Hephaestus's Blog

My Five Favorite Shakespeare Plays
July 20, 2015, 17:37
Filed under: Shakespeare

1. King Lear [comprehensive Sparknotes overview]

Lear, King of Britain, divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, who then withhold their hospitality from him. He goes mad and wanders the countryside while the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son usurps his father and tries to take over the kingdom. This play explores the loss of control that we can feel when passing on life to the next generation. The king’s loyal daughter Cordelia suffers needlessly through her honesty, but in the end her selfish sisters also lose their lives through their power- and Gloucester-hungry ways.

Fun fact: Lear was banned for a while in the early nineteenth century (during the reign of George III), when mad kings were, understandably, a touchy subject.

2. Macbeth [overview]

The Thane of Glamis receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become king. Inspired by this, and at the urging of his wife, he murders King Duncan, and as the king’s two sons have fled, is crowned himself. He quickly becomes paranoid and has his friend Banquo, who was privy to the prophecy, brutally assassinated. He then visits the witches and is told that a) he must beware Macduff. b) he cannot be harmed by someone born of a woman. c) he is invincible until the forest of Birnam marches against his castle. Based on the first, he has Macduff’s family murdered, which of course thoroughly enrages Macduff, who has been gathering an army in England along with the princes. They soon attack his castle Dunsinane camouflaged with tree limbs from Birnam. The queen kills herself, and the king is killed by Macduff, who was apparently born by Caesarean section. Not pretty.

This one, as the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage, has a special place in my heart.

Fun fact: The superstition that this play is cursed may be due to its being an invariably popular play; saying its name or talking about it while another production was going on could be bad for the current production.

3. Much Ado About Nothing [overview]

This play is a classic and clever romantic comedy about the intertwined love stories of Beatrice & Benedick and Hero & Claudio. Claudio and Benedick are two warriors in the service of don Pedro of Arragon, and Hero and Beatrice are, respectively, the daughter and niece of Leonato, Duke of Messina. Claudio and Hero, who love each other deeply, become engaged to marry at the start of the play. However, don John, Pedro’s cynical, mischievous and scheming brother, hatches a plot to convince Claudio that Hero is being unfaithful. This works, until the deceivers are caught by incompetent constable Dogberry and his foolish Watch. Meanwhile, Claudio and don Pedro have been making their own mischief, convincing Benedick and Beatrice to love each other. In the end, Claudio and Hero are reunited, and Benedick and Beatrice decide to get married as well.

Fun fact: The word ‘nothing’, in contemporary slang, was used to mean a woman’s private parts. Thus the title is both “a lot of fuss over nothing at all” and “a lot of fuss over ladies.”

4Twelfth Night [overview]

Viola, a young woman from Messaline, is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Having nowhere to go, she decides to take employment as a servant with the local duke, Orsino, in disguise as a man, because, you know, that’s what you do in a strange country. Orsino, at this time, is pining away with love for the young heiress Olivia. Viola, having taken the name Cesario, acts as a messenger between the two, but, as luck would have it, begins to fall for Orsino, while simultaneously captivating Olivia. While all this is going on, Olivia’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch, offended at her steward Malvolio’s behaviour, contrives to fool him into thinking Olivia likes him. She is offended and confused by this, and has him locked up for being insane. At this point, Viola’s brother Sebastian, who was believed drowned, comes on the scene, is mistaken for Viola, and promptly marries Olivia. Then, Viola’s true identity being revealed, she can marry Orsino (this is long before Obergefell, folks.) Sir Toby’s deception revealed, Malvolio is released, and goes off with a shout of revenge.

Fun fact: A man named John Manningham, in his diary for February 2, 1602, recorded his impressions of Twelfth Night in the earliest extant record of its performance. He especially enjoyed the fooling of Malvolio.

5. The Tempest [overview]

A ship carrying, among others, Alonso, King of Naples, his brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, as well as Antonio, Duke of Milan, is wrecked on the shores of an island somewhere in the Mediterranean. This island is inhabited by the ex-Duke, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda. As the wreck was caused by Prospero, who is somewhat of a sorcerer, all survive, but are scattered around the island. Ferdinand, the king’s son, ends up in one place, and the nobles in another. Ferdinand makes his way to Prospero’s residence, and meets Miranda. They fall in love, as is the wont of such characters. Meanwhile, Prospero has sent his spirit servant Ariel to collect the other nobles, who plotted to overthrow him twelve years previously. While this is going on, two drunk servants, Trinculo and Stephano, fall in with Prospero’s servant Caliban, and the three decide to take over the island. Once they are dealt with, Prospero decides to forgive the nobles, renounce magic, and return to his rightful place in Milan.

Fun fact: The phrases ‘full fathom five’ and ‘sea-change’ come from Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of this play.

Word of the Month: Anti-Stratfordian
December 26, 2014, 14:34
Filed under: Shakespeare, Words of the Months

Etymology: anti-, Greek prefix meaning against, + Stratford, referring to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, + -ian, a Latin-derived suffix used to make adjectives.

Meaning: An Anti-Stratfordian is someone who believes, or tries to propagate the belief, that the plays of Shakespeare were written by some other person.


Anti-Stratfordians come in many and varied groups, each with their own proposed author and supporting evidence, but the most popular are these four:

Oxfordian: The Oxfordians contend that the true author is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The beginning of this claim can be traced to J. Thomas Looney’s book Shakespeare Identified. One of their main claims is that the plays contain semi-autobiographical characters that fit Oxford’s life story. Their most fascinating and far-fetched claim is that the Earl of Southampton, to whom two of Shakespeare’s poems and a number of his sonnets are dedicated, was the illegitimate son of Oxford and the Queen of England. A  competing claim is that he himself was the Queen’s son. The fact that he died prior to the appearance of twelve of the plays is circumvented by saying they were completed by others or else simply performed posthumously.

Baconian: The Baconian school of Shakespeare authorship contends that his works were written by Francis Bacon, one of the principal figures behind the invention of the scientific method. This one has been so popular over the years that documents making this claim have been forged. The earliest verified appearance of this claim is that of Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis), whose claim (published in 1857) also implicated Sir Walter Raleigh in a plot to distribute a philosophy via the medium of drama. By the late 1800s, the Baconian Orville Ward Owen constructed a machine called a “cipher wheel”, which was a three hundred meter-long strip of canvas on two spools, with Shakespeare’s works and those of others glued onto it. He published a book in 1895 claiming that Bacon had hidden his autobiography in Shakespeare via a series of ciphers, and it revealed that he was a son of Queen Elizabeth and had created the works for the sole purpose of concealing the secret history of the Elizabethan era. It goes without saying that this is one of the more ludicrous anti-Stratfordian claims. In 1916, film producer William Selig sued prominent Baconian George Fabyan, saying that Fabyan’s claims threatened the profits of Selig’s upcoming Shakespeare film. Fabyan’s assertion that Bacon wrote the works won the case and he was awarded $5,000 in damages. Most prominent Anti-Stratfordians, including Mark Twain, were/are Baconians.

Marlovian: The Marlovians contend that the author was Christopher Marlowe, a famous Elizabethan poet and dramatist. The biggest flaw in this theory is that Marlowe was murdered in May 1593, considerably before all but the very first Shakespearean poems were written. Marlovians suggest that Marlowe faked his own death, possibly to escape being persecuted for atheism, and then went on to publish his continuing writings under the name Shakespeare. Marlowe was already a prominent creator of the type of work now commonly associated with Shakespeare, so it is not impossible that he could have gone on writing them in secret.  The first Marlovian claim of Shakespeare authorship was put forward in Wilbur G. Ziegler’s 1895 novel It Was Marlowe. One of the earliest Marlovian claims is actually in reverse, as someone in 1819 proposed that Marlowe was a pseudonym for Shakespeare.

Derbyite: The Derbyites’ preferred author is William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby. The Derbyite theory first appeared in 1891, when James H. Greenstreet claimed that some old letters, apparently written in a somewhat disapproving tone, saying that Derby was writing plays, were evidence that he had been secretly writing under an assumed name. (This one seems a bit tenuous.) The claims were expanded in the first half of the 20th century by a Frenchman, Abel Lefranc, who put forth that Love’s Labour’s Lost contained an account of events witnessed by Derby in France. He also claimed that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for the occasion of Derby’s marriage, (to Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth de Vere) and that characters in Hamlet and As You Like It were autobiographical. (Sound familiar?) The Derbyite theory is not a particularly popular or well-known one, but there was a play written about it in 1998.



Six reasons why I like Shakespeare
December 22, 2014, 18:01
Filed under: Shakespeare

1: They are good stories, once you get used to the writing.

Romeo and Juliet, for example, is a classic love story so embedded in our culture that it has become clichéd. Macbeth, the “Scottish Play,” which I wrote about here, is a tale of a man whose grab for power ultimately becomes his downfall.

2: They can be quite deep at times.

King Lear, to take one I am rather well acquainted with, deals with themes such as the feeling of helplessness that comes with growing old, as well as the more obvious currents of greed and madness.

3: The comedies are really quite witty at times, at least the ones that I’ve seen.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after poking fun a bad actors, ends with the troublemaker Puck addressing the audience and saying, essentially, “If you didn’t like us, why not pretend it was all a dream?” Much Ado About Nothing is full of banter and wordplay, and Twelfth Night has mistaken identity and characters named Aguecheek and Belch.

4: They really are great literature.

At least, they have all the hallmarks of literature that I know of. They are still able to be appreciated, even after a great deal of time has separated us from them, they deal with themes such as life, death, and love, and, of course, they are revered by scholars and lovers of culture. That last may not be good for very much, at least to my contemporaries (i.e. teenagers), but it is a quality of literature nonetheless.

5: The language is beautiful.

Shakespeare’s use of language, while archaic and poetic, is very beautiful and refined. I mean, if there’s one thing we do a lot of in the English-speaking world, it’s quote Shakespeare. “To be or not to be” has been referenced and parodied more than anything else I can think of. The main sources of “classical” references in English literature from the seventeenth century onward are the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and Shakespeare. “Et tu, Brute!” is a catch-all phrase for betrayal. Also, while just how many words Shakespeare gave us is under constant debate, we can be sure it has preserved many words that we would never have heard otherwise.

6: They are still popular, four centuries after they were written.

Shakespeare is essentially the only Elizabethan dramatist whose works are still being performed on a regular basis throughout the English-speaking world. I mean, anti-Stratfordianism notwithstanding, who has ever seen a play by Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, or the Earl of Oxford? The same can be said in terms of poets. Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser may have been great poets, but they are simply not household names.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (The Scottish play)
April 6, 2010, 19:25
Filed under: Shakespeare

Yesterday I went  to a production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, also known as “The Scottish play”. Ever since Macbeth was first performed, people have often set it in the present day, so for this performance the group (there are only 6 actors [ three men and three women] )  chose the conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  The lines were in the original Shakespearean English, but the characters had automatic rifles instead of  swords, and the king wore a general’s cap. Personally, I liked hearing the actors say lines like “I feel a pricking at my thumb, something wicked this way comes” ;  “Double, double, toil and trouble” ; and “Out, damned spot!”. My favorite scene is where Macbeth comes upon the witches in a cave and they are saying, “Double, double,toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble” and they show him 3 apparitions which say “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth” and warn him “Beware Macduff”  and reassure him that “None of woman born shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until great Birnam wood shall come to high Dunsinane hill against him.” All in all, I liked The Scottish play so much that I would like to see another performance of it.