Shakespeare Course Handouts & Cues
Copyright ? David Cope. Revised: December 12, 2001
File Two: Plays 1600-1611 / The Sonnets
Hamlet (1600-01) 2
Twelfth Night (1601-02) 7 Troilus and Cressida (1601-02) 11
Measure for Measure (1604) 17
Othello (1604) 23
King Lear (1605) 29
Macbeth (1606) 33 Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) 39
Cymbeline (1609-10) 44
The Winter's Tale (1610-11) 53
The Tempest (1611) 59
The Sonnets 65
1. Tragedy: focuses on the fate of an individual whose downfall shakes the nation; unlike com- edy, where the trajectories of individuals lead to a common celebration, here the focus is on the agonies and psychology of one man (and often his antagonist). In Aristotle's discussion of tra- gedy, this hero is one who may be superior in any number of ways, but who contains one fault that is his downfall. Tragedy works, according to Aristotle, when the audiences recognizes and identifies with the struggles of this good or humane person; we are moved when he cannot free himself and experience sadness at his overthrow.
2. Revenge Tragedy: an Elizabethan sub-genre of tragedy, based on the Senecan model,
which features at least six recognizable motifs. These are:
(1) blood revenge for the murder or flagrant injury of a relative as the basic thrust
of the plot;
(2) action prompted by the accusations of a ghost;
(3) hesitation on the part of the hero because of the need for proof or a suitable occa-
sion to effect the revenge;
(4) madness, either feigned or real, as part of the hero's agon;
(5) a Machiavellian villain;
(6) numerous murders, both on-stage and off, usually as part of the climax.
3. Plot Types: GHOST STORY, A STORY OF INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE, A MURDER
MYSTERY ("CHESS GAME" BETWEEN TWO DANGEROUS OPPONENTS), A LOVE
STORY, A DRAMA ABOUT DRAMA AND PSYCHOLOGY.
4. SIMILAR MOTIFS AND VERBAL ECHOES OF OTHER PLAYS:
and Cressida, Othello, The Winter's Tale
5. STRUCTURAL PARALLELS AND PAIRINGS:
on fitness to rule (vis-a-vis attitude toward action)
and real suicide.
6. OTHER IMPORTANT MOTIFS:
numerous father-daughter and father-son combinations in his plays, but few
plays include mothers e.g. (Volumnia in Coriolanus, Lady Macduff and, peculiarly
enough, since the children are missing) Lady Macbeth.
--Thus the Gertrude-Hamlet relationship has given twentieth century Freudian critics
fodder for their examination of the supposed oedipal relationship. See Ernest Jones.
ceived as clever, vicious, and yet possessing a conscience. His manipulative abilities
should be most apparent in his persuasion of Laertes.
7. A PLAY ABOUT PLAYING: THE DRAMATIC MASK, THE IRONIES OF EMOTION
Claudius, but he equally describes himself.
<2.2.329-61 (1204) Topical ref to "little eyases": children's companies who were suc-
cessfully competing against more established companies and depriving actors of their
income—a real problem, connected to the war of the theatres, in London.
a. 1.5.169-80 (1199)—explanation of "antic disposition" to come.
b. 2.1.74-97 (1200)—playing to Ophelia.
c. 2.2.170-221 (1202-03)—playing to Polonius
d. 2.2.222-310 (1203-04)—playing to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
e. 3.2.392-99 (1214) and 3.4.1-104 (1215-16)—playing to Gertrude
f. 5.2—performing the duel with Laertes (until the "playing" breaks down).
a. 2.2.109-11 (1202) Polonius weighing the language of Hamlet's letter.
b. 2.2.550-605 (1207) Acting, artifice, and emotion; use of play to manipulate
—implications re audience psychology? nature of imaginative figures?
c. 3.2.1-45 (1209-10) Aesthetics of performance (with actor)
provide a killing ground (e.g. Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Webster's The White Devil);
as a masque, it functions as a purifying device in Merry Wives and as a wedding en-
tertainment in The Tempest.
8: "GHOSTOLOGY" AND THE SUPERNATURAL
terrifying fear of devils and Hell (stirred not only by the long tradition of apocalyptic
storytelling culminating in Dante's vision of Inferno, but also by native traditions of
fairies and other supernatural beings, ranging from the puckish Robin Goodfellow to
banshees and "ghosties and ghoolies."
—a production of Dr. Faustus in which more devils appeared on stage than were in
the cast: locals thought the play had called the devil from hell, and closed the
—the popularity of the memento mori and a greater awareness of death generally (the
—James' own book on Witchcraft; puritan habit of finding the devil in everything not
connected with their own beliefs: see Philip Stubbes' Anatomy of Abuses.
a. ghosts: Hamlet
b. "weird sisters" (witches): Macbeth
c. fairies and monsters: MND, Tempest (Ariel and Caliban)
d. fears and portents: Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar
1. In Shakespeare's time, ghosts are real: they can either be blessed or
2. When they return, something is wrong with the world or society: either they
come to warn of possible troubles, or they come to mislead those to whom
they appear (is the ghost good or is it evil?).
3. They generally appear at night and must return to their places by day.
4. In Hamlet, the afterlife seems to be divided into the traditional three-part
structure described in Dante: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Old Hamlet's
ghost claims he's undergoing purgation (i.e. after purification, he may be
released to heaven), yet he is "in fires"—an image more in keeping with hell.
9. METAPHYSICS AND THEOLOGY: The world of Hamlet seems to imply a neo-platonic
Christian metaphysics involving an afterlife characterized by Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.
Unlike in Dante or St. Thomas Aquinas, however, the Devil is understood in the Manichaean
sense, that is, he functions as an independent adversary of God. Thus, when Hamlet is
confronted with the apparent ghost of his father, he is troubled with the question of whether
the ghost comes from God or from the Devil—whether it is a blessed spirit warning him of
danger or a damned one, trying to get him to damn his own soul. The ghost claims that it is in
Purgatory by day—and is thus being purified of sins for which it had not done penance in life—
yet its demand for revenge seems more in keeping with the worldly code of honor, which de-
mands that one exact vengeance for the sins of others.
Important Questions and Concerns
and when? How does each cover his position? What explanations does Claudius give for not simply murdering Hamlet and being done with him?
ture of the patriarchal society, in which males are socially privileged and yet constricted in their emotional lives, while women are kept as a "privileged" underclass, feted with luxury yet with little or no real voice in the exercise of power. In such an arrangement, the male under terrible stress will often take out his frustrations on the one he loves most. The questions, then, involve the kinds of roles women could play in this society, and the relationships of Claudius and Gertrude, and Hamlet and Ophelia.
1. What roles may Gertrude and Ophelia play in this society? What is the extent of
their power, education, etc.?
2. How much does Gertrude influence the decisions of her husband—and when she
does, where does that influence lie?
3. What are the differences in the education of Laertes and Ophelia, and in the way their
father treats them?
4. Most importantly, how much does Gertrude know about Claudius's actions?
5. What are her attitudes toward her son? (In some modern versions of the play, Hamlet
is seen as the classic oedipal figure—in love with his mother, an attitude of which she
is not completely scornful).
6. What do you make of Hamlet's changed behavior—his abusiveness after earlier atti-
tudes of kindness and gentle regard—toward Ophelia? In what kind of situation does