And Happy 70th Birthday, Freddie Mercury
Featuring back to school standards and outliers: Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Richard III, As You Like It, The Tempest, Richard II, Titus Andronicus
What you need to know: Welcome to 9th Grade English Literature. Teenagers from warring families fall in love, get married, and immediately die.
Beyond that, Romeo is about 17 years old, has been in love with Rosaline, who dumps him (or withholds sex from him), and he’s trying to win her back at a party. However, at that party, he meets Juliet, and it’s love at first sight.
What Queen says: “I’ve fallen in love for the first time/And this time I know it’s for real/I’ve fallen in love…God knows I’ve fallen in love/It’s strange but it’s true/I can’t get over the way you love me like you do/But I have to be sure…”
This is Romeo. He has met Juliet at the Capulet party, where he did go to see his old girlfriend, Rosaline, who is a distant cousin to the Capulets, but apparently not close enough to the family for it to be problematic that she dates a Montague. Or maybe that’s the real reason she doesn’t want a relationship with Romeo (though probably not).
So how do we know these teenagers are really in earnest, especially the potentially fickle Romeo? Even Friar Lawrence, the person Romeo trusts the most for counsel, calls him out on suddenly being in love with Juliet when he was previously in love with another woman. Friar Lawrence is doing the work of the audience member, putting pressure on Romeo, who needs calling out at this moment.
How do we know, how do we trust Romeo at his word?
First, the chorus tells us in the Prologue to Act II:
“Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie/And young affection gapes to be his heir,” which speaks to Romeo’s sudden change. A few lines later: “Now Romeo is belov’d and loves again/alike bewitched by the charm of looks…” which at once tells us it’s love, but then makes it seem superficially motivated.
Our best indicator of authenticity is then Language.
The play is all about the dexterity of language, especially sexual wordplay. Everyone knows the perfect Shakespearean sonnet that Romeo and Juliet make the first time they speak in Act I, scene v:
Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, this gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effects I take.
And after the three quatrains and the heroic couplet, Romeo takes his kiss.
This moment is taught so frequently that we can take it for granted. We are a cynical society, and cynics don’t like things such as love at first sight. But this is a hugely important indicator of the authenticity and maturity of the emotions here—they both use rhetoric and show a talent for witty repartee, and the sonnet feeds off the mutual participation.
But this isn’t enough to have a lock on the side of the true love believers. We need a counterpoint. And that’s Mercutio.
Mercutio is filthy. He’s possessive and jealous and, yes, very witty, but his language is course, though potent. Just before the sonnet in scene v is Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech, which is ultimately a syphilitic fever dream talking about how rotten women are. He gets so carried away that Romeo has to stop him.
Then after the party, Romeo breaks off from his friends and jumps a wall. Benvolio but especially Mercutio harass him, and Mercutio gives what is one of the dirtiest speeches in all of Shakespeare:
Mercutio: He is wise, and, on my life, hath stol’n him home to bed.
Benvolio: He ran this way and leapt this orchard wall. Call, good Mercutio.
Mercutio: Nay, I’ll conjure too. Romeo! Humors! Madman! Passion! Lover!
Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh!
Speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied;
Cry but “ay, me!” pronounce but “love” and “dove”,
Speak to my gossip Venus one fair word,
One nickname for her purblind son and heir,
Young Abraham Cupid, he that shot so trim,
When King Cophetua lov’d the beggar-maid!
He heareth not, he stirreth not, he moveth not,
The ape is dead, and I must conjur him.
Now…conjuring and conjuring up are key to unpacking this passage. Conjure UP is to bring something forth (Romeo, to make him show up or at least speak), but Mercutio is also punning on giving Romeo a hard-on. The ape is dead means Romeo’s penis, which is flaccid, and since he’s in love (Mercutio believes still with Rosaline), is jesting that Romeo is hiding in the bushes so he can masturbate. So Mercutio decides to harass Romeo further by helping him along with some stimulation:
I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes (euphemism for vagina),
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip (again, terms for female genitalia)
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh (as if Romeo is having sex with her)
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie (adjacent to her thigh/hips are her genitals)
That in thy likeness thou appear to us!
Benvolio: And if he hear thee, thou wilt anger him. (He knows exactly what Mer. is doing)
Mercutio: This cannot anger him; ‘twould anger him
To raise a spirit [penis] in his mistress’ circle [vagina]
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjur’d it down. (By bringing him to orgasm)
That were some spite. My invocation
Is fair and honest; in his mistress’ name
I conjure only but to raise him up. (not his spirits; his erection)
Benvolio: Come, he hath hid himself among these trees
To be consorted with the humorous night
Blind is his love and best befits the dark.
It seems as though Benvolio is trying to settle down Mercutio, but actually, he’s playing along now. Trees, bushes, forests, and night are all puns on genitalia, including pubic hair. He says Romeo wants to hide himself in Rosalind’s vagina, where love [penis] is blind [because it’s dark], and since Romeo can’t have Rosalind this minute, he’s hiding in the trees so he can masturbate.
Mercutio: If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree (medlars have brown stars that look like sphincters)
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
(Clearly, medlars must be a dirty euphemism if maids will only joke about them when they are alone together. He continues)
O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse, thou a pop’rin pear!
Romeo, good night, I’ll to my truckle-bed,
This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep
(he’s hot and bothered, and he’s steamier than Romeo will ever be, especially with Rosaline)
COME, shall we go?
Emphasis on come, with a caesura, as if he’s wishing Romeo well on coming so his night will at least have something good come out of it.
It’s dirty and hilarious, and of course insensitive. And in the very next moment, Romeo sees Juliet on the balcony (or whatever platform she’s on, since there’s no technical note that it has to be a balcony), and we have the most famous exchange of love of all time.
The contrast highlights how desperately Romeo needs to break free of his friends, whom he’s really growing out of. Juliet shows great maturity, and Romeo is ready to break fully with his adolescence and marry her. He’s annoyed with his friends (“they jest at scars that never felt a wound”), and while he’s still somewhat dependent on them, since kinship is almost everything in this play, he is ready to move on with a life with Juliet—and when she dies, he would rather die as well than go back to his old life. Juliet becomes his everything, his way to break free.
(Fun fact: this happens to be my favorite Queen video. Queen wanted to show their playful side, and Freddie’s mannerisms are just a joy to watch—as is Roger Taylor. John Deacon looks as though he’d rather be anywhere else. Go check it out. It will make you feel better after the sad play.)
What you need to know: This is everyone’s favorite back-to-school play, and a perennial requisite of sophomore year. Macbeth is Thane (a type of lord) of Scotland, wins a war for the king, gets a prophecy that he will get another thane title as well as become king, and then gets news that one of the two has come true. He tells his wife, Lady Macbeth, and she says they have to kill the king to get what has been prophesied to them. Macbeth hems and haws, and Lady Macbeth (whose real name, by the way, was Gruoch) tells him to grow a pair and be a man and do the job. (Thanks in part to Oscar Wilde, we know there is more than one way to be a man than to kill stuff. Just not in 14th century Scotland.)
What Queen says: “Gonna use my stack/It’s gotta be Mack/Gonna get me on the track/Got a dragon on my back.” To get what this song is about, you have to go to a Brian May interview; “Mack” was the name of their producer for their new album, The Game (1980), recorded in Munich, as the band was trying out a new sound, though everyone expected them to sound like old Queen. So it can be about artistic anxiety and where to go after conquering the world, so to speak.
Then there’s this last part:
“Low Down-she don’t take no prisoners/Go Down-gonna give me the business/No time, yeah, chained to the rack!/Show time-got a Dragon on my back/Show down, go find another customer/Slow down, I gotta make my way.”
There are many potential she-dragons in Shakespeare, and the contexts of “dragon” are myriad, a sort of bastardizing amalgamation of Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s dragon, possibly a monster, possibly a type of Valkyrie, or a noble lady who has a legitimate blood feud that propels her to revenge. All of these could be Lady Macbeth, or Lady “Mack” (see what I did there?).
Macbeth almost pulls out of the venture, in Act I, scene vii, and tells Lady Macbeth that he can’t go through with killing the king, and besides, what he has should be enough—he got promoted, and people all around are complimenting him and looking to him as a source of leadership.
Macbeth: We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honor’d me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? […]
Macbeth: Prithee peace!
I dare to all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.
Lady Macbeth: What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man…
They were once so happy, too. But that kind of closeness and shared partnership displayed by the Macbeths shows that they know each other’s soft targets. And Lady Mack will be on Macbeth’s back until he follows through—because she had to buttress herself up to do the task as well, imagining what it would be like to be a man, and when Macbeth’s resolve shakes, so does Lady Macbeth’s, which was hard won. She wants to play in a man’s world, live like a man and feel that power (not unlike Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing). But she needs her husband in order to do so—otherwise, she is nothing more than a witch, on the fringes of society.
What You Need to Know: More history, more betrayal, and the exact source of the first concrete betrayal is uncertain. Richard II is king of England (and is young—and his father, the eldest son of King Edward III, was Prince Edward the Black, who died before he got to inherit), he spends lots of money on clothes and finery and wars with Ireland. His best friends are all flatterers. His uncle, John of Gaunt, was his father’s younger brother and is the second most powerful (and wealthy) man in England. Gaunt’s son is Henry Bolingbroke. Does it sound a little familiar? Can’t quite place the name? Henry Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, by the end of Act IV.
What Queen says: “People of the earth/listen to the warning/the Seer he said/beware the storm that gathers here/listen to the wise man/I dreamed I saw on a moonlit stair/spreading his hands on the multitude there/a man who cried for a love gone stale/and ice cold hearts of charity bare/I watched as fear took the old men’s gaze/hopes of the young in troubled graves/I see no day, I heard him say/so grey is the face of every mortal…”
Prophecy appears frequently in Shakespeare, especially in King Lear and Richard III (and the wonderful Margaret of Anjou), Julius Caesar, and of course, Macbeth. But those would be too easy. Let’s give some love to Richard II, and poor John of Gaunt, who spews his prophetic rage on his deathbed. In Act II, scene I, he’s waiting for King Richard II (Gaunt’s nephew) to arrive at his deathbed, but Richard manages to insult him and be generally smug. He’s a smug guy in general (added to the fact that he’s just banished John of Gaunt’s son, Bolingbroke, who may or may not have made treasonous comments against Richard, but instead, Bolingbroke accused the Duke of Mowbray.
John of Gaunt: Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
This is a tremendously beautiful and patriotic speech from a deathbed, articulate and moving, especially as Gaunt and Bolingbroke had a wrenching and poetic farewell in the previous act. But wait…did Shakespeare sneak in some irony? What was that John of Gaunt said about the perfection of England, impervious to disease? Shakespeare by this time had already lived through two plagues, wiping out a quarter of London’s population. And Shakespeare’s audience would be well aware of this.
Gaunt’s main critique comes from Richard snapping up the lands of the nobles so he can rent them out, using the funds to wage a war on Ireland (and buy snappy new uniforms to go along with his snappy new war). Once Richard finally does arrive (Richard quipped earlier that he hoped Gaunt died before he got there), Gaunt offers another prophetic barb:
King Richard II: Should dying men flatter with those that live?
Gaunt: No, no, men living flatter those that die.
King: Thou, now a-dying, say’st thou flatterest me.
Gaunt: O, no! thou diest, though I the sicker be.
King: I am in health, I breathe, and see thee ill.
Gaunt: Now He that made me knows I see thee ill;
Ill in myself to see, and in thee seeing ill.
Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Commit’st thy anointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee:
A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head;
And yet, incaged in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.
O, had thy grandsire with a prophet’s eye
Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess’d,
Which art possess’d now to depose thyself.
Why, cousin, wert thou regent of the world,
It were a shame to let this land by lease;
But for thy world enjoying but this land,
Is it not more than shame to shame it so?
Landlord of England art thou now, not king…
And…burn. Of course, a dying man can get away with saying whatever the eff he wants, though he doesn’t seem to be thinking of his exiled son at this point—as soon as he is dead, Richard confiscates Gaunt’s property, even though Bolingbroke still has claim to it once his banishment is finished. Richard resolves this by extending the banishment from six years to life. He’s already confiscated the lands of other lords accused of treason, and this act sets a fire under the rest of the lords, who no longer feel safe in their property and risk being accused of treason at any time. Northumberland, especially, seeks out Bolingbroke to form an alliance. And all of this leads to Richard’s downfall.
As Queen says, “The prophet he said/for soon the cold of night will fall/summoned by your own hand…” Sounds a little like Brian May is saying the bad stuff is your own fault.
Gaunt’s isn’t the only prophecy, however. In Act IV (only one scene), the Duke of York reports that the imprisoned Richard has agreed to name Bolingbroke his heir (since Richard has no kids, especially since his historical wife at the time was only about 9 years old—in the play, she’s older), which means that Bolingbroke’s ascension will be concluded immediately. The Bishop of Carlyle, however, is not pleased with this, as he feels it disrupts the natural order of things:
Duke of York: Great Duke of Lancaster, I come to thee
From plume-pluck’d Richard; who with willing soul
Adopts thee heir, and his high sceptre yields
To the possession of thy royal hand:
Ascend his throne, descending now from him;
And long live Henry, fourth of that name!
Bolingbroke: In God’s name, I’ll ascend the regal throne.
Bishop of Carlisle: Marry. God forbid!
Worst in this royal presence may I speak,
Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth.
Would God that any in this noble presence
Were enough noble to be upright judge
Of noble Richard! then true noblesse would
Learn him forbearance from so foul a wrong.
What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject? […]
And shall the figure of God’s majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judged by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present? O, forfend it, God,
That in a Christian climate souls refined
Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed!
This would all seem fairly tame (despite the fact that Richard A) is a prisoner and B) has already announced Henry’s succession, and there are no give-backsies in 14th century England), but then shit gets real when the Bishop of Carlisle starts to publicly shame the victors (mostly everyone in the room):
Carlisle: My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king/Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king
(And now comes the prophesy)
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!
(It’s a bold speech, for sure, and not necessarily the most inaccurate prophesy.)
The next line goes to Northumberland: Well have you argued, sir; and, for your pains/Of capital treason we arrest you here.
And that’s the end of the Bishop of Carlisle.
But, spoiler alert, Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, lives out his life, and his son, Prince Hal, becomes Henry V, marries Richard II’s wife’s younger sister, Catherine of France (after a huge war and a valiantly-delivered bullshit speech), to form peace, and they produce King Henry VI, who is too young to rule and is weak, and his handlers jostle for power while England fights against Joan of Arc, and whose messy reign begets the Wars of the Roses, pitting Lancasters against Yorks. So, in a way, both prophesies come true. Because they were the same prophesy, England being torn apart by war and internal fighting, which was bound to happen eventually, judging by the entirety of history.
What You Need to Know: Othello is the military badass fighting for Venice, and the people there might be a little racist, but because Othello is such a badass soldier, they exceptionalize him. Meanwhile, Iago is tweaked because he’s been passed over for a promotion to be Othello’s lieutenant and decides to destroy Othello by convincing him that his new wife (Desdemona) is having an affair with said promoted lieutenant. The entire play is us watching Iago manipulate everyone, and waiting for Othello to kick him in the nads. Unfortunately, he doesn’t, and the consequences are pretty dire. Let’s just say there is a literal read of the title.
What Queen says: “Look into my eyes and you’ll see/I’m the only one/You’ve captured my love/Stolen my heart/Changed my life/Every time you make a move/You destroy my mind/And the way you touch/I lose control and shiver deep inside/You take my breath away.”
This could be Othello’s desperate song to Desdemona—he loves her, jealously and insecurely (mostly because Iago keeps reminding Othello how racist everyone is, and so of course Desdemona would naturally be drawn to someone her own race and cheat on her husband (Iago also hates women).
Act V, scene ii, in their Cyprus bedroom—
Othello: It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood; Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, And smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. Put out the light, and then put out the light: If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me: but once put out thy light, Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again. It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her] Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade Justice to break her sword! One more, one more. Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, And love thee after. One more, and this the last: So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep, But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly; It strikes where it doth love.
But for my money, this song best represents Desdemona and the tragic irony that she does love Othello completely.
Not convinced? Queen continues: “You can reduce me to tears/With a single sigh/Every breath that you take /Any sound that you make/Is a whisper in my ear/I could give up all my life for just one kiss/I would surely die/If you dismiss me from your love/You take my breath away.”
And before Othello goes into her room and grabs the pillow, Desdemona has this exchange with her maid (Iago’s wife), Emilia, in Act IV, scene iii:
Emelia: I would you had never seen him!
Desdemona: So would not I. my love doth so approve him, That even his stubbornness, his cheques, his frowns…have grace and favour in them.
Emelia: I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed.
Desdemona: All’s one. Good faith, how foolish are our minds! If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me in one of those same sheets.
Emilia: Come, come you talk.
Desdemona: My mother had a maid call’d Barbara: She was in love, and he she loved proved mad And did forsake her: she had a song of ‘willow;’ An old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune, and she died singing it: that song to-night will not go from my mind; I have much to do, but to go hang my head all at one side, and sing it like poor Barbara.
In the rest of the exchange, Emilia proves herself a hell of a woman and a great character in Shakespeare, and Desdemona needs to read The Power of Positive Thinking.
What You Need to Know: When he’s overthrown by his brother, The Duke flees to the Forest of Arden with his ardent followers. But Jacques, a melancholy but sardonic wit, finds that he’s not so happy in this bucolic paradise.
What Queen says: “It’s the sad-eyed, goodbye, yesterday moments I remember/It’s the bleak street, weak-kneed partings I recall/It’s the mistier mist/The hazier days/The brighter sun/And the easier lays,” setting up the mood of nostalgia.
Roger Taylor continues: “There’s all the more reason for laughing and crying/When you’re younger and life isn’t too hard at all/It’s the fantastic drowse of the afternoon Sundays/That bored you to rages of tears/The unending pleadings, to waste all your good times/In thoughts of your middle aged years/It’s a vertical hold, all the things that you’re told/For the everyday hero it all turns to zero/And there’s all the more reason for living or dying/When you’re young and your troubles are all very small…Out here on the street/We’d gather and meet/And scuff up the sidewalk with endlessly restless feet/Half of the time/We’d broaden our minds/More in the poolhall than we did in the schoolhall/With the downtown chewing-gum bums/Watching the nightlife, the lights and the fun.”
There’s the contrast between being young and then growing up, experiencing the real world. Compare this with Jacques’ most famous “All the world’s a stage” speech, of Act II, scene vii:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow (Queen would call this the age of easier lays)
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
This is one of the more famous Shakespearean speeches, although what is mostly known are the first two lines. Jacques has the best and most scene-stealing lines in As You Like It, and when played right, his wallowing melancholy is laced with sardonic self-aspersion.
Queen’s song ends with Roger Taylor imagining all the heroes he wanted to be and hasn’t been (never wanted to be the small town boy—or the banished forest man). Yet at the end of the play, Jacques cannot face going back to society—he chooses to stay behind with the now-penitent brother of the duke (who had usurped the duke before the beginning of the play, and then banished his daughter, Rosalind, from the court). Jacques decides he’s best suited to keep company with melancholy, despite his previous melancholy over being stuck in the forest of Arden with the banished duke and his supporters.
What you need to know: Helena is in love with Demetrius, her long-term paramour, if mostly in secret (although even Theseus, king of Athens, has heard of it). Demetrius, however, decides to dump Helena for Hermia, her best friend. We don’t really know why this started, but Demetrius has won over Hermia’s father, who wants Hermia to marry Demetrius. Unfortunately, Hermia has decided she is going to marry Lysander. However, Hermia’s father tells the king he would rather Hermia die than marry Lysander. Theseus makes the compromise that Hermia will marry Demetrius, OR she can become a nun (progressive!). But Helena spends much of the play in pathetic pursuit of Demetrius and thinks she can win favor with Demetrius if she tells him of Hermia’s elopement with Lysander. When in the forest, they circle unknowingly around two factions of fairies, led by the King, Oberon, and the Queen, Titania. The two are at war, in part because Oberon wants as his page a human boy that Titania inherited. Another reason is that they’re both in town for King Theseus’ wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; Titania has had a fling with Theseus, and Oberon has with Hippolyta, and both fairies are a little jealous. To get revenge, Oberon plays a trick on Titania, getting her to fall in love with Bottom, one of the Athenians in the forest, who is rehearsing a play for the wedding, and whom Oberon’s sprite-friend Puck has given the features of a donkey to match his ass-like behavior. This love spell cast on Titania is aided with the juice of a flower, and there’s enough left over for Puck to give some to Demetrius, so he’ll fall back in love with Hermia. Of course, Puck gets the wrong guy, giving the spell to Lysander, who forgets his love to Hermia and pursues Helena. In the meantime, Puck does finally get to Demetrius, who falls only for Helena, but now Helena believes all three are in conspiracy to humiliate her.
What Queen says: “Happy little day, Jimmy went away/Met his little Jenny on a public holiday/A happy pair they made, so decorously laid/’Neath the gay illuminations all along the promenade.”
Then Jimmy says: “It’s so good to know there’s still a little magic in the air/I’ll weave my spell/Jenny will you stay – tarry with me pray/Nothing ‘ere need come between us tell me love, what do you say ?”
And Jenny replies: “Oh no, I must away to my mum in disarray/If my mother should discover how I spent my holiday/It would be of small avail to talk of magic in the air/I’ll say farewell.”
The very Greek chorus of the song comments: “O rock of ages, do not crumble, love is breathing still/O lady moon, shine down a little people magic if you will.”
After a very long instrumental, we learn, “Jenny pines away, writes a letter everyday/”We must ever be together, nothing can my love erase.”
And the song ends with Jimmy’s reaction: “Oh no I’m compromised, I must apologise/If my lady should discover how I spent my holidays…” (Insert sad trombone sound here.)
Jimmy is much like Demetrius, in this case. We know nothing about Helena’s parents, other than the fact that they didn’t teach her things such as self-respect.
There is indeed magic in the air in the forest of Athens, because the king and queen of the fairies are having a marital spat. Both are in town for King Theseus’ wedding to his prisoner of war (although I guess if Henry V and Game of Thrones have taught us anything, it’s that in an impasse, take one for the team and marry the adversary to avoid any further casualties for the rest of recorded history). Although after deep professions of love, it doesn’t take much magic of the professed lovers to fall out of love.
Yet perhaps it is only the mortals who are the true fools in love. Because something a little different goes on between Oberon and Titania. As Oberon tells Puck,
“Her dotage now I do begin to pity. For meeting her of late behind the wood, Seeking sweet favors for this hateful fool, I did upbraid her, and fall out with her. For she his hairy temples then had rounded With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers; And that same dew which sometime on the buds Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls, Stood now within the pretty flouriets’ eyes, Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail. When I had at my pleasure taunted her, And she in mild terms begg’d my patience, I then did ask of her her changeling child; Which straight she gave me, and her fairy sent To bear him to my bower in fairy land. And now I have the boy, I will undo This hateful imperfection of her eyes.”
This is tremendously coded speech. Did Titania really agree to give Oberon her ward, the cause of their war in the first place, because Oberon chides her? He’s been chiding her this entire play. Some may argue that it’s because Oberon is making fun of the way she dotes upon Bottom, shaped like an ass, that makes her embarrassed and want him to stop, and so she agrees to give up the boy. But if that were the case, and she were embarrassed in front of Oberon, the spell that has made her love Bottom would have been broken (and Oberon wouldn’t need to lift it). No, the spell has caused Titania to love the transformed Bottom, but she does not change how she has previously felt about Oberon (in the way that both Demetrius and Lysander forget their love of Hermia, never mind that without a spell, Demetrius forgot his initial love of Helena).
So what is it, then, that changes Titania’s mind about giving Oberon the boy? In a word: cunnilingus.
No, really. Let’s parse this:
And that same dew which sometime on the buds was wont to swell like round and orient pearls…bud is an Elizabethan synonym for clitoris and/or vagina, and it’s swollen, and with dew from sexual desire. The pretty flouriets’ eyes…the petals are the folds, the eye is the aperture. When I had at my pleasure taunted her, and she in mild terms begg’d my patience…pleasure and taunting denote bringing toward orgasm, and just as she is about to climax, he asks her to give him the boy, which she does immediately so he’ll finish. So despite loving Bottom (under the spell), she has not forgotten ANY of the past feelings for Oberon. The spell that makes her love Bottom is a prank, but it does not interfere with her former feelings. It is Oberon’s power of persuasion, which she allows, that gets her to acquiesce. The spell Oberon casts was only for revenge, to make Titania feel foolish—it’s direct effect was not to trick her into giving up the boy. And when she wakes from the spell, no longer in love with Bottom, she does not regret her interaction with Oberon, nor her decision to give up the boy; in fact, she and Oberon decide to go around the world together to evade day in order to keep having make-up sex.
So that’s how fairies and humans are different, friends.
What You Need to Know: History time! Richard, Duke of Gloucester is unhappy and wants to be king. His older brother is King Edward IV, but he’s sickly and on his way out. Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, which was a somewhat scandalous marriage, as it was impulsive (she was hot), she was a widow with two sons, and her father didn’t have much property (he was a brand new baron, 1st Earl of Rivers). The man known as the “Kingmaker,” Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, was busy trying to marry Edward IV to King Louis XI’s daughter or sister-in-law to secure peace with France. Meanwhile, Warwick was naturally upset and aligned himself with Margaret of Anjou and her son, Prince Edward, the son of the imprisoned/sort-of-deposed King Henry VI, who was allowed to continue his reign if he disinherited Edward in favor of the York line of kings, arranged by Richard, 3rd Duke of York, who is father to 1) Edward IV, 2) Edmund, Earl of Rutland (killed with his father at the Battle of Wakefield), 3) George, 1st Duke of Clarence, and 4) Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King Richard III. (Historically, Richard was the 12th out of 13 children. Not unlike Prince Hans in Frozen.)
So Henry VI was deposed in 1460, imprisoned and then rescued by his wife Margaret’s forces, while Edward IV reigned from 1461-1470, then Henry VI was recaptured in 1465, but then Warwick restored him to the throne in 1470. However, Edward (IV) defeated Warwick and sent Henry VI back to prison (all of this made Henry VI frail and psychologically unstable). Henry VI died in the Tower of London in 1471, though it is suspected that he was murdered on Edward’s orders, just so they’d finally be done with him.
The play opens after this final defeat of Henry VI, as Edward IV (re)takes the throne. Richard is cranky because he’s better at war than at peacetime, that wasteful period when people sit around and have sex instead of fight. He’s not good at making sweet sweet love, so he decides he should kill everyone in his way to becoming king.
Richard decides to woo Lady Anne (Neville), even though he claims responsibility for killing her father (Warwick) and husband (Prince Edward, Henry VI’s disinherited son with Margaret of Anjou) in battle. Fun fact: Shakespeare assumed the audiences would have already seen Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, & 3. The Henry VI plays were his first histories, and some of the earliest plays Shakespeare wrote; they aren’t as well written as the later plays, which is why we’re less likely to read them.
Right after Richard’s monologue, he shows up at the funeral of Henry VI, then woos Lady Anne while she laments the fall of the house of Lancaster. He tells her he killed her husband, et. al., for love of her and her beauty. She sort of falls for it and agrees to probably marry him. Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou, who is supposed to be exiled, shows up at the court, where Elizabeth Woodville, her brother, and all the victorious lords are monitoring Edward IV’s health. Margaret throws some shade on all the Yorkists, and Richard III shows up and throws shade back, and then she prophesies massive suffering and downfall on everyone there. The Yorks are a little nervous but treat her as a doddering old hag, with maybe a little pity.
Another twist in the plot is that people are also still unhappy about the Queen Consort, Elizabeth Woodville, whom they cast as an upstart. Her brother is also an at-risk character, the immensely likeable Earl of Rivers (or maybe he’s likeable because he was played by Robert Downey, Jr., in the 1995 film starring Ian McKellen).
Another note: once you get the people and the history down, the histories are as exciting and as entertaining as an episode of Game of Thrones.
Edward IV’s son Edward (V) is named king upon the death of his father but he’s never crowned, and he and his brother disappear, last seen in the Tower of London, where kings were to stay on the eve of their coronation. In the meantime, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, gets tenuous support for his right as king, has the sons killed, and takes over the throne. He marries Lady Anne, daughter of Warwick—the man who was testy with Edward IV for marrying Elizabeth Woodville instead of someone related to King Louis XI. Basically, everyone hates everyone else. This is the climax of the Wars of the Roses, which end with Richard III’s death. Richard III is the last of the York (and Plantagenet) kings, as the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, takes over—incidentally, Henry VII is the last monarch of England to become so through battle. But that doesn’t happen until the end of the play—and there are still so many people to kill first.
What Queen says: With its stutters and anthemic paean to disaffected youth, this reads like Queen’s version of The Who’s “My Generation.”
“Well you’re just 17 and all you wanna do is disappear/You know what I mean there’s a lot of space between your ears/The way that you touch don’t feel nothin’ …hey, it was the DNA…that made me this way/Do you know, do you know, do you know, just how I feel […] Sheer heart attack/Sheer heart attack/Real cardiac/I feel so in-articulate/Gotta feelin’, gotta feelin’, gotta feelin’, like I’m paralysed/It ain’t no, it ain’t no, it ain’t no, it ain’t no surprise.” I did this because it’s who I am. I was made this way. Imagine Richard as a disaffected youth, good in battle, but with feelings of inadequacy.
Richard III is not Shakespeare’s most articulate villain, despite sweet-talking Lady Anne in the first act, though he (like in the song) claims to be inarticulate: My tongue could never learn sweet smoothing word; But now thy beauty is propos’d my fee, My proud heart sues, and prompts my tongue to speak (I.ii). Though Richard is an early precursor to Iago in Othello and Edmund, eldest-but-illegitimate son of Gloucester in King Lear, he does not have the articulateness or charm of either villain—and Richard says so yet another time, in Act I, scene iii: Because I cannot flatter and look fair, Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog, Duck with French nods and apish courtesy, I must be held a rancorous enemy.
The inadequacy is more than just speech, and is primarily the result of his appearance, outlined up front in Richard III’s opening monologue (when he is still Richard, Duke of Gloucester), which deals with the physical results of the DNA.
Richard’s physical makeup is what prevents him from being a lover: “But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass…that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty…that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up…” (therefore, as far as the logic of the Richard in this play goes, the natural conclusion is to become a villain) “since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasure of these days.”
How villainous does Richard get? Pretty villainous.
Richard kills the two princes and heirs to the crown. In real life, their bodies did disappear after Richard got Parliament to name them illegitimate, because the marriage of their father, King Edward IV, to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid (the name of the act was Titulus Regius for those playing at home). Their DNA made them kings, and that pissed off Uncle Richard, who didn’t rely (totally) on DNA or primogeniture, but took power into his own hands—so even though they had the DNA, it wasn’t legitimate DNA. (Richard III’s father was Richard, Third Duke of York, who was Lord Protector of England during the reign of King Henry VI. Richard 3DY’s somewhat shoddy claim to the throne was a major factor that led to the Wars of the Roses, which pitted the York supporters against the Duke of Lancaster and his supporters. Richard 3DY managed to secure his succession after Henry VI’s death, but unfortunately, Richard 3DY was killed in battle shortly after this.
Why is this history important? Well, that’s the question even Shakespeare asks. Richard 3DY’s claim on the throne was that he was in line for the throne TWICE, through his mother’s side by primogeniture (descended through daughters, though), but that, as his great-grandfather was the second son of King Edward III, he actually had more of a right to the throne than Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster’s line, who took over after Richard II. Then the “legitimate” Prince Edward (of Henry VI) was disinherited, and then Edward IV’s sons by Elizabeth Woodville were named “illegitimate.” Richard also says that it’s suspect that Edward IV was even Richard 3DY’s son, as 3DY might have been in France when Edward was conceived.
Meaning, primogeniture and “divine right” and “natural order” and “legitimate” are malleable. So that’s one type of heredity and DNA that can be seen through the lens of Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack.”
Throughout Shakespeare, we see these connections to birth and legitimacy, which was the Elizabethan standard for DNA. Whose right is it to be king? The first born? What if the first born isn’t legitimate? Who’s to decide what legitimate is?
For Queens Mary and Elizabeth, the Catholic Church and the Church of England both claimed that only one daughter of Henry VIII was legitimate. Obviously, if one church could establish the supremacy of the ruler by right of The Church, that church then became the supreme power, in establishing birthright and power. This very historical event was part of a long line of succession battles throughout English (and European and World) history, which has been infused in most of the plays Shakespeare has written. Just a brief look reveals a tremendous amount about Shakespeare’s impressions of “legitimacy” and the ridiculousness of primogeniture:
In Titus Andronicus, the Emperor of Rome dies, and his sons are vying for succession; the senate instead tries to name Titus as emperor. The eldest son, Saturninus, claims the right as the eldest; the second son, Bassianus, says his claim is equal to his brother’s. (Of course, the second son would likely have been the better emperor. Or maybe Saturninus would have been fine as a ruler if the feud between his new wife Tamora and Titus Andronicus had not hijacked the energies of the state.)
In King Lear, Gloucester’s heir is his legitimate son, Edgar; however, his older son, Edmund, was a love child, and is favored by Gloucester. Edmund doesn’t think it’s fair to even use the terms legitimate and illegitimate, especially if one son is born out of love and another, duty. He decides to become a villain to undermine the “legitimate” son’s reputation, to challenge the “curiosity of nations” that deprives him:
“For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines/Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?/When my dimensions are as well compact,/My mind as generous, and my shape as true,/As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us/With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base? […] Well, then,/Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:/Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund/As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!/Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,/And my invention thrive, Edmund the base/Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:/Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (Act I., scene iii).
Finally, we have The Tempest. After twelve years marooned on an island, Prospero tells his daughter Miranda the story of their fall from power and subsequent bucolic exile. He blames the evil lurking in his younger brother’s heart that was allowed to flourish when he got the slightest whiff of power. What he glosses over is that Prospero gave all his duties as Duke of Milan to his brother Antonio; Prospero wanted to hide in his house and study magic all day. So like the retiring King Lear, Prospero wanted to keep his title with none of the responsibilities that came with it. This evil that is in Antonio’s heart might be depicted as mercenary, usurping, opportunistic; but imagine doing all the work without any of the benefits? Equal pay for equal work? Of course, Prospero can’t fully dwell on those details (even though he’s had twelve years to dwell on them).
So what’s in a name or in DNA? All these details that make or break kingdoms are merely arbitrary, and yet people will level families and nations using those very details.
What you need to know: Both familial love and romantic love are tested in this play, utilized primarily as displays of loyalty. The victorious Titus returns from defeating the Goths, bringing the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, her three sons, and her (secret?) lover Aaron back as prizes for the emperor. The emperor has died, and his two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, vie for the crown. The senate instead names Titus, but Titus says he’s too old, so he says the rule should pass down to the oldest son, Saturninus. The new emperor, to show his “loyalty,” says he will marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, as a show of his gratitude. The problem is that Saturninus knows full well that Lavinia is engaged to his brother Bassianus, who is not happy. Meanwhile, Titus hands over the prisoners (the ones he hasn’t sacrificed to the gods) to Saturninus, who frees Tamora, complimenting her on her beauty. He says if he weren’t now engaged to Lavinia, he might be persuaded to make Tamora his queen. Then Lavinia runs off with Bassianus to get married, and Titus kills one of his own sons who is aiding in their flight. Saturninus says too bad to Titus; he’s making Tamora his queen. Tamora is much older than Saturninus (her sons are about the same age as the new emperor).
What Queen says: “Delilah, Delilah, oh my, you’re irresistible/You make me smile when I’m just about to cry/You bring me hope, you make me laugh, and I like it/You get away with murder, so innocent/But when you throw a moody you’re all claws and you bite/That’s alright!”
The tone of the song is clearly reflective of Saturninus addressing Tamora (Aaron wouldn’t have been so insipid). You may think this song is about a cat, but really it’s about the Queen of the Goths, now wife to the Emperor of Rome.
Listen to the way the new emperor asks her to be his wife, and her subsequent reply:
Saturninus: And therefore, lovely Tamora, Queen of Goths,
That like the stately Phoebe ’mongst her nymphs
Dost overshine the gallant’st dames of Rome,
If thou be pleas’d with this my sudden choice,
Behold, I choose thee, Tamora, for my bride,
And will create thee Emperess of Rome.
Speak, Queen of Goths, dost thou applaud my choice?
And here I swear by all the Roman gods,
Sith priest and holy water are so near,
And tapers burn so bright, and every thing
In readiness for Hymenaeus stand,
I will not re-salute the streets of Rome,
Or climb my palace, till from forth this place
I lead espous’d my bride along with me.
Tamora: And here in sight of heaven to Rome I swear,
If Saturnine advance the Queen of Goths,
She will a handmaid be to his desires,
A loving nurse, a mother to his youth.
Put together that way, her speech make an icky vow. Not mentioned in her reply is that she will continue her affair with her companion, Aaron, and conceive a child by him, that she will enact her revenge against Titus by killing his family (which Saturninus probably wouldn’t mind so much, but it’s better for the emperor if he doesn’t know), that in doing so she will also kill Bassianus—Saturninus makes more of a show that he’s upset than he probably is upset, but it’s also proof he’s not in charge of anything that goes on here. Tamora is clearly the cat Saturninus will let “pee all over [his] Chippendale suite.”
And “Tamora” even rhymes with “Delilah.”
Stay tuned; more Queen Shakespeare is right around the corner. Meanwhile, look to the skies for Freddie’s new asteroid. A very special dot of light indeed.