On Shakespeare

Looking for Lessons From Master Shakespeare

Many have written at great lengths about the subject of English’s beloved William Shakespeare.  I am quite sure that nothing new has been said concerning the mythical figure since the bard’s passing in 1616.  However, in the sake of keeping with English’s fond tradition of retrieving the past, I will explore a bit of Shakespeare’s with you now.  Hopefully by looking into some places not normally looked; I will at least bring some alternative insight into the man’s words, thoughts, and themes.  I will begin the search with examination of those not normally examined:  Shakespeare’s secondary characters.  By holding Romeo’s Rosaline, King Lear’s Fool, and Sir John Falstaff under the microscope, I am eager to bring a few of my own thoughts into the discussion.  It is my claim in fact, that these lesser characters are not lesser at all and that we will find them to be paramount to understanding any lessons Mr. Shakespeare had for us at all.

I will begin with a character lacking lines, but one I think we will find holds the key to Master Shakespeare’s notion of love:  “The all-seeing sun / ne’er saw her match since first the world begun”(Act 1.Scene 2. Lines 99-100). This was Romeo’s description of his love Rosaline.  Before Juliet we see that he has already made peace with the warring families, as we learn Rosaline is a niece of the Capulets.  Blind to pragmatics already the young man is deeply in love with a woman that does not love him; for she chooses to remain celibate.  Romeo is heartbroken, bringing his sorrow to his friends, neglectful of good Romeo and more concerned with the feud between the families.   Their apathy along with Romeo’s obvious heartache illustrates just how deep Rosaline’s cut penetrated, perhaps leaving a lasting scar.  “She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow / Do I live dead that live to tell it now”(1.1. 231-232). This may be a bit more prophetic, glancing ahead into his dark future.  Rosaline could be said to have begun rolling the ball of fate for the two star-cross’d lover’s death, by rejecting Romeo’s love.

Rosaline was only dropped by Romeo after seeing his replacement in the younger (according to most performances) Juliet, as his friends and Friar Lawrence continue asking about his first love during the play. Clearly everyone around Romeo knew how much he loved her, and who would know better than his best friend, Mercutio: “that Rosaline torments him so that he will sure run mad”(2.4. 4-5).  In a way he does right?  Romeo runs to the love of a fourteen year old—in fact he runs toward the next girl he sees while trying to find Rosaline.  And yes, fourteen was young even then, as I have learned twenty-seven was the mean age of marriage during Shakespeare’s time making his own marriage to Ann Hathaway a young one even at eighteen.  Was Shakespeare making a metaphor for love and madness?  It would certainly appear so to me.

Perhaps the bard was making another metaphor through his damsel Juliet standing on her balcony and proclaiming in the famous Act 2, Scene 2, “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”  Shakespeare could have used any sweet smelling flower, or anything else for that matter, but he did not.  He chose to use the word rose—as in Rosaline?  I believe so, and if per chance I am correct, Juliet would be calling herself a substitute.  One’s lover in Shakespeare’s eyes could be completely arbitrary, just simply the one which we called our rose.  Or worse, we all simply settle until finding one to follow us into madness with—or the afterlife in Romeo’s new girl’s case.  We know the author was fond of the Petrarchan Sonnet, which was fond of using the name Rose.  We know that Shakespeare was a master of ironies, so my hypothesis is really not such a stretch.

I have read where some scholars have noted Romeo’s poetry gains in skill as he moves away from Rosaline and into Juliet.  This would show Rosaline’s main purpose was merely as a means of growth for our young Romeo, pushing away from boyhood and entering his love, becoming a man.  A fan of Sigmund Freud may even claim that Rosaline was either a mother or sister figure for the young man—off limits but subconsciously desiring all the while stuffing his baggage down deep for Juliet to carry.  All of these theories hold logic, except when we consider the speed of Romeo’s love’s turnaround.  He goes from wanting to die after Rosaline rejects him to, “Did my heart love til now?”(1.5. 59-60) upon seeing Juliet at breakneck speed, shifting emotions faster than Tybalt on the draw.  A simpler explanation finds Shakespeare beginning to write his play in 1591, stepping away from it, and not returning to finish it until 1597.  The break would naturally give the author himself time to grow, to which we find the poetry growing along with the man’s skill.

A similar character can be found in name and deed in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) in which we find another Rosaline rejecting her would-be suitors.  It is also interesting to note that this is the only time the word “love” appears in the title of a Shakespeare play.  Like the Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet it [the word love] is followed by “lost.”  Rosaline, Romeo and Juliet end up losing any love they may have found—if love is anything other than a substitute for a woman that dumps us.  At the end of our connection we find one of thirteen suicides which fill Mr. Shakespeare’s total playbill.

Now that I have reversed the popular notion of love in the Shakespeare world I intend on looking further into the relationship between a father and his daughter.  I will inspect this theme, using the Fool, King Lear, and his daughter Cordelia as my key components.  Quite sadly, we will find the role of parenting to be made up more of appeasement, betrayal, and vanity, rather than that fabled love.  I will also argue that the entire play of King Lear seems to be supported by the rhetorical device of irony.

From the beginning, the king trusts Goneril and Regan (the two both betray him) while neglecting Kent, who later proves is one of the few to be trusted among a sea of rascals.  More irony is found when that king condemns his daughter—a daughter that loves her father selflessly, but because of her failure to appeal to his vanity with flattery she is exiled with hateful words.  The largest and perhaps most overlooked character in the many ironies throughout this tragedy is The Fool—whom I believe to be the most essential.

The Fool is not only cleverly named (most would agree he is anything but foolish) but acts as a true friend to the king.  No one else in the play is permitted to speak with such freedom as the fool, to which I ask if the king listened because he believed The Fool to be smart, or he allowed an idiot in his mind to speak because it could do no harm?  Either way, he gave a fool more attention and respect than his daughter.  From the start we find the Fool is authentically connected with Cordelia—but here I will argue is where things get tricky.              And so like Cordelia, The Fool never bails on his ruler, following him into the eye of the storm, only to mysteriously vanish after Act 3, never to return again.

Where does The Fool wander off to?  My answer would be the same place as Cordelia, illustrating the parental carelessness toward a daughter, while keeping The Fool as a close friend.  I say that to say this:  The Fool and Cordelia are one.  Either through madness, the same actor, or Cordelia in disguise (Shakespeare deployed disguise in many of his plays), The Fool and Cordelia share the same fate—this we can be certain of.

Before the Houdini impression, The Fool tells us exactly where he is going, and why wouldn’t we believe the man that has been a consistent prophet with his every word:  “And I’ll go to bed at noon”(3.6.2085). We do not get a reference of The Fool until Lear claims his “poor fool is hanged”(5. 3. 17).  Much confusion exists over the meaning of his [Lear’s] term “fool.”  Most find the term to be alluding to his daughter Cordelia, while others feel the notion is a literal one, claiming his loyal Fool has been hanged.  I will offer that it is both, which explains the Fool’s disappearance after the storm.  If a hanging body, swinging from the gallows pole resembled a number on the face of a clock, it would certainly read noon indeed.

With the realization that Cordelia and The Fool are one, we can clearly see the neglect shown to the daughter contrasting The Fool—both the same being all along.  In retrospect, the mad king would have been much better trusting his daughter all along—which The Fool urged him to do.  Only vanity from an aging king blocked the vital message.  Or sometimes a fool’s advice is simply a fool’s advice as illustrated in Act 3 Scene 6, when The Fool implies to Kent that those that follow Lear are the true fools.  He fails to take his own advise, remaining loyal (loyalty is foolish perhaps?) to his king’s madness until being hung from the executioner’s rope, sleeping as it were at high noon.

It would be a bit of a misnomer to call Sir John Falstaff a secondary character, bringing his “huge hill of flesh” (Henry IV Pt. 1 1597) as Hal calls it, into three of Master Shakespeare’s plays.  But here I cannot deny a bounty of Shakespeare wisdom is contained in a character study of the fat, bragging, drinking, cowardly knight.  Falstaff seems to be enormously popular.  I have read in many areas of the rumor of Queen Elizabeth’s insistence on her subject Shakespeare to create an entire play revolving around the enormous man.  Rumor has it the play became The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602).  Classical composers Verdi, Salieri, and Elgar all wrote operas and scores revolving around Sir John.  For a complete coward on the battlefield, devoid of all chivalry (quite contrary to his job of knight) he has left a large wake of fans in his stink.  So what can be learned of this dweller of the taverns?  My hope is quite a bit.

The large man seems to have no cares, except that of strong drink, food, and boasting.  Falstaff has clearly resided to the fact that the entire world is a stage—which we are to lie/act our way through to enjoy as much as possible, with no regard for character: “what is honor? A word” (5. 1. 133).  Although I never find his theory working—Falstaff never enjoys the fruits of success.  One instance of this is the robbery tale that yields only humiliation.  It could not have comforted the man inside to only have the power of puns and wordplay at his disposal.  The only instance of glory was faked—while stabbing a chivalrous Hotspur’s already dead corpse could not gratify even a soldier of the weakest constitution.

I do not understand why Falstaff has received such acclaim throughout the years.  Calling him loveable is laughable.  As a leader he considered his foot soldiers to be “food for [gun] powder”(4. 2. 3).  As a military veteran, I claim this to be the lowest of statements containing anything but love.  Linking Falstaff to the idea of rebellion is ridiculous as well—he has no plans for honor, which a rebellion requires.  I do however understand why the queen would want her subjects rooting for such a looser.  With her peoples incapacitated by drink, they will be powerless and impotent as Sir John’s last name implies.  Alcohol equals a felled staff.

Shakespeare literally tells us that in order for a man to become king, he must reject the false teachings of the Boar’s Head Tavern, even if the teacher is capricious Falstaff, the people’s champion.  The most telling insult form his creator:  the drunkard that graces three plays doesn’t even receive a proper on-stage death.  We only hear of his end in passing during Henry V (1599).  After three plays his exit earns him no audience mourning.  So I will let others around me praise this slobbish coward as lovable, while I strive to move to where Hal soberly sits—atop a throne.

Through a quick character study of some of the characters receiving either less than enough attention or Falstaff which receives too much positive attention, we have taken a different path to resolving some of the bard’s most unresolved.  Through Rosaline, I have learned how true love is easy to replace and may be a selfish void-filler in the first place.  A smart fool has shown me the folly of parental vanity—and reconfirmed my suspicion of Shakespeare’s knack for irony—while a shitty knight has served as an exemplary model of how not to reach the top.  At the very least, as an authentic lover of our language and its literature, I have now thrown my hat into the very large Globe of Shakespeare, while taking the time to learn some of his ancient lessons.

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One comment

  1. Well done. This is a very interesting essay and rather perceptive and penetrating take on Shakespeare’s notions and ideas rendered in his plays.

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