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William Shakespeare, Timeless Psychologist

In: English and Literature

Submitted By audreyjdavis
Words 2024
Pages 9
Audrey J. Johnson
Shakespeare
Prof. Clair Berger

William Shakespeare, Timeless Psychologist

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered the premiere playwright of the English language. His works have survived the passage of time, been studied by both young students and academic scholars, and produced many phrases still used in modern times. Shakespeare’s impact on English is so prolific, in fact, that many people quote lines without being aware they are using expressions coined by England’s favorite bard. Shakespeare wrote histories based on the British monarchs, light comedies with romantic plots and happy endings, and heavy tragedies with dark plots that ended abruptly and unhappily. The true genius of William Shakespeare, however, is in wordplay and his ability to comprehend the human condition. His works discuss such universal themes as love, ambition, jealousy, anger, despair, grief, and death – emotions common to people in all generations and still relevant today. Love is the first and strongest of human emotions. It is the glue that holds human family and relationship together; it’s the ultimate emotion. Sometimes, however, those who are perfect for one another are unable to see the compatibility of their own union. Well-matched characters Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing need a nudge in the right direction. Beatrice is sharp-tongued and has no intention of marrying because a prior relationship with rapier-witted Benedick has left her heartbroken. When Uncle Lionato hopes “to see (her) one day fitted with a husband” (2.1.57) sharp-tongued Beatrice replies, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. / Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster’d with a piece of / valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward / marl? No, uncle, I’ll none” (2.1.58-64). Both Beatrice and Benedick use wit and sarcasm to hide their feelings, thus prompting others to action on their behalf. In Scene III, Hero and Ursula stage a conversation in the orchard for Beatrice to overhear. Hero says, “Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps” (3.1.112) meaning people who cannot recognize love themselves needs help from others. This is like today’s relationships, and the plotting of Hero to bring the couple together could foreshadow modern dating services. Ambition follows closely on the heels of love, as if people must prove themselves worthy of their intended’s notice and reciprocated affection. Ambition to provide for oneself and family is acceptable, even honorable; it is the underlying emotion that keeps society functioning. Blind ambition, however, brings out the darker side of human nature and often results in dishonesty or crime. Shakespeare was a master of human psychology, and nowhere is his understanding more evident than in Macbeth. The title character is a soldier in command of king’s troops and holds a place of trust with the Scottish king. He has a wife, servants, and land parcel commensurate with his station. Macbeth wants more but cannot advance unless the current king dies. Will Macbeth, called noble and trustworthy by the king, give in to ambition and resort to such action? Macbeth claims that he has “no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.25-28). Ambition does not justify murder. Arguing the king is a relative, a good and pious man, and a guest in Macbeth’s home, the character hopes to talk himself out of his dilemma; such introspection is performed today in counseling sessions and is a hallmark of modern therapy. The laws of hospitality ensure the wellbeing of a guest and such a crime appear unjustifiable to moral and divine eyes alike. Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” needs to be curbed, yet his disturbed state of mind is nothing compared to the cold, calculating ambition of Lady Macbeth. Upon learning that her husband has murdered the king but brought a murder implement out of the room, Lady Macbeth chastises him not for the deed but for refusing to return the murder weapon. She tells Macbeth he is “Infirm of purpose! / Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil” (2.2.45-52). It is the unscrupulous lady of the manor who plants the murder weapons with the king’s unconscious guards and smears them with the king’s blood, not caring the guards lives will be terminated when discovered. Lady Macbeth’s ruthless ambition and ability to hurt others to achieve her own goals is seen in the modern political arena as a daily occurrence. One can see the faces of many a First Lady in Lady Macbeth.
Jealousy is a negative human emotion, and one that Shakespeare apparently experienced personally in order to account for his intimate knowledge of the subject. It is a strong, powerful feeling often triggering rage that cannot be controlled. The thought process connecting jealousy to the color green is probably older than Shakespeare, although Renaissance Englishman tended to pair colors with emotions and personal qualities. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia refers to “green-eyed jealousy” (3.2.113) and Iago warns the title character in Othello, “beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (3.3.165-67). The color green retains its association with jealousy and envy even in modern times, and the use of the harsher “monster” imagery coined by Shakespeare would seem to indicate general dislike for individuals who displayed such behavior. People with red hair also have been viewed with a negative bent toward jealousy and temper tantrums, and those blessed with both green eyes and red hair suffer doubly from such prejudice.
The unhappy union of ambition and jealousy begets anger. In Hamlet the title character tells the object of his affection that he never loved her. Ophelia replies he had made her believe so, to which Hamlet says, “You should not have believ’d me / For virtue cannot so / inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I lov’d you not. / … / Get thee to a nunn’ry, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.127-32). It is heartbreaking to see people surrender their love in order to pursue other goals, especially when sacrifice is vainly initiated by anger and desired by only one party. Nowhere in literature is anger as evident as in the invective spewed forth by Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice. Jews in the Italian city were treated as piteously as in other European countries and anti-Semitism was a common practice. When a local merchant seeks to borrow funds, Shylock lashes out in long-suppressed anger and fury.
Go to then, you come to me, and you say,
"Shylock, we would have moneys" – you say so,
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness,
Say this: "Fair sir, you spet on me Wednesday last, You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me ‘dog’; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys"?
1.3.125-6, 133-39

Furious with the un-Christian behavior shown by Christian Venice, Shylock waits for the day when a Christian needs a loan. Shylock has been spit on, called a cur, and kicked around the town like most Jews. With his dignity in tatters and his daily existence miserable, it is natural to vent the frustration held inside so long. Shakespeare’s insight to “anger management” situations is remarkable, astounding, and very forward thinking. Despair is anger that has not yet run its course; it feels all is lost or broken, and cannot be repaired. Shakespeare understood humanity’s need to empty oneself of negative feelings before the grieving process could begin. Hamlet’s King Claudius has murdered his brother to have the crown and queen for himself; sorry for his deed but having no way to rectify it, Claudius laments a brother’s death, saying “my offense is rank, it smells to heaven, / It has the primal eldest curse upon’t – / A brother’s murther. Pray can I not, / Though inclination be as sharp as will (3.3.36-39). Claudius cannot truly repent of his crime because he is unwilling to abdicate the throne and give up his brother’s wife. Despair drives some people to desperate actions, while others it leads to grief. King Lear was thrown outside by his own daughters for attempting to hold onto kingly authority after portioning out his kingdom. The old king, anguished and suffering the ill behaved treatment of his own flesh and blood, cries to the stormy heavens saying, “Close pent-up guilts, / Rive your concealing continents, and cry / These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (3.2.57-60) and petitions heaven to execute justice he is powerless to now invoke. This is a truly sad and pathetic moment when an old man realizes he is a possessive parent with ungrateful children who care nothing for his welfare. The number of modern parents who languish in assisted living facilities, sent by children hoping to forget them, parallels Lear’s cries of despair and of being weak and unable to strike back. Death comes in many forms, from the quiet passing of an innocent to the violence of one contemplating suicide. In Hamlet, the concept of death was seen in both these contexts. Ophelia is found drowned, floating in a pool of flowers to signify innocence and virginity. Local thought was that she killed herself over Hamlet’s rejection. The possibility of suicide does not allow her to be buried on church grounds with full honors; as a matter of fact, Ophelia is only buried in the sacred ground by order of the monarchy. The doctor of divinity questions burial rites at all, and Laertes, the loyal brother, tells the attendant, “I’ll tell thee, churlish priest, / A minist’ring angel shall my sister be / When, thou liest howling” (5.1.235-242). Hamlet too is pondering death, but seems to be engaged in a battle over whether to take his own life or bear with the suffering living brings. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy contains the verse “To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub” (3.1.72-73). Hamlet, like many adolescents and young adults, is troubled and unable to find peace. He ponders whether “to die, to sleep” but is tortured (3.1.68) by the fear that death will not bring peace, but only more difficulties. Hamlet’s mental anguish in this soliloquy is the emotional centerpiece of the play, and reminds modern readers that many questions from Shakespeare’s time are still seeking answers in present day times. While death is always an option, it is not usually, if ever, the best option. Human existence is filled with frailty and strife, as well as sickness and disease. The balance to death is life with its associated joy and love. The Christian audience to whom Shakespeare writing was intended understood such topics as a lesson in faith and morals. Death for this audience was not the end.
Death also is not the end of Shakespeare. While death is usually the final chapter of any story, those reading William Shakespeare, however, will simply find death another aspect in the human psyche to explore and ponder while beginning their own journey.
# # # Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 2012. Print.
---. King Lear. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 1993. Print.
---. Macbeth. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 1992. Print.
---. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 2010. Print.
---. Much Ado About Nothing. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 1995. Print.
---. Othello. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 1993. Print.

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