What's your favorite Shakespearean pun

Looking for Shakespeare

Behind the world-famous poet and playwright is a little-known person. April 23rd marked the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare really was Shakespeare! For more than 150 years rumors have been circulating that the actor William Shakespeare from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon could not be the author of the 38 plays published under his name. What is known about him is little and does not indicate a genius. There is evidence of his baptism on April 26, 1564 (since baptism then usually took place on the third day after birth, the date of April 23rd was concluded as his birthday; the fact that Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 then seems almost eerie) . Documents prove his marriage to a certain Anne Hathaway, the birth of three children, some property purchases and financial transactions, which he apparently operated very profitably.

He was a partner in the London theater in which he played, but retired to Stratford in the last few years of his life. In the end, his will is available with the now famous disposition that he will bequeath his wife his “second best bed” (nothing more). There are no Shakespeare letters, no diaries, no descriptions of his personality by contemporaries. And this pale, intangible man, it was asked, should have created a work that is unequaled in ingenuity and linguistic power? A provincial, who never saw a university from the inside, is said to have had that enormous education that can be gleaned from the dramas? Excluded, say the so-called anti-Stratfordians to this day and cheerfully present opposing candidates. Over the years there have been almost 60, including celebrities such as the philosopher Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare's main competitor in the theater at the time, Christopher Marlowe, the eloquent Author of the first great "Faust" drama (unfortunately he was already dead when Shakespeare's most important plays were written, which is why certificates of his death were declared a cunning forgery and he was allowed to live incognito in exile in Italy).

Custom-made roles

Leader in the favor of hobby detectives who want to have tracked down the "real Shakespeare" is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. At least some respectable poems have survived, but stylistically they have so little in common with Shakespeare that one would have to assume a multiple personality. In addition, he too died too early (1604) to have written pieces like “King Lear” or “A Winter's Tale”. So why so much ado about nothing, why the lost labor of love in the search for the mysterious ghostwriter? The Berlin Anglicist Hans-Dieter Gelfert gives a plausible answer in a new, confident overall presentation of Shakespeare and his time. It is "the widespread interest in conspiracy theories" that drives some to find Shakespeare's work fascinating mainly because they believe it was not his.

It is much more plausible to explain Shakespeare's mastery (at least in part) that he was an actor. Gelfert asks cheekily, wouldn't Schiller's dramas be a lot livelier if Schiller had also been an actor? Shakespeare literally wrote the roles for his fellow actors, he worked the pieces with them in rehearsals on the stage. And he wrote from his own active body, his language is filled with scenic movement. This playwright knew what it meant to create a fictional world in front of up to 3,000 spectators on a ramp stage without a backdrop. The illusion had to be created solely through the bodies and the haunting language of the actors. The audience at London's Globe Theater, Shakespeare's most important venue, was extremely mixed: In the stalls, around the stage, the members of the lower classes stood, the better-off citizens sat in the covered galleries, and the nobility greeted them from the boxes.

From rough to poetic

Shakespeare mastered all the linguistic registers that were needed to satisfy this motley crowd, from popular buff to the finest poetic rhetoric. The vitality of the rural festivals with their eating and drinking bouts, the ritual bear-hunting, the fool's dances and the obscene amateur theater performances around Robin Hood and the lustful maid Marion - that was familiar to him from his childhood in the provinces. From these experiences a figure emerged like Falstaff, the unforgettable hero of the belly in Shakespeare's work, who gives the other players the opportunity to cover him with ever new names: Falstaff, the “meat mountain”, the “beer rascal”, the “horseback breaker”, or the «Stuffed tripe sack», the «roasted coronation ox with the pudding in its stomach». Or more tenderly, as his favorite whore Doll Tearsheet (translated by A. W. Schlegel congenially as "Dortchen Lakenreisser") calls him, namely: "You weathered, little, sugar-baked Christmas pig."

But Shakespeare also got to know the high literary language in Stratford, where he most likely attended Latin school and met his favorite poet Ovid. The many courtiers and declarations of love in Shakespeare's plays are incomparably beautiful, often interwoven with an abundance of mythological allusions. One example is Hermia's promise in the “Midsummer Night's Dream” to flee to the Ardennes forest with the man she loves, whom her father has denied her:

My Lysander!

I swear to you by Cupid's strongest bow

By his finest gold-tipped arrow,

And by the innocence of Cytheren's pigeons;

In what binds souls in love and faith;

At that fire where Dido once burned

When the Trojan wrongly wriggled away from her;

With every vow men ever broken

More in number than women ever spoke:

I'm sure you'll find midnight tomorrow

Me in the place where we made it

Probably none of the spectators in the stalls understood what is meant here in detail. But the little artisans and shop assistants were certainly also enraptured by the magic of these verses, perhaps more so than the lords in the boxes, who first rummaged through their educational knowledge.

Madness of love

Shakespeare's texts revolve around two major themes: the confusion of meaning, yes, the madness of love and the struggle for political power. Because the language of love in his dramas and poems is so intense, one was understandably eager to know how it really was with "Shakespeare in Love".

But the private man William Shakespeare apparently did not want to reveal anything about himself, he preferred to live in secrecy. Can you infer something about yourself from the texts? Shakespeare's sonnets seem more treacherous than the dramas, because here speaks an I who loves and hates so intensely that the reader cannot help but assume personal experience. Whoever reads into the sonnets, however, gets into another confusion. 126 of the total of 154 poems are addressed to a young, handsome man to whom the self pays homage in unmistakably homoerotic tones, 25 to a dark-haired woman ("dark lady") who is extremely attractive, but sexually insatiable and therefore faithless.

In two of the Dark Lady sonnets, Shakespeare plays with his first name: “Will” in English means “will” as well as “sexual desire” and - in concrete terms - the sexual organ. A verse like “Will will fulfill the treasure of thy love” is therefore an artful and indecent play on words. The dark lady possesses his "will"; in his bondage, at the same time loathing her, he asks her to release "will" and yet, helplessly, notices how "will swells" near her. Hosts of biographers searched contemporary documents for black-haired women among Shakespeare's acquaintances, and a black courtesan named Lucy Negro was also considered. There is no convincing evidence for any of the candidates.

The courtship for the young man seems even stranger, even if there is a plausible suggestion for identifying him: Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. It is conceivable that Shakespeare was commissioned by the noble family to poetically convince the unwilling son of the necessity of marriage in order to ensure the continued existence of the dynasty. That would explain the 17 so-called "procreation sonnets" in which the ego quite openly encourages the young man to have intercourse with women: "Where is the one whose unploughed lap / does not like to be plowed in the marriage bed?" He should refrain from masturbation ("drive, beautiful, you only have intercourse with yourself") and kindly "pass on" the "good" that nature gave him. Shakespeare quite rationally separates the noble inheritance policy from the emotional world of the producer. For the woman the seed, for him, the speaker of the poems, love. How physical it can be remains open. One poem advocates a purely platonic relationship: the penis (“prick”) is “a thing that has no value for me. / Did she (nature) give you the thing to delight women, / Give me love; you may make her happy. " This contrasts with the glowing sensuality with which it is described elsewhere "how your gaze ignites me".

Social games

The question of whether Shakespeare - according to today's categories - was homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual cannot be answered due to a lack of biographical evidence. Fortunately, one might say, because the search for specifications is misleading! The attraction of his pieces, especially the comedies, lies precisely in the wonderful shimmer of love between all possible forms of human longing for one another. In the end, the couples are always man and woman, but before that, in the turbulent disguise scenes, it is very often two men who come closer.

In “What you want” Viola conquers the Duke's heart as Page Cesario, Rosalinde in “As You Like It” even rehearses, disguised as the young Ganymede, with Orlando, who is in love with her, how he is supposed to woo Rosalinde artistically. If you consider that the female roles in the theater of that time were played by young men, you can imagine what a shimmering atmosphere of gender ambiguity surrounded such love scenes.

The comedies end with weddings; in the tragedies, married couples appear from the beginning, and most of them are terrible. Othello strangles his wife in jealousy, Macbeth becomes an assassin under the influence of his wife, who even surpasses him in cruelty. "You want to be big," she instructs him, "you are not without ambition, but the malice that must accompany him is missing." Hamlet's father is killed by his own brother with the help of his wife; afterwards the culprits marry and set up a side camp, whose shamefulness the young Hamlet drastically denounces: "In the sweat and breath of a disgusting bed, / Boiled in putrefaction, courting and mating."

Shakespeare's love unfolds its magic in escape rooms such as the Ardennes Forest, far from power and marital property. There the lovers can dreamily embrace each other. They are by no means sure of their feelings, sometimes they don't even know who they are, but the happy ending is guaranteed. Shakespeare's great art probably also has to do with the fact that he himself never lost the uncertainty about his erotic identity. This gave him a skeptical view of those stable people who believe that they are going through life independently and do not notice that they are always only playing the roles that society gives them:

The whole world is a stage

and man and woman are just like gamblers on it.

They have their appearance, their departure,

and everyone plays in many roles.