Julius Caesar

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Reference: Cicero Pro Milone

Level: Inferred

Description: There are two great speeches in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The first is given by Brutus who tries to make the plebs understand why he and his fellow co-conspirators had to kill the dictator. It is an excellent speech that expertly utilises well-known rhetorical devices. By the end, it is clear that Brutus has won the crowd over with his well-chosen words. However, he has made a fatal error in allowing Mark Antony to follow his oration with one of his own. The mirroring of the two speeches is an example of a craftsman (Shakespeare) at the peak of his performance. Not only has Shakespeare written two excellent rhetorical speeches, he has also made sure that one is brilliant and the other is (subtly) even better! The opening tricolon of Brutus's "Romans, countrymen and lovers" is echoed in Mark Antony’s "Friends, Romans, countrymen", but a closer analysis reveals that Mark Anthony 'beats' Brutus. Mark Antony’s syllable count increases with each word, and his asyndeton allows the size of his audience to grow uninterrupted by a superfluous ‘and’. Plus, Mark Antony sees being ‘friends’ with his audience as more important than just being fellow ‘Romans’. Brutus has used reason adroitly in his speech, but as Plutarch notes, Mark Antony appealed to the hearts - a rhetorical technique suggested by Aristotle. There are more parallels between the speeches, but that is for a different discussion. There are clear echoes between both characters’ speeches and Cicero’s Pro Milone. Did Shakespeare write these orations with one eye on Cicero’s defence of the accused Milo? It would be a very sensible bit of scaffolding if he did choose this text; there are not many better examples rhetorical writing. We hear Mark Antony’s "and grievously hath Caesar answered it" in Cicero’s "has finally begun to be tested with Clodius dead". Also, "The noble Brutus hath told you..." is heard in Cicero’s use of imaginary opposition statements, "Yes, but Clodius stood in the way of Milo’s hopes of gaining the consulship". Brutus seems to get help from Cicero’s line, "For who was there among the citizens..." when he asks "who is here so base that would be a bondman?". Cicero also mentions "prayers and tears", which is echoed in Mark Anthony’s "my heart is in the coffin there’" It is not a surprise to find parallels between two great pieces of rhetoric as all speeches use the same techniques. However, there are some similarities that just seem too obvious to ignore and I suspect that Shakespeare knew his Pro Milone pretty well. I pause for a reply...

Contributor: David Hogg


Romeo and Juliet

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Reference: Pyramus and Thisbe

Level: Inferred

Description: The original star-crossed lovers can be seen hurtling towards their death in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this myth, the two lovers (Pyramus and Thisbe) are neighbours who are separated by more than just the wall that forms a physical barrier between them – their families are also rivals and thus, they are destined never to be together. There is some hope though! A small crack between the dividing wall allows the couple to emotionally connect to each other and plot their elopement. They both agree to meet at the tomb of Ninus. However, Thisbe (having arrived at the tomb first) is frightened by the sight of a lion with a bloody mouth and runs away and leaves her scarf behind. When Pyramus arrives, he sees the blood around the lion’s mouth and Thisbe’s scarf on the floor and assumes that she has been eaten. Distraught at the loss of his loved one, he kills himself. Thisbe then returns and finds Pyramus dead and distraught, kills herself. Thus, “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life”, and Shakespeare gets the inspiration for one of his most popular plays. The tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe is also found in Shakespeare’s A Mid-summer Night’s Dream, performed by The Mechanicals at the wedding of Theseus – the famous 'play within a play'.  Clearly, Shakespeare knew the myth. However, Shakespeare was not writing in a vacuum and he frequently used other sources as inspiration and this is something that he did to create his version of the Romeo and Juliet story. In 1562, Arthur Brooke translated an Italian story into The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which was a re-told by Williams Painter in Palace of Pleasure (1567). Shakespeare’s version is different to these texts, but their role as ‘source material’ would be difficult to deny as the plots are broadly similar. However, it is possible to ‘reimagine’ a familiar story and then improve and own it (Battlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes spring to mind) and at the end of the day, a tale told by any other writer would perhaps not have sounded as sweet.

Contributor: David Hogg


Macbeth

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Reference: Hecate

Level: Overt

Description: In Macbeth, the goddess of Witchcraft, Hecate, makes a bizarre and somewhat fleeting appearance. Some scholars have suggested that this scene (Act III, Sc 5) was not even written by Shakespeare and was included by A. Non to add to the Jacobean audiences’ enjoyment of the witchcraft scenes that were already present in the play. This scene is rarely included in any version of the tragedy as it seems incongruous to the main focus of the story - that of Macbeth’s use of his ‘free will’. We learn from Hecate in this scene that “security is mortals’ chiefest enemy” and that “artificial sprites... shall draw him [Macbeth] on”. This blatant mapping out of Macbeth’s path takes away some of his ‘human failings’ and perhaps lets him ‘off the hook’. One of the great themes of Macbeth is how the humane elements of a person can be quashed by a tragic flaw (desire). If we allow the witches to have complete control over Macbeth’s descent, which is what Hecate claims, it seems like his actions are no longer his fault and a key element of the play is lost. However, it is interesting that a Greek goddess makes an appearance as the Head of the coven; by including this pagan god, Shakespeare (or whoever added this scene) has distanced the witches (and therefore by association Macbeth) even further from 'goodness' of Christianity. The influence of this ‘false goddess’ perhaps makes Macbeth’s destructive actions inevitable - he cannot save his soul as he is no longer close enough to the true God. If you add to this paganism Lady Macbeth’s plea to "spirits’" we clearly see that bad people get helped by bad gods. Interestingly, in mythology, Hecate was associated with openings, doorways and crossroads - three places in which Macbeth clearly finds himself standing with big decisions to make. What he really needed was the God of Directions to tell him which way to go next.

Contributor: David Hogg


Titus Andronicus

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Reference:    Metamorphoses by Ovid

Level: Overt

Description: This Shakespeare play has one of the highest and most bloody body-counts of any production on stage or screen. There is cannibalism, human sacrifice and senseless murder, but the thread that pulls most at our heartstrings is the fate of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia is raped and then mutilated to keep her silent (her hands are removed and her tongue is cut out) by the sons of Tamora (the conquered Queen of the Goths). Echoing Greek tragedy, the horror of the act occurs off-stage, but the horrors of the aftermath are uncomfortably shown to the audience in all their gory detail. I have seen two productions of this gruesome play and both times, Lavinia’s fate has forced the audience to question the acceptability of seeing such an act on stage. When Lavinia emerges from her ordeal, she is silent and it is only when she tries to talk and blood emerges from her mouth, that we realise she has had her tongue removed. At this point during an RSC production, one audience member fainted and another vomited in the stairwell. At a production at The Globe, fainting occurred coupled with people walking out in disgust. Does the performance of such an act for ‘entertainment’ go too far? But perhaps Lavinia is the side of war that we see the least, both in fiction and reality – it is the face of the female victims (often caught between warring patriarchies) who are targeted by the men not for political or loyalist reasons, but because of their gender and what that means for their attacker. Their stories are traditionally written out of the ‘big narratives’ and their ‘silence’ allows the conqueror to sleep better at night. Lavinia does not accept this fate though and uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to show her father what has happened to her. First, she opens the book of poetry to the story of Philomel to show her family that she has been raped. Then she inscribes the names of her attackers in sand. The poetry of Ovid allows Lavinia to have a voice and seek justice. The irony is that Ovid’s poetry provided evidence for Augustus when banishing Ovid from Rome – thus silencing him (or so Augustus thought). Lavinia’s final act echoes the fates of Rome’s idealised stoic women – Arria and Lucretia perhaps - as she allows her father to kill her so that neither Lavinia nor Titus have to live with the shame of her attack. It is an uncomfortable ending to an uncomfortable story; even though it was the woman who was attacked, it was the man (in this instance, her father) who tried to steal and then surpass the suffering of the woman so that he could become the ‘true victim’. Because she is a female, Lavinia is not even allowed to own her own pain.

Contributor: David Hogg


Cymbeline

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Reference:     Ovid, Tereus, Philomela

Level:             Inferred

Description: In a particularly uncomfortable scene, the audience is led to believe that Jachimo is going to rape Imogen. This seems all the more certain when Jachimo sees what Imogen was reading before she went to sleep, "She hath been reading late the tale of Tereus. Here the leaf's turned down where Philomel gave up" (Act II, Sc 2). She is reading Ovid's version of this myth and the foreshadowing of what is probably going to happen next is made clear. It is quite interesting to think that there would have been an audience hundreds of years ago watching this play in a Tudor theatre who would have understood this highbrow reference and simultaneously enjoyed bear-baiting. 

Thankfully, Jachimo changes his mind and leaves Imogen sleeping. The audience breathes a collective sigh of relief. 

Contributor: David Hogg


Titus Andronicus

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Reference:    Thyestes by Seneca

Level: Inferred

DescriptionTitus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s most gruesome plays and certainly has one of the highest body counts. Shakespeare wisely looked to the Classical world for inspiration in a play where revenge is the key motivator for the characters. There is no doubt that Shakespeare would have been aware of Classical literature; Ovid’s Metamorhposes is used as a key dramatic device by Lavinia in this very play. At the time of writing this website entry (Oct ’17), Titus Andronicus is in the news because it is being taught at Cambridge University with a ‘Trigger warning’. Anyone who has seen this play performed live will perhaps not be as reductive as many journalists are when reacting to this news; the rape of Lavinia and what happens to her subsequently is one of the most distressing scenes in theatre; its impact is perhaps only beaten by Tamora unknowingly eating a pie made from her own children (Chiron and Demetrius) at the end of the performance. The use of children as ‘revenge ingredient’ can be traced back to Senaca’s Thyestes. In this Classical revenge tragedy, Thyestes steals both the wife and the kingdom of his brother, Atreus. Atreus gets his own back by preparing a banquet and feeding Thyestes a meal made from his own children, just like Titus does to Tamora. It is an incredibly dark scene, but one that, depending on the interpretation, can also be darkly comic – a fact that South Park exploited in their own interpretation of Seneca’s play (see the TV page for more on this).

Contributor: David Hogg


Romeo and Juliet

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Reference:    Apollo (or is it Hyperion or Helios or Phaethon?)

Level:              Overt

Description: The excitement builds at the end of Act II, Sc 2 as Romeo and Juliet decide to get married after they have only known each other for 5 minutes. What could go wrong? Well, if you were listening to the Chorus at the beginning of the play, you know this story does not end well for the star-crossed lovers. If only Friar Lawrence had been around in this scene instead of in the next one to warn them "those who rush stumble and fall", we might have had a happy ending instead. But the Friar never was in the right place at the right time in this play. Additionally, had Romeo listened to his own words, he may have heard a warning to himself! At the end of the scene, when Romeo and Juliet have agreed to get married and are making plans for the next day, Romeo states "From forth day's pathway made by Titan's wheels." This is a reference to a Sun god and I am picking Apollo here, instead of Hyperion or Helios for reasons that I will explain now. Romeo is obviously keen to get 'tonight' out of the way so that he can marry Juliet and is therefore picturing the day galloping towards them - the sun being pulled by Apollo's chariot. However, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, we are told the story of the impetuous Phaethon (the son of Apollo) who steals his father's sun-chariot, which he is too young and inexperienced to control. This reckless behaviour leads to lots of destruction and ultimately his death. Perhaps Romeo's words create an echo of this myth too as he impulsively sets off to prove just how much he loves Juliet and charges into a tragic disaster of his own creation.

Contributor: David Hogg


The Tempest

Reference:   Herodotus

Level:            Inferred

Description: Gonzalo states that when he was young he believed "that there were such men whose heads stood in their breasts" (Act III Sc. 3). This is a reference first seen in Histories by Herodotus. The far-flung unknown was back in vogue in Shakespeare's time as the 'New World' continued to enchant and surprise the 'Old World'. People would have believed anything they were told - not like today when people check all of the facts thoroughly before posting anything to their Facebook account. 

Contributor: David Hogg


Macbeth

Reference:    Oedipus, Neptune

Level:             Inferred

Description: After the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth states, "They pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood." (Act II, Sc 2). By referring to his eyes being plucked out, Macbeth infers that Duncan was like a father to him, which of course makes his crime even worse. Eyes are important in Macbeth, because what they see is not the truth and we are left to wonder if the most important thing in life is to appear to be great, even if we know we are not. We see this today in the manipulation of the press by the media-savvy.  

The reference to Neptune is obvious, but serves to reinforce the Classical reference that precedes it. Also, in a play where the rejection of Christian values is so damaging, the fact that Macbeth turns to a pagan god to assuage his guilt adds more emphasis to the loss of his Christianity. 

Contributor: David Hogg