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Studies in Shakespeare

Critical Approaches to Shakespeare: Some Initial Observations

[This document has been prepared by Ian Johnston for students of English 366 at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). It is in the public domain, released May, 1999. For more lectures in this series, please click here.]

[This text was last revised on November 19, 2001]



An earlier introductory note to some basic principles of literary interpretation ("On Scholarship and Literary Interpretation"), stressed that literary interpretation or literary criticism is, in many ways, an anarchic conversational activity with the practical purpose of enriching our shared understanding of a particular text. The value of any particular interpretative observations, or of a methodology upon which those observations are based, is judged by the results, as adjudicated by a group of intelligent conversationalists who have read and thought about the text under discussion. Hence, there is no one privileged way of organizing and presenting one's views. As that previous note mentioned, there are some basic rules about how the conversation should proceed, but these do not require a shared adherence to a single way of reading a text. In fact, the conversational basis for really useful literary interpretation finds its justification in the contrast between different ways of reading a text or some portion of it, because conversation is the best forum in which such differences confront each other and the participants profit from a discussion of the results of such different readings.

However, in spite of the above remarks, there are some favorite ways of reading fictions, each of which stresses certain elements of the work over others. These may be called, I suppose, common approaches to or entries into the works, preferred ways of making contact with something that is going on in the text, so as to organize one's comments and get the interpretative conversation going. As we shall see, these methods are not mutually exclusive, although with some works one or more may be more practically useful than another.

The purpose of this document is to review a few of the more common of these critical approaches to Shakespeare's plays. This introductory comment should help students reflect upon their own critical practices as they read, discuss, and write about Shakespeare's texts. This is important, because one of the great values of studying Shakespeare is that such an endeavour can lead to a much wider and fuller understanding, not just of the works themselves, but of literary interpretation generally. Such an understanding becomes all the more likely if students are prepared at times to experiment with new ways of reading a text, leaving behind for a moment their preferred methods and seeing how different approaches might work.

The Challenge of Shakespeare's Work

Shakespeare's work offers an extraordinarily rich resource for the literary interpreter because it includes such a huge variety, from lyric and narrative poetry to many different forms of poetic drama. Some of the plays seem deeply rooted in specific political realities, while others are clearly much closer to romance, science fiction, or pastoral. The works include scores of complex characters, major and minor, whose psychological make-up invites analysis, but they also explore complex social, political, and moral ideas. Sometimes these ideas are very explicitly present, almost in allegorical form (for example, the witches in Macbeth or Queen Margaret in Richard III), at other times they are more deeply buried in the actions and decisions of particular characters. Moreover, the texts present these elements in an amazingly rich poetic style, full of evocative metaphors. Here indeed is God's plenty.

As a preliminary caution, we need to remind ourselves that when we are reading Shakespeare's plays, all we have are the words the different characters utter (along with some minimally useful stage directions) and the actions they carry out. We have no reliable notion in most cases of the tone of voice the character uses, any gestures or movements which might accompany these words, and no clear idea in most instances whether or not the character really means what he or she says. Generally, we have no direct information about what characters look like, how old they are, or how they move. Unlike, say, a novel in which there is often an omniscient author reliably to inform us of a character's intentions, tone, appearance, inner thoughts, and so on, a Shakespeare script leaves an enormous amount up to us. Hence, it will not be uncommon for us to find widely different possibilities in a single person or speech (depending upon how we see and hear the character in action). For example, the age difference between Hamlet's father and mother, if it is really significant (of the same magnitude as the age difference between Juliet's parents), may prompt certain interpretative possibilities which are far less likely if we see the two of them as roughly the same age.

That is one reason (by no means the only one) why we must reject the notion that there is one authoritative way to read a particular work. A dramatic script by Shakespeare has no single determinate meaning. Rather, it contains a range of possible interpretative meanings. Our job as interpreters is to explore some of these possibilities, to evaluate them with respect to each other, and, if possible, to come to a sense of some of the major alternatives. This process will require the ability, one mark of a growing sophistication in the literary interpreter, to hold simultaneously in one's imagination different possibilities (even contradictory options), while at the same time remaining open to other options.

One serious limitation of a college course in Shakespeare is that we do not have much opportunity to see many productions of specific works. While reading Shakespeare can obviously be an enormously delightful and rewarding experience, we need to remember that he did not write to be read, but to be performed (that is, to be seen and heard). This point is particularly important to recall if we drift into the habit of reading these plays as if they were novels. For we may then find ourselves objecting to something which we would hardly notice (or would accept readily enough) in a fine production (e.g., some of the coincidences on which much comic actions depends, the time frame in Othello or Hamlet, sudden changes of mind, like Lady Anne's in Richard III, and so on). Plays tend to present a vision of reality far less immediately naturalistic than traditional novels, simply because an audience at a play brings a set of evaluative criteria different from the ones people use when reading naturalistic fiction in the solitude of their domestic dens (more about this later).

The Approach Through Character Analysis

The most obvious way to begin an interpretation of a Shakespearean play (and also the most popular) is by evaluating the characters. Any play involves characters in a particular setting, doing particular things. The plot will develop a conflict, which will usually inflict pain or distress on some people (comically or otherwise), and will lead to a final resolution of sorts in which some characters may die or be punished severely, while others survive or triumph or get substantially rewarded. Hence, one clear entry into such a work is to put the characters on trial: Who is good? Who is bad? Why do certain people act in certain ways? Do any of the characters change?  Where are my sympathies as I make my way through this play? As an interpreter, I am, in essence, the judge, and how shall I apportion my verdicts?

Interpreting a play by analyzing the characters in it, judging them, and coming to some final evaluation of them is a natural way to approach Shakespeare for three main reasons. The first is that these are plays, and they inevitably feature active characters more or less recognizably like people around us. That, indeed, is the chief appeal of the genre. So it is entirely natural to treat the play as we treat life itself, by responding to the people we see, the actions they carry out, the words they use, and the decisions they make. On the basis of these observations we will come to some conclusions about their characters and will discuss the play in those terms. The second reason is that Shakespeare is famous, more than anything else, for his astonishing ability to create interesting, complex, and natural characters. Unlike many other dramatists whose characters do not invite very complex investigation (e.g., many writers of situation comedies who rely upon stock characters very similar to those in other plays), Shakespeare has the ability to fill a play with scores of characters, each of whom talks in a language and acts in a way which indicates a sharply focused individual personality with a very particular response to experience. Hence, it is, once again, natural to treat them as fully realized people whose conduct (amusing or not) requires an evaluative judgment.

Then, too, the fact that we are dealing with plays always keeps the approach through character analysis alive, because theatre productions depend upon individual actors, and individual actors need to reflect upon the motivations for their characters. They have to, in a sense, discover their human qualities and become the stage people whose lives they enact. Thus, the dramatic tradition of continuing to mount Shakespeare productions ensures that the analysis of character will remain a powerful force in the interpretation of the plays.

The third major reason why character analysis is an important approach to Shakespeare's plays is (as Harold Bloom has repeatedly pointed out) that Shakespeare's characters are often intrigued or puzzled by their own characters.  That is, they make their characters part of the dramatic "problem" of the fiction we are exploring.  When, for example, Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello starts to wrestle with his own character, trying to understand his own motivation, feelings, and actions, that moment places the nature of the character as an essential element in the work (in a way that is markedly different from texts in which a character's personality does not create particular problems for him).  In other words, the plays themselves put character analysis directly on the table.

The approach to a Shakespeare play which places the analysis of character at the centre of the process was particularly strong in the nineteenth century, and the literary interpretations from that period often illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of that approach. The great value of character analysis is that it always reminds us that, whatever else we may want to talk of, the central concern is particular human beings. Whatever else King Lear is about, it is centrally about a suffering old man, whose unique character brings upon him almost unimaginable suffering. Whatever we make of Hamlet, we cannot forget that the people in the play drive Ophelia insane and lead her to suicide, and that she is an innocent and loving young woman.  Focusing upon the characters in the play always keeps us in touch with a major reason why Shakespeare matters--his works constantly illuminate human nature in all sorts of moving ways.

That said, however, treating the interpretation of a play as primarily (or exclusively) a matter of evaluating character can create problems, particularly if we get into the habit of thinking that that is all there is that matters in the text. One major problem, of course, is that in many instances we do not know enough about a character to arrive at a sufficiently full understanding of his or her personality. We know almost nothing of Hamlet's childhood, or Bolingbroke's inner thoughts, or Lady Macbeth's sexuality. Thus, key elements required in any full character analysis are missing. Of course, we can speculate on such matters (we have to if we want to arrive at a full understanding of the personality), but such speculations can often end up in inconclusive and often trivial debates, because there is not enough evidence. So we can find criticism by the analysis of character degenerating into explorations of the girlhood of Shakespeare's heroines, endless arguments about whether or not the Macbeths had any children, how old Hamlet might be or whether he is really insane or not, whether Falstaff is a coward or not, how black Othello really is, or what Antony and Cleopatra really talk about when they are alone together.

A second problem which can arise by an overemphasis on character analysis is that we may forget that Shakespeare's characters, as well as being keenly drawn individuals, also have social and family positions. They are kings, sisters, daughters, servants, widows, generals, fools, dukes, property owners, workers, and so on. So they carry with them, not merely their individual personalities, but a host of social and political attitudes, commitments, and responsibilities, and they are, to some extent, representatives of social, political, and gender types. Hence, their interactions are more than just clashes of particular personalities.

The Approach Through Thematic Analysis

That last point about how dramatic characters are also, to some extent, representatives of social types is a reminder that their dramatic impact includes more than their unique personalities. For they bring with them, for example, political and gender meanings which inevitably have a bearing on the impact of a play and make it, not just a clash of people, but a clash of or an exploration of ideas or themes which the characters and their actions develop, explore, qualify, or undermine. This fact gives rise to thematic analysis.

A thematic approach to Shakespeare's work will tend to focus first on some guiding idea which a character in action either expresses overtly or exemplifies. For example, Richard II is not simply a particular person; he is also a king. That gives him particular social and political power and responsibilities. When Bolingbroke rebels against Richard, the action immediately calls attention to an important idea: the tension between legitimacy and fitness to rule or, alternatively put, the justification for usurping an unfit but legitimate king. Richard II is, among other things, very clearly an examination of this idea--not simply because the point is discussed in the play, but, more importantly, because the action of the play forces us to consider this idea from many different perspectives.

Thematic interpretation will tend to see the works primarily as explorations of particular social, political, or moral ideas. This does not mean that the work is of interest merely as a philosophical working out of some issue, some rational investigation of what an idea means or where it logically leads. What it does mean is that the thematic interpreter will tend to call attention to some guiding idea or theme in the work and explore how the action of the play develops our understanding of that idea (often the point will be to complicate our understanding of an apparently simple issue, without necessarily resolving it). Richard II does not resolve the issues surrounding legitimacy and fitness to rule, but by the end of the play we have come to understand many of the complexities that the issue raises (Henry IV, Part 1 does the same with the notion of honour). We have come to this understanding, not by being told of those complexities, but by having witnessed the consequences in action of characters who have been caught up in a drama in which this issue is something they have had to deal with in action. Similarly, when we follow the sufferings of Ophelia in Hamlet, we are, to some extent, dealing with the issue of how women are treated in Elsinore, an issue which transcends the uniqueness of Ophelia's character. And we can push the issue even further to argue that the play is, in large part, about gender relations generally.

Thematic criticism is particularly useful in reminding us that these plays are about more than the particular characters, that there are social, political, gender, religious, and moral issues at stake and that, as we proceed through the play, we do need to attend to how the drama is putting pressure on our understanding of those ideas in the context established by the play (and beyond). Macbeth, for example, is more than the story of one particular ancient Scottish warrior-king. It is also clearly about the nature of evil in our world, about loyalty, and other matters as well. If we fail to attend upon these issues, because we are overly concerned with, say, Lady Macbeth's motivation, then we are missing some essential elements in the play.

At the same time, however, thematic criticism has its dangers, particularly if the approach becomes too ham fisted, that is, if the interpreter simply forces onto the text the working out of a particular idea and makes the play a relatively simple allegory. An interpreter who insists, for example, that King Lear is only or exclusively a debate between two contrasting views of nature has taken an important element in the play and made it the total experience of the work, forgetting that there's a suffering old man at the centre of the action and that that man, in all his human particularity,  is our main emotional contact with what is going on. An interpreter who insists that Richard III is principally a confirmation of the providential vision of history may well miss important ways in which the play may be subverting that idea or developing alternative visions.

In other words, if the danger of character analysis is that it can get bogged down in trivial unanswerable questions about details of the lives of particular men and women, the danger of thematic criticism can be that it gets crudely reductive, turning a complex work into the simple illustration of a particular idea or dogma. This is presumably the form of criticism practiced by many of those who would dismiss Shakespeare on the ground that his works are patriarchal, conservative, and bourgeois (i.e., which reinforce a narrow and unwelcome ideology).

It's true that some plays invite a strongly thematic approach in which the characters are little more that signals for a particular idea and their conflict is the working out or illustration of some ideological message outside the play. Such a work of literature we call allegory. While many of Shakespeare's works (like King Lear) have what appears to be an allegorical framework (and can be usefully interpreted to some extent in terms of that), in most of his plays the complexity in the characters tends to undercut any simple allegorical approach. The one possible exception in the plays we study is The Tempest, which, for reasons we will discuss when we get to that work, seems to invite allegorical treatment (although there is much debate about which allegorical treatment is most appropriate).

In some sense, interpretation which focuses on character appeals to our desire for the unique particularity of each moment in the play and the ways these help to define rich memorable characters; interpretation which focuses on thematic analysis appeals to our desire for more general coordinating issues throughout the work. There is no reason these cannot work well together. In fact, that makes good sense. For in Shakespearean drama, as in life, ideas and actions are constantly at work, sometimes reinforcing each other, sometimes contrasting each other. Sometimes a simple action will undermine a beautifully coherent idea (that happens all the time in Shakespeare); sometimes a simple action will confirm an important human truth.

For that reason, a good deal of interpretation involves testing possible themes against the perceived actions of the characters. Is The Tempest really an exploration of colonialist attitudes? That's an interesting idea. How does a close reading of the play, together with a careful examination of the characters' actions, confirm or repudiate that suggestion? Is the first History Cycle calling attention to the marginalization of women from the political process? Or does the dramatic effect of these particular female characters challenge that idea?

Reading a number of Shakespeare's plays encourages this often fertile union of character analysis and thematic interpretation, because he is fond of returning to dramatic conflicts between pairs of opposite types: the valiant warrior (Othello, Hotspur, Antony) pitted against the devious manipulative schemer (Iago, Henry IV, Octavius); the expressive poet-prince (Richard II, Hamlet) pitted against the shrewd political pragmatist (Bolingbroke, Claudius); the intelligent, loving young woman (Rosalind, Viola) having to deal with the sentimental, poetical bachelor (Orlando, Orsino), and so on. These conflicts may present uniquely drawn characters in action, but there are recurring thematic issues which help to coordinate all of Shakespeare's work until it starts to become, for the avid reader, one long work, ceaselessly exploring major issues through the experiences of unforgettable characters.

The Approach Through Poetic Symbol

Another common approach to a particular play focuses on the imagery, either on some obviously important symbol which recurs throughout the work or to some image pattern. Such poetic components in the language obviously can contribute in a major way to our understanding of what is going on. In some sense, of course, because we are dealing with poetic drama and have only the language to examine, interpreting both character and theme will often require detailed attention to particular patterns of imagery, symbol, and other significant language.

For example, however we assess the character of Hamlet, it is difficult to miss how much of his language, especially in his soliloquies, is infused with images of death, sickness, and corrupt sexuality, so much so that the patterns in the imagery invite us see in them a pattern in the personality or an indication of a major thematic concern of the play, the sickness in Elsinore, or both. Similarly, when we read Twelfth Night, we can hardly miss the importance of money as a touchstone of character, since the actions of giving and taking money occur so frequently. Similarly, in this play and in many others, music functions as an important symbol against which characters are tested.

Music, in fact, is a particularly important element to watch for in the study of the plays.  Is there any music in the play?  Where does it come from?  How is it received?  Does it have any transforming power?  In many of Shakespeare's plays the active power of music or its absence is a decisive indication of the emotional health of particular people or situations (e.g., As You Like It, Henry IV, Part 1, Twelfth Night, the Tempest, King Lear, and so on).

In general, approaching a play through symbolic patterns requires more practice and confidence for most students than does character analysis, simply because discussing nuances of motivation and feelings of people whose actions we are witnessing is easier to carry out (or we have had more practice at it) than attending to the more sophisticated task of responding to the nuances in the poetic images and figures of speech. Still, it is frequently an excellent exercise to seize upon some obvious symbolic element in a play or some frequent or predominant image and, by attending carefully to the pattern of that element in the work, to see how one may come to understand things more clearly. In fact, paying close attention to the poetic imagery and symbolism in a play is one of the best ways to develop the skills of close reading on which the best criticism depends. This approach to a work is particularly important when one is dealing with a specific production of one of the plays, for the particulars of the set design and the costumes and furniture will often (in a good production) bring important symbolic elements to bear on our reaction to the actions we witness.

Shakespeare is famous for the extraordinary richness and variety in his imagery, which seems to come from many different quarters with an accurate sense of specific details of that activity (sailing, warfare, glove making, the law, education, and so on). These have encouraged all sorts of biographical speculations about his lost years. But there are some which are particularly frequent and important, for example, metaphors involving clothes (especially as they determine rank and value and a sense of identity and gender differences) and acting (the most convenient metaphor for expressing any tension between outer appearance and inner reality).

Some Other Interpretative Approaches

There are a number of other ways of approaching an interpretation of a Shakespeare play, but many of them tend often to involve a good deal of material outside the text and so, for our purposes, they are less useful. Psychoanalytic criticism, for example, sees the text as an expression of the inner psychological problems (the neuroses) of the artist. Thus, it strives to link details of the life with details of the work. In Shakespeare's case this is very difficult to do, since we know virtually nothing personal about the man. Nevertheless, with a good deal of speculation about neuroses he must have suffered psychoanalytic interpreters have gone to work on the plays. Alternatively, psychoanalytic criticism may direct its attention onto particular aspects of the text (e.g., the interaction of the characters) or onto specific themes (e.g., Oedipus Complex) explored in the work or onto certain aspects of the language of particular psychoanalytic interest.

Mythic criticism approaches the plays with an emphasis on the structure of the story, seeking to link it to common forms for popular stories (archetypal plots and characters). Mythic critics often tend to stand back from the text a good deal, less interested in the finer details and ambiguities of the language than in the broad structural similarities between a particular play and other works. There is thus often a tendency in mythic criticism to eradicate (or dull) the significant particularity of a work into order to insist upon its structural closeness to certain styles of story telling. Mythic criticism is perhaps most frequent in interpretations of the final plays (what some critics call the Romances), probably because these plays seem to move away from the more naturalistic styles of earlier ones and to involve more ritual, pageant, and common mythic symbols and motifs.

Historical criticism (as mentioned in the previous article "On Scholarship and Literary Interpretation") generally will seek to root the play in its historical context, explaining what goes on in the fiction with reference to political, cultural, and biographical facts of the age in which it was produced. Hence, it will frequently tend to make the play an illustration of the age or limit our understanding of the play to what we can confirm in its historical context. One particularly interesting element of historical criticism involves comparing Shakespeare's treatment of a story with the same story in the source book which he used (for Shakespeare derives almost all his plots from other books, often following the originals very closely). In itself this may not provide much immediate interpretative assistance, but the procedure helps to establish at least two things: first, Shakespeare's amazing imaginative power at turning some mundane prose description (like Cleopatra on the Nile) in the source into the most moving poetry and, second, significant discrepancies with the source which may provide useful interpretative clues for an understanding of the play.

No particular approach to a play has any special privilege (as mentioned before repeatedly), but in English 366 we will be concentrating on the first three outlined in this note, simply because those tend to be the most immediately rewarding way (especially for relatively inexperienced readers of Shakespeare), since they begin and end with the text itself and do not require constant reference to theories of meaning outside the text. Our primary task here is to increase the fluency with which we read and interpret that text. However, it is almost certain that some of the other interpretative methods will arise in the seminars, and we are free to explore where those lead.  In every case, we measure the value of whatever methodology is employed by a very practical gauge: Does it enrich our understanding of what is going on in this text or not?

The Importance of Irony as an Interpretative Tool

Whatever the particular entry into a particular text, our major interpretative method will involve exploring the full range of irony as we continue our examination of whatever we have selected as a starting point. Hence, it is important to clarify somewhat the meaning of this key interpretative term.

In common practice, the word irony is applied to some expression or action in which there are at least two levels of meaning: the obvious surface meaning and a second implied meaning which may be quite different from the first. The second meaning, in other words, undermines the first meaning or qualifies it; in some cases the second meaning may entirely contradict the first (when that happens and both speaker and listener are aware of the second meaning contradicting the first, we call the irony, which is very strong and obvious, sarcasm). In a more general sense, irony can also mean ambiguity. An ironical expression is one in which we cannot be sure precisely what is meant because there is a range of possible meanings.

For instance in Sonnet 138, when Shakespeare writes "Therefore I lie with her and she with me," the word lie carries an obvious ironical sense manifested in the two possible meanings, to lie in bed with and to tell an untruth. Which one is the correct meaning here? The obvious answer is that they are both equally correct, and the ironical double meaning captures the emotional paradox the speaker of the poem is experiencing, that his sexual life with his love is based on mutual duplicity, for when they have sex together they are deceiving each other. Earlier in the same poem the word vainly functions in the same manner, meaning both in vain and from vanity. The double meaning captures well the ironic tension at the heart of the speaker's feelings: he knows his love is a self-defeating activity, but he cannot stop because his vanity prompts him.

Irony in this sense is a vital part of most creative writing, because it is one of the best vehicles for capturing the complex nature of human feelings in an experience in which contradictory impulses are involved. The ironical resonance of particular words enables to writer to express and symbolize accurately paradoxical states of feeling. The effect is quite opposite to the scientific use of language, where the precise clarity of all terminology is essential to the style (and where, thus, irony is not welcome).

But irony can function in other ways apart from the different meanings of particular words. Images and metaphors are inherently ironic, because they evoke a range of associations. Understanding how they function requires a close attention to the various tensions inherent in any comparison. When Shakespeare, in an earlier sonnet, concludes the poem with the line "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds," the image puts into play a number of complex suggestions. Lilies obviously suggest purity, a dazzling whiteness appropriate for the highest innocence, but the flower also conveys images of death. The word "weeds" suggests something unwelcome and common, but at the same time something vigorous and healthy. And the interplay between these two images is made all the more complicated by the addition of the word "festers," a word strongly suggestive of a disgusting, fatal infection (underscored by "smells"). If, as interpreters, we want to sort out the speaker's feelings as expressed in that line, we have to negotiate our way through all sorts of ironic possibilities. We will hardly arrive at a single, simple, and clear "translation" of the images. But if we share our responses, we may clarify our understanding of the effects of the irony at work.

Such verbal ironies are compounded in drama by other forms of irony. The most common is called dramatic irony, which occurs through an uneven distribution of knowledge. We, as readers or spectators, often know much more about what is going on than any of the characters. Thus, when a character says something, the utterance will often have two levels of meaning: what the character thinks it means and what the audience, with a fuller understanding of the entire situation, understands it to mean. Dramatic irony may often be funny. In fact, in many comedies much of the humour comes from what is called an uneven distribution of information. The audience knows everything, members of the story all know a part of the truth (and what any one particular character may know may change in the course of the play), and a great deal of the comic confusion will involve various misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and so on, which arise from the incomplete distribution of information (Shakespeare's plays involving twins are the most obvious example of this).

Often our reaction to a play depends upon this ironical uneven distribution of information. In Richard III, for example, we have privileged insight into Richard's intentions (he tells us what he's all about and what he is going to do next). So we are aware that the things he says to various other people (statements which they take as the truth) are, in fact, lies or are true in a way which the victims do not understand. Beyond that, of course, we also know that Richard himself is also caught in an ironic situation, because he thinks everything will work out for him, but we know that it will not.

The tragic effect depends upon this last form of dramatic irony called tragic irony. This feature emerges because the readers or the audience knows the outcome of the story (that is the reason tragedies commonly use plots with familiar endings, like Julius Caesar or Hamlet). In the course of the play, the tragic hero will frequently reveal his understanding of the situation and his way of dealing with it. We constantly measure that against our knowledge of how the story is going to end. Much of our imaginative sympathy for Lear or Macbeth, for example, emerges from our fascination with watching them become more and more driven towards their destructive end as the tragic irony of their situation becomes more and more intense. Our response would be quite different were we totally unfamiliar with the ending.

Beyond that, of course, plays are constantly requiring the reader or the audience to reassess an earlier understanding of a character or an issue. We see a character do or say something, and we make up our mind about that person or issue on the basis of that incident. Then, the character will do or say something else, and we have to reassess or qualify our earlier judgment. Or someone else will act in a way that calls the same issue into question, and we have to qualify our earlier assessment of that issue. Paying close attention to a Shakespeare play requires, above everything else, a very close attention to the way in which our powers of judgment are constantly challenged by every event. If we use the term irony in the widest possible sense to describe this process of adjustment and readjustment to the situations as they unfold, then an awareness of the ironical effects of dramatic action and language will be our most important activity. And most of our useful discussions about a play or a part of it will focus on the extent to which we see irony at work and how we assess that.

Shakespeare deliberately forces us to do this, sometimes very explicitly. In 1 Henry IV, for example, many characters mention the word honour and discuss what they mean by the word. Then, they act upon that understanding of the word. The reader or audience is pushed and pulled through different conceptions of the word and different actions (sometimes in the very same scene), to the point where it is very clear that one important point of the play is an ironic exploration of that word really means. Rarely will Shakespeare arrive at or offer a clear and magisterial definition of a concept: he leaves that for us to sort out. In the case of 1 Henry IV, whatever our understanding of the word honour when we started reading the play, by the time we have finished, we have been forced to review a wide range of possibilities (and to experience in action the consequences of those possibilities).  We are not, however, given any final authoritative "answer" (if that is what we are looking for).

In a similar way, a play can, in the action and presentation, often introduce irony to undercut what seems like a firm affirmation. This is a common feature of the endings of Shakespeare's plays. Is the ending of The Tempest an unqualified comic celebration, or is it muted? Is there any irony present, and, if so, how strong is it? To what extent might we want to claim that the reconciliation achieved is fragile or illusory? Is it so muted or undercut with irony that it registers as, in fact, a defeat? Similarly, is the end of Macbeth or King Lear a happy triumph for the forces of good or something more complex, shot through with ironic deflations of the reassuring final actions?  One important difference in tone between Twelfth Night and As You Like It, for example, comes from the sense many (perhaps most) readers or viewers get that the ending of the latter is unironically celebratory, whereas, by contrast, the ending of the former is undershot with complex ironic resonance which qualify the apparently "happy" comic resolution of the conflict.

In particular scenes, the staging can be a source of complex ironies. When Hamlet lectures his mother on her morally deficient character, the body of Polonius (whom Hamlet has just killed) is lying on the stage throughout the scene. Shakespeare, it seems, wanted Polonius killed early in the scene so that, when Hamlet attempts to take the moral high ground and lecture his mother on her corrupt character, we have to match that element in his character against the ease with which he has just killed and discarded the father of the girl he claims to love (and the chief political figure in the kingdom after the monarch). The presence of the dead Polonius really qualifies our response to Hamlet's claims that he is a moral agent.

Similarly, in Henry IV, Part 1 Shakespeare deliberately has a serious military encounter between Prince Hal and Hotspur take place alongside a parody of that in a similar encounter between Douglas and Falstaff. The first is full of heroic talk and brave action; the latter is full of cowardice and evasion and humour. As audience we are forced to evaluate military combat by the contrast between the two. This play, in particular, is full of such ironic contrasts, as we move from the world of the court, to the taverns, to the camp of the rebellious nobles (as we shall discuss).

Irony can be a slippery business, because once we sense it is present, we know we are on difficult ground. How deep do the ironies penetrate? Is there any firm ground on which we can rest an interpretation? And in some writers, where ironies seem to be present everywhere (e.g., Montaigne), we can often find ourselves losing confidence in the possibility of any firmly shared meaning. One of the great problems with Hamlet may well stem from this point: all energizing senses of goodness and sympathy seem to be qualified so strongly and persistently with ironic counterweights, that at the end we are not sure how to sum up what we have experienced. It is difficult, for example, in this play not to feel some sympathy for almost every character and yet, at the same time, to judge each character as significantly deficient in some way or another.

Interpreting Shakespeare requires us to be alert to the possibility of such ironic complication and to the ways it can affect our understanding of the play. In fact, many of our discussions will focus squarely on that issue. Is this speech or this action to be understood literally? Does the character mean what he says? How is this action or speech qualified, or undercut, or contradicted by other elements in the scene or in the play? How does the presence of irony (in varying degrees) affect our response to the play?

Shakespeare's plays and poems offer a fertile ground for the consideration of these questions, since they range from works that seem unambiguously affirming (like, perhaps, As You Like It, and many of the sonnets) to others which offer limited ironic possibilities (like, say, Twelfth Night), all the way to the other end of the spectrum where some works are so pervasively ironic that we have the greatest difficulty deciding finally what they might be claiming, if anything, about experience (like, for example, Hamlet, All's Well That's Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, or Sonnet 94).



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