The plays of William Shakespeare have given our language turns of phrase we all know: “full circle,” (King Lear) “break the ice,” (Taming of the Shrew) “strange bedfellows,” (The Tempest) and even the Latin “et tu, Brute?” (Julius Caesar). Even isolated lines have become so familiar that it is possible to anachronistically criticize the more popular plays, like Hamlet, as “full of clichés.”
Some lines, however, have managed to escape popular scrutiny—and for no obvious reason. Some of these are moments in Shakespeare’s plays that pull back the curtain, so to speak, and alter one’s whole conception of a character. Sometimes, of course, these revelatory lines do receive the attention they deserve: allusive hints at an elusive past between Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick and Beatrice—lines no more informative than “I know you of old” and “marry, once before he won [my heart] of me with false dice”—are so well-known that Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of the play incorporates a cinematic backstory that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Other revelatory lines remain unnoticed, however, and here I call your attention to five of them. These lines deserve our attention because the complications they suggest to their stories and characters invite the sort of recreational theorizing we’re familiar with from our interactions with the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes. When we spot some interesting, thoughtfully placed (or maybe “out of place”) details that change our understanding of who we’re watching and what’s going on we wonder what’s involved in the story that isn’t being shown: consider the theories of Jar-Jar Binks as a Sith lord, or Obi-Wan as Padme’s rival paramour.
Now, without further ado, I present to you five underappreciated, revelatory passages from Shakespeare.
1. Does Prince Hamlet really believe he’s seen his father’s ghost? (Hamlet)
Prince Hamlet spends some time doubting whether the phantom he speaks with in Act I (and again in Act III) is his father’s ghost or some imposter demon. Yet for one moment he seems settled in the idea that the figure is definitely not his father. In fact, he suggests this in the middle of his uber-famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, wherein he says:
“. . . who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
(III.1.76-82; emphasis mine.)
If no traveler returns from the afterlife, then Hamlet has certainly not been speaking to his father. And yet, for all of Hamlet’s back-and-forth tossing on that question, this remark does not seem to play a major role in analyzing Hamlet’s certainty.
While this line does not definitively answer the question, it raises other key questions: Is Hamlet so abstracted from his life in this moment of philosophical, existential contemplation that he can’t be bothered to take his own (peculiar) experience into account? Is Hamlet briefly and genuinely sold on the idea that it must have been a demon that sent him into such murderous contemplations?
2. Polonius had quite the exciting past (Hamlet)
Annoyingly, many of Hamlet’s most repeated proverbs—“neither a borrower nor a lender be,” “brevity is the soul of wit,” “to thine own self be true”—come from a politician who “was supposed to be an idiot.”
Lord Polonius, counselor to the new King Claudius, is the consummate political survivor (until Hamlet’s rapier gets him killed behind an arras) who doles out self-serving advice to his two children early on—advice that, unlike the rest of the play’s poetry, very well may have been clichéd as he was giving it.
In one such conversation he chides his daughter Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest) for being too familiar with the prince. Ophelia protests that Hamlet
“hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.”
“Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both . . .”
(I.3.115-8; emphasis mine.)
It’s a brief line in the middle of a long conversation about Hamlet and Ophelia, but for one moment the audience is given the idea of what sort of a life young Polonius once led. We are given no similar nods to this past life when Polonius is speaking to the King, Queen, Prince, or any counselors, so this is the only glimpse we receive into this particular aspect of Polonius’s past. Nonetheless, the idea of a smooth-talking, womanizing Polonius who strings attractive women along with empty promises appears in this line plain as day.
3. Sir Andrew Aguecheeck’s love life has seen better days (Twelfth Night)
During Twelfth Night’s famous partying scene, the perennially inebriated Toby Belch is bragging about the infatuation he receives from fellow B-plot character Maria while speaking with house guest Sir Andrew Aguecheeck.
The rich Sir Andrew is visiting Sir Toby on a hopeless quest to woo Olivia, all the while being encouraged by Sir Toby, who is busy exploiting Andrew’s wealth and generosity in the meantime. (The deception is more hijinks and less homicide in nature, but otherwise the same arrangement as Iago’s moneyed abuse of Roderigo in Othello.)
Sir Andrew, though he wrongly believes that Toby and his friend Feste enjoy his company, is aware of how unsuccessful he has been with Olivia. Aware enough to then reflect:
“I was adored once too.”
Sir Toby immediately changes the subject and we hear no more about Sir Andrew’s past. It leaves us to wonder about who might have adored Sir Andrew once, and how things may have soured between them.
4. Pandarus has a peculiar interest in his niece (Troilus and Cressida)
One of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” Troilus and Cressida, is set during the Trojan War, c. 1200 BC. According to legend, the Greeks and the Trojans fought the war over Helen of Troy. Helen, reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world, was taken from her Greek husband and delivered to a Trojan prince by the goddess Aphrodite to fulfill a promise (a bribe, really). Against this backdrop we watch one episode from the ten-years’ war, Troilus and Cressida, take place.
Despite its relative obscurity these days, the drama includes many figures whom you’ve probably heard of from other stories: Achilles of the Achilles heel, Aeneas the godfather of Rome, Ulysses (a.k.a. Odysseus, the eponymous hero of the Odyssey), Prince Paris (portrayed by Orlando Bloom in Troy, he is the Trojan prince who makes off with Helen), the aforementioned Helen of Troy, and one man—Pandarus—who appears by name a surprising number of times in other Shakespearean works (seven other plays, from King Lear to the Merry Wives of Windsor, mention him).
Pandarus functions as the go-between for the title lovers Troilus and Cressida—star-crossed lovers who meet in secret with Pandarus’s help. Troilus is a Greek prince, while Cressida is a Trojan—in addition to being Pandarus’s own niece.
Attentive audience members will find this familial relation between Pandarus and Cressida uncomfortable given one remark of Pandarus’s. In the middle of the play, when music begins offstage, Pandarus accosts a servant and asks him who commanded the musicians to begin. Pandarus receives this reply:
“at the request
of Paris my lord, who’s there in person; with him,
the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, love’s
(III.1.32-34; emphasis mine.)
This allusion is wordy but clear; the literary theorist René Girard picks up on it in his book A Theater of Envy, noting, “almost everyone in Troy, or in Greece, will spontaneously identify Helen whenever such stereotyped formulas as he just spouted are uttered . . . most Greeks and Trojans respond to this stimulus like well-trained Pavlovian dogs. Pandarus does not.” Instead, Pandarus answers:
“Who, my cousin Cressida?”
Girard takes this as the “best example” of Pandarus’s “completely obvious” love for his own niece; it is a misunderstanding of Pandarus’s that admits of no other clear interpretation–and casts a bizarre shadow over every action Pandarus undertakes as the young lovers’ go-between.
5. Did the Macbeths have children? (Macbeth)
Macbeth is the story of a mid-level royal in Scotland who brings disaster on the kingdom in his quest to become king. He murders the present king, assassinates his only friend, turns his wife into a grief-stricken murderess (responsible for prompting him to the first dagger), and invites civil war. The story has echoes of the original biblical Fall and is echoed by the gravitas and carnage of Breaking Bad.
While Macbeth is vacillating over whether or not to carry out his first murder—striking down his king, a guest in his castle—his wife comes along to help him “screw [his] courage to the sticking-place.” One argument she advances, though, hangs on the fact that Macbeth already promised her that he would murder the king, and she argues:
“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”
(I.7.60-65; emphasis mine.)
Which raises the obvious question: did the Macbeths have children? Lady Macbeth was probably in no position to serve as wet-nurse for another woman’s infant, an even more unlikely explanation for her remark “to love the babe.”
Yet no Macbeth Jr. runs across the stage. In fact, Macbeth’s lack of offspring and legacy is a major plot point in the tragedy: Macbeth and his friend Banquo are told at the outset by witches that Macbeth would be king with no heir while Banquo, never king, would yet sire a whole line of royalty. From that jealousy, their friendship founders on Macbeth’s bloody ambition and he recruits assassins to off him.
All of which makes it strange that the Macbeths might have had a child in their past—not because child mortality was unheard of, but because this image of a mother savaging her own baby—one of the most disturbing images in Shakespeare, thankfully only contemplated and not enacted—would be the only reference to the deceased in the entire play. There’s a litany of possible explanations for this reference, and each changes the way we watch everything that happens onstage.
And Now…The Rest of the Plays
These lines in Shakespeare, which change our entire conception of a character, are rare but unsurprising. When a body of work spans thirty-eight plays that are masterfully crafted in their plots and their character development, a generous amount of merely hinted character traits and history is bound to escape even the imagination common to enthusiasts.
Teasing out these hints is exceptionally rewarding for those fans who pay even closer attention to the dialogue than seems strictly necessary. The next logical step is formulating pet theories, comparing different interpretations and portrayals (Tom Holland is the superlative Spider-Man, and David Tennant the unrivalled Hamlet–change my mind), and developing elegant ways to think about a story (e.g. Dr. Strange as the marriage of sci-fi and fantasy, Winter’s Tale as the collision of tragedy and comedy) while reveling in each tale’s individual complexity.
These five passages serve as my favorite reminders that Shakespeare’s work is as ripe for active speculation and over-analysis with friends as the latest installment of Star Wars or the Marvel movies.