In Poetics (335 BC), a treatise of dramatic theory, Aristotle explains hamartia or the protagonist’s error and tragic flaw. This flaw leads to a chain of actions culminating in disaster and can include an error of ignorance, as well as of judgement or character, or a wrongdoing.
For Aristotle, hamartia is largely a morally neutral term, meaning in Greek ‘to miss the mark‘, or ‘to fall short of an objective‘. Interestingly, the same word hamartia or ἁμαρτία, is also used in Christian new testament theology to denote ‘sin’.
Audiences today would not understand the word sin to carry morally neutral weight, quite the opposite. However, a nuanced reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, can help us understand better the nature of hamartia.
The purpose of tragedy for Aristotle was to lead the audience to emotional ‘catharsis’ or purging, a purification, or cleansing of excessive passions. Aristotle writes, for a story to be “of adequate magnitude”, it must involve characters of high rank, prestige, or good fortune. Here hamartia is the quality of a tragic hero is relatable:
…the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty (hamartia)
Tragedy thus presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer. If our protagonist is not caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.
By creating empathy with the protagonist, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players. As the plot arrives at a tragic reversal or change or fortune for this hero, the ‘recognition’ of the tragic flaw evokes in the audience both a pity and a fear which culminates in ‘catharsis‘ or purging of emotion.
Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime, and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew. Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.
Hamartia, and Aristotle’s exploration of tragic narrative help us understand the inevitability of our own suffering through mistakes of judgement or character for we too are good people, yet frail. The fabric of story operates within a just universe, and our actions lead to a chain of cascading consequences leading to disaster. The gospels go on to outline how into this just universe, arrives a truly innocent ‘other’ who suffers in our place, and who doing so purges or cleanses us as we empathise and suffer with him and are reborn anew, granted a second chance to live a more integrated life.
At Spring time every year, posts are circulated online which point out the pagan roots of the Christian holiday of Easter. Indeed, the Christian festival which does occur each Spring has adopted symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs, and its story, the death and resurrection of Christ, is mirrored in many myths and legends of a dying and resurrected god or goddess.
One popular meme paralleling Easter with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been broadly panned as unscholarly and inaccurate.
However, according to the venerable Bede in the early 8th century, the Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, or month of April is named after “a goddess of theirs [Old Germans] named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.
Christians remembered the passion of the Christ on the dates corresponding with the Jewish festival of the Passover, and while the dates move according to the lunar calendar, always falls in Spring. How then are we to integrate the ancient stories, myths and legends which prefigure and correspond to the Easter story and understand them in light of the New Testament gospels which claim historical veracity and eyewitnesses?
Following C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that ancient literature has MUCH to say in prefiguring history, pre-framing and pre-telling what occurred on Calvary, that Passover 2000 years ago.
The very myth of Ishtar mentioned above is a good starting point. It is a myth that celebrates spring and new life.
The Jewish festival Purim falls a few weeks prior to Passover and close to Persian New Year, a festival linked to the Spring Equinox. The festival of Purim celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from a decree to destroy them by the royal vizier, an Achaemenid Persian Official Haman, by the quick thinking actions of the Queen Esther during the reign of King Xerxes.
The ancient story of the goddess Ishtar might illuminate how the story of Esther tells of spring festivals and in turn informs our understanding of death and new birth.
Ishtar was the Lady of the Gods, the Goddess of fertility. Her husband Tammuz, the great love of her youth, had died when he was still very young.
In Babylon, the dead were sent to the Underworld, a place of darkness ruled over by the Goddess Irkalla. It was said that in this place they lived on dust and mud. Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz. So dressed in her finest garments, brilliant jewellery and her high crown, Ishtar entered the cave that leads into the Underworld. Irkalla’s realm was surrounded by seven walls, each with its own gate that had to be passed to get to the dark place where the dead resided.
Irkalla, the Queen of the Underworld had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman and behind her the dead gathered. There was no light in their eyes; they were dressed not in cloth but feathers, and instead of arms and hands they had the wings of birds. They lived in darkness.
Ishtar became frightfully anxious seeing them, and she wished she had never ventured in this dark place. She had expected to find Tammuz here, but now she realised that this was a hopeless quest. Desperate, she begged Irkalla to allow her to return to the land of the living. Irkalla uttered a cold and contemptuous laugh. All memory of Ishtar’s past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared with the light.
On earth a great change came when Ishtar descended into the Underworld. Love and desire became strangers to man and animal alike. Birds no longer sang. Bulls no longer searched out the cows. Stallions were no longer attracted to mares. Rams no longer cared for ewes. Wives no longer caressed their husbands when they returned from business or war.
Shamash, the sun god, was deeply perturbed when he saw the changes that had befallen earth. So Shamash went to see Ea, the great god, and told him that earth’s creatures were not renewing themselves. “How is this possible?” asked Ea. Shamash then related that Ishtar had descended to the Underworld, in search of Tammuz, and had not returned.
Ea then created a being he called Udushunamir, which he made devoid of all emotion or fear. With the power of all the gods, Ea sent him as an emissary to the Underworld court of Irkalla, where he would demand the water of life from the dark queen. Because Udushunamir had been created by Ea, the great god, Irkalla had no power over this creature, and could not stop it entering her realm.
So Udushunamir entered the Underworld, and stood before Irkalla, where he demanded in the name of the great gods that Irkalla provide him with the water of life, and that Ishtar be brought from the darkness. Of course Irkalla was furious at this demand. Irkalla could do nothing but submit, and she ordered the water of life be given to this creature, and so it was.
Udushunamir guided Ishtar through the darkness to the seven gates of the Underworld, and when she emerged from the cave, the rams reared high. Soldiers and merchants alike made excuses to rush home to their wives’ fond embraces. All of creation rejoiced in the return of Ishtar. And all the gods rejoiced too, knowing that their creations would renew themselves and would survive to honour and serve them.
When we read the story of Esther, remembered each spring at Purim, we can understand better the ancient myths of death and rebirth. It was Esther, who descended into death, willing to face execution at the hand of the king in order to request her people be spared. Helpless to deliver her people alone however, she needed deliverance from a divine emissary. The King had to send someone immune to the laws of death, into death to retrieve his Queen. In this case, it is the king himself who vows to depose the wicked vizier and to create a new law which will spare the Jewish people from extermination.
So too at Easter we see a similar drama played out on the cross. Christ descended into death to demand the lives of people held in death be returned to life. God, the Father, sending his Spirit into the underworld with Christ, returns him to life and restores with him, life to earth again, renewal and rebirth. Each of the earlier stories pre-figured, pre-told and pre-framed the story of Christ which in turn, fulfilled’ mythological typology in history.
C.S. Lewis, in his ‘Essays on Theology and Ethics‘, addresses the fact that the story of Christ, brought myth into history:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis).
Tolkien similarly wrote, in a letter to Christopher his son, clarifying his view that the gospels mirror fairy-tales:
Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.
The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth-become-fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay,
this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused
‘On Fairy-stories’, 63.
This Easter, lets take and read again the fairy-tales and myths and legends of the world, and consider, how legend and history met and fused in Christ.
The subtitle of Robert M Pirsig’s 1974 novel is ‘An Inquiry into Values‘. The book is an autobiography of a road trip taken with son Chris and friends John and Sylvia Sutherland across the north west of the USA on motorcycles in the late 60s. The road trip sets a frame for Pirsig’s philosophical soliloquies exploring the nature of ‘quality.’
It has since it’s publication become one of the most popular books of philosophy of all time.
The first person narrative retelling the road trip, at times in rather photographic detail, is punctuated throughout with what Pirsig calls ‘Chautauquas’, or philosophical soliloquys. His Chautauquas are largely narrated to himself but occasionally to others via a fireside chat. They explore what Pirsig observes to be a false dichotomy between ‘romantic’ and classic’ thinking. This dichotomy is introduced in the first chapters when friend Sylvia Sutherland observes as they head into the country that people living there seem freer and happier than the dull-faced drones heading into the city. This ‘romantic’ train of thought is advanced when husband John Sutherland refuses to learn to maintain his own motorcycle, choosing to defer to professional mechanics even if procedures are particularly simple. Pirsig, a rational and ‘classical’ thinker cannot understand this refusal, however comes to realise it his own bias that means he is inclined to enjoy repairing his old bike himself.
Pirsig’s Chautauquas wend their way forward as the roadtrip follows its own course. He explores a generalised fear of science caused by the classic-romantic divide and the consequential prevalence of modern dissatisfaction with living. He also meditates on his own inadequacies as a ‘classical’ and introverted rational thinker, more at home with his bike and philosophy than with people. Strained relationships with others is exemplified in his interaction with his son Chris, a pre-teen at the time of writing, and a sensitive young boy who shows sadness and growing anger with his father who frequently misunderstands him.
For Pirsig the romantic-classic divide is epitomised by the divide between science and religion and in between theory and intuition. He explores how they can be re-integrated into life and thought. This means a reversal of Greek dualism which has pervaded western thinking for centuries and entails a turn to ancient unitarian thought, the obliteration of the subject/ object divide as epitomised by Zen philosophy.
As the journey progresses, Pirsig and Chris are increasingly haunted by the presence of Phaedrus, a ghostly figure of Pirsig’s own past, revealed in flashes of memory and nightmares. Phaedrus is Pirsig’s own past self who was obliterated by electroshock therapy some years earlier following a mental breakdown. Phaedrus is now a stranger to the clear minded Pirsig and a haunting demon of his past. Chris fears the return of Phaedrus and Pirsig has to come to terms with this haunting memory and integrate him into his now more rational self.
Despite receiving 126 rejections from publishers before finally being accepted for publication, the book as been featured on best-seller lists for decades and at least 5 million copies worldwide.
To anyone travelling to the UK, Shakespeare’s birthplace and home in Stratford-Upon-Avon is well worth a visit. Much of the blog post below was learned while visiting this unique historic site.
Born in 1564, Shakespeare was the third child of eight children of John and Mary Shakespeare. He was given a grammar education, which at the time meant being in school 12 hours a day from 6 am to 6 pm learning English and Latin. The town would have been visited by travelling players from London and William would have performed in school plays throughout his years there.
John Shakespeare, William’s father was a glove maker and businessman, Bailiff [mayor] of the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon and a man who prioritised education for his sons. Years later John would procure a coat of arms for the Shakespeare family for approximately £20, marking him a gentleman and showing his aspirations for social standing. Mary Shakespeare, William’s mother, was a highly intelligent woman who inherited the lands of her father’s estate despite being the youngest child and a girl, perhaps due to her wit and good sense.
William, the child of intelligent parents, was thus born at a time of social ferment and learning, towards the end of the renaissance and the reformation, and during the expansion of the British Empire under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was given the best opportunity of his time for a common born youth. His schooling would have immersed him in not only the classics but also the latest and greatest of renaissance literature and thought. He did not have the privilege to go up to Oxford or Cambridge to continue his education, however he developed a rigorous work ethic which propelled him into the theatre world of London.
From the age of 21 William enjoyed a successful career as an actor and playwright in London. Young William it seems carried the discipline of long hours of work into his professional career, writing 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems over his 30 year career. That is an average of one or two plays per year and nearly a 800,000 words of writing across his lifetime.
Despite achieving fame within his own lifetime and a degree of material wealth, Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England. This is particularly notable since many of his works are set in locations around Europe and the near East. Rather than traveling to hear stories, Shakespeare simply reworked source materials from famous and not so famous works of classical and renaissance authors to form his narratives.
Below is a brief overview of the plays of Shakespeare and a brief note on how he would have been inspired to compose them.
The Taming of the Shrew 1590 –1592, was one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. It is set in a London alehouse and in Padua, in Italy and sources for the story include ‘1001 Arabian Nights‘ which Shakespeare may not have read but heard told, and oral folktale tradition from Europe.
Katherine [Kate] and Bianca are daughters of Baptista, a merchant. Various young men are in love with and wish to woo Bianca but are not permitted to marry her until her older sister Kate is wed. However Kate has a fearsome temper and is scornful of men. Who will tame the shrew Kate?
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is generally believed to be one of Shakespeare’s first plays and was written between 1589-1593 and set in Verona, Italy. Source material for the play include prose romance ‘The Seven Books of the Diana‘ by the Portuguese writer Jorge de Montemayor and the intimate friendship of Titus and Gisippus as told in ‘The Boke Named the Governour‘ in 1531 (and in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio).
Valentine and Proteus are two friends. Valentine is setting out to travel to Milan but Proteus stays in Verona because of his love for Julia. Julia loves Proteus but does not show her heart passionately. Proteus later follows his friend to Milan and finding Valentine there and in love with Sylvia, also falls in love with the girl. The two friends quarrel. Julia arrives in Milan dressed as a boy to spy on her love Proteus. Will Proteus return to his love Julia? Will the two men save their friendship?
Henry VI – Part I, II and III believed to have been written in 1591 – 1592 are among Shakespeare’s first plays based on English history. They are drawn from source material in historians Hollinshed and Hall. The three plays are often together with Richard III placed in a Wars of the Roses saga, covering the era 1422 to 1485. The success of these history plays early in his career firmly established Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright.
An England divided under a weak leader spirals from political unrest to all-out civil war. Allegiances are sworn and murderous factions fight for power, but with only one crown for the taking, who will be left standing to lead the country?
Titus Andronicus was written between 1588 and 1593, and is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire. Sources for the gruesome play could include In ‘Metamorphoses‘, Ovid and Seneca’s play ‘Thyestes‘ among others.
Titus, a general in the Roman army, is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The story entails human sacrifice, rape, cutting out of tongues, revenge including cooking Tamora’s sons in a pie and feeding them to her and her lover, and the burial of an enemy alive.
Richard III could have been written in 1592-3, shortly before the plague struck, or in 1594 when the theatres reopened post-plague. As with his earlier English history plays, Shakespeare drew on the histories of Holinshead and Hall.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is determined to gain the crown of England from his brother, the King Edward IV. He organises the murder of his brother George, whom he has had imprisoned in the Tower of London. When the king is ill, Richard places the young sons of Edward in the Tower and when the king dies Richard has the young princes murdered. Richard is proclaimed king and executes Buckingham who betray him. He is challenged in battle by Henry Tudor, the Plantagenet heir to the throne who defeats him and becomes Henry VII.
The Comedy of Errors was possibly written for Gray’s Inn Christmas festivities in December 1594 and is set in Ephesus, Turkey. The play is a modernized adaptation of ‘Menaechmi‘ by Plautus which was part of the curriculum of grammar school students.
Two sets of identical twins were accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.
Love’s Labour’s Lost was presented before her Highness [Queen Elizabeth] in the Christmas of 1595. Set in Navarre, France, the text has no obvious sources though the four main male characters are all loosely based on historical figures; Henry of Navarre (who later became King Henry IV of France), Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, Charles, duc de Mayenne and Henri I d’Orléans, duc de Longueville.
The King of Navarre and his three companions attempt to swear off the company of women for three years in order to focus on study and fasting. Their subsequent infatuation with the Princess of France and her ladies makes them forsworn. In an nontraditional ending for a comedy, the play closes with a death and all weddings delayed for a year.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often dated to 1595-96 and is set in a forest near Athens. Various sources serve as inspiration including Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses‘ and Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale“. The play’s plot of four lovers undergoing a trial in the woods can be a reference to ‘Der Busant’, a Middle High German poem. The play is consistently listed among Shakespeare’s most popular compositions.
Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is marrying Hippolyta (the former queen of the Amazons) and commissions a play. for the wedding feast. Four young Athenian lovers run away to forest where they become entangled with some mischief among the fairies there. A group of six amateur actors (the mechanics) are also controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest as the actors prepare the play for the wedding feast.
Romeo and Juliet thought to be written around 1595 is among Shakespeare’s also most popular plays during his lifetime. It is set in Verona, Italy. Source material for the story includes Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus. The plot is mostly based on an Italian tale translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.
Young Romeo falls instantly in love with Juliet , who is due to marry her father’s choice, Paris. The two lovers belong to feuding families. With the help of Juliet’s nurse, the couple arrange to marry secretly and quickly. Unfortunately Romeo’s attempt to halt a street fight leads to the death of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, causing Romeo to be banished. In a desperate attempt to be reunited with Romeo, Juliet fakes her own death. However, the star crosses lovers are not due a happy ending.
Richard II was written in approximately 1595. It is based on the life of King Richard II of England (ruled 1377–1399) and like Shakespeare’s other histories is based on the works of Hollinshed and Hall.
King Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke, seizes noble land, and uses the money to fund wars. Henry returns to England to reclaim his land, gathers an army of those opposed to Richard, and deposes him. Now as Henry IV, Henry imprisons Richard, and Richard is murdered in prison.
King John was written between 1595 and 1597 and dramatises the reign of John, King of England (ruled 1199–1216), it resembles an anonymous history play, The Troublesome Reign of King John (c. 1589), showing that Shakespeare perhaps influenced his contemporaries. Source material is like his other histories, drawn from Hollinshed.
King John goes to war against the French after claims that his nephew should be king instead. John has conflict with the church, orders his nephew’s death, and turns the nobles against himself. In the end, John dies from poison, the French retreat, and his son becomes King.
The Merchant of Venice was written around 1596or 1597 and set in Venice, Italy. Many elements of the play can be found in the 14th-century tale Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino in 1558.
Antonio, a merchant, takes a loan from Shylock, a Jew, to help his friend to court the wealthy heiress Portia. When Antonio can’t repay the loan, without mercy, Shylock demands a pound of his flesh. The heiress Portia, now the wife of Antonio’s friend, dresses as a lawyer and saves Antonio in a dramatic courtroom twist.
Henry IV Part I and II were probably written around 1596–98. Both parts are based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and form a series of English history with Richard II and Henry V. The plays were and have been popular with audiences and critics and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ written to reprise the popular character Falstaff.
While crown Prince Hal spends time in the taverns, King Henry IV argues with his former ally Hotspur. Angry, Hotspur gathers a rebellion, and Henry and Hal go to battle to stop him. Henry’s army wins the battle, while Hal redeems himself from his wild youth and kills Hotspur. King Henry IV suffers from illness, so his youngest son Prince John fights the rebels, while Prince Hal prepares to be king. Meanwhile, Hal’s friend Falstaff causes trouble, recruits, and speaks ill of Hal. Henry dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V. He banishes Falstaff from court, ready to wage war on France.
Much Ado About Nothing was likely written in 1598 and is set in Messina, Italy. Stories of lovers being tricked into believing the other loved them were common at the time in Italy. Various elements of the story can be seen in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Aristo.
Soldiers return from battle to the villa of Leonato who lives with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. A young solider Claudio falls in love with Hero, but Hero’s cousin Beatrice will not be tamed so easily. She trades witty blows with Benedict a soldier who has sworn off love. Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio conspire to dupe the pair into believing the other is in love with them. Claudio is deceived by a malicious plot by Don Pedro’s wicked brother to believe Hero is unfaithful to him and he rejects her. She faints and is believed dead, but recovers to be proved innocent by a chance discovery. Will Benedict and Beatrice find true love? And will Hero and Claudio be reunited?
Henry V was written in 1599 and like Shakespeare’s other English history plays is based on the work of Hollinshed and Hall. It tells the story of King Henry V of England, and focuses on the events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years’ War.
After an insult from the French Dauphin, King Henry V of England invades France to claim the throne he believes should be his. Henry stops an assassination plot, gives powerful speeches, and wins battles against the odds. In the end, he woos and marries the Princess of France, linking the two nations.
As You Like It is typically dated to late 1599 is set in the forest of Arden, France/ Belgium. The source of As You Like It is Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, written 1586–87 which in turn is based on “The Tale of Gamelyn”.
Rosalind and her cousin escape into the forest and find Orlando, Rosalind’s love. Disguised as a boy shepherd, Rosalind has Orlando woo her under the guise of “curing” him of his love for Rosalind. Rosalind reveals she is a girl and marries Orlando during a group wedding at the end of the play.
Julius Caesar was written around 1599 and is set in Rome, Italy in 44 BC. Along with Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, it is based on true events from Roman history. The main source of the play is Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives.
Conspirators convince Caesar’s friend Brutus to join their assassination plot against Caesar and to stop him from gaining too much power in Rome. Brutus and the conspirators kill him on the Ides of March. Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally, drives the conspirators out of Rome and fights them in a battle and defeats them. Antony then returns to rule in Rome.
Hamlet was written around 1600 and is set in Denmark. It is Shakespeare’s longest play and was one of his most popular works during his lifetime and still ranks among his most performed. The story was derived from the 13th-century legend of Amleth, by Saxo Grammaticus and retold by the 16th-century scholar François de Belleforest in his Histoires tragiques.
The ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet feigns madness, contemplates life and death, and seeks revenge. His uncle, fearing for his life, also devises plots to kill Hamlet. The play ends with a duel, during which the King, Queen, Hamlet’s opponent and Hamlet himself are all killed.
The Merry Wives of Windsor was written around 1597 – 1601 and it is set in Windsor, England. It was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I who much loved the character of John Falstaff the fat knight who featured in Shakespeare’s earlier Henry plays. Source material for the story may have been adapted from Il Pecorone, a collection of stories by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino.
Falstaff decides to fix his financial woe by seducing the wives of two wealthy merchants. The wives find he sent them identical letters and take revenge by playing tricks on Falstaff when he comes calling. With the help of their husbands and friends, the wives play one last trick in the woods to put Falstaff’s mischief to an end.
Twelfth Night was written in 1601 as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment for the close of the Christmas season. It is set on the island of Illyria in the Adriatic Sea. The “Twelfth Night” is a the last day of Christmas Day in which servants often dressed up as their masters, men as women and so forth thus leading the plot of gender reversals and general silliness. Elements of the story are drawn from the short story “Of Apollonius and Silla” by Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Matteo Bandello.
Viola, separated from her twin Sebastian, dresses as a boy and works for the Duke Orsino, whom she falls in love with. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, and sends Viola to court her for him, but Olivia falls for Viola instead. Sebastian arrives, causing a flood of mistaken identity, and marries Olivia. Viola then reveals she is a girl and marries Orsino.
Troilus and Cressida is dated to around 1602. It is set in Troyduring the Trojan wars in Ancient Greece. It has been described as a problem play due to its mix of genres between comedy and tragedy leaving audiences somewhat confused by it. Sources of the story include Chaucer’s version of the tale, Troilus and Criseyde, and John Lydgate’s Troy Book.
Trojan prince Troilus falls in love with Cressida, as war rages around them. After vowing to be faithful, Cressida is traded to the Greek camp, where she then agrees to see another man. Troilus witnesses Cressida’s unfaithfulness and vows to put more effort into the war. The play ends after further deaths on both sides, and with no resolution in sight.
Othello was written around 1604 and is set in Venice, Italy. It is an adaptation of the Italian writer Cinthio’s tale “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”) (1565) which was not available in English meaning Shakespeare read Italian.
Iago is furious about being overlooked for promotion and plots to take revenge against his General; Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago manipulates Othello into believing his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, stirring Othello’s jealousy. Othello allows jealousy to consume him, murders Desdemona, and then kills himself.
Measure for Measure was performed at court for Christmas 1604, and was probably written earlier the same year. It is set in Vienna, Austria. The source material “The Story of Epitia”, a story from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi,  and the same book as the source story for Othello.
The Duke leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna, where he quickly condemns Claudio to death for immoral behaviour. Angelo offers to pardon Claudio if his sister, Isabella, sleeps with him. Isabella agrees but has Angelo’s fiance switch places with her. The Duke returns to spare Claudio, punish Angelo, and propose to Isabella.
All’s Well That Ends Well is usually dated 1605 is set in Paris, France. The play is based on a tale (tale nine of day three) of Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
Helen heals the King of France, and the King grants her permission to marry Bertram, the man she loves. Bertram rejects her and leaves a list of tasks that she must do to have him acknowledge their marriage. She follows him to Italy, completes all the tasks, and Bertram accepts her as his wife.
Timon of Athens is estimated to have been written around 1605 -06 and it is set in Athens, Greece. It is likely to be based on a story within William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, also the the main source for All’s Well That Ends Well. He also drew upon Plutarch’s Lives, and perhaps Lucian’s Dialogues.
Wealthy and popular, Timon of Athens helps his friends, gives many gifts, and holds a feast. After ignoring his true friends’ warnings, Timon runs out of money, and none of his “friends” will help him. He runs away to a cave where he curses humanity, finds gold, funds someone to destroy Athens, and dies.
King Lear was written around 1605-06 and is derived from the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. Shakespeare’s most important source is probably the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed,
King Lear divides his kingdom among the two daughters who flatter him and banishes the third one who loves him. His eldest daughters both then reject him at their homes, so Lear goes mad and wanders through a storm. His banished daughter returns with an army, but they lose the battle and Lear, all his daughters and more, die.
Macbeth was first performed in 1606 for King James I and Shakespeare’s source for the story is the account of Macbeth, King of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will be King of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth kills the king, becomes the new king, and kills more people out of paranoia. Civil war erupts to overthrow Macbeth, resulting in more death.
Antony and Cleopatra which is dated 1606, was performed at court in 1607. The plot is based on Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch’s Lives (in Ancient Greek). It is set in Alexandrian Egypt and Rome, Italy during the Roman Republic.
Mark Antony, one of three rulers of Rome, is in love with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Antony is summoned back to Rome, where he clashes with another ruler Octavius before returning to Cleopatra in Egypt. Now in battle with Octavius, Antony and Cleopatra suffer losses and miscommunication, and both eventually commit suicide.
Coriolanus was perhaps written in 1608 and is largely based on the “Life of Coriolanus” in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It is set in Ancient Rome.
Roman general Coriolanus makes his name defeating an enemy army and defending Rome. The Senate nominates him as consul but he cannot win the people’s vote, so he is banished from Rome and allies with his old enemy. He comes to attack Rome, his mother persuades him not to, and his new-found ally kills him for the betrayal.
Pericles was written around 1608 and is set in Antioch, Turkey and Tyre, Phoenicia. Source material for the play comes from Confessio Amantis (1393) of John Gower, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of Gower’s tale, The Pattern of Painful Adventures.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre leaves home to escape death only to win a jousting contest and marry a princess. Once he can return home, his family sails with him, but a storm separates them, so Pericles returns alone. Years later, Pericles finds his daughter and reunites with the wife he had thought was dead.
Cymbeline written around 1610 is grounded in the story of the historical British king Cunobeline, which Shakespeare likely found in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. The plot and subplots of the play are derived from other sources, namely from story II.9 of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
King Cymbeline of Britain banishes his daughter Innogen’s husband, who then makes a bet on Innogen’s fidelity. Innogen is accused of being unfaithful, runs away, and becomes a page for the Roman army as it invades Britain. In the end, Innogen clears her name, discovers her long-lost brothers and reunites with her husband while Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.
The Winter’s Tale written around 1611 was based on Robert Greene’s pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588. It is set in Sicily and the Kingdom of Bohemia which is the modern day Czech Republic.
The jealous King Leontes falsely accuse his wife Hermione of infidelity with his best friend, and she dies. Leontes exiles his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes’ friend. When Perdita returns home, a statue of Hermione “comes to life”, and everyone is reconciled.
The Tempest written in about 1611 is set on an unknown island in the sea. There is no clear single source for the play but “Naufragium” (“The Shipwreck”), in Erasmus’s Colloquia Familiaria (1518) and Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr’s De orbo novo are considered to be several.
Prospero uses magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio. Prospero’s slave, Caliban, plots to rid himself of his master, but is thwarted by Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel. The King’s young son Ferdinand, thought to be dead, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Their celebrations are cut short when Prospero confronts his brother and reveals his identity as the usurped Duke of Milan. The families are reunited and all conflict is resolved. Prospero grants Ariel his freedom and prepares to leave the island.
Henry VIII was written around 1613 and tells of the life of the last Tudor King of England. The first Globe theatre burnt down in a fire that started during a performance of the play when a canon fired for special effect set the thatched roof alight. The reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank has a thatched roof and carefully installed sprinkler system since all thatching was outlawed after the great fire of London in 1666 which destroyed nearly one third of the city. As usual in his history plays, Shakespeare relied primarily on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles and the play avoids many of the sensitivities related to Henry’s reign.
King Henry VIII listens to Cardinal Wolsey too much and gives him power, which the Cardinal uses to convict a duke of treason. Henry meets Anne Boleyn, divorces his wife Katharine, and marries Anne. Anne gives birth to Princess Elizabeth who the Archbishop prophesies will become great.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is a tragicomedy, written around 1613 was Shakespeare’s last plays. Its plot derives from “The Knight’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and is set in Ancient Athens.
Theseus wages war on Creon. Two soldiers, Arcite and Palamon, in Creon’s army fall in love with Princess Emilia, Queen Hippolyta’s sister and Theseus proposes a public tournament between the two for Emilia’s hand. The loser will be executed. Before the tournament, Arcite prays to Mars that he win the battle; Palamon prays to Venus that he marry Emilia; Emilia prays to Diana that she be wed to the one who loves her best. Who will win the fair Emilia’s hand?
Soon after this final play, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-Upon-Avon where he died three years later in 1616, just before is 53rd birthday.
His literary legacy in unparalleled. Gifted with language and poetry, he is known to have invented over 1700 words and phrases used in the English language today and his works have been translated into every major language. His plays are continuously performed around the world and he is globally acknowledged to be the greatest writer of all time.
Good writers, whether they set their stories in 19th century London or in a Galaxy Far Far Away, grip their audiences by drawing them into a rich and real fictional world.
‘Real’ and ‘fictional’ seem opposed and almost oxymoronic in their juxtaposition, and yet together articulate one of the most powerful and necessary features of good story telling. Audiences need to be able to enter and believe in the world of the narrative for the story to work.
‘World building’ is a most notable skill in science fiction and fantasy, since the writer must create a fictional world from the ground up. The more realistic and convincing these alternative worlds are, the more immersive the experience.
The master of world building is of course J.R.R. Tolkien whose life’s work, multiple stories, myths, legends, poems and songs, existed within an entirely fictional world of Middle Earth. The depth to which he created his world entailed the construction of several languages with their own script, grammar and lexicons, lengthy histories and prehistories of lineages of kings, as well as mythical and magical religions, creatures and talismans of power. Tolkien’s work almost singlehandedly created a whole sub culture of fantasy and science fiction world building which continues to this day.
Why is world building so vital to good story telling?
As a child enters a game enthusiastically and will object when the rules of the game are contradicted or broken, so too audiences rebel from authors who betray the integrity of the world they have constructed.
The analogy of ‘play’ is powerful, affirmed by the naming of live theatre a ‘play’. The audience must not only suspend belief watching those on stage ‘play acting’ but they must effectively engage in the ‘play’ with their imagination themselves.
No greater illustration of this is given in Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V.
The chorus enters and addresses the audience directly with these questions:
can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
The chorus continues requesting the audience to enter the play with their minds, to convert the small theatre into battle fields, to populate it with thousands of soldiers and horses and allow the short hours of the play to cover years of history:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:
Audiences will feel betrayed if elements of narrative history are forgotten or rules of a fictional universe are contradicted. The world of immersive ‘play’ is jarred, and the narrative experience interrupted. The reader returns to the real world disappointed with the story, leaving it often never to return.
However, one does not need to climb through a wardrobe or up a beanstalk to enter a magical world since every single narrative is ‘painted’ through words and its scenes, characters and plot.
Charles Dickens set most of his novels in the England of his own time and recent past, however he managed to colour his world and bring it alive by giving his characters peculiar names and particular ways of speaking. His novels are full of such character names as Bumble, Cruncher, Datchery, Fezzywig, Magwitch, Noggs, Pardiggle, Pecksniff, Peggotty, Podsnap, Pumblechook, Snodgrass, Sweedlepipe, Stiltstalking, Tappertit, Toodle, Turveydrop and Wopsle; the list goes on.
Filling his characters mouths with unique turns of phrase and mannerism Dickens further coloured his narrative world. Uriah Heep [David Copperfield] is frequently heard to say while wringing his hands ―’I am much too Umble’ and Mr Sleary [Hard Times] is depicted with a lisp: …’ith fourteen month ago. Thquire, thinthe we wath at chethter.’
Lastly, Dickens set his stories against the very real social, class, cultural and economic challenges of his era including the French Revolution, racism against Jews and other foreigners, the workhouses and the plight of the poor, the marginalisation of women and the ignorance and injustices of the class system.
With every added nuance and layer of detail, Dickens builds a world so convincing and inviting that readers return time and time and again to his works. Their willingness to surrender to the immersive experience of the narrative world he created is testament to his mastery as a great story teller.
Dr Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, talks about ‘hygiene’ emotionally and psychologically, a hygiene necessary to maintain a healthy mind and heart.
Upon release from internment in concentration camps, release from the extremes of deprivation and human suffering, Frankl observed that humans encountering their new freedoms had to be cautious of their emotional health in the following ways.
First, they had to be cautious to not react with vengeance and hatred towards the world, careless of the hurts or disadvantages towards others that their behaviour could cause, all the while justifying their actions by their own needless sufferings.
Second, they had to be wary not to succumb to bitterness when encountering those who would trivialise their prisoner experience with hollow platitudes devoid of any true empathy.
Third, they had to be on guard not to give in to disillusionment when returning home, upon learning that the objects of their love and hope for the future, their family, beloved, friends, were now gone.
In this way Frankl teaches us all, very few of whom have suffered the indignities of a concentration camp, to care for our own hearts and minds as though for our bodies and homes. We must daily clean the toxic emotional build up and thought patterns of life as we would ritually wash our hands before eating, our bodies before resting, our wounds before going out into the air. We must throw away rotting thoughts and attitudes before they infect our lives and vigilantly clean up our living space of soiled attitudes or ideas past their due date.
In Victor Frankl’s work ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he explores the question of what is the ‘meaning’ of life. Frankl explains, that life, like the game of chess, has no perfect move, only the perfect move for a specific player in a specific situation. Life has no ‘meaning‘ other than meaning derived from responding to one’s life in any given circumstances.
He correlates then, ‘responsibility‘ with the essence of human existence. To live meaningfully, one is to imagine one is living for a second time and that the first time we lived, we made every mistake possible. This imagining, confronts us with all of life’s limitations and the finality of what we make of our life and of ourselves, pushing us to be responsible.
He continues. The question of ‘responsibility‘ calls into question whether we are truly free or not. If we are indeed victims of life, we have no responsibility for the consequences of our existence. However as victims, we are not truly free. If we are however, to claim to be truly free beings and to have agency over our existence, we cannot then fall back upon the comfort of claiming ‘victimhood’. We must face the reality that our life, and the consequences or our existence, and indeed our total responsibility.
Frankl, as a psychiatrist, saw his role in therapy much the way an eye-surgeon would when dealing with a patient. He worked on the faculty of sight to restore a patient’s ability to see the whole spectrum of his or her potential and the meaning of their life. By helping a patient to become ‘responsible’, he would help them become empowered to actualise the potential meaning of their existence.
And in doing so, no matter the circumstance of his or her life, to become truly free.
In Victor Frankl’s treatise ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he compares suffering to a gas. It will fill any space it’s given.
The 1946 book, first published under the title ‘From Death-camp to Existentialism‘ chronicled Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In it he examines the effects of extreme suffering on the human psyche and outlines the early formation of his life’s work as a psychiatry, namely his method of ‘logotherapy‘ a process by which a patient identifies a purpose in life. At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.
Frankl identified that inside the concentration camp, almost any circumstance, great or small, suffering or joy could fill it. For example, a starving, half frozen prisoner of war, deprived of all freedoms, dignity and comforts and driven to work in degrading conditions, can pause and note a beautiful sunset, feeling a moment of joy.
Conversely, a man, well fed, free, warm, wealthy and honoured could feel intense existential suffering for want of any sense of life meaning.
So is the human condition, both fragile and curious.
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”
And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.
With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.
Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.
The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,
Ex Africa semper aliquidnovi.
Pliny, The Elder
Out of Africa, always something new.
The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.
Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:
The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.
Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?
Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.
Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,
I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.