Category William Shakespeare

Why is the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet so heart-rending?

       Romantic lovers are often compared to Romeo and Juliet. They are celebrated for their steadfast love for each other and their sacrifice. Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet presents the story of two lovers whose fate does not allow them to live a life together.

      The ‘balcony scene’ in the play where Romeo meets Juliet for the first time is one of the most celebrated scenes in all of Shakespeare’s plays. He compares the balcony to the east and her, to the sun! Lines such as ‘Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs’ and ‘O teach me how I should forget to think’ are some of the most memorable lines of the play.

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Who first told the story of Romeo and Juliet?

      The story of these two lovers was popular in England and other parts of Europe long before Shakespeare wrote the famous play. Shakespeare’s chief source was a poem written by Arthur Brooke in 1562, titled ‘The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet’. Brooke’s poem was in fact a free translation of a French story by Pierre Boaistuau (1566). The source for this story, in turn, was another story by an Italian writer named Mateo Bandello. Several variations of this tale existed long before that, but it was a writer named Da Porto who first named the lovers as Romeo and Giulietta, and set the action in Verona.

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When was Macbeth written?

     Macbeth was probably written between 1603 and 1606. It was penned during the reign of James VI, and Shakespeare’s relationship with sovereign nobility is best reflected in this play, which is also one of Shakespeare’s shorter tragedies.

      In Verona, Italy, there were two families who were sworn enemies: the Capulets and the Montagues.

     Romeo, a young man in the Montague family, was sad because a woman named Rosaline would not return his love. Meanwhile, Juliet, a Capulet, was asked to marry a Count named Paris, although she was not in love with him. Her parents prepared for a huge party that night.

      Romeo’s best friend Mercutio wanted to cheer him up, and suggested that they go to the Capulet party. Romeo agreed, though reluctantly. He knew they would not be welcome by the enemy family.

     At the party, Romeo and Juliet saw each other and fell in love. When the party was over, Romeo stood below Juliet’s balcony and called to her. They made ardent vows of love. Juliet’s trusted nurse and Friar Laurence, a priest, helped them to get married in secret.

     Unfortunately Romeo got involved in a fight between the two families, and he happened to kill Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. Romeo fled the scene, but the Prince ordered that Romeo should be exiled and should never return to Verona. Then Juliet’s father told her that marriage with Count Paris would take place soon. Filled with sadness, Juliet visited Friar Laurence, who gave her a special potion. It would put her into a deep sleep, making her appear to have died. The plan was that Friar Laurence would send word to Romeo about this fake death. Once Juliet was entombed, the marriage to Paris would be called off. Then Juliet would awaken, Romeo would find her, and both could live happily ever after.

      However, the message about the fake death could not reach Romeo. All he came to know was that Juliet had died. He got some poison himself and visited the tomb. Thinking she was dead, Romeo drank the poison and died next to her. When Juliet woke from her deep sleep, she was horrified to see Romeo lying dead. She took Romeo’s dagger and stabbed herself.

      Later, both the families repented their enmity, and decided to live in peace.

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Where did the story of Macbeth come from?

       There really was a king of Scotland named Macbeth, who died in 1057. Shakespeare’s play is based on the legend of his life. The real Macbeth was a ‘mormaer’ or chief, in the province of Moray, in northern Scotland. He later ascended the throne after killing his cousin King Duncan in a battle (not by murdering him in bed, as in the play). Shakespeare seems to have got the story from a book titled ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland’ by Raphael Holinshed, and he was more interested in drama than historical facts. So, Shakespeare’s depiction of the character of Macbeth is entirely fictional.

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Macbeth ?

       Macbeth was a brave general, serving under King Duncan of Scotland. Once he was returning from a victorious campaign, with another general named Banquo. Three witches met them on the way, and prophesied that Macbeth would become thane (baron) of Cawdor, and also King of Scotland.

       The witches then vanished. Soon after, word reached them that Macbeth was to assume the title of the thane of Cawdor. Part of the witches’ prophecies had come true. This set Macbeth dreaming of ascending the throne.

       King Duncan welcomed Macbeth and Banquo with all praise, and he spent the night at Macbeth’s castle. Macbeth shared the witches’ prophecies with his wife, and her mind was filled with greed. Macbeth stabbed Duncan, and the servants were framed for the murder. The king’s sons fled in fear, and Macbeth assumed the throne. Banquo became suspicious, remembering what the witches had said.

       Macbeth soon had Banquo killed. He was indeed descending into madness. He visited the three witches again, who assured him he was safe – “none of woman born” would harm him; and he would be safe until he sees the forest of Birnam Wood rise against him. Macbeth then ordered the murder of Macduff, the nobleman who had first seen Duncan dead. But Macduff had fled to England, and his entire family was killed, instead.

       Lady Macbeth’s conscience was ridden with guilt, and she killed herself in madness. Macduff and Duncan’s son Malcolm rode back to Scotland with an English army to take revenge, The English soldiers held up branches from the Birnam Wood to hide their real numbers, and it really looked like the forest was moving. And Macduff was not naturally born of his mother. Macbeth was struck down and beheaded by Macduff, and Malcolm inherited his rightful throne.

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Why is ‘Hamlet’ considered one of the greatest tragedies written by Shakespeare?

   ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ is a great revenge tragedy. In this play Shakespeare strongly brings out the complexity of the human mind. Prince Hamlet is given the task of revenge, but he is not naturally suited to it. This leads to an inner turmoil which is unveiled brilliantly by Shakespeare. Combined with this is the power of the story itself.

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Where did the story of Hamlet come from?

       The story of Hamlet is actually much older than Shakespeare’s play. The earliest presentation of the story in a still existing literary form was in the 12th century, by Dane Saxo Grammaticus. This version was expanded by Francois de BeIleforest in ‘Histories Tragique’, in 1582. It is generally believed that this book is the source of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

       Shakespeare’s Hamlet was played in 1600 or 1601, and it was printed first in 1603.

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Hamlet ?

     Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark. His father, the king died suddenly. Soon after the king’s death, his brother Claudius married the queen, Gertrude, and started to rule. Hamlet was very sad about these events.

     Then a strange thing happened. The castle guards and Hamlet’s friend Horatio saw the ghost of the murdered king. Hamlet sought the ghost out. The ghost said, “The one that took my life now wears the crown. Avenge this murder! Spare your mother, and let her suffer the punishment of sorrow.”

     Hamlet was shocked to hear this, and he did not want anybody to know about it. So he started to act like a mad man so as to hide his feelings. Hamlet was in love with a girl, Ophelia, the daughter of a wise courtier named Polonius. Polonius and Claudius thought Hamlet’s love for Ophelia had caused his madness. At the same time Hamlet’s mind was full of confusion: can evil undo evil? Was the ghost actually telling the truth? Too many thoughts clouded Hamlet’s mind, and he was unable to do anything.

    To make sure of the truth, Hamlet arranged to stage a play before the court, including in it some scenes that looked like the murder of his father. During the scene of the poisoning, Claudius suddenly stood up and left. Now, Hamlet was sure about what had happened.

     Hamlet and his mother had a bitter argument. Polonius, hiding behind the curtains was shocked to hear Hamlet’s accusations. He made a noise. Hamlet thought it was Claudius and he killed him. Soon after, Hamlet was sent away to England with two courtiers who carried a sealed letter asking the king of England to put Hamlet to death. On the way, Hamlet secretly read the letter and wrote in it the names of the two courtiers, rubbing out his own. Later, some pirates helped Hamlet to return to Denmark. On his return Hamlet was of full grief to learn that Ophelia had taken her own life. Ophelia’s brother Laertes was very angry with Hamlet.

     Claudius made an evil plan to use Laertes to kill Hamlet and arranged a duel between the two. The plan was to give Laertes a poison tipped sword.  If at all Hamlet won, Claudius would be ready with poisoned wine to celebrate the match. In the fight, both Hamlet and Laertes got wounded by the poisoned sword. In the meantime the queen accidentally drank from the poisoned wine and fell dead. Before his own death, Hamlet rushed at the king and stabbed him with the poisoned sword.

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Who played the roles of Shakespeare’s female characters?

     There are quite a few soulful heroines in Shakespeare’s plays. Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Portia, Ophelia, Rosalind, Cordelia, and Gertrude are some of them. Who played these characters on stage?

     In reality, women were forbidden to perform in plays, as it was illegal for women to appear on stage. Therefore, there were no female actors in the Elizabethan theatre. In fact, women in general considered it beneath their dignity to act in plays. Neither did their guardians allow them to do so, as it was a matter of prestige and status. Shakespeare’s women characters were played by young boys who had not developed masculine features in their faces. Boys between 13 and 19 years of age were selected to play these roles because their voices were still high, and their muscles had not fully developed.

     The costumes for the female roles were very elaborate. There were many layers of clothing, and therefore, it would have taken considerable time, and the help of a dresser, to dress a boy actor in the costume of a female. The make-up used for these boy-artists was lead-based and, hence, was toxic. It was quite normal that such boys were very unhealthy. They had facial skin diseases and many died of lead poisoning! These boys were employed as apprentices; and therefore, were not paid well. In fact, they were the worst paid lot among the crew.

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Which are Shakespeare’s lost plays?

      Do we have all of Shakespeare’s plays? Is there any play lost to us? Many plays, which were once considered to have been written by Shakespeare, have now been discovered to be written by others. Shakespeare also has written plays in collaboration with others. A couple of his plays, however, are known to us only because they are mentioned by their name by his contemporaries and are lost. They are Love’s Labour Won and Cordenio.

      Francis Meres, an English churchman and author, lists a dozen or so plays by Shakespeare in his book Palladis Tamia. One of them is Love’s Labour Won. An English book-seller, Christopher Hunt also mentions the name of this play as Shakespeare’s work. Both of them were Shakespeare’s contemporaries and knew the bard’s works. Some say that this play was a sequel to Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. There is a reason for this speculation. In the play Love’s Labour Lost, the weddings that were to take place at the end of the play were delayed for a year. Maybe, Shakespeare, scholars think, had a sequel named Love’s Labour Won in mind. There is also another theory that this is the alternative name of an already existing play.

      Cardenio, on the other hand, is thought to be a collaborative effort by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, another Elizabethan writer. Scholars say that this play’s plot was based on a story from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Cardenio is a young man who lives in misery and madness in Sierra Morena, a mountain range in Spain, driven there by the apparent infidelity of his beloved Lucinda and the treachery of Duke Ferdinand. Lewis Theobald, and 18th century British writer, had written a play named Double Falsehood or The Distressed Lovers. Some say that this play is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cardenio.

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