Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Warwick's online course, Shakespeare and his World. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds Hello Learners. Welcome to our week six summary. We’ll talk a little bit more about Macbeth. So a big theme this week, we’ve been looking at the portrayal of witches in Macbeth, and the idea of witchcraft and how it would have been received in Elizabethan England. Yeah. And of course, as we said, this is something that King James was very interested in, took very seriously, published a treatise on. And there’s lots of evidence that witchcraft was a big issue, taken very seriously, in Scotland where James had been king beforehand.

Skip to 0 minutes and 42 seconds We’re into the second half of the course we’re into the second half of Shakespeare’s career, and he is now writing plays in the knowledge they’re going to be performed at the court of King James, as opposed to Queen Elizabeth. And a different set of preoccupations, and witchcraft, increasing interest in the sort of magical powers of the King– that that passage about the King’s touch healing the disease of scrofula. King James reintroduced that idea of the royal touch– and then witchcraft as well, and of course, the relationship between England and Scotland. So these are all very, very timely matters for Shakespeare, as, of course, is the gunpowder plot, which took place the year before the play was staged.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 seconds And there are very clear references to it. And it’s important there to remember if we think about witches, we immediately sort of think of old women. But actually, the term ‘witchcraft’ was used more widely. Treason was regarded as a kind of witchcraft. So some of the conspirators in the gunpowder plot, and in particular the Jesuit priest who was associated with it, and Father Garnet, they too were labelled as witches. And we looked at John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law.

Skip to 2 minutes and 6 seconds It’s a fine line between the idea of witchcraft and a medicine man because of course they didn’t have medicine as we understand it today. Yeah, no. That’s right. So in a lot of, particularly in rural communities, the herbal remedies of old women were the only form of medicine. And yet, it was exactly those sorts of women who sometimes were regarded as witches. And in a way, I think it’s useful to sort of think of the emergence of a new kind of professionalism in medicine as a reaction against that– an attempt to sort of draw a distinction between folk remedies and remedies that were more tested and proven. Although having said that, John Hall was known as a doctor, was respected.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds And as we discovered, he published his cases. But we don’t actually have evidence of him having a formal training. The Royal College of Physicians was beginning to take off at this time. We don’t have evidence of him going there, although it’s possible that he might have had some formal training on the continent. It’s an interesting idea, this idea of the four humours in Britain. Yeah. This is a very, very ancient idea, isn’t it? It goes right back to classical antiquity to Galen in ancient Greece. But for Shakespeare, the useful thing about it is that the four humours are linked to different temperaments.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds And you have the idea of a balanced personality, but then an unbalanced personality where there is an excess of one of the humours. And if it is choler, the angry humour, or melancholy, the sad humour, then this is in a way regarded as a kind of form of mental illness. So this week, once again, the idea of source materials come up. And we’ve talked a bit about the idea of plagiarism and intellectual property. People bandy around the idea that Shakespeare copied from other writers. Yeah. I mean, I think we– people who haven’t read a lot of Shakespeare are surprised at the extent to which he didn’t invent his own stories.

Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds What he did was adapt, dramatise, intensify, create a new spin on existing stories. A few plays– like Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, he seems to have invented from scratch– Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, The Tempest. But the great majority, he’s either reworking old plays or dramatising history books or dramatising stories or short novels. And that, to people who have the idea that great creative genius is all about originality, is perhaps a surprise. But what we have to remember is the association between creative genius and originality is actually a relatively recent thing. It was only really with the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century that a great premium was placed on originality.

Skip to 5 minutes and 21 seconds In Shakespeare’s time, adapting inherited traditions, imitating the classics, but doing something new with them, was thought of as the key to good creativity. I mean, you see that in the art of the time as well. If you think about the way that a great Renaissance artist would take an existing theme, an existing subject, whether a classical or a biblical subject, and put their own spin on it. Nobody complains that The Last Judgement or The Creation is painted by both Michelangelo and Raphael. We’re interested in their variations on an old theme. And in a way, that’s how we need to think about Shakespeare’s originality.

Skip to 6 minutes and 3 seconds It’s tremendously useful, though, to read his source material because, of course, you can see what are the things that he does to change it, the things that he does to make it new. You can sort of follow Shakespeare in his tracks as he dramatises his material. And would everyone in the audience sort of recognise this? And this would have been an appealing thing to go see something you knew? I wouldn’t say everybody would have recognised it. But certainly a lot of Shakespeare’s stories, the theme, the subject matter would have been very familiar. Julius Caesar, most people would have heard of Julius Caesar and knew that Julius Caesar was assassinated. Let’s go along and see how Shakespeare represents that.

Skip to 6 minutes and 42 seconds Macbeth, the Scottish material, rather less well-known by the wider London audience, but of course, extremely well known to King James and his immediate circle, not least because King James himself claimed descent from Banquo. OK. Well, speaking of King James, patronage comes up a bit in these videos. And could you explain exactly how patronage– well, not exactly– how patronage worked why somebody– why you would have wanted patronage and what you got out of it. Yeah. Right. You want patronage because you want money and a roof over your head. And perhaps you want to be accepted and to gain social advancement.

Skip to 7 minutes and 29 seconds So the acting companies needed patronage simply to have permission to put their plays on and to get access to court to put special performances on. So this is the period where, because the King, the new king and the new queen were very keen on theatre, two existing acting companies– Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men and another company– are renamed the King’s Men, the Queen’s Men. So that’s dramatic theatrical company patronage. But there’s also the case that writers are constantly in pursuit of patronage. The commercial book trade is only really beginning to take off. You can’t really make money as a writer at the time.

Skip to 8 minutes and 11 seconds So what you do is if you’re publishing a poem, a history book, whatever, you dedicate it to an aristocrat, ideally, even to a member of the royal family. And probably you’ll be given a little bit of payment for that, maybe five guineas. But you might also get the opportunity to follow up with a job, maybe working as a secretary or getting a job in the household of an aristocrat, job as a tutor, that kind of thing. So a lot of the poets seeking patronage do that. And you can see the effect that King James’ patronage had on Shakespeare’s work and the King’s Men’s performance? Well, you certainly can.

Skip to 8 minutes and 48 seconds There’s this very interesting phenomenon that we talked about of them actually being present at the Somerset House Peace Conference. Because they get the title of being grooms of the royal chamber, they get given their special cloth for their special livery. And then we know that they were there at the peace conference, not to put plays on, but just to sort of be in attendance. And presumably, there was a real sense that in order to impress the Spanish delegation negotiating the peace treaty, King James wanted to pull out all the stops. So everybody associated with the royal court would be there. Just as guests?

Skip to 9 minutes and 31 seconds Well, I think more as attendants looking after the visiting delegation, putting on a show– not literally, but putting on a kind of display. And that is this fascinating thing about theatre and royalty, isn’t it, that in the end, royalty is all about display. It’s a kind of performance. And that, in one way, is why theatre goes very well with royalty. But in another way, it’s potentially quite subversive because the notion that the kind of rituals of and respect for royalty might all simply be a kind of theatrical illusion, that even a king might be ‘a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,’ telling a tale told by an idiot that signifies nothing.

Skip to 10 minutes and 19 seconds That’s quite a scary thought. Well, next week, we’re looking at Othello. That’s something a bit different. And there’s some tricky themes in this one, again. A bit like Merchant of Venice. Well, yeah, as with Merchant of Venice, the question of race obviously comes into this. The key, though, to remember in Othello is that the racism which is certainly there, it’s above all coming from Iago, who is not exactly an exemplary character. It’s another play where there’s plenty of film versions and indeed, sort of film adaptations out there. Although it’s a little bit dated now, I still remain very, very fond of the filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company production.

Skip to 11 minutes and 5 seconds A great production in Stratford-upon-Avon in which Ian McKellen plays Iago. Imogen Stubbs plays Desdemona, and the great opera singer, Willard White, plays Othello, directed by Trevor Nunn. And it’s Royal Shakespeare Company absolutely at their best, so that’s the one that I’d look out for. Great. Well, thank you very much and we’ll talk about it next week. Yup. See you next week.

Week 6 summary

In this summary video, we bring together some of the themes and ideas from Week 6 of Shakespeare and His World.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Shakespeare and his World

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: