We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest Act IV.iv. 155–158
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, generally dated around 1611, about the time of the establishment of the American colonies in Virginia (1607). Shakespeare was well aware of the nascent colonies in this “brave new world”, and the play often focuses on the dramatic tension of native vs. foreigner through the characters of Ariel and Caliban as contrasted with Prospero.
The relationship between native vs. foreigner was a topic in Shakespeare’s time. Colonization offered opportunities to develop commercial enterprises, and to expand the breadth of the British kingdom (not quite an empire….yet!)
In England, ship records (290) from the early 1600s indicate multiple regular trips across the Atlantic; an estimated 7100 families were relocated.
A selection from a larger database recording ship travel across the Atlantic the year The Tempest was offered in London; credit to Anne Stevens did the work.
While The Tempest references the “stuff that dreams are made on” there could be an argument made that Shakespeare presupposed that “stuff” of imagination would be the force that would drive independent minded pilgrims to our American shores.
What better way to end the month of this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare-Britain best commodity- than by celebrating his ability to anticipate our American Dream?
Of the two most often used words in Shakespeare’s plays, the word love appears almost twice as often as the word hate. Love appears 63,162 times, according to the data on the OpenSourceShakespeare site, while hate is seen 37,971. In addition, the past tense of the verb to love – or loved– appears 13,425 times.
Love is one of the earliest words in the English language, coming from the Old English lufu means”love, affection, friendliness.”
Yet there was little love and affection in Shakespeare’s most produced plays: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. If anything, many of the characters would have to sit on the hate side of the aisle.
Shakespeare portrayed all different forms of love in relationships. He captured each of the Greek ideas of love, and provided examples of each in his plays and sonnets:
- Eros, or sexual passion of Romeo for Juliet,
- Philia, or deep friendship of Horatio to Hamlet,
- Ludus, or playful love of Bottom and Titania,
- Agape, or love for everyone of King Lear’s daughter Cordelia, and
- Pragma, or longstanding love of Calpurnia for Julius Caesar.
There are a number of conclusions to draw, but the immediate take-away is that the evidence suggests that Shakespeare was a “not a hater…”
Reading Shakespeare can give us the “wows“!
What are wows?
According to Professor Philip Davis from the University of Liverpool’s School of English, the linguistic tricks that Shakespeare uses in his poetry, “excite us, rather than confuse us.”
In an article posted on The Big Think: This is Your Brain on Shakespeare, by Daniel Honan, Davis explains that the brain is more active when listening to word play. Davis cites several switches in parts of speech, a kind of word play, that Shakespeare employs in his plays:
An adjective is made into a verb: ‘thick my blood’ (The Winter’s Tale)
A pronoun is made into a noun: ‘the cruellest she alive’ (Twelfth Night)
A noun is made into a verb: ‘He childed as I fathered’ (King Lear)
Using brain imaging equipment, Davis and others conducted experiments that revealed brain activity when people listened to these the ways Shakespeare used language.
The researchers noted that, “A normal brain reaction is called an N400, which occurs 400 milliseconds after the brain experiences a thought or perception.” Listening to Shakespeare in contrast caused a peak in brain activity, “or a P600 response occuring 600 milliseconds after the brain experiences a quite different type of thought or perception.”
Davis describes the P600 response as the “Wow Effect,” in which the brain is excited, and is put in “a state of hesitating consciousness.”
Of course, that kind of “hesitating consciousness” may look a little different in high school where any form of consciousness is a goal.
Some of my favorite Shakespeare memories have included the Shakespeare productions at the Delacourt Theatre in Central Park.
I have been fortunate to secure tickets to see Shakespeare plays produced by the Public Theatre during the seasonable summer months either by waiting in line or through the new digital lottery system.
Of the two, my preference is for the digital lottery…enter your name in the morning, find out if you won by 1:00. Then, make a mad dash into the city to retrieve tickets by 6pm.
The waiting on line is by far the more difficult commitment. Depending on the day of the week and the play being performed, the line can begin snaking back to Central Park’s Great Lawn as early as 4 A.M.
Remaining on line for several hours means being prepared-hauling in chairs, blankets- to protect your bottom from the cold ground. Which is maybe where the genius idea of creating a quilt titled “Shakespeare in the Park” found its genesis.
“Shakespeare in the Park” design.
The quilt designed by Judy Martin captures the magic of spending an evening under the stars. The design mimics the complex connections of characters and the whirl of action in each of Shakespeare’s plays.
Making this quilt could be an activity that could be done while waiting on a line in Central Park for a Shakespeare show …a productive activity that could be done waiting on line between the wee hours of dawn and 1pm.
The finished quilt could be used as a cushion while waiting, however, I think it is too beautiful to sit on. The complex mix of stars and swirls would need protection using a tarp or blanket beneath.
“Shakespeare in the Park” quilt design has a beauty that complements the beauty in Shakespeare’s language.
Idioms are word combinations that have a different meaning than the literal meanings of each word. In the texts of his plays, Shakespeare was very creative with these word combinations, and some of the idioms he is responsible for either coining or popularizing include:
Tonight, the local intermediate school housed a “Festival of Arts” that featured the work of 5th and 6th graders in all subject areas. The Reading Department hallway had a large banner spelling out the word IDIOMS, showcasing the figurative language that the students had been studying this past month.
In “IDIOMS” hallway, the parents, family and friends could wait in lines to receive a donated book. While they stood in line, they also could read the idiomatic phrases that students had designed hanging on the walls:
Just as Shakespeare used word play and figurative language to create images in the minds of the playgoers 400 years ago, these idioms showed that “pictures paint a thousand words” and that student illustrations were “second to none”!
There are a number of websites dedicated to poetry that explain that the word stanza means “room” in Italian. The etymology of the word stanza comes from from Vulgar Latin stantia meaning “standing, stopping place.” Other explanations include- “a station,” or “a stopping place” -where each stanza in a poem is compared to a small dwelling.
Shakespeare’s sonnets share a distinctive style. Each sonnet has three rhyming quatrains (abab/cdcd/efef) and a rhyming couplet (gg), a style that has been named Shakespearean. These sonnets differ from the Petrarchan sonnet, named for the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch.
There are 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare, and that is a total of 616 stanzas. If you want to be literal, and think of stanzas as little rooms, you could check what those 616 “stanzas” might look like in the following:
A folio is:
- “an individual leaf of paper or parchment, numbered on the recto or front side only, occurring either loose as one of a series or forming part of a bound volume.”
- “a sheet of paper folded once to form two leaves (four pages) of a book.”
William Shakespeare’s plays were printed on folios. There were 36 plays collected in what is known as the First Folio (1623) which were advertised to be better than copies “stol’n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.”
Several years ago, a friend gave me a large “one-page” reproduction of the text of Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado about Nothing.” The entire play -all 21,157 words- is laid out in a 27″ X 40″ frame.
The title of the play is a pun “noting” a reference to written messages, spying, and eavesdropping, which are all woven through the plot. There is “much ado” made of something which is insignificant or “nothing”….which is also why my husband would not let this hang this in our bedroom.