Friday, April 22, 2011

A Midsummer's Night Dream: Fantasy vs. Reality

As Shakespeare's Hamlet has the theme of appearance versus reality, A Midsummer's Night Dream displays the theme of fantasy versus reality.  We can even see the theme of dreams in the title; the characters cannot seem to figure out if all of the happenings existed or if they were dreams.  Fantasy in this play is represented through the alternate fairy world.

The fairy world and the human world exist harmoniously, but separately.  Also, the humans are unaware of their existence due to the fact that they "work their magic" at night.  For example, the character Puck is the trickster of the play, and he gives the mortals potions, amongst other magic, that make the characters say and do things out of the norm for their particular character.  Also, both realms have similar conflicts regarding love.  However, since the fairy world is essentially regarded as the dream world, this creates conflict when the dream world interferes with real world perceptions of events.

Within both the fairy and human realms, love is out of balance.  When we are introduced to the fairy realm in Act 2, we observe that how Oberon and Titania have confusion in their relationship because both of them feel betrayed.  As a result, Oberon has Puck put a magic flower potion on Titania's eyes while she is asleep, makign her hall in love with the first person she sees when she awakes.  The same is also done to Lysander's eyes, which creates a huge problem when he awakes to see Helena.  To counteract all of the problems that inevitably arose from this, he adds the juice to the other characters' eyelids.  Here, we can see this as being problematic because the fantasy world augments and creates a false sense of reality for the characters.  In the end, the tension between all of the love triangles is resolved through the use of magic.

The Role of Women in Shakespeare's Plays

While characters such as in the Taming of the Shrew may lead one to believe that women could possess strong, independent characters in Shakespeare's plays, think again!  The roles women play in Shakespeare's plays essentially serve to highlight female sexuality, female submissiveness, and male power over women.  Women are essentially props used to drive the story line.

Going back to Taming of the Shrew and the characters Bianca and Katherine, we see completely opposite ends of the spectrum in reference to female temperament.  Bianca is the prized daughter because she is beautiful and obedient, making her the focus of male attention in the town.  Katherine is the exact opposite; she is rough, starkly independent, and emotionally unavailable.  However, we discover that once Petruchio wins Katherine over, she fits right into the mold that women were expected to fit into.  She didn't desire to become just another housewife, but the male power over her life forced her into that role.

In Hamlet, Ophelia is used by every character in the play.  Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, married Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, so he begins to align his mother's sexuality with Ophelia's, causing her to greatly suffer.   Hamlet uses her as the scapegoat for his anger towards his mother, Claudius uses her to spy on Hamlet, her father uses her to win the favor of the royalty, etc.  Also, Hamlet takes her virginity, and then won't marry her because of it.  She is obedient to all of the powers in her life, and unable to voice her own opinion, she falls into a deep madness.  She is shunned for no longer being a virgin, which was a big deal at the time if you weren't married.  Because of her sexuality, she is seen as a whore even though she was just doing as Hamlet wanted.

Richard III exhibits the male power over women because although Richard is an evil man and the women despise him, he somehow wins their favor through manipulatory flattery.  For example, he was the reason for Lady Anne's husband's death, but throughout her cursing him, he says that her beauty made him do it.  Before you know it, she is now Richard's wife.  He doesn't appear to actually love the women he encounters, but he does want to use them to gain greater power for himself as he pursues the crown.  Although these are just a few examples of women's roles in Shakepeare's plays, this is a theme that Shakepeare holds to in many of his plays.

Comparisons between the play "Othello" and the Movie "O"

Shakespeare's play "Othello" and Tim Blake Nelson's modern interpretation, "O", exhibit many similarities in their content as well as some differences.  Nelson's movie, "O," came out in 2001, starring Mekhi Phifer as Odin (Othello), Julia Stiles as Desi (Desdemona), and Josh Hartnett as Hugo (Iago). Some similarities that both the movie and play focus on are themes of racial tension, jealousy, manipulation, small props, and much more.

Racial tension can be observed in both the play and the movie.  Othello is a black man who heads his army and is known for his bravery and valiant skill in war, and Odin is the star and only black basketball player on his high school team.  Although the racial undertone is more prevalent in the movie than it is in the play, it does serve to show that Othello/Odin is seen as different by the rest of the community.  Iago/Hugo are jealous of his success and want to essentially bring the cocky Odin and Cassio back to earth, and knows he can manipulate them using Desi and Odin's pride as the targets.  Iago/Hugo knows that he can use his skill and pick on the weaknesses in each character in order to get what he wants.  Secondly, a prop of significance in both the play and the movie is the handkerchief.  It was a gift, and when it ends up in the wrong hands, Othello/Odin becomes furious about it.  Also, Othello/Odin is manipulated into believing that Desdemona/Desi has been cheating on him and he promises Iago/Hugo that he will kill her for what she has done.  Despite his accusations, Desi/Desdemona holds true to her word when she says she hasn't cheat on him, but he still does not believe her and strangles her at the end of the movie.

The main difference between the play and the movie is the setting.  Othello is set in Venice and the island of Cyprus while there were wars between Venice and Turkey.  "O" is set at a modern day prep school where their basketball team is fighting for the state title.  In the play, Othello and Desdemona marry while in the movie, they are only high school lovers bound by a rubber band ring on Desi's ring finger.  Also, drug use becomes a factor in the movie that contributes to how the characters act; Hugo uses steroids and Odin uses cocaine.  While there are some differences between the movie and the play, Othello's plot guides O's storyline and makes for a very sad ending to this tragedy.

Lost Identities

Having a sense of identity is what separates humans from one another, but sometimes along our path in life, we can lose ourself.  Shakespeare's plays include many instances of manipulation, both good and bad, where the character begins to question who he or she really is, as well as other characters in the play.  The path to discovering oneself ends in either a joyous occasion or in a tragedy that the characters may not see themselves, but the audience is aware of their transformations the whole time.  Whether it ends in love or bloodshed, the true colors of each character is found by the end of the play.

1) In a Midsummer's Night Dream, fantasy is the primary factor in the loss of identities of the characters.  The driving force in this play is love, and the loss of identity can be seen in the humans when Demetrius essentially ignores Helena's obvious love for him, and Hermia ignores Demetrius' advances as well.  In the fairy world, Titania feels unacknowledged because Oberon appears to be paying more attention to the boy.  In the end, magic resolves all of these tensions.

2) In Hamlet, his father dies at the hand of his uncle, making Hamlet's mother go from appearing virtuous to becoming an evil person that drives Hamlet's impressions of others that he comes into contact with.  Because of this traumatic event, we begin to see Hamlet questioning himself and what is really the cause of his suffering and madness.  Is it the love he has for Ophelia?  Is it because of his mother marrying his uncle?  To justify the killing of Polonius?  In the end, we see a shift in him where he is not concerned solely about himself and his family, but with others; he finally has peace with himself for this.  Laertes avenges his father's death by killing Hamlet, and Hamlet avenges his father's death by killing Claudius.

3) In Twelfth Night, the disguises mask the true identities, as well as the genders, of the characters.  Viola disguises herself as a young man, Cesario, in order to seek service with Duke Orsino because Olivia is very consumed with herself and her own problems.  Olivia eventually falls in love with Cesario, not knowing that he is actually a she, Viola.  Orsino, originally tricked into thinking that she was Cesario, still accepts Viola as a woman when her true identity comes to light.

4) In Othello, Iago manipulates Othello into thinking that his wife, Desdemona, is an unfaithful woman.  He becomes more and more jealous and angry about this as Iago keeps telling him falsities.  At the end of the play, Othello ends up killing her because of her 'misdoings,' and then finds out that Iago had been tricking him the whole time.  Iago's true colors are shown to Othello at the end of the play and realizes all of the people who have been killed because of his manipulation.  Othello can't handle how his changed identity from a stoic, brave soldier to a cold-blooded killer; he ends up killing himself in the end.

Food (and Drink) for Thought

In many of Shakespeare's plays, there lies a heavy emphasis on eating and drinking.  It is evident that in contemporary, as well as Elizabethan, society that people find eating delicious food and drinking alcohol are both very pleasurable experiences.  However, Shakespeare doesn't just use food and drink to show his characters enjoying themselves; he uses them as metaphors to paint a picture of what was going on during this time period and how the characters relate to each other.  Food and drink was also used to show the social status of each character.  It seems that Shakespeare uses them to portray the sweetness that is visible on the outside, but also the selfishness, position, or sour nature of what is going on below the surface level of the characters' problems.  Below are some of quotations from various Shakespeare plays that show food and wine as metaphors.

In Othello, Act 2, scene 3 has many references to alcohol, specifically wine.  Iago is speaking to Cassio, and he is drinking to encourage Cassio to drink with him, after trying to invite him into a conversation regarding Desdemona.  Although Iago seems to Cassio like he just wants a drinking buddy, we know that is not the case.  Alcohol greatly impairs one's judgment, and Iago is trying to get Cassio drunk and make him believe that he could have a relationship with Desdemona.  He is manipulating Cassio and the situation, using wine as the instigator:

ACT 2, Scene 3, lines 20-28
And when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?
She is indeed perfection.

Well, happiness to their sheets! Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine, and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello.
Not tonight, good Iago. I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking. I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.
Oh, they are our friends. But one cup. I’ll drink for you.
I have drunk but one cup tonight, and that was craftily qualified too, and behold what innovation it makes here. I am unfortunate in the infirmity, and dare not task my weakness with any more.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew greatly embarrasses himself in front of Maria.  Sir Toby, always drunk, offers him a drink, to which Sir Andrew says that drinking a lot only gets him into more embarrassing situations.  Sir Andrew exposes how he is taken advantage of which reference to how much red meat he eats.  Foolishness and self importance are two themes that exhibited through references to food, especially in Twelfth Night.

Act 1, scene 3, lines 83-86
O knight, thou lackest a cup of canary. When did I see thee so put down?
Never in your life, I think, unless you see canary put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has. But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.
Lastly, there are many references to food and drink in Hamlet, but lines 19-25 in Act 4, scene 3 are particularly important to focus on.  In these lines, he is basically mocking the King and saying that Polonius is dead.  He explains how humans domesticate animals that we use to feed ourselves, but in the end we are really just feeding the worms.  A fat king and a skinny beggar are then put on the same playing field because they will both end up in the dirt providing the worms with bodies to feed on.
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your 

worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that's the end.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Similarities Between Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Twelfth Night"

Even though "Hamlet" is a dark tragedy and "Twelfth Night" is a romantic comedy, many of the themes in both of them overlap.  First, disguises are a major theme in both plays.  In "Twelfth Night," the characters wear actual disguises to trick the other characters.  Viola dresses up as Cesario, whom Olivia falls in love with.  Malvolio and Feste also disguise themselves.  In the end, the disguises don't really have an upsetting effect because they're accepted for who they really are.  In Hamlet, the "disguise" theme acts more under the theme of appearance versus reality.  Many of the characters in Hamlet appear to be good-natured, but below the surface-level they are dark, unjust, and selfish.

Second, love is seen as a cause of suffering in both plays. In "Twelfth Night," many of the characters mention how they are in pain because of the love they possess for someone else, especially when the person they love doesn't return the love.  At the end of the play, some of the characters rejoice in their love, while others are still pained by love's nonexistence in their lives.  This is just one of the effects that Shakespeare's romantic comedies have.  In "Hamlet," Hamlet suffers because of the love between her mother and his uncle that destroyed his parent's marriage.  He also thinks he is suffering because Ophelia rejects him at the beginning of the play because she was complying with her father's wishes, prohibiting her to marry Hamlet.  Thus, Hamlet makes Ophelia suffer by treating her with disrespect; he is constantly unfairly comparing his incestuous mother to Ophelia.

Linked to the theme listed above, marriage is considered a bad thing in both plays.  In "Twelfth Night," Feste is against marriage because he believes that it is a foolish thing to do.  He basically says that people should enjoy in-the-moment happenings instead of being so future-oriented when involved in a romantic relationship.  In "Hamlet," marriage is seen as a bad thing because some of the characters didn't stay true to their promises.  Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, remarried her husband's brother after her husband's mysterious death.  Also, Ophelia was used by many of the characters, but she is used sexually by Hamlet.  He promises her that they will be married if she gives into his sexual requests, and once she complies with his wishes, he basically tells her that he would have married her if she didn't give in.  After that, she went crazy, was deemed non virtuous, and was no longer attractive to other men because she was no longer a virgin.  There are many other comparisons between these two plays, but these are three notable themes that must be paid attention to.

"Twelfth Night" and Contemporary Reasons Against Marriage

The relationship that the fool, Feste, in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" has with love is very dark and disapproving.  These concerns that he has are surprisingly similar to the views that many people have in contemporary society regarding marriage.  Feste has somewhat of an odd attraction with Olivia, seeing as how he is her jester, but he will not take her as his wife.  He believes that only fools get married, and he expresses this in Act 3, scene 1, lines 29-32:

No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia has no folly.  She will keep
no fool, sir, till she be married, and fools are as
like husbands as pilchards are to herrings; the
husband’s the bigger: I am indeed not her fool,
but her corrupter of words.

Feste believes that men are even more foolish to get married because of what Orsino said to Cersario in Act 2, scene 4, lines 91-101.  Here, Orsino is saying that a woman can't love like a man because their love is materialistic and fleeting.  It is interesting to note that while the other characters' "suffering" is induced by love, the fool remains independent.  However, Feste still has feelings that he displays through hidden meanings in his songs, especially in Act 2, scene 3, lines  45-51:

What is love? Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter:
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty:
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

While Feste is making fun of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in this song, he is also singing about how Olivia should just enjoy the fun they're having together in the present instead of dwelling on what their future might be like or what it's expected to be.  Feste believes that she isn't a fool right now, but she will be when she eventually gets married.  In Act 1, scene 5, line 17, he says, "Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage," which is to make fun of marriage, saying that death is a good way to avoid having to be legally bound to another human.

Today, marriage also seems to be a foolish thing to do with over 50% of marriages ending in divorce.  One reason could be that the roles associated with "husband" and "wife" have shifted drastically; men aren't the only ones working outside of the home anymore and their masculinity may be threatened by this fact.  Financially, marriage can also be a burden.  In 2008, the U.S. News and World Report stated that how marriage can result in higher taxes because it can push them into a higher tax bracket than they would be if they were just single filers.  Also, marriage is limited to heterosexual couples, keeping homosexual couples ostracized.

There are many similarities between Feste's reserves against marriage as well as contemporary society's views against marriage, but there are a few fundamental differences due to the time periods.  While marriage is still assumed to be the next course of action for many couples today, it is not the single acceptable course of action for couples.  Just because you're married doesn't mean that you need to get pregnant as soon as possible, or have kids at all.  Also, divorce is not nearly as stigmatized as it used to be.  Even just 20-30 years ago, divorce was practically unheard of in communities.  Both time periods have their pros and cons regarding marriage, but Feste's view on marriage is one that many people hold in contemporary society.