SHAKESPEARE'S CULTURAL CONTEXT
FOR THE PLAYS YOU ARE ASSIGNED, CONSULT THE APPROPRIATE WEB SOURCES ON THIS SITE PLUS COLLEGE LIBRARIES--DO NOT FORGET ALADIN. INCLUDED HEREIN AS A BRIEF LOOK AT SHAKESPEARE'S DEVELOPMENT AS AN ARTIST, INCLUDING HIS VIEWS ON GOOD AND EVIL IN THE UNIVERSE AND MAN, REVENGE AND FATE AND FORTUNE.
The Theocentric perspective:
The following excerpt from The Book of Homilies (as quoted by Rowse, a biographer of Shakespeare) outlines Renaissance theo-political concepts:
Almighty God hath created and appointed all things in heaven, earth and waters, in a most perfect order. In heaven he hath appointed distinct and several orders and states of archangels and angels. In earth he hath assigned and appointed kings, princes with other governors under them in all good and necessary order. The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightning, clouds, and all the birds of the air do keep this order...Take away kings, rulers, magistrates, judges and such estates of God's order, no man shall ride or go by the highway unrobbed, no man shall sleep in his own house or bed unkilled...and there must follow all mischief and utter destruction both of souls, bodies, goods and commonwealth.
The ideal, however, is not often the reality. The following passages from various plays indicate both the ideal and the deviation from it:
fromRomeo and Juliet in which Romeo speaks to Juliet:
Her eyes discourse, I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'Tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heavens,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spears till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in a heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
from The Merchant of Venice:
...Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young eyed-cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close in, we cannot hear it.
[In The Merchant, Portia's three suitors must chose one of three chests--of gold, of silver, or of lead--to win her hand. The suitor choosing the chest with her picture will marry her. Each chest has an inscription:]
The first, of gold, which this inscription bears:
"Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire."
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
"Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
"Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."
The first suitor chooses the gold chest and reads the following message:
All that glitters is not gold...
Gilded tombs do worms infold...
The second suitor chooses the silver chest and reads the following message:
Some there be that shadows kiss;
Such have but a shadow's bliss
There be fools alive iwis
Silvered o'er and so was this...
The third suitor whom Portia loves chooses the lead chest and sees her picture: [While he is deciding, the following song is heard...]
Tell me, where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
It is engend'red in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lie
Let us all ring fancy's knell
I'll begin it--Ding, dong, bell
Ding, dong, bell.
Bassanio, the suitor says, "So may the outward shows be least themselves; the world is deceived with ornament." This view is confirmed when he chooses the lead chest:
You that choose not by the view
Chance as fair and choose as true...
from Julius Caesar in which Brutus debates whether to kill Caesar:
Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair...
[A note from the Rowse's biography of Shakespeare:
"Have we not seen precisely that happen in our own day? The facts, and the truths, of political society do not alter, only the methods and the colouring. But is it rare to find a poet who understands: poets are apt to be natural Platonists, whereas Shakespeare may be described intellectually as an Aristotelian."]
THE IDEAL HOWEVER IS NOT ALWAYS THE REALITY: The order can be disrupted, and Shakespeare deals with this disruption in both the comedies, tragedies and histories and in all phases of his career:
MACROCOSMIC CAUSES OF EVIL
Evil in a Shakespeare play often emerges from obscure causes but grows with powerful effect, destroying much of the good in the process. In Hamlet, the title character offers one possibility that can serve as a prototype for the other tragedies:
So oft in chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By their overgrowth of some complexion
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much overleavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery or fortune's star,
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.
Macbeth, the title character in his play, offers another possibility. When confronted with agents of the supernatural, the witches [reference the ghost sheet], who foretell Macbeth's future, are challenged by Macbeth's friend, Banquo who says...
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow, and which will not...
This view of evil, unlike Hamlet's, suggests evil having an external dimension, one based on the following Medieval and Renaissance theories of creation:
God's mind has in it from all eternity everything that will be created in time. These may be called ideas of forms of X (trees, stars, people etc.).
God creates matter called prime or first matter which is created by in a disorganized fashion. Existing as part of this matter are the "germs" or SEEDS of that which is to be created. These seeds correspond to the forms in God's mind, and creation is the act of uniting form and matter.
God creates continuously from within. He already has created within prime matter the germ of all possible beings.
What is created happens (to us) over time and depends on:
1. nature (God's will)
2. what God allows demons and their agents (witches) to do/not do...
Analogy: a pregnant mother : unborn child :: world pregnant : unborn ideas
Often, evil paradoxically comes form the good, and good from evil, so Banquo asks if the devil can speak true! The doctrine, taken from a historical event involving equivocation, suggests that demons and the witches as their agents will appear to tell the truth, but for the purpose of entrapment or damning a soul.
SPECIAL NOTE ON REVENGE:
In the Renaissance revenge was forbidden as belonging to God, but with an important qualification. Private revenge was always wrong--if the individual were to retaliate for a wrong, but public revenge was considered allowable in which the agent acted as God's minister or representative to right a wrong for the public good.
THE MICROCOSMIC VIEW OF EVIL:
This passage from Timon of Athens dramatizes the relationship between FATE and FORTUNE. Note how it reflects both Medieval and Renaissance views:
Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill
Feigned fortune to be throned. The base of the mount
Is ranked with all deserts, all kind of natures
That labour on the bosom of this sphere
To propagate their states. Amongst them all
Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fixed,
One I do personate...
Whom fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her...
When fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents
Which laboured after him to the mountain's top
When on their knees and hands, let him slip down
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
GENERAL GUIDES TO LITERATURE, CHRONOLOGIES, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES, AND SCRIPTURAL/THEOLOGICAL REFERENCES CURRICULUM LINKS
RENAISSANCE HISTORY, PHILOSOPHY AND COSMOLOGY, PSYCHOLOGY [BURTON] AND SHAKESPEARE CURRICULUM LINKS
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