Shakespeare’s Baubles.


Because it’s December and Christmas decorations are everywhere, I wrote last night about the meanings and etymology of the word ‘bauble’ on WordyNerdBird. I wondered then if it were a word used by Shakespeare. To my delight, it was indeed!

Interestingly, Shakespeare references one of the continued senses and the obsolete sense of the word, and creates double entendre with it for extra credit.

In ‘Cymbeline’, the queen refers to Caesar’s ships bobbing around on the sea as ‘ignorant baubles’, describing them further as being like egg shells, being thrown and broken against the rocks.

A similar reference to boats as ‘baubles’ is made in ‘Troilus and Cressida.

In ‘Othello’, Cassio shows his disregard for Bianca by describing her as a bauble that follows him around and tries to make him fall in love with her.  That his companions laugh with him demonstrates that this use of the word to describe a pretty but not-so-valuable woman was easily understood at the time.

In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘bauble’ is used to refer to Kate’s hat – a decorative item of clothing, which is of little value in the play other than its use as a prop in her surprising demonstration of obedience to her husband, Petruchio.

‘Timon of Athens’ references a bauble as the staff of a jester or idiot, although in this instance, Aaron the Moor is suggesting that a king holding his sceptre and claiming to be faithful to God is the equivalent of his fool holding a bauble and pretending to be the king.

This sense of ‘bauble’ is extended in All’s Well That Ends Well, where the Clown refers to cheating on a man with his wife and giving her his bauble “to do her service”.  Clearly, this is a pun on the jester’s staff, used to reference an altogether different kind of rod with a special ending on it.

This is Shakespeare’s trademark wit in action, taking common language and creating word play loaded with double entendre that would delight the masses and the ‘gentlemen’ alike.

Book Review: The RSC Shakespeare – The Complete Works

The Complete Works, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and edited by Jonathan Bale and Eric Rasmussen, is a brilliant book. 

Having read and enjoyed several of the RSC texts of individual plays,

As always with RSC editions of individual plays, the notes provided are excellent. Each play has a thoughtful introduction that explores key ideas and themes, as well as providing insights for dramaturgy, performance and production.

The printing is clear, and of a good size —  not so small that it is almost impossible to read, as with many collected works editions —  and the paper quality is beautiful.

In addition to the texts, there are pages of annotated photographs and illustrations to give added context and to highlight RSC performances of the plays.

Physically, it is quite a big book, so it is  most comfortably used on a desk or table. The paperback is lighter in weight, but I am a little disappointed that I did not buy the hard cover edition, as that would make it more durable.  

Even so, I’m delighted with this volume and have found it very useful thus far.  Should I find that my paperback does not stand the test of time and regular use, I will definitely invest in a hard cover copy, as this is a book I will want to read and make use of for many years to come.

21st Century Ways to Entertain Yourself in the Shakes-sphere

Contrary to what some people might think, enjoying Shakespeare isn’t all about seeing performances of plays, being academic, and knowinf your “thees” from your “thous”.

These apps for smart phone or tablet will appeal to devoted Bardophiles looking for new ways to enjoy Shakespeare, but also to students looking for ways to enrich and extend their knowledge of Shakespeare’s works.

There are loads of Shakespeare-related apps out there, but of all the ones I’ve tried, these three are the ones I have kept and continue to use.

Emoji Shakespeare has a variety of passages from well-known plays in which one is required to ‘fill in the blanks’ with emojis. It’s a great way to pass a bit of spare time, and definitely more interesting than endless reiterations of Candy Crush.

ShakesQuiz is a multiple choice quiz game that covers the plays, poetry, life and times of Shakespeare. Each quiz is ten questions long. Hints can be purchased if one is unwilling to achieve less than perfect scores. I prefer to think of it as something to improve on next time!

The Shakespeare Pro app offers a digital collection of Shakespeare’s works, analysis, quotes, and the facility to make and save notes. The search function is comprehensive and customisable, enabling a specific search within a particular work or across the entire canon.


If you have an app you enjoy, please leave your recommendation in a comment.

Knowing Your Literary Devices.

Knowing the literary devices used by Shakespeare and how they work helps those who read or study his works understand the ways in which he has shaped and crafted meaning in the lines delivered by his characters and in his poetry. It also helps readers to recognise the difference between literal and figurative language, and therefore to interpret more correctly the message of particular lines and scenes, and of texts as a whole. 

Of course, there are the standard ones that everyone should learn in school: simile, metaphor, alliteration, repetition hyperbole.  In senior high, that should extend to more sophisticated devices specific to the text being studied. My senior English class is studying ‘RichardIII’, so they are learning about stichomythia, anaphora and antithesis among others. Irony and dramatic irony are also heavy hitters in this play, so while they are by no means new concepts to the students, we are discussing them in detail. 

An excellent online resource for the definition and demonstration of rhetorical devices used by Shakespeare and many other dramatists, orators and writers is Silva Rhetoricæ.

The site is knowledgeable and fairly thorough, although some terms relating to Shakespeare’s plays are not included. The names of rhetorical devices are listed alphabetically, and the definitions are written in plain English with examples and alternative terms provided. There is also a handy pronunciation guide, which is really helpful when it comes to terms like ‘bdelygmia’ and ‘symploce’. 

While I do not expect my students to use the same degree of metalanguage that university students might use, there is definitely credit in nailing the key terms and using them to write about a text with greater eloquence and sophistication. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: The Balcony Scene

Pretty much anywhere you go, whoever you talk to, if they know only one thing about any play by Shakespeare, it’s the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It’s possibly the most famous scene ever written. 

There’s just one problem with that:  there was no balcony. 

That’s correct. 

There. 
Never. 
Was. 
A.
Freaking.
Balcony. 

In the script, the stage direction is clear: JULIET appears above at a window. 

Not a balcony. A window. 

You can read the entire scene and see that not once is a balcony mentioned. 

I don’t know who invented it, but it was a killer idea that I bet Shakespeare would wish he had thought of, were he still alive today. 

Of course, directors can stage a play however they like, and make use of whatever structures, sets and furniture is available to them. 

Filmmakers can do likewise, but one must keep in mind their tendency to just change whatever they want. Hollywood is notorious for that. The mayhem that comes from mass misunderstanding occurs when directors think they know better than the author, and when people watch a movie instead of reading the book.

It makes people and their assumptions about the original text wrong, and leaves them marinating in their wrongness until their wrongness is so commonly accepted that most people think it’s right. 

It just goes to show that what your English teacher always said is true: there really is no substitute for reading the book.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

This line comes from Henry VI, Part 2, written in 1598. It was spoken by Dick the Butcher, a character nobody remembers except for this line, who was hanging about with his fellow rebels in a field at Blackheath.

It’s often quoted by people who are disillusioned with the legal system, or feel that certain members of the legal profession have less integrity than they should do. It is with these people for whom Dick the Butcher is likely to identify and sympathise. 

It is important to understand that the intent of the line was to be funny — a sardonic response from the sort of character who is likely to have suffered at the hands of a lawyer or witnessed them acting less than judiciously— rather than a serious suggestion or a statement of intent. When you read the scene as a whole, the jaded weariness of Dick and his mates is clearly evident as a contributing factor to their rebellion. This is the context in which this quotation must be read. 

Dick the Butcher is part of a group of rebels led by Jack Cade, who is extolling his qualifications to be king because of his noble connections, while the others are having a bit of a laugh at him because, realistically, he’s anything but noble. Jack does have ideas about a more egalitarian society, which form the context for Dick the Butcher’s punch line. As far as he’s concerned, if there were going to be some kind of ideal society, it wouldn’t have any lawyers in it. 

Cade concurs with Dick: lawyers using parchment to create documents is a waste of good lambs’ skins, and the beeswax used as a seal stings more than the bee does. He agreed to something legally once, and somehow gave up his freedom or rights by doing so. He doesn’t clarify what the issue was, but the audience certainly understands his sentiments regarding lawyers. 

The misunderstanding and misuse of this quotation arise from the interpretation that Shakespeare is saying that it’s the lawyers and upstanding citizens who would stand in the way of such a rebellion working because of their integrity and commitment to enforcing the law. 

I would be willing to put money on that theory having been dreamed up by a lawyer in the first place.  

If the predominant population of Shakespeare’s audiences were made up of lawyers, judges and clerks, this theory may have more credence.

However, the audiences were comprised of a much wider representation of society as a whole, only a small percentage of which was made up of lawyers. Many were quite common folk who stood throughout the performances, known as groundlings, while others were wealthier and could afford to pay for a seat. While some of those may have been lawyers, most were lords and ladies and members and other members of the gentry. 

It does seem that even in Shakespeare’s time there was a fair degree of scepticism about lawyers. While Shakespeare mentions the legal profession more than any other, this is by no means the only play in which Shakespeare makes a joke at their expense. Mercutio, for example, talks about lawyers grasping for money in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while the Fool in ‘King Lear’ makes a pointed statement about lawyers not saying or doing anything unless you pay them first. 

Shakespeare was not trying to incite violence against lawyers, but he certainly wasn’t suggesting that they are the protectors or upholders of society, either.  Dick’s statement is clearly satire, expressing cynicism about lawyers in ways that people understood even then. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Star-cross’d Lovers”

Just like ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, this commonly misunderstood famous line comes ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I have witnessed so many people talking about Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers” in the sense of their meeting and relationship being their destiny, and that the two were somehow fated to be together. 

This couldn’t be more wrong. 

The actual meaning of the term becomes clearer if one thinks of it in terms of the stars actually crossing them. 

Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. The fates were against them, right from the start, and it was never going to work out well. 

It’s important to remember that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main characters always die. There are no happy endings. That’s a convention of the genre, and it is pointless to expect anything else. 

Not only that, but Shakespeare gives us the spoilers right there in the prologue, the opening speech of the play, which is where the phrase comes from. They’re going to die, and as they are laid to rest, so too will be buried the feud between their families, which is what made their love forbidden in the first place. 

The prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

If, as some believe they do, the stars were to control one’s fortunes in life, the last thing you’d wish for is to be “star-crossed” in any way. 

‘Measure for Measure’: When Shakespeare is More 21st Century Than You Realise

Written in 1603 or 1604, ‘Measure for Measure’ is a play with enormous relevance to the 21st century. 

As I listened to the play on the BBC’s ‘The Shakespeare Sessions’ podcast yesterday, it struck me just how timely and relevant it is. 

The play features a man named Angelo who, having been left in charge by the Duke, totally abuses his power in the interests of sexual gratification. He tells Isabella he will pardon her brother Claudio, who has been sentenced to death, if she has sex with him. When Isabella refuses and threatens to tell everyone what he has suggested, he simply asks, “Who will believe you?” 

from ‘Measure for Measure’, Act 2, Scene 4

Angelo is clearly relying on his powerful position, and his ability to hold something over her, to get away with sexual abuse and bribery. And he dares to call it “love”, when it is anything but that. He is attempting to romanticise his proposed rape and abuse of power, as abusers so often do. 

This is exactly the kind of behaviour we’ve seen exposed by the #metoo movement. Men abusing their positions of power and pressuring women to give in to them because they have the power to grant what the women need – a job, justice, whatever… and relying on their position to give them more credibility than a woman in a weaker position in society. It really does foreshadow those now infamous words spoken in 2017 by yet another reprehensible character: “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Not easily intimidated, Isabella points out that what he is suggesting is exactly the crime for which he has sentenced her brother to death.  His hypocrisy is abundantly obvious to not only Isabella, but also to the audience.   That she calls him out on it demonstrates her integrity and intelligence. Bravo to Isabella for not taking his crap or falling prey to his greasy manipulation. 

Caught in between wanting to save her brother’s life and not wanting to have sex with Angelo, Isabella verbalises the impossibility of her situation in that very poignant and thought-provoking line: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?”

Still, even though she understands that what he says is probably true, she neither yields to him or gives up on her brother. Instead, she finds another way to solve her problems and expose the bad behaviour of Angelo.

As suggested in the title, justice is received at the end of the play in the same measure with which it is meted out at the beginning. 

In this, we see a woman standing up for what is right, defending herself, refusing to give in to a man’s manipulation and sexual pressure, and winning. Angelo is punished for his corruption, and Isabella saves both herself and her brother. 

This is a powerful contrast to most of the women in Shakespeare’s other plays, and indeed in the early modern times in which he lived and wrote, few of whom had any real agency or ability to stand up for themselves against the will of men. 

‘Measure for Measure’ is a thought-provoking and entertaining play which demonstrates that while times have changed, the effect of power and position on human nature has not. Even so, it does remind us that evil people can, and should, be resisted, and we should never stop pursuing justice just because it’s difficult to do so. 

That is truly a message pertinent to life in the 21st century. 

‘Good Tickle Brain’: An “excellent good friend” for exploring Shakespeare.

For Shakespeare Sunday this week, I want to share with you the wonderful work of cartoonist Mya Gosling at Good Tickle Brain. 

Mya takes the vast works of Shakespeare and condenses them into cartoons that even those with very little knowledge of Shakespeare can read, understand and appreciate.

For Shakespeare nerds like me, it presents a lot of fun and great “oh yeah!” moments. For those new to the plays or wondering what on earth the characters are saying and doing, Mya’s cartoons make the complex much more straightforward. 

This website contains a wealth of play summaries, character spotlights, analysis and audience insights. I frequently share Good Tickle Brain with my students because it really does help to make whatever play we are studying more accessible and relatable for them. 

Even if you haven’t seen or read the play Titus Andronicus — and let’s face it, most people haven’t— make sure you watch the video titled ’Titus Andronicus: All The Deaths’. The way she draws all the characters and then depicts how they died in the play is brilliant!

Also incredibly insightful is the non-Shakespeare section titled ‘Keep Calm and Muslim On’, which is Mya’s exploration of the way in which Muslims and non-Muslims get along together in American society, which I find highly relevant to Australia too.  I always enjoy seeing the simple but profound ways in which Mya breaks down the barriers and embraces the differences while still showing how similar we really all are. 

It’s a great website that holds lots of fabulous little surprises. I really hope that you’ll take a look, and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.