The hunt for meaning in the plays written by Shakespeare can have many possible directions. We can look for meanings in terms of the human condition since the plays speak to us about human emotions and feelings that push us on to greatness. On the other hand, tragedies such as Hamlet or Macbeth show us the darker side of human nature with elements of jealousy, blind ambition and revenge. We can also look for contemporaneous meaning as some have sought to look at homoerotic meanings is plays where male actors dress as women characters pretending to be men. At the same time we can look at the beauty of the plots and the way the story line takes shape in plays such as Othello and the Merchant of Venice. In essence, as with other forms of art, the meaning derived from the plays is a reflection of what a reader may feel within. The plays are for us and the words written by Shakespeare appeal to us even if we do not know the history and the connected story around the play. Of course we could enjoy plays such as Julius Caesar or Macbeth more if we are familiar with their histories but even if a viewer is not, it does not take much away from the value inherent in the play itself. To better understand the meanings that the play holds for a reader, it would be essential to examine some of the plays and see how they work towards the creation of meaning.
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous and most performed plays of Shakespeare. To examine this play in depth would be quite difficult therefore we can look at one scene i.e. Act 1 Scene 5 which is one of the most important scenes in the play since it lays the foundations of love between the star crossed lovers. Before this scene, the foundations of the play have been laid out since we know that the house of Capulet and the house of Montague are at war.
This gives the play inherent meaning since knowing how Italian families were at war with each other for centuries could be important as historic background but Shakespeare lays down the foundations of this meaning without pushing us towards making the conclusion on our own (Holderness et. al., 1988). We also know that Romeo and Juliet are both somewhat restless souls looking for love. Finally as the scenes up till Act 1 Scene 5 have shown the viewers, the hatred between the houses runs deep and the tension of the play is building.
As a part of the meaning of the play, Romeo seems to fall truly in love as soon as he lays his eyes on Juliet and declares that he “ne’er saw true beauty till this night”. He also thinks that she will be able to help him in his sorrow since just by touching her she could “make blessed my rude hand”. However, when he does find out that she belongs to the house of his foes he is stunned but not exactly in despair since the feeling of love is still too great. His life has become his foe’s debt but he does not back down from the love he feels for Juliet.
Clearly, the idea of love being greater than enmity is a meaning which can be important for anyone, not just philosophers and critics. Juliet presents similar emotions when she is courted by Romeo since she too feels love for him and their verbal sparring in the scene certainly provides the audience reason to smile. She kisses Romeo as he kisses her and wishes to do the some because he says to him that “Then have my lips the sin that they have took”. Moreover, the reaction to knowing that Romeo is from the house that is the enemy of her house is similar to Romeo’s since she says that, “My only love sprung from my only hate!” yet she does not forsake her love.
At the same time, the audience is presented a negative character in the shape of Tybalt who is a member of the Capulet family who makes no effort to hide his anger and hatred as soon as he recognizes Romeo’s voice in the party. In fact, he calls for his sword to be brought to him so he can assault and kill Romeo since he sees no sin “to strike him dead”. He certainly values the honour of his family and his idea of revenge against Romeo certainly stands out as something which might be seen later in the play. At the same time, the audience can expect Tybalt to react very negatively when and if he discovers that Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other (Sanders, 1968). The only reason he did not attack Romeo immediately was because the master of the house i.e. Capulet, held him back.
Here another meaning could be derived of being a gracious host to the guests of the house even if they are uninvited enemies (Brown, 1981). Capulet certainly seems like a wiser more civilised version of Tybalt since he does not allow Tybalt to attack a Montague in the house. He also knows that Romeo is well known and well respected in Verona while the Duke has made it clear that any violence between the two houses will not be tolerated. Additionally, the character has already displayed his joviality and ability to understand the demands of civility. His advice to Tybalt is certainly useful since he tells him to ignore the presence of Romeo and “Show a fair presence and put off these frowns” since they are not fit for a feast.
While Capulet represents the kindly father figure, the nurse is shown as a mother figure that treats Juliet much like her own child and is quite proud of her. She informs Romeo that Juliet is a Capulet since “Her mother is the lady of the house” and that her husband would be a lucky man since “he that can lay hold of her/ Shall have the chinks”. She also acts as the bearer of sad news for Juliet since it is through her that Juliet finds out that Romeo is a Montague and it seems that the audience will continue to see her passing messages between Romeo and Juliet while the nurse acts as a doting mother figure for Juliet. Such relationships can be understood by those who do not need to take any other intrinsic meanings from the play itself.
Quite possibly, the tragedy of Hamlet is the most philosophical of Shakespeare’s plays since Hamlet is the most enigmatic and troubled of all the characters created by Shakespeare. He comes across as a person who is indecisive, thoughtful, and introspective while he is faced with considerable challenges in his own life. As the play progresses Hamlet does show signs of maturity and growth but those signs are limited at best. It seems that the brooding young prince shown at the beginning of the play does not change into a confident mature king even in allegorical terms (Thompson & Thompson, J. 1987). This lack of growth in mental levels is certainly shown in the meaning of the play which comes across best in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy and other locations.
Consider the fist lines Hamlet has to say in Act 1 Scene 2 where he comes across as a sarcastic person who verbally spars with Gertrude and Claudius yet once they depart he launches into his first important soliloquy where he thinks about suicide and how his mother showed weakness in marrying his uncle so quickly after the funeral. His sarcasm resurfaces when he tells Horatio how the food at the funeral could have been served at the marriage ceremony. In scene 5, he tells Horatio that belief in spirits and things from outside the real world is not wrong, yet he himself does not trust the visitation from the ghost and wants complete and positive proof that his uncle did murder his father. These contradictions add meaning to the character as indecisive and somewhat weak in emotional calibre (Brown, 1981).
As a part of the meaning in the play, the introspective nature of hamlet as well as the play itself comes across quite clearly when he discusses the nature of man in Act 2, Scene 2. Even though he does not recognize the treachery of his uncle, he is quick to spot the doubt which is present in Rosencrantz’s smile. Strangely enough, he doubts the act of his uncle yet he is perceptive enough to see through Rosencrantz. Hamlet discusses the greatness of man but does not consider himself to be great since in the very next soliloquy considers himself a rouge and a slave for not taking action and avenging the death of his father (Thompson & Thompson, J. 1987). These elements certainly show the confusion and the indecisive character of Hamlet who is unable to take action and remains lost in words which have meaning only for the reader if the reader is going through similar emotions.
However, the action in the play shows that hamlet often knows what he is supposed to do and that his course is set. Yet, at the beginning of Act 3, we get his famous to be or not to be soliloquy where he again begins to doubt his very existence and the struggle he is going to go through. He loves Ophelia but he shuns her since he has too much on his mind and too little time to discharge the responsibilities he has given himself. As to those responsibilities, he gets a chance to kill his uncle while Claudius is praying yet he stops since that would take him straight to heaven and Hamlet does not wish that to happen.
He reaffirms his resolve to avenge the death of his father in Act 3 Scene 4 where he says that his thoughts should be filled with blood or be worth nothing, however, he does not charge down the field to kill his uncle but dallies along discussing life and death. In Act 5, he examines Yorick’s skull and talks about how life and living are mirrored in death and dying as he is (seemingly) completely unconcerned with this and the statement of his thoughts being worthless if they are not filled with blood and revenge for his father.
A misogynistic reading of this play shows Hamlet’s hatred for women as evident from early on in the play when he talked about how his mother was a weak person to begin with and how Ophelia is merely someone who is stopping him from completing his task. His philosophy and thoughts about life, living and death do not seem to change much as the play progresses and eventually his own end shows what a wasted life he lived since all he could do was get revenge and nothing more. A meaning which could be drawn here is that a life lived in the pursuit of revenge (no matter how honourable) is a wasted life.
A better philosophy for life is given within the play in the shape of the advice the various characters give each other (Sanders, 1968). For example, the advice given by Gertrude to her son asking her to come out of his sorrow is one such instance of philosophical advice. Gertrude finds her son seemingly brooding over the death of his father and not taking any interest in the affairs of the state. Her advice to him is to come out of the shadows and stop looking for his father since he can not be found. She says in Act 1, Scene 2 that death comes to everyone and it is a common thing for people to die.
The motive behind this advice is her attempt to ensure that her son does not become too obsessed with the death of his father and it is plain to see that she is genuinely concerned about the Hamlet’s well being. Another character who is concerned about the well-being of his children is Polonius; who gives stern advice to Ophelia in Act1, Scene 3. He tells her to not spend too much time with Hamlet since he thinks the vows he is giving her are not to be trusted. He asks her to not to have idle talk with Hamlet since the passion he shows her is only meant to beguile her. Basically he asks her to come to her senses and not have lofty thoughts of Hamlet being in love with her.
When the same advice was given by Laertes to Ophelia, Laertes came across as kind and gentle. Polonius sounds harsh and comes across as quite unkind when he gives his advice to Ophelia. It presents a new meaning in the play as to how good advice can be given in different ways depending on who is giving the advice to whom. This is made evident by the way Polonius talks to his son since he is very gentle and thoughtful when he gives a long series of commandments to Laertes as he is going away for his education.
The audience can also apply the advice to their life since the advice is made up of many different axioms which were very popular and well known in those times (Cartwright, 1991). He asks him to keep tried and tested friends close to his heart and not let them go. He tells him to listen to everyone but not talk to everyone and keep his judgments to himself. In financial terms, Polonius tells his son neither to give out any loans nor to borrow any money from friends since that is the best way to lose the money and the friend. Most importantly he asks him to be honest with himself since that will prevent him being dishonest with anyone.
The motive of the advice is quite clear; he does not want his son to make mistakes which he would be prone to due to his youth. Even today, the youth of the world would do well to heed this advice since it is perfectly acceptable to warn youngsters today about the risk of credit card debt and how they might borrow more than what they can afford. Clearly, the meaning of the advice comes across even after hundreds of years have passed since the writing of those words.
The meaning in Macbeth is more difficult to find since it has deep connections with history as well as fantasy (Holderness et. al., 1988). It is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and it is a good example of how Shakespeare can produce a dramatic story for the audience using the development of the characters, the intricacies of the plot, poetic devices and other elements of a play even if the audience is not familiar with the history of the characters. We can find many different examples of such dramatic story telling which give value to the play and enhance the pleasure derived from it based on the characters and their relations.
The first group of characters which are introduced to the audiences are the three witches who come across as forbearers of the story. The setup the situation for their meeting with Macbeth after the battle has been won and lost. Of course at this point the audience has little idea about the battle which will be won by one side and lost by the other and neither do they know about Macbeth. However, even from these words it can be assumed that Macbeth would be the winner of the coming battle since the witches will meet him after a battle has been won and lost. Quite obviously, Macbeth could not meet them if he lost the battle and resultantly died.
This foreshadowing is confirmed in Act 1, Scene 2 where the injured soldier confirms that brave Macbeth has been successful in defeating the rebels against Duncan and is victorious in battle. In the same scene, Duncan comes across as another important character and he seems to be a just and noble king based on the respect he is given and the rewards he gives to his cousin Macbeth for the victory over the rebels. Duncan sends a messenger to Macbeth telling him that he shall become the Thane of Cawdor.
The sense of drama is heightened when the witches inform Macbeth of becoming the Thane of Cawdor before he receives the news from the king. This certainly sets up the audiences expectations about the witches’ prophecies being true to the last and the other prophecies made by the witches also gain credibility. They make three different predictions and this is reflected in Act 1, Scene 3 with the aid of poetic alliteration of the number three. For example, “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine” and several other references to things in three, makes up a sort of unholy trinity for the witches coven which would be well understood by Christian readers of the time and even today. However, a more diversified audience which does not know about the trinity would still appreciate the poetics and the rhyme involved in the speech of the witches.
This scene is also the first instance where Macbeth says something and his view of the day is quite a paradox since it is both foul and fair. It is interesting to note that the witches themselves have used foul and fair as being applicable to the same thing since they have famously said that Fair is foul, and foul is fair in the first scene of the play. Unknowingly, Macbeth is repeating the words of the witches which he will do again further in the play but then the words shall be repeated knowingly.
The importance of this scene is highlighted by the fact that both Macbeth and Banquo are presented visions of their present and future. For instance, Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis and is greeted as such but he is also hailed as Thane of Cawdor and the King hereafter. Banquo certainly acknowledges the contrast when he says that this greeting mixes “present grace and great prediction” and that it calls for hope of royalty. However, he also clarifies his own position of indifference to the witches by saying that he neither fears their hatred nor does he wish to be in their good graces.
Such contrasts add to the meaning of the play and enhance the drama within because the audience has already been promised that the predictions of the witches do come true. Macbeth is Thane of Glamis and although he does not know it yet for sure, the audience knows (as do the witches) that he is to be made the Thane of Cawdor as well. This is why the predictions about Banquo are the ones which really set up the play and the plot since he is supposed to be lesser than Macbeth yet become greater. Banquo is not going to be happy yet much happier and finally, even though he will not be a king, he shall get kings.
Clearly, Macbeth is more interested in the predictions made by the witches since he eagerly wishes to know more. He shows his own unawareness of the situation as he thinks that the Thane of Cawdor is alive and also thinks it impossible that he will ever be king. The character of Macbeth appears to be falling into a state of infatuation with the predictions and considers the position of Thane of Cawdor to be a happy prologue to the coming events with could lead him to be king. He further shows that whatever is in his interest can not be bad since his success has to come from good. This appears to be the idea of a man who has a very high opinion about his worth and individual abilities.
As the play progresses and Macbeth engages in the villainy of going about the murder of the king. Macbeth goes deep into introspection and questions his own motives about killing the king when he starts a soliloquy with, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/It were done quickly”. He considers his own troubled position and clarifies to the audience that there are two breaches of trust which are taking place in this murder.
First, the relationship which Macbeth has with the king makes him his cousin as well as his subject under the law. Second, the king is a guest in Macbeth’s castle and as such he is supposed to be protected with Macbeth’s life as per the trust of hospitality. He also knows and confirms to the audience that Duncan is a good king who does not deserve to die. It becomes clear that he has plenty of established reasons not to kill the king and the only reason he has for the murder is to satisfy his own ambition. Such clarifications only produce more meaning in the play for all audiences across the world (Brown, 1981).
In conclusion, I believe that the meaning inherent in the play is often sufficient for the readers to enjoy the play that is why the translations and adaptations of the plays have been critically accepted by viewers in other countries where Shakespeare may not be an influence in English alone. The universality of Shakespeare and his plays are evident when we consider how the plays have been acted out in countries undiscovered and accents unknown.
Brown, J. 1981, Discovering Shakespeare, Columbia University Press.
Cartwright, K. Shakespearean Tragedy & Its Double. Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1991.
Holderness, G. et. al. 1988, Shakespeare: The play of History, MacMillan.
Sanders, W. 1968, The Dramatist and the received Idea, Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, A. and Thompson, J. 1987, Shakespeare: Meaning and Metaphor, Prentice Hall.