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Bardic Blunders
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By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008

Even Shakespeare Had His Shortcomings

Although William Shakespeare can stun audiences with the brilliance of his muse, his plays are not without shortcomings. Writing faults in them range from anachronisms, mixed metaphors, and excessive wordplay to plot contrivances, historical inaccuracies, and slapdash endings. Among the scholars who noted these faults with a meticulous eye was Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), one of 18th Century England’s most esteemed critics, poets, and essayists. While acknowledging the majesty of Shakespeare’s playwriting, Johnson did not ignore its weaknesses. One weakness Johnson singled out was Shakespeare’s tendency to write hurry-up conclusions. "It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them."
 
The ending of As You Like It validates this observation. In its final act, the villainous Duke Frederick inexplicably reforms, reconciles with his brother, and willingly returns to his brother the dukedom that he had unjustly seized. At the end of Measure for Measure, the lecherous Angelo—a thoroughgoing miscreant—suddenly, and without explanation, mends his evil behavior and marries a woman he previously rejected. In All’s Well That Ends Well, an arrogant, egotistical, aristocratic husband, Bertram, abandons his loving, lower-class wife, Helena, regarding her as little more than an annoying pustule. But at the end of the play, he has a life-changing epiphany (who knows why) in which he accepts Helena after her supporters trick him into a tryst with her in a silly mistaken-identity scheme.
 
Unexplained plot developments also occur in other Shakespeare plays—anywhere. In King John, Queen Elinor drops dead, period. There is no explanation—no foreshadowing cough, no murder plot, no unruly horse to throw her. She just dies. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Claudius orders the young prince to England with devious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But pirates appear deus ex machina to become the unwitting saviors of Hamlet—“thieves of mercy” (4.7.12), he calls them in a letter to Horatio—and they ferry him back to Denmark. In Richard III, Lady Anne curses Richard as a “dreadful minister of hell,” spits on him, then—miracle of miracles—agrees to marry him.
Shakespeare also composed inscrutable phrases and passages that make hieroglyphics models of clarity by comparison. Who among us—without aid of an annotated text, a dictionary, and a row of history books—can decipher the
precise meaning of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s justification for the invasion of France in Henry V? (Canterbury’s speech begins at line 33 in Act 1, Scene 2.)
 
American poet, critic, and teacher Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) faults Shakespeare for another language faux pas: mechanical, standardized speech patterns in Julius Caesar
In Henry VI Part I, Joan of Arc declares in Act 5, Scene 4, that “maiden blood . . . will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.” (Blood may stain, outline, sketch, delineate, and limn, but its talents come a cropper at crying.) In Act I, Scene I, of the same play, Gloucester observes, “Had not churchmen prayed, his thread of life had not so soon decayed.” (One thinks of threads—whether literal or figurative—as breaking or snapping, not decaying.)
 
Excessive wordplay was another of Shakespeare’s weaknesses, notably in his early plays, when he too frequently salted his verse with puns. In Richard II, John of Gaunt coughs up puns even while dying. After King Richard asks Gaunt how he fares as he nears death, Gaunt uses his name (the same as the adjective gaunt, meaning thin, bony and haggard) in the following reply:

Oh, how that name befits my composition!
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,
With me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt? (2.1.76-79)
In of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio and Romeo bounce wordplay back and forth like tennis players competing for set point. The effect is cloying and tiresome:
MERCUTIO: Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.
ROMEO: Pink for flower.
MERCUTIO: Right.
ROMEO:  Why, then is my pump well flowered.
MERCUTIO: Well said: follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain after the wearing sole singular.
ROMEO: O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness.
MERCUTIO: Come between us, good Benvolio; my wits faint.
ROMEO: Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I'll cry a match.
MERCUTIO: Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have  done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five: was I with you there for the goose?
ROMEO: Thou wast never with me for any thing when thou wast not there for the goose.
MERCUTIO: I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.
ROMEO: Nay, good goose, bite not.
MERCUTIO: Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most sharp sauce.
ROMEO: And is it not well served in to a sweet goose? (2.4.29-42)
Shakespeare could also bounce time in any direction. For example, in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet is a teenager in Act 1 but a thirty-year-old in Act 5. Yet only months pass between the beginning and the end of the play. Apparently, Shakespeare neglected to rewrite the gravedigger scene when revising an early draft with an older Hamlet. In Julius Caesar, a clock strikes three in Act 2, Scene 1, and eight in Act 2, Scene 2. However, clocks that struck the hour did not appear in history until the fourteenth century AD. In Cymbeline, a play set in ancient times, characters speak of France and Britain even though neither country existed at that time as a nation or political entity with undisputed borders. France was Gaul; Britain was Britannia. In Troilus and Cressida, set at the time of the Trojan War, Hector quotes Aristotle. But Aristotle was born many centuries after the Trojan War.
 
In addition, Shakespeare frequently imposed English customs and dress on the foreign cultures he wrote about. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse observes that Juliet will celebrate her fourteenth birthday on Lammas-eve (Act 2, Scene 3). Lammas Day, August 1, marked the beginning of a harvest festival celebrated in England, but not in Verona, Italy, where Romeo and Juliet is set. In Julius Caesar, Casca describes a scene in which Caesar opens his doublet, a tight-fitting jacket—with or without sleeves—worn in England and other European countries from 1300 to 1600.
 
Besides manipulating time and customs, Shakespeare also manipulated biographical accounts about historical personages and even altered geographical boundaries. For example, in the former case, he presented Richard III (1452-1485) in the play of the same name as one of the most evil rulers in history. However, the historical Richard, though unscrupulous, was not as ruthless as depicted. Nor was he a hunchback—or at least no reliable evidence exists to suggest that he was. After Richard’s brother, King Edward IV, died in 1483 Parliament declared Richard king instead of Edward's young son on grounds that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegal. Parliament said Edward had earlier agreed to marry another woman. To secure his position as king, Richard confined both of the late king's boys to the Tower of London, where they were later killed. There is no proof that Richard ordered them killed, as Shakespeare tells us. As to geography, Shakespeare described Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale as a seaport. In fact, Bohemia was landlocked in central Europe.
 

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