Shakespeare, Faith, and the Narrow Gate

Over the past few months, my wife and I have been using our non-voluntary time staying at home to watch our way through performances of all Shakespeare’s dramatic works, using the BBC productions filmed between 1978 and 1985 (and available on Britbox). I posted about this project, and now we have completed the process, 37 out of 37. But who’s counting? (!). I am here offering some further thoughts, referring to the plays we have watched more recently. Most of these plays were certainly not new to me, but seeing them produced changes and sharpens perceptions.

I am absolutely not suggesting that these BBC plays were the best productions ever made, and a couple were frankly not that good, but some were cosmic. If there ever was a better Hamlet than Derek Jacobi’s, I don’t know it. Then there was the Richard II, starring, um, Derek Jacobi. I see a theme emerging here. Anyway, there were lots more fine non-Jacobite plays as well. Much of the appeal of the BBC series was that, for better or worse, they served as a time capsule of concepts of performing and visualizing Shakespeare as they existed in that long-dead geological era forty years back. And yes, 1981 probably was the last time you could do a major Othello production with a white actor in the lead, even if it was Anthony Hopkins.

Spiritual And/Or Religious?

Watching or reading Shakespeare, you get an unparalleled look into the values and assumptions of the Early Modern world, and that is so critical for teaching or researching on the era. That is doubly true in matters of religion and the spiritual, broadly defined.

Shakespeare’s own religious attitudes have been a matter of mystery and debate for centuries. Yes, you can certainly find biographical hints of Shakespeare’s Catholic ties, or make him an atheist, as you wish. But it’s the perpetual dilemma of deducing an author’s personal views from what s/he writes. Because they write something, does that mean that it reflects their personal beliefs or attitudes? Are we hearing the singer or just the song? Continue reading

Owls in the early modern imagination: Ominous omens and pitiable sages

By Haylie Swenson

Owls were bad omens for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but the prophecy and wisdom they symbolized also made them objects of satire.

Owls were bad omens for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The general of the French forces, facing an English emissary in Henry VI, Part 1, calls him “Thou ominous and fearful owl of death, / Or nation’s terror and their bloody scourge!” (4.2.15) Similarly, when Richard III receives bad news on the battlefield, he reacts by shouting “Out on you, owls! Nothing but songs of death” and striking the messenger: “There, take thou that till thou bring better news” (4.4.536-537). When in King Henry VI, Part 3 the titular king wants to wound Richard, he says “The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign” (5.6.36). Continue reading