A William Shakespeare Read! HAMLET
The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare. All 37 Plays, All 160 Sonnets and Poems has been standing on my bookshelves I think for over 30 years. Unread, that is. I also have all these plays as e-book… Unread of course. Because I don’t like to own unread books (certainly not this long), I now decided I would try to read one of the bard’s plays or sonnets or whatever once in a while. I started doing this last year, but already there was one of the plays I didn’t finish (Julius Caesar).
When The Classic Tales Podcast read Hamlet, I thought I would give it a try… and I did enjoy the experience. It seems to be much easier to listen to these plays, than to read them myself. So I finished it in two days, and am proud to say, I finally ‘read’ Hamlet.
On this page I will keep track of the works by Shakespeare I read (or tried to read) and hopefully the list will grow as time passes, so that one day I will be able to say (proudly yet seemingly careless): “Oh, I have read all Shakespeare’s plays and some of his sonnets and poems too.” 🙂
The first play by Shakespeare I ever read….
From Wikipedia: In the 16th century, the city of Venice in Italy was one of the richest of the world. Among the wealthiest of its merchants was Antonio. Among the Christian community, he was known as a kind and generous person. Bassanio, a young Venetian, of noble rank but having squandered his estate, wishes to travel to Belmont to win the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia. He approaches his friend Antonio, who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidise his travelling expenditures as a suitor for three months. Antonio agrees, but he is cash-poor; his ships and merchandise are busy at sea. He promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan’s guarantor.
Shylock hates Antonio because of his antisemitism, shown when he insulted and spat on Shylock for being a Jew. Additionally, Antonio undermines Shylock’s moneylending business by lending money at zero interest. Shylock proposes a condition for the loan: if Antonio is unable to repay it at the specified date, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition; Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the moneylender’s generosity (no “usance” – interest – is asked for), and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano, who has asked to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man, but is often flippant, overly talkative, and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control, and the two leave for Belmont and Portia.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father has left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets – one each of gold, silver, and lead. If he chooses the right casket, he gets Portia; if he loses, he must go away and never trouble her or any other woman again with a proposal of marriage.
The first suitor, the luxury- and money-obsessed Prince of Morocco, reasons to choose the gold casket, because lead proclaims “Choose me and risk hazard”, and he has no wish to risk everything for lead, and the silver’s “Choose me and get what you deserve” sounds like an invitation to be tortured, but “Choose me and get what most men desire” all but spells it out that he that chooses gold will get Portia, as what all men desire is Portia. Inside the casket are a few gold coins and a skull with a scroll containing the famous verse All that glisters is not gold / Often have you heard that told / Many a man his life hath sold / But my outside to behold / Gilded tombs do worms enfold / Had you been as wise as bold, / Young in limbs, in judgment old / Your answer had not been inscroll’d: / Fare you well; your suit is cold.
The second suitor is the conceited Prince of Aragon. He decides not to choose lead, because it is so common, and will not choose gold because he will then get what many men desire and wants to be distinguished from the barbarous multitudes. He decides to choose silver, because the silver casket proclaims “Choose Me And Get What You Deserve”, which he imagines must be something great, because he egotistically imagines himself as great. Inside the casket is the picture of a court jester’s head on a baton and remarks “What’s here? the portrait of a blinking idiot… / Did I deserve no more than a fool’s head?” The scroll reads: Some there be that shadows kiss; / Such have but a shadow’s bliss: / …Take what wife you will to bed, / I will ever be your head – meaning that he was foolish to imagine that a pompous man like him could ever be a fit husband for Portia, and that he was always a fool, he always will be a fool, and the fact that he chose the silver casket is mere proof that he is a fool.
The last suitor is Bassanio, who chooses the lead casket. As he is considering his choice of caskets, members of Portia’s household sing a song which says that “fancy” (not true love) is “engend’red in the eyes, / With gazing fed.” Seemingly in response to this little bit of philosophy, Bassanio remarks, “So may the outward shows be least themselves. / The world is still deceived with ornament.” And at the end of the same speech, just before choosing the least valuable, and least showy metal, Bassanio says, “Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence; / And here choose I; joy be the consequence!” He has made the right choice.
At Venice, Antonio’s ships are reported lost at sea. This leaves him unable to satisfy the bond (in financial language, insolvent). Shylock is even more determined to exact revenge from Christians after his daughter Jessica flees his home to convert to Christianity and elope with Lorenzo, taking a substantial amount of Shylock’s wealth with her, as well as a turquoise ring which was a gift to Shylock from his late wife, Leah. Shylock has Antonio arrested and brought before court.
At Belmont, Portia and Bassanio have just been married, as have Gratiano and Portia’s handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has been unable to return the loan taken from Shylock. Shocked, Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice immediately, with money from Portia, to save Antonio’s life by offering the money to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia has sent her servant, Balthazar, to seek the counsel of Portia’s cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padua.
The climax of the play comes in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio’s offer of 6,000 ducats, twice the amount of the loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unwilling to set a dangerous legal precedent of nullifying a contract, refers the case to a visitor who introduces himself as Balthazar, a young male “doctor of the law”, bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The “doctor” is actually Portia in disguise, and the “law clerk” who accompanies her is actually Nerissa, also in disguise. Portia, as “Balthazar”, asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.“—IV,i,185, arguing for debt relief), but Shylock refuses. Thus the court must allow Shylock to extract the pound of flesh. Shylock tells Antonio to “prepare”.
At that very moment, Portia points out a flaw in the contract (see quibble): the bond only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, not the “blood”, of Antonio. Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio’s blood, his “lands and goods” would be forfeited under Venetian laws. Further damning Shylock’s case, she tells him that he must cut precisely one pound of flesh, no more, no less; she advises him that “if the scale do turn /But in the estimation of a hair, /Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate.”
Defeated, Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio’s offer of money for the defaulted bond, first his offer to pay “the bond thrice,” which Portia rebuffs, telling him to take his bond, and then merely the principal, which Portia also prevents him from doing on the ground that he has already refused it “in the open court.” She then cites a law under which Shylock, as a Jew and therefore an “alien”, having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property, half to the government and half to Antonio, leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke immediately pardons Shylock’s life. Antonio asks for his share “in use” (that is, reserving the principal amount while taking only the income) until Shylock’s death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio’s request, the Duke grants remission of the state’s half of forfeiture, but in return, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and to make a will (or “deed of gift”) bequeathing his entire estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).
Bassanio does not recognise his disguised wife, but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and Antonio’s gloves. Antonio parts with his gloves without a second thought, but Bassanio gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa, as the lawyer’s clerk, also succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.
At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise (V). After all the other characters make amends, Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after all.
From Wikipedia: Marcus Brutus is Caesar’s close friend and a Roman praetor. Brutus allows himself to be cajoled into joining a group of conspiring senators because of a growing suspicion—implanted by Caius Cassius—that Caesar intends to turn republican Rome into a monarchy under his own rule.
The early scenes deal mainly with Brutus’s arguments with Cassius and his struggle with his own conscience. The growing tide of public support soon turns Brutus against Caesar (this public support was actually faked; Cassius wrote letters to Brutus in different handwritings over the next month in order to get Brutus to join the conspiracy). A soothsayer warns Caesar to “beware the Ides of March,” which he ignores, culminating in his assassination at the Capitol by the conspirators that day, despite being warned by the soothsayer and Artemidrous, one of Caesar’s supporters at the entrance of the Capitol.
Caesar’s assassination is one of the most famous scenes of the play, occurring in Act 3 (the other is Mark Antony’s oration “Friends, Romans, countrymen”.) After ignoring the soothsayer as well as his wife’s own premonitions, Caesar comes to the Senate. The conspirators create a superficial motive for the assassination by means of a petition brought by Metellus Cimber, pleading on behalf of his banished brother. As Caesar, predictably, rejects the petition, Casca grazes Caesar in the back of his neck, and the others follow in stabbing him; Brutus is last. At this point, Caesar utters the famous line “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”, i.e. “You too, Brutus?”). Shakespeare has him add, “Then fall, Caesar,” suggesting that Caesar did not want to survive such treachery.
The conspirators make clear that they committed this act for Rome, not for their own purposes and do not attempt to flee the scene. After Caesar’s death, Brutus delivers an oration defending his actions, and for the moment, the crowd is on his side. However, Mark Antony, with a subtle and eloquent speech over Caesar’s corpse—beginning with the much-quoted “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—deftly turns public opinion against the assassins by manipulating the emotions of the common people, in contrast to the rational tone of Brutus’s speech. Antony rouses the mob to drive the conspirators from Rome. Amid the violence, the innocent poet, Cinna, is confused with the conspirator Lucius Cinna and is murdered by the mob.
The beginning of Act Four is marked by the quarrel scene, where Brutus attacks Cassius for soiling the noble act of regicide by accepting bribes (“Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake? / What villain touch’d his body, that did stab, / And not for justice?”) The two are reconciled; they prepare for war with Mark Antony and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (Shakespeare’s spelling: Octavius). That night, Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus with a warning of defeat (“thou shalt see me at Philippi”).
At the battle, Cassius and Brutus knowing they will probably both die, smile their last smiles to each other and hold hands. During the battle, Cassius commits suicide after hearing of the capture of his best friend, Titinius. After Titinius, who wasn’t really captured, sees Cassius’s corpse, he commits suicide. However, Brutus wins that stage of the battle – but his victory is not conclusive. With a heavy heart, Brutus, battles again the next day. He loses and commits suicide.
The play ends with a tribute to Brutus by Antony, who proclaims that Brutus has remained “the noblest Roman of them all” because he was the only conspirator who acted for the good of Rome. There is then a small hint at the friction between Mark Antony and Octavius which will characterise another of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra.
From Wikipedia: Set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet, Claudius’s brother and Prince Hamlet’s father, and then succeeding to the throne and taking as his wife Gertrude, the old king’s widow and Prince Hamlet’s mother. The play vividly portrays both true and feigned madness – from overwhelming grief to seething rage – and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.