Shakespeare is at the heart of the English literary canon—every English major must study him and find the implications of the metaphorical love potion in Midsummer Night’s Dream or explore the space of the soliloquy in Hamlet or maybe apply the Hegelian binary of slave-master to Enobarbus and Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well.
But there is more than poetry and prose (and that beautiful blend of it in his iambic pentameter and embedded sonnets) to Shakespeare—his plays are not just meant to be studied for literature’s sake. They flow and gush with dramatic action that is fundamental to dramatic analysis as well.
In his book Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, David Ball takes Hamlet as his main model for understanding plays. In his “backwards” reading of a play, he advocates taking “any scene of Hamlet” and placing it in a cause-and-effect manner (this is a loose definition of “sequential analysis”). So read the heap of bodies at the end as a culmination of prior actions, and keep going backwards. But more interestingly, Ball asserts that those “generations of well-meaning commentators [that] claim Hamlet is incapable of action” are wrong (14).
Why does Hamlet have that famous soliloquy “To be or not to be”? Ball argues that this is not actually about an intellectual prince merely musing about death, but a ploy intended to be overheard by Polonius. From Act III, Scene 1, line 29, King Claudius informs everyone on stage (and in the audience), “We have closely sent for Hamlet hither” so Hamlet is aware that he has been sent. But here Ball lets the reader assume Hamlet sees Polonius as a “master spy.” So let’s dive in!
For Hamlet to feign this suicidal and love-troubled vein, he would need to know of the possibility that he is being spied on. So how would he? His earlier encounter with Polonius hints at Hamlet’s need to pretend madness, which is a mask (talk about acting within acting) that he finally takes off once Polonius leaves the scene. Hamlet jabs, “These tedious old fools!” (II.2.237). So while in this scene, Hamlet would perpetuate this mad act to deflect Polonius (and the King) from knowing of his assassination plot. He may not be pretending or lying about “the pangs of despised love” but we do know that it still provides a density to his character that confuses Polonius and the King.
Turning to Othello, why does Desdemona say “Send for the man” to Othello in her death scene? Why “the man”? Just to be formal? In Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, the acting tutor for the new Desdemona critiques her:
Kynaston: (Sarcastic) …‘Send for the man’? That’s easy to say, isn’t it? …Cassio’s name gives her the willies…you think Iago plucked Cassio out of nowhere? …Iago picked Cassio because in truth Desdemona DOES fancy him! (71).
So in the penultimate scene of this play, the new Desdemona’s line reads, “Send for C…the man” and this hesitation brings the line to life, heightens the tension of the scene as all good acting does.
Reading Shakespeare is more than metaphor—it’s drama!
For more on Shakespeare, click Shakespeare.