Birthday.

April 23 is the date upon which we assume Shakespeare was born

Happy birthday, old chap!

The word birthday dates back to the late 14th century, having come from the Old English word byrddæg which meant the anniversary or celebration of one’s birth. At that time, though, it was usually used to commemorate the birth of s very important people, such as kings or saints. It was far more important to those early modern people that their children were christened, and that was the date recorded by the church. Regular folk did not commonly speak of the day on which they were born as their birthday until the 1570s, and about fifty years later they also spoke of their birthnight. 

Even though his own birthdate was not actually recorded, observation of one’s own birthday was far more commonplace by Shakespeare’s time. 

Cleopatra acknowledges her own birthday in Antony and Cleopatra: “It is my birthday: / I had thought t’have held it poor; but since my lord / Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.”

The Roman senator Cassius says in Julius Caesar V.i: “This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born.” 

In Pericles II.i the first of three fishermen with whom Pericles discusses the king, Simonides, observes that it the king “hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love.” 

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These instances show that celebrating or at least making note of one’s own birthday was something understood by the regular folk who made up most of Shakespeare’s audiences in the late 1590s and early 1600s.

Sources:
Etymonline
Etymologeek

Shakespeare’s Birthday
#ShakespearesBirthday #Shakespeare #blog

A Butt-load of Butts

A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively—  one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.

A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot  which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.

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The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.

In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of  methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.

This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.

That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from  animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans  came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.

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Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.

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Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast,  Love,charity, obedience and true duty”  with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of  her insult.

By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but  which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.

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It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”

Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”

The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.

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In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’  V.ii, he admonishes  her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.

Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus:  “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”

While it may be tempting to think that Doctor Butts, the court physician in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is another example of delightful word play, that was actually the name of the historical figure. Dr William Butts was the royal doctor in the court of Henry VIII. He was not the only well known member of his family: he came from a family of prominent Butts.
(I’m not even sorry. Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.)

Sources:

Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary
ShakespeareandHistory.com

A Butt-load of Butts.
#Shakespeare #language

Shakespeare Nerd: Valentine’s Day Edition

This Valentine’s Day edition of Shakespeare Nerd is brought to you by the brilliant Mya Gosling, creator of Good Tickle Brain.

Image reproduced here with permission.
Image reproduced here with permission.

Shakespeare Nerd Valentine’s Day Edition via @goodticklebrain
#ShakespeareSunday #ValentinesDay

Horror Scenes in Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus Cooks Dinner

While Shakespeare isn’t renowned for writing horror, he certainly understood the power of a macabre scene and the dramatic impact of horror when portraying just how evil a character could be. 
He created a number of beautifully creepy and macabre scenes that hold definite appeal for horror fans, and which make great reading for October and Halloween. 

Titus Andronicus is a confronting play. The story is full of enmity and revenge, a lot of violence, and a truckload of bloodshed and murder, with most of that happening on stage. It may already sound like a splatter horror storyline, but the final scene is particularly horrific.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who loses all but four of his sons in a war against the Goths, during which he has captured their queen, Tamora, her three sons and Aaron, a Moor, among others. Titus slays Tamora’s eldest son in a ritual killing to honour his dead sons, causing Tamora to swear hatred and revenge against him. 

She isn’t kidding. Having married the Emperor Saturninus, Tamora has two of Titus’ four remaining sons framed for the murder of the Emperor’s brother — a crime committed by her own sons, Chiron and Demetrius — for which they are beheaded. Then she has her sons rape Titus’ daughter Livinia, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she can’t tell anyone what they’ve done. 

Titus feigns madness, ostensibly brought on by grief, until Tamora, trying to take advantage of his insanity, tries to make a deal with him. Titus isn’t falling for that, though: he wants revenge, and he intends that Tamora will suffer far more than he has done. Keeping up his ruse, he invites Tamora, Saturninus, and various others to a banquet in Rome’s honour.

In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus proves that he is a master of revenge, and Shakespeare proves that he is a master of the macabre.

In this scene, Titus himself serves dinner and  encourages everyone to eat heartily of the feast. 

He proceeds to kill his daughter Livinia in front of the guests and tells Tamora it’s actually her sons that killed her through their despicable actions. When Saturninus demands that they are called to answer for their actions, Titus reveals that they’re already there— they’ve been baked into the pie that Tamora and everyone else just ate for dinner. 

At that point, the bloodshed starts again in full earnest. 

Titus stabs Tamora to death with a knife. 
Saturninus kills Titus. 
Titus’ son Lucius kills Saturninus. 

Lucius and Marcus, Titus’ other remaining son, expose the crimes of Tamora’s sons. They also expose Tamora’s love child to Aaron, the Moor who was  captured by Titus at the same time as she was.  Lucius and Marcus then invite the people of Rome to judge them for their deeds in avenging their brother and father. Instead of punishing them, the Romans make Lucius the new Emperor.

Aaron is buried alive, breast deep, so that he can regret his actions while starving to death. The Romans are forbidden to feed or help him. 

Tamora is denied a funeral, and her body is thrown to the wild beasts and birds of prey.

This scene alone has seven murders, four of which are brutally violent and take place on stage, and one live burial. 

You can read the rest of the scene, or the whole play, here.

William Shakespeare: writing splatter horror four hundred years before it became popular.  
You’re welcome. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Julius Caesar’

‘Julius Caesar’ is a brilliant play in which Shakespeare demonstrates his genius is in taking a story we all know and making the characters familiar in a personal and almost tangible way. Shakespeare takes one of the most famous men in history and portrays him as fully human, flawed and even vulnerable in different ways. It’s not the way we’re accustomed to thinking about ‘historical giants’ like Caesar., but Shakespeare makes it all seem quite natural. 

At the beginning of the play, even while he is being celebrated as Rome’s all-conquering hero, his first interactions cast him as a husband who is acutely aware of his wife’s childlessness. We don’t know if his instructions to Calpurnia and Antony are motivated by sorrow or by his desire for an heir to whom he might pass his empire, but either way, Caesar doesn’t miss an opportunity that might make a difference.  

Before long, we see him as a man afflicted by disease when he is struck by a seizure, and is obviously bothered by the fact that is happens in public. He may control all of Rome and its empire, but he cannot control his illness. 
We also see him as a man keenly aware of popular opinion, sen in his public refusal of the crown not once, but three times, yet ignorant of the way his own senators feel about him personally. Regardless of his aspirations, he is astute enough to know that actually accepting a crown as Emperor is not the best move for him at this point in time. 

In these things, the audience begins to see the great historical hero Julius Caesar as a complex, thoughtful man, one who holds a variety of responsibilities and obligations that he takes very seriously. He is very much human, in contrast to the Roman tendency to venerate their heroes almost as gods. We see his humanity rather than his pride, although we know that exists because it is his hubris that brings about his downfall. 

Shakespeare’s portrayal of other characters is equally powerful.

Caesar’s assessment of Cassius is profound: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” In those few words, Shakespeare establishes a vivid image that shapes our perception of the man and positions the audience to distrust the character. 

Brutus is shown as a moral man struggling with a dilemma that weighs heavily on him. A strong sense of foreboding settles on the audience when he puts his trust in Cassius, making himself vulnerable to a man whose thoughts and conspiracies are indeed dangerous, particularly for Caesar. At this point, even though both Caesar and the audience like Brutus, his destiny as one of the conspirators is sealed. 

In all of this, Shakespeare makes expert use of dramatic irony and foreboding to keep the audience in suspense as Caesar’s train speeds ignorantly toward its derailment. This is established right at the start of the play with the mysterious soothsayer who delivers the warning, “Beware the Ides of March”. 

While it is a history play, it has some elements of  a tragedy in that Caesar is completely oblivious to the fact that his actions are contributing to his own eventual demise at the hand of the conspirators whom he still perceives as friends and allies. The pathos of his question to Brutus: “Et tu, Brute?” — “You too, Brutus?” makes the moment of his all-too-late realisation one of almost palpable betrayal and sorrow. In that moment, Caesar dies knowing that he is truly friendless and alone.

It’s important to note that the play makes it clear that assassinating anyone is not a good idea, and the assassins do not prosper as the result of their actions. It wasn’t in Shakespeare’s interests to be seen to promote or condone assassinating the established ruler, as he was reliant on the good favour of Queen Elizabeth I and, after her, King James. He wasn’t encouraging anyone to try to kill their leader: he was showing that, historically, doing so didn’t actually achieve what the conspirators hoped it would. 

It’s a very direct and straightforward play – there are no real subplots and the political undercurrents are all really obvious because they are what drives the play. This makes it a great play for a “first Shakespeare play” for those who are just beginning their Shakespeare journey. 

For the word-nerds, this is the text from which we get great, still commonly used phrases like “It’s all Greek to me” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. It’s also the source of the title of John Green’s enormously popular novel ’The Fault In Our Stars’. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Much Ado About Nothing by Alfred Elmore, 1848. Image: Public Domain.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was written in 1598-99.  It is one of Shakespeare’s comedy plays, which means that the main characters enjoy a happy ending.  

In that sense, the word ‘comedy’ has changed over time, because now it’s understood to mean a text that is designed to make the audience laugh. There is plenty of humour in this play, though, as it was written purely to entertain and amuse the Elizabethan audiences. 

While it’s all about the entertainment, the play does explore some key ideas in ways that are designed to make the audience consider or contemplate those concepts for themselves. 

The play revolves around the challenges encountered by several couples who are in love but face various challenges in their personal lives that threaten their happiness and wellbeing. The ways in which different people respond to those conflicts and complications are well worth thinking about, because relationships are always challenged by problems of one kind or another. As Shakespeare observed in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, “the course of true love never did run smooth”, an epithet which is demonstrated with profound clarity in ‘Much Ado’.  

Questions of commitment, trust, belonging, family dysfunction, hatred and revenge all emerge in this play, seamlessly woven into and underpinning the plot and the responses of the characters. 
It is those timeless ideas that enable audience five hundred years later to still appreciate and relate to Shakespeare’s plays even though the language and many elements of our society have evolved since then. Shakespeare really was a master of exploring and portraying human nature at its best and its worst.

In contrast to those more serious ideas, one of the things I enjoy most about this play is the wit and banter between Beatrice and Benedick. They’re crazy about each other, but spend most of their time insulting and taunting each other because neither one knows that other is crazy about the other. In that way, theirs is an unconventional romance because there’s no formality, no swooning, and no overly sentimental conversations. They’re far more likely to be saucy or sarcastic than sickly sweet. 

Dogberry is hilarious in his frequent mangling of the language and the way he continually bungles his job as the constable despite his pretentiousness and high opinion of himself. He is entirely inept and ridiculous, providing some welcome comic relief during the more emotionally intense phase of the play. 

I also enjoy the way in which Shakespeare uses the characters and events of this play to make fun of the stereotypical romances that occurred in many popular plays and stories of the time, adding another level of wit and engagement to this play. I do love a bit of snarky, subversive humour, especially when it comes to the tropes of the genre of romance. 

As with all good Shakespeare plays, there are a couple of characters we can enjoy hating on. Don John, in a perpetual bad mood, seems determined to make everyone else suffer, just because things haven’t always gone his way. His selfish dudgeon may be as annoying to the audience as it is to the rest of the characters, but his blatant disregard for Hero makes him despicable. 

I also harbour significant dislike for Claudio and Leonato because they never even stop to consider that Hero might be innocent of the accusations levelled against her. For two men who love her – albeit in different capacities –  they have a mighty strange way of showing it. They don’t give her any credit for honesty or integrity: instead, they both default to outright condemnation.  The fact that Claudio delivers his judgement with such vengeance puts him right into my “love to hate” group with Don John. 

Finally, I can’t help but love a play that can get so much mileage out of a line like “hey, nonny nonny!” 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘King Lear’.

I have loved ‘King Lear’ ever since I saw a performance of the play in my teens and was completely transported by it.
I find it impossible to consider a parent being betrayed by their child without thinking of Lear, and am compelled to utter the quotation, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow!” at least once during every good storm I witness. 

‘King Lear’ is the story of a king with one daughter who actually loves him and two who are the most selfish, greedy, and deceitful women the kingdom had ever seen. The problem was that he was unable to tell which was which. And so, his story turns to tragedy. 

Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about being historically correct or pleasing the right people with this play, although it wouldn’t be right to show the king as being a bit of an idiot when it comes to his family relationships, so he was sure to stay safe by putting the blame on the king’s horrible daughters and their ambition to take what was not rightfully theirs. Loyalty and faithfulness were, after all, very important qualities and concepts for anyone living in Elizabeth’s England, and you couldn’t have people just seizing land and power that didn’t belong to them. 

It’s not just Lear’s elder daughters, either, that turn on their father. The Duke of Gloucester, faithful supporter of Lear, also feels the dagger of betrayal planted firmly in his back Edgar, by his bastard son, Edmund, who is seeking to take all that rightfully belongs to his brother Edgar. 

In all of this, there are valuable lessons to be learned about who to trust, how to discern who is really loyal to you, and the fact that some people are far more driven by greed and ambition than they are by familial love. Given that we live in a world where kids have been known to turn on their parents and even divorce them in some cases, and where families are divided and sometimes irreparably broken by disputes over money and property,  ‘King Lear’ is clearly a play that still holds relevance for us today. 

It is a beautifully crafted story, full of pathos and tragedy and heartbreak. The language and imagery is magnificent. The dramatic irony of Cordelia’s fall from grace and Lear’s subsequent fall from power at the hands of General and Regan is heartbreaking. Cordelia’s fate hangs in the balance right up to the end of the play while, it seems, the evil people win. That is another point of relatability for the audience: we don’t like seeing the evil people win, and we want to see them get their just desserts. It’s a theme that Shakespeare explores at length in this play, and he expertly positions the audience to keep hoping that Lear and Cordelia will win the day. 

It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy, however, that pretty much everyone dies and there are a few minor characters left to pick up the pieces at the end, so the audience has to be content with the poetic justice delivered to some and the beautifully tragic ending that comes to others. 

The fact that it doesn’t have a happy ending is one of the things I like about it. Life often involves less-than-happy endings, and it has always seemed to me that those who hope only for happiness are setting themselves up for an enormous struggle when adversity shows up instead. We can’t always have what we want, and Lear would have done well to remember that. Cordelia would have been better off if she had realised that not everyone who should recognise your integrity will do so, and that sometimes you need to play the game better than the cheats do in order to make them lose. 

Sure, I believe in happiness, but I know from my own experience that life is generally far more complex than being able to achieve happiness and simply stay there. We are constantly challenged to maintain a balance  between necessity and luxury, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, lest we be overrun by one or the other. Achieving that balance is the art of life.