Friday, March 8, 2013

Shakespeare - II

During Shakespeare's time, severe corporal punishment in schools was common. The rote memorization, repetition, recitation exercises, etc. were backed up by threats of violence. It was understood that Latin learning meant whipping.One educational theorist of the time speculated that buttocks were created to facilitate the learning of Latin. A good teacher was supposed to be a strict teacher who beat his students.

The level of violence in Elizabethan England was amazing compared to the standards today. It was not a good time to write poetry. Court intrigues, treasonous plots, torture, public executions, displaying severed heads on stakes, etc. were common. Even educated playwrights (the flaky types) engaged in duels which often resulted in someone getting killed. For example, Ben Jonson killed a fellow writer in a duel and Christopher Marlow (an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, both being born in the same year) was killed in a bar-room brawl at the age of 29.

There was even a class distinction in the manner of carrying out executions: hanging for common people and beheading for aristocrats. The violence of the times was reflected in Shakespeare's tragedies and it would not have been extraordinary for the Elizabethan public since they would have witnessed similar scenes in real life. The thirst for vengeance is reflected is reflected by the comment about Iago's fate by an official of the state at the end of Othello:
If there be any cunning cruelty  
That can torment him much and hold him long,
 It shall be his
It is easy to believe the main thesis of Steven Pinker's latest book that the levels of violence has decreased over the centuries. (I haven't read the book. Reading around 700 pages about the worst of human behaviour is not appealing even though it leads to a positive conclusion.) Here is a TED talk by Pinker on this theme.

Shakespeare did not create the plots of most of his plays but rather borrowed them from existing sources. The main source of Julius Caesar was Plutarch's Lives. As You Like It was adapted from another play called Rosalind. The plot of Hamlet was lifted from another play by the same name. He used his mastery of the English language to create plays that moved Ben Jonson to comment that he was 'not of an age but for all time'. (Not everybody was such an unabashed admirer of Shakespeare. Leo Tolstoy was probably his most famous critic. I heard  a speaker say that say that this was because he considered Shakespeare his only rival.)

Shakespeare appears to have been something of a hypocrite. At one time, he stored large quantities of malt in his barn. Malt was made from barley which was expensive at the time and could only be afforded by rich men. This was at a time when the harvest was poor and strictures were passed against hoarders. Since the leading citizens - who were the main offenders, Shakespeare being one of them - were supposed to implement them, nothing happened. So he obviously had no compunctions making money off the poor. 10 years later he wrote Coriolanus which had a sympathetic portrayal of poor people threatening to rise up against hoarders.

In Shakespeare's time, plagues were common, maternal and child mortality was high and life expectancy was low.The average life expectancy was 45 years. And, going to theatres was not a universally approved pass time. The public liked it but there was also powerful opposition to it. An example is given in Will in the World:
Go to plays, thundered one irate minister, John Northbrooke, "if you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlots to obtain one's love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, how to allure to whoredom, how to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes, to consume treasures prodigally, to move to lusts, to ransack and spoil cities and towns, to be idle, to blaspheme, to sing filthy songs of love, to speak filthily, to be proud...." The catalog of vicious lessons continues breathlessly, to be augmented over the years by many other preachers.
PS: BBC Radio 4 had a podcast series called Shakespeare’s Restless World.

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