Shakespeare’s Grand Theme in Merry Wives and Timon

I’ve come to the opinion, over the course of my personal Shakespearean odyssey, that there is a central theme running through all of Shakespeare’s work. This Grand Theme has three strands – madness, acting/pretending, and clowns/fools – which seem separate but are actually different aspects of one idea.

Shakespeare’s core obsession is with the boundary between reality and unreality. He probes and plays with this distinction using the three strands of the Grand Theme as his tools:

  • madness – when a character is mistaken about what’s real and unreal
  • theatre and pretence – a deliberate inversion or blurring of the two
  • clowns and licensed fools – those characters who are able to use their feigned (or genuine?) status as madmen to skewer the pretensions and facades of others

The fool, in Shakespeare’s hands, is more than just the crossover between the other strands: it’s the central point around which the rest of his explorations of fiction and illusion revolve. Sometimes, Shakespeare goes so far down the rabbit hole, it seems that no character ever says anything which is straightforwardly true and honest. Everyone is either mistaken, losing their mind, lying or acting in some way. Except, that is, the fool, a sort of embodied double negative, who through madness is able to see the truth, and speak it freely.

Each new play that I read now, I analyse in terms of these three aspects. There’s a risk here of confirmation bias: by looking for these things, I might spot them where they’re only minor elements, or even over-interpret and see themes which aren’t there, thereby imagining my theory is proved. I’ve tried to remain wary of tenuous interpretations, and ready to criticise myself when I’m stretching the theory too far. But so far, even with plays that I’ve thought might break the pattern, I’ve found an abundance of madness, pretence and foolery at the heart of the story.

The two most recent plays I’ve seen are good examples. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a slapstick comedy about adultery, and Timon of Athens is a tragedy about wealth and loyalty. Neither seemed likely vessels for exploring the Grand Theme, but that’s exactly what they are:

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10 words that Shakespeare uses in ways you don’t expect

Over the last year and a half, I’ve gone on a bit of a Shakespeare bender, as a result of my New Year Resolutions in 2014 and 2015 to read and see six plays each year.

Shakespearean language is difficult. Aside from Shakespeare’s lyrical, convoluted style and invented words, there has been so much language change between early modern English, understood by Shakespeare’s audiences around 1590-1610, and modern English, spoken today, that the two dialects often seem to have limited mutual intelligibility.

The more I read and hear of Shakespeare’s language, the more familiar and understandable it becomes. It’s relatively easy to pick up the meaning of archaic terms like fain and wot: after just a few readings or hearings they slip naturally into your vocabulary and cause no more problems.

But what’s much harder is when Shakespeare uses words which are common and familiar in modern English, but had a different meaning in early modern English. It’s very tricky to override the familiar meaning and hear it as the intended meaning; however hard I try to dislodge it, the modern meaning obstinately intrudes into Shakespeare’s text.

Here are the ten words which have caused me the most dissonance between their Shakespearean and modern meanings:

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The Glass Bead Game

In case anyone was wondering why I list the books, films and music (or recently, podcasts) that I’m interested in at the moment down the right hand side of this blog, it’s not to show off my excellent taste or anything like that. It’s to encourage anyone who’s also interested in any of those things to discuss them with me. So far, this has happened precisely zero times. But I live in hope.

You may have noticed that The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was my current read for quite a long time, recently. I’ve finally finished it, so now I’m going to post some thoughts on it.

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Wolf Hall, bad grammar and literary style

A bit of a break from India for a minute, while I deal with some idiots on Amazon.

I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It was the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and it’s been raved about ever since. Normally I avoid anything with this much hype, but I decided to take a risk on it. Also, I needed a new book, and it was one of the few literary novels stocked by the Indian bookshop, among its stacks of get-rich-quick self-help tomes and Osho tracts.

It was a good decision. The book is, quite simply, terrific. It’s one of the best things I’ve read for years, and I’d zealously recommend it to anyone.

I’ve just read some of the reviews of it on its Amazon UK page, and a lot of people are criticising it for its bad grammar.

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Iain Banks: the other secret Culture novel


It’s an open secret that Inversions, the SF novel by the late Iain M Banks, is set in the universe of the Culture. The book itself disguises this: the cover omits the “A Culture Novel” strapline of the other books such as Consider Phlebas, the narrative is solely about events on a late medieval world, and there is no explicit mention of Culture society or technology. However, there are enough subtle hints in the narrative for anyone familiar with Banks’s other works to deduce that the two main characters are agents from the Culture, who have infiltrated the pre-industrial society in order to influence it. At one point, one of them tells a child a fairytale about a land where people can fly betweens suns using “ships with invisible sails”; in the Epilogue, the other excuses herself from a dinner citing “special circumstances” (the name of the Culture’s black ops department).

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Nobody’s talking about Paul Scott

I want to talk about Paul Scott.

If you’re thinking, “Who’s Paul Scott?” don’t worry. You’re in the typical majority. If I say, as I usually do, “he wrote the Raj Quartet – you know, The Jewel in the Crown,” you might now be experiencing a tiny flicker of recognition. You’ve at least heard of the title, and can guess it’s about British India, but you don’t know any more than that. If you’re a bit older, you might be doing better, remembering the 1984 TV series. But that’s about as far as it goes for most people. Even among the educated and well-read, he’s now faded well into obscurity.

Paul Scott

That seems a shame for someone who was both a Booker Prize winner and the author of an acknowledged masterpiece of historical fiction, the Raj Quartet. Those are the relatively objective claims. Personally, I would add a few more. Firstly, that the Raj Quartet is the definitive literary statement of the final days of British rule in the subcontinent, a time of epochal political and social change, and therefore has lasting significance. Secondly, that he is a writer of astounding psychological insight and depth, on a par with more widely recognised writers of human drama such as D. H. Lawrence. Thirdly, that even his now totally forgotten earlier novels are works of brilliance, worthy of greater attention.

In short, I believe Paul Scott is one of the most under-rated British writers of the 20th century.

Over the next few weeks, therefore, I’ll be writing a few more blog posts about Scott and his works. Please keep reading.