeth, we have ghosts also appearing, but we never actually bat an eyelid at it. For instance, I have never questioned whether the ghost of Julius Caeser, when it confronts Brutus, is a demon or not, but for some reason, I do when it comes to the ghost in Hamlet. As I have since discovered I’m not the only person who raises this question, but I suspect the main reason is that Hamlet doesn’t necessarily take this ghost at his word. In fact, when we look at Hamlet and the fact that he doesn’t just rush off and lop off Claudius’ head suggests that he at least wants some further proof that Claudius is the murderer. Look, the reality is that Hamlet isn’t a big fan of Claudius anyway, and being told by a spirit that Claudius is also his father’s murderer would be just enough reason for him to do the guy in – but he doesn’t. To me, it shows that Hamlet isn’t indecisive, but quite clear-headed and willing to bide his time.
The interesting thing is that the play is set in Denmark, which at the time was clearly a protestant country. This basically means that the belief was that when somebody died they either went straight to heaven, or straight to hell. Personally, even though I’m a Protestant I don’t think it is as straight forward as that, but I won’t get too theological. Anyway, being a protestant country suggests that their view on ghosts would be that there is no possible way that they could be the deceased, and as such, the only thing that they could be would be a demon.
Except Hamlet wasn’t set in the contemporary era – this is clear when Hamlet is sent to England. There is mention of the Danelaw, which was a part of England during the medieval ages which were ruled by Denmark. The suggestion, or at least the impression, that I have had was that Hamlet was set not in 15th Century Denmark, but in Medieval Denmark. Mind you, that is also going to cause problems because medieval Denmark wasn’t Christian, or at least it didn’t become Christian until the late 900s, and Amleth, the mythological character upon which Hamlet is based, was said to have lived much earlier. Further, we also have Hamlet find Claudius praying and has the perfect opportunity to kill him, except he doesn’t due to the belief, a Catholic belief, that if somebody is killed while praying then they go straight to heaven.


Okay, Hamlet was also attending university at Wittemberg, and when Amleth was running around universities basically didn’t exist. Also, Wittenberg was the same town in which Martin Luther famously vandalised the doors of the Cathedral with 95 Theses. So, the question was why Hamlet, who was studying at a protestant university in a protestant country, suddenly resorting to Catholic dogma. The answer was that it was because Hamlet was too torn up with grief to think straight, but honestly, grief has nothing to do with whether you believe protestant or Catholic doctrine, rather it probably has a lot more to do with Hamlet being set prior to the protestant reformation.
Or poetic license.


One of the criticisms, or curiosities, that regularly comes about with Shakespeare, is the whole striking of the clock in Julius Ceaser. Okay, there is also the suggestion that the floors were wooden when in fact Roman floors were made of stone, but that doesn’t come up as often as the whole clock thing. What people are claiming is that this was an anachronism because the Roman’s didn’t have clocks or at least none that we have found. Sutherland and Watts actually explore this conundrum quite deeply and come out with a rather interesting explanation, which didn’t involve Shakespeare not knowing his Roman history.


The thing with Rome is that it was a massive Empire, as we probably all know, and massive empires generally aren’t run on vague assumptions of the time. Consider our society and how much time rules our lives. We have to be at work at a certain time, and we have to work a certain amount of time or at least a minimum amount of time. Okay, some of us may be fortunate to work in a role where time isn’t actually important, as long as we get our work done, however, for the most part, our lives are basically ruled by the clock.
This would have been no different in a metropolis, and capital, of a major superpower – the Romans would have needed much more accurate ways of being able to tell the time, such as the sundial. Well, the sundial is actually a pretty shocking way of telling the time, but without mechanical clocks, it was the best that they had. Also, there were hourglasses, since sundials have this annoying habit of not working at night. The other method was having somebody ringing a bell every hour on the hour (which I must admit would have been rather annoying trying to get to sleep with all that bell ringing going on).


So, this is where we come to the usage of the word clock – the French word is horloge, which as you can probably tell looks nothing like the word clock, so obviously the English word didn’t come from the French. In German it is Uhr, from which our work hour comes from (though interestingly it also comes from the French word heure), however the German word for bell is Glock. Even more interesting the Dutch word for bell is Klok which, as you have probably worked out by now, sounds, and looks, a lot like the English word clock. Thus, our word for clock originates from the word for bell, which when putting it into that context, makes a little more sense and suggests that it wasn’t a clock that was striking the hour but a bell.


Okay, maybe I’m (and the authors) were stretching things out a bit there, but still, it works, though I’m sure people are just going to continue to claim that Shakespeare was anachronistic, unless of course, the Romans did have clocks. It’s just that we haven’t found any.


One of the interesting things in Shakespeare is the role of woman – they can actually play some pretty strong characters, and even pass off as men. Mind you, not all of Shakespeare’s women are strong, just those that are thrown into a position where they are forced to take on masculine roles (and will usually disguise themselves as men to do so). However, that does raise the question of the role of woman in Shakespeare’s society. Well, first of all, they weren’t allowed to act, which was a little odd because they were allowed to be queen – though I suspect that there were a number of people that weren’t too happy with Elizabeth on the throne. Mind you, there is also the argument in Henry V that the king of France was illegitimate because he came through the female line, and the female line could not produce an heir to the throne.


Yet the thing that stood out to me in this book was in relation to Juliette. Okay, Romeo and Juliette is not one of my favourite plays, and you can probably blame Leonardo Di Caprio for that (and also that it is hyped up so much more than other plays). As a side note, it is interesting that the term Romeo, usually referring to a male who is has a way with attracting women, has come into regular usage in our language. Mind you, the word Romantic doesn’t actually come from Romeo, or actually, it could – though French is a romantic language in more ways than one. Another thing, the name Romeo actually refers to somebody who is a pilgrim, in particular a pilgrim to Rome, but I digress.


So, we have a thirteen-year-old woman, madly in love with a sixteen-year-old man, who happens to be from the family that is at war with her family, and she is pledged to be married to somebody else. Well, that had nothing to do with the idea, because what they were talking about was how in Renaissance Italy, if a woman didn’t bleed on her wedding night then it was clear that she wasn’t a virgin, and as such the husband had the right to kill her – in either way her blood would be on that sheet that was hanging out of the window.


In a way that seems to relate to the whole argument with regards to abortion – that a woman should have the right to do what she wants with her body. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of abortion, especially when it is used as a form of contraceptive, and that people are basically wanting to have their cake and eat it too. However, the problem is that men are notorious for disappearing when it becomes apparent that a woman has become pregnant, and that leaving the poor woman to raise a baby by herself. While I don’t believe this is grounds for abortion, I do believe that there should be support for the woman and the child – to deny the woman access to abortion for the sake of the child, and to then demonise her for being a whore, goes to show that the child actually isn’t the issue.


Which brings me back to the blood on the sheets. I have to admit that our society has come a long way since the days when a woman would be murdered for not being a virgin, but we still live in the world where men can be sluts, while the women are punished. In many ways the abortion question, just like the blood on the sheets, is a way of oppressing and controlling women – there was no way that a man was going to be killed because it came about that he wasn’t a virgin on his wedding night. In fact, it was probably highly unlikely that he would have been a virgin.

Gender Identities

I probably have little more to say about this aspect to Shakespeare than I have already said in my other posts on As You Like It (which is the one play that really messes around with the idea of Gender Identity). I remember being at University and reacting horribly against the idea that there could be more than one Gender, or that one could change one’s Gender. This was a concept that to my conservative Christian mind I simply could not accept – as far as I was concerned the lecturer was simply messed up, and basically hated Christians. Well, one of my friends that actually took her class did tell me that she hated Christians, so I had pretty much written her off by then.


That is until I came back to As You Like It years later to discover that she was right. Well, she did come across as being a bit too obsessed with sex, and there is much, much more to life than sex, but then again when you come back to Shakespeare you suddenly discover that not only is he pretty much obsessed with sex, but he has a pretty dirty mind as well. I was under the impression that the homo-erotic relationship between Antonio and Bassiano in Merchant of Venice was an afterthought added by Hollywood, when in reality Shakespeare, without explicitly stating it, does quite heavily imply it.
Anyway, while I could be wrong, there is a problem with this whole gender identity thing anyway – it is always the woman changing to a man, never a man changing to a women, or at least as far as I am aware. The only time a man becomes a woman is when the man that becomes a woman was a woman in the first place. Okay, that isn’t actually taking into account the idea that the female characters on stage were played by boys, or the idea that is suggested in Twelfth Night that a boy has fled to Illyria to escape the snip (in Italy at the time, boys would be castrated for the opera so that their voice wouldn’t break), but it is still something to ponder.


Come to think of it, maybe the whole Gender Identity aspect to Shakespeare is something that was made up by late 20th Century university professors.
Anyway, to finish off here is an interesting Shakesperian infographic I found on the Internet.
And here is a link to one of many websites dedicated to the works of the Bard – Shakespeare Solved.
Creative Commons License


Shakesperian Connundrums – or are They? by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.
Title Picture: Emily’s Poetry Blog
Richard II Infographic: PBS


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