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Alternative Character Interpretation / William Shakespeare

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Lots of Shakespearean characters receive Alternative Character Interpretation.

  • Hamlet:
    • Is Hamlet a disturbed soul pretending to be crazy to trap the "sane", or is he honest-to-goodness bonkers? Modern interpretations generally agree that he isn't completely right in the head, but debate continues on how far this madness extends and on whether it resembles schizophrenia.
    • One alternate interpretation of Hamlet is that he is not an indecisive procrastinator. Rather, he is frustrated by the knowledge that, if he acts too soon, before he can prove Claudius' guilt to everyone else, his plan will fail.
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    • In one of Hamlet's early soliloquies, he explicitly mentions that he doesn't know if "his father's ghost" is a lying apparition or not. He needs to prove Claudius' guilt to himself before he can act.
    • There's a critical essay on the play that points out that, assuming Hamlet was a Protestant (we know he studied at Wittenberg, which was a center of the Protestant religion in Shakespeare's day), he would have believed that good people go straight to heaven; therefore any ghosts must be the ghosts of damned souls.... in which case it would make sense not to trust them.
    • Another essay goes the other way around, claiming that, as a catholic (the play doesn't specify when the action takes place, it could be in medieval times), Hamlet would avoid killing Claudius before he knew for sure Claudius would go to hell. That's why he needed to be sure Claudius was the killer, and, after he was sure of it, he held his strike when Claudius was praying for forgiveness.
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    • There's also some debate on just how much affection Hamlet had for his mother... and of what kind. Yes, some adaptations go there.
    • There is a minority suggesting that Hamlet and Rosencrantz had drunken fumblings with each other at Wittenberg. Well, how else do you explain Guildenstern acting so much like a guy who's been forced to hang out with his boyfriend's asshole ex?
    • Another Alternative Character Interpretation: Hamlet's not crazy - just stubborn, stupid, and selfish.
    • Part of the problem is that Shakespeare never bothers to explain (and probably doesn't know) that the Danes from the original story he was cribbing from have a superstitious dread of killing the insane. Amlaeth's facade was a canny maneuver to buy time since his stepfather/uncle would kill him to secure his position. It is because of that dread that the bad guy tries to send Amlaeth to a foreign land to a monarch who didn't share that dread of killing the insane.
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    • Hamlet's age, whether he acts his age and whether the play treats him as an adult is a whole other area open to interpretation. The play's script as it exists today is contradictory. One line says he is 30 and in college, but Hamlet also says he knew Yorick, who died 30 years ago. This may be the result of Shakespeare changing his idea of the character while writing different scripts, or it may be that 13 was mistyped as 30 when the play was reprinted. Numbers got messed up in a few plays of the time because the original author's handwriting was illegible in some places.
    • Or since Horatio is the only one left alive at the end, he is by necessity our Narrator, thus he would portray his friend Hamlet as more prescient and sensible than he really was. In fact, if Horatio wants to cast Hamlet in the best light possible, the interpretations of all the other characters in the play are suspect as well.
    • A theory bolstered by Hamlet's dying request to Horatio: "[R]eport me and my cause aright/ To the unsatisfied."
    • One that both neatly resolves the seeming inconsistencies in the story while opening up a plethora of possible new interpretations: the whole play is a Death Dream from the point of view of Hamlet's father.
    • The character of Claudius is full of ambiguities, and has wide scope for reinterpretation. Depending on the portrayal, he appears to be a competent, conscientious, well-liked king - arguably preferable, in fact, to his navel-gazing undergrad of a nephew. There's little reason to think that Hamlet would be up to the unpoetical demands of the job. In fact, it's only because of the Deus ex Machina that is Fortinbras that Hamlet's actions don't throw Denmark into rudderless chaos and invasion. There's "something rotten" for you.
    • Polonius' traditional interpretation as a doddering bore and fumbler might also be off. As a couple of modern portrayals have borne out, Polonius can be seen as a competent, occasionally ruthless official who understands more than many actors and directors give him credit for. His "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech to Laertes - usually played for laughs - is perfectly sound advice from start to finish, and his opposition to his daughter's relationship with Hamlet proves horribly well-founded.
    • Additionally, readers, viewers, and Hamlet himself take Claudius' panicked reaction to Hamlet's staged play-within-a-play as open/shut confirmation of the king's guilt. However, Claudius' terror makes equal sense as the reaction of an innocent monarch whose crazy young nephew and heir has just staged a thinly-veiled portrayal of his impending death at the latter's hands.
    • Another is how much Claudius' love for Gertrude - if he truly loved her, like he said, shouldn't he have knocked the poisoned wine away from her? Or was he too far away and simply restrained himself when she started to drink (that depends on the adaptation)? Or did he just let logic stop him for one instant to continue his plan?
    • Furthermore, how much did Gertrude herself know - was she in some way complicit with her husband's death, or completely innocent of the whole thing? Also how does she react to the closet scene, in which Hamlet brings all kinds of accusations to her? Does she believe him and realise her guilt in betraying her husband by marrying Claudius, or insist that he is mad (which she later does in the graveyard, but maybe that was just to protect him)? IIRC, David Tennant's version had an interesting spin on it: Gertrude refuses to believe Hamlet, but when Claudius tells her not to drink the wine she suddenly realises that it is poisoned, Hamlet was telling the truth about everything, and then commits suicide out of guilt by drinking it deliberately.
    • Another thing that can be interpreted differently is the ghost: is he real, or is he a part of Hamlet's insanity. There is evidence for both theories in the play. The evidence that the ghost is real is the fact that Hamlet went to see the ghost after the others claimed to have seen it. Evidence that the ghost isn't real is the fact that there is a scene in which Hamlet sees the ghost, but his mother doesn't.
    • Some people think Ophelia acts the way she does because she was pregnant
    • There's been at least one production where the actors playing Horatio and Fortinbras decided to imply that Horatio had secretly orchestrated the events of the play to clear Fortinbras's path to the throne.
  • Henry IV parts one and two: Is Falstaff a sad, old, cowardly man looking at the Crown Prince as a meal ticket, or is he an indefatigable mound of life and bombast who genuinely loves his Hal like a son? Is Hal a defiant, young hedonist living out the last flames of irresponsible youth before the weight of the crown comes crashing down on him, or is he a cold, calculating politician using the denizens of Eastcheap to craft his public image so he can appear so much finer in his reformation? Does Hal's rejection of Falstaff fall under awesome, Necessarily Evil, or Kickthe Dog? Do Hal and Falstaff even really like each other? There are so many ways to play both characters. Compare the scene where Hal and Falstaff practice Hal's future encounter with his father the king: the 2012 BBC production and the 2010 Globe Theatre production.
  • Then moving on to Henry V: Is this truly the reformed Hal, the noble and victorious "star of England" the brave and courageous leader of a "band of brothers" in a just cause? Or is he still a cold master of his own public image, grinding up the "good yeomen whose limbs were made in England" to make an illegal and poorly thought-out land grab in France? In one breath he exhorts his soldiers, "on, on you noblest English!" and then in another threatens "heady murder, spoil and villainy" upon the civilians of a French town. His losses in the Battle of Agincourt are tiny compared with the French, but he did kill all his prisoners. Does he even know what he's doing at any given moment?
  • Julius Caesar:
    • Obviously Brutus, but also Caesar. Is he a skeptic who refuses to pay heed to the soothsayer (see Arbitrary Skepticism on the main page) or a highly superstitious figure who refuses to "beware" the Ides of March because it would be challenging fate and willingly goes to his destiny, only showing sadness at discovering Brutus among his killers? Or is he just too arrogant to pay heed to any warning of danger; or, is he worried about the threat but afraid of showing his fear out of concern for looking weak?
    • The 2018 National Theater production, which set everything in the modern day, with the various characters being played as expies of contemporary politicians, played Cassius as a woman. Although no words are changed, save for the necessary pronouns, the way certain lines are said and scenes are staged add another potential motive for Cassius turning on Caesar, implying that sexism (which is notoriously rampant in politics) might have had something to do with it. It also adds another layer to Brutus shooting down Cassius's ideas to kill Mark Antony, keep Antony from speaking at Caesar's funeral, and not taking on Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus at Philippi, all of which leads to disaster for the Liberators.
    • The 1953 movie adaptation interpreted Mark Antony as vaguely sinister, sporting both a Kubrick Stare and later a Psychotic Smirk whem he had finished his famous "friends, romans countrymen" speech at Caesar´s funeral. The smirk shows itself when he turns away from the crowds, rioting behind him. He is also Color-Coded for Your Convenience, sporting a toga that is slightly less dark than that of Cassius. In this respect, Brutus stands out as a Tragic Hero, played by both Cassius and Antony in due order.
    • In her monologue, Portia reveals to Brutus that she gave herself a "voluntary wound" while she's pleading with him to include her in his plans. Most productions have this as her stabbing herself in the leg (or something like that) to prove she's strong. Others, such as the 2018 National Theater production, play it in a much darker light, by portraying it as outright Self-Harm. When the actress pulled up her sleeves to reveal fresh cuts across her wrists and arms, the entire scene suddenly became pretty damn disturbing.
  • King Lear:
    • At least one critic has wondered if a few particular lines in the play indicate that Lear has sexually abused his two oldest daughters. He refers to Goneril's 'dishonoured body' and the specific wording the two use to lay on the flattery in the love test is rather sketchy. This idea formed the basis for the adaptation A Thousand Acres.
    • How much of Goneril's and Regan's plotting is fueled by ambition and jealousy, and how much is concern for keeping the kingdom from collapsing under their senile father? Remember also that the "good guy" army is a foreign invasion from France.
    • Some have suggested that Lear was married and widowed twice, but loved the second wife more than the first, and that Goneril and Regan are children from his first marriage while Cordelia is the daughter of The Lost Lenore. A lot of productions will give the elder two the same hair colour to highlight this idea. Ian McKellen chose to wear two wedding rings when he played Lear, also claiming that he felt Cordelia's mother died in childbirth - and that she is now the same age as her mother was when she died. This adds a new layer to his love for Cordelia. Shakespeare Unwrapped - featuring a twenty-something as Lear - played the reunion scene between them this way.
    • Lear's decision to divide up the kingdom in the first place. While ill-thought out, perhaps he genuinely thought it was the right solution. After all, he has three daughters, none of whom have any heirs to ensure the line. Dividing the assets among them and assigning them each a share of land to rule over may have seemed reasonable to him. Of course the love test to decide who gets the bigger share...
    • It's notable that Regan appears to be the more bloodthirsty of the sisters. She's the one that turns Lear out into the storm and takes part in Gloucester getting his eyes gouged out. How much of the sisters' scheming is the result of Goneril simply going along with her sociopathic younger sister - possibly realising it's better to have Regan as an ally than an enemy? Goneril's eventual suicide after poisoning Regan suggests that she feels more remorse for what's happened than she lets on. Another of Regan's key characteristics is that she is able to bring out the evilness in others - further supporting the theory that Goneril is heavily under her influence. As for Goneril's suicide - is it My God, What Have I Done? or Better to Die than Be Killed?
    • Edmund is often interpreted as a Tragic Monster but it's not hard to see him as an Entitled Bastard instead (quite literally). He appears to at least have a comfortable status in Gloucester's household - and has a somewhat cordial relationship with his half-brother. He betrays his father simply out of a desire to have even more. Although Gloucester looks down on him, he's not exactly on the streets fending for himself. Edmund basically ruins a bunch of lives because he's greedy. Gloucester can't necessarily recognise him as heir because he's bound by the laws of the state. And being the younger child, he'd still be in second place to Edgar even if he were legitimate.
    • Albany is significantly more moral than the rest of the cast but despite his uneasiness at what his wife is doing, he never actively moves to stop her until he discovers his own life is in danger. So is Albany fine to turn a blind eye to the horrors going on around him until he learns that he personally may be affected? Perhaps learning that Goneril was going to kill him anyway persuaded him that he had nothing to lose by challenging her. Another possibility is that Albany never stopped Goneril because he actually loved her and was blind to her faults to an extent. Note that it's discovering she plans to kill him so she can marry Edmund that persuades him to take action.
    • Cordelia is Lear's favourite but she doesn't resort to flattering or ego stroking like the other two. Nor does she seem to think anything bad will come of being honest to her father. Is it possible that earlier in his life - before his senility started setting in - Lear actually preferred being told the truth and that his love for Cordelia is precisely because of her Brutal Honesty?
    • There is a massive amount of debate over Lear's line "my poor fool is hanged". Some assume it means that The Fool who disappeared after Act III has been executed too. Others point to the lower case f - and that an upper case one would have been used if Lear had been referring to The Fool. 'Fool' was also another word for child, and he could be referring to Cordelia in this case.
    • The Duke of Burgundy in the opening scene. He refuses Cordelia's hand after Lear disinherits her - meaning she is left without a dowry. Notably he doesn't officially reject the proposal until after the King of France gives a speech about Cordelia's virtue. Perhaps he's noticed that France appears to be falling in love with the princess, and is just bowing out gracefully under the pretence of being materialistic.
    • In the Ian McKellen version, Regan's actions in Act II are played in a greyer light. The common interpretation is that she and Goneril have been in cahoots from the beginning. But here when Goneril appears at Gloucester's house, Regan appears genuinely conflicted as to whose side she should take.
  • Macbeth:
    • Did Macbeth kill Duncan because the witches prophesied he would become king? He admits that he had already been fantasizing about killing Duncan before he ever met the witches ("whose murder is yet but fantastical"), and that if their prophesy is true, he'll become king without killing Duncan ("then chance will crown me"). Has he perhaps already decided, subconsciously, to kill Duncan and seize the throne, and the witches have come to him to warn him? Likewise, does he kill Macduff's family and try to kill Macduff because the witches warned him to "beware Macduff," or had he already decided to do it; Macduff was already plotting against him, after all, which is why Macduff was in England when the assassins came.
      • In some productions the Third Murderer is Macbeth in disguise. In Roman Polanski's film adaptation the Third Murderer is Ross.
    • Was Lady Macbeth a manipulative and power-hungry bitch steering her weak-willed husband into regicide, or was she a feminist hero overcoming the role society had built for her and asserting her strength?
      • In the Agatha Christie novel Cat Among the Pigeons, another alternative is offered: Lady Macbeth was someone who liked the idea of being a power-hungry bitch willing to kill anyone who got in her way but wasn't really one: once she got a taste of what that was like, it drove her mad. Macbeth, on the other hand, thought of himself as the hero and needed a push to get started. Once he did, however, he found that he was in fact a power-hungry bastard willing to kill anyone who got in his way without remorse.
      • According to Sassy Gay Friend, she doesn't particularly want to be queen... she's just sick of being a Housewife.
    Sassy Gay Friend: Lady, you need a hobby or an orgasm, stat.
    Lady Macbeth: (breaking down in tears) I really... I really just need a job!
    • Macduff appears to be the valiant hero of the play, and yet he leaves the country to find Malcolm when he must know that by doing so he not only leaves his family more vulnerable, but gives Macbeth the suspicion of himself that causes him to murder them in the first place.
    • Are the witches orchestrating all the events to bring discord and chaos to the kingdom (as Orson Welles's film suggests)? Or are they slaves to their own prophecies and they have to give Macbeth this information because this is how it's supposed to happen?
      • How about just throwing out the play's depiction of them as crones and interpreting them as standard Hecate Sisters? After all, their name is mentioned several times in the dialogue.
    • Was Duncan a good king or was he just a tyrant and everyone else who were loyal to him just loyalists?
      • The Complete Pelican Shakespeare includes a fascinating essay before each play, and the one for Macbeth paints a convincing portrait of a noted alternate interpretation of Duncan, which is that he plays the saint but is in actuality a cunning bastard who killed and cheated his way to the top and is merely feigning a belief in the divinity of his family's kingship. The essay specifically compares him to Edmond from King Lear in a scenario where Edmond survived to an older age.
    • Roman Polanski's film interpretation has a rather cynical interpretation of the characters Ross and Donalbain.
  • Measure for Measure:
  • The Merchant of Venice:
    • The character of Shylock is open to lots of Alternative Character Interpretation, largely because he's not drawn as unambiguously evil as other Jewish characters of the same time. Is he a greedy bastard who cares for nothing but money? Is he a hard-nosed business man who knows that his only protection from those who would like to see him ruined is his reputation as a bastard? Is he the victim of repeated bullying and abuse who finally gets what he believes is a chance to take revenge on the person who has abused him the most - and do it legally? The famous "hath not a Jew" speech in particular humanizes Shylock well beyond most Shakespearean villains, who tend to be For the Evulz or mad for power. Revenge killings were still common in Shakespeare's day, and still often considered legally justified. Shylock's also the only character in the play who doesn't try to twist the law or back out of bargains freely entered, despite these traits generally being ascribed to Jews centuries before and since, implying Shakespeare may have intended the character as a Deconstruction.
      • The 2004 movie basically turns Shylock into the tragic protagonist of the play, with the anti-Semitism of the time made a central theme, and all the romantic and comedy elements are pushed into supporting roles.
    • The character of Portia is one of Shakespeare's very best villains. After getting Shylock to give up his demand for the pound of flesh she, along with the Duke and Antonio twists the law around so much that Shylock has to give up all his wealth to the state and his ungrateful daughter (who by the way left his house by stealing his money), and also has to convert to Christianity, or die. Then she tricks her husband's ring from him, just so she can hold it over him as being "unfaithful."
      • It's also possible she played this trick because, during the trial, Bassanio announced that he would give her and all her wealth up happily to save Antonio, and she felt a little payback was due.
    • Is Antonio in love with Bassanio, and essentially being asked to finance his own heartbreak? Is Bassanio a callous dunce cruelly taking advantage of his best friend's romantic feelings for him?
    • Antonio's either a jerk who hates Jews or a nice guy who really wants to be Shylock's friend. Some critics have argued that his forced conversion of Shylock wasn't considered cruel at the time, but a way to save Shylock's soul and get him into Heaven—this after Shylock tried to kill him!
      • The rationale for the opposing school of thought is that, genuine conversion or no, it would be Antonio's ultimate revenge — to take away even Shylock's very identity and essentially render him an Unperson among his own people. Consider also that conversion robbed Shylock of his livelihood. Since Christians couldn't lend money for interest, Shylock can't practice the only trade he's ever known. Between what his daughter took and what the state confiscated, Shylock has lost most of his money, has no way to earn more, and is too old to start over.
    • Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta is seen by many to be even more unsympathetic than Shylock, but consequently authors find that he's far less problematic since the Evil vs. Evil setting of the play, the fact that Barabas blames his villainy, like Shylock on the Christians and that Society Is to Blame, and that Christianity or any other religion is not depicted as being more merciful than Judaism, makes him far more convincing a Draco in Leather Pants than Shylock.
    • Is Jessica a self-centered brat, or a sweet, loving girl who's genuinely sad at having to leave her father to be with the one she loves? For that matter, do she and Lorenzo really love each other or did she just leap at the first chance she had to escape from her oppressive father? Even their most "romantic" dialogue shows some ominous incompatibility. The 2004 film shows in the last scene that Jessica has kept Shylock's ring, which strongly suggests that she misses her father.
    • Is Launcelot a lovable fool, or an anti-Semitic jerk prone to alarmingly insensitive humor? Are he and Jessica Like Brother and Sister, or is he in love with her and jealous of Lorenzo? Is Lorenzo legitimately jealous of him in turn, or just joking, or does he know that Launcelot had a thing for his wife and smugly rub it in his face?
    • Did Old Gobbo really fall for that lame trick of Launcelot's, or did he go along with the game and then deliberately refuse to recognize his son, effectively turning the tables?
    • Is Gratiano endearingly roguish and impolite, or is he just plain unbearable? Did Nerissa really love him enough to want to marry him, or did she make a bet with him and get more than she bargained for?
    • Did Morocco and Aragon really love Portia, or were they just in it for the money? Was Portia racist toward one or both of them? Was Portia's father really wise to set up the casket test, or was it inherently flawed? Did Portia have the song played to help Bassanio cheat?
    • Does Bassanio really choose the lead casket because of "something, something, all that glitters is not gold, beauty is only skin deep, etc, etc", or is it because he's grown up on fairy/folk tales like ours and thus knows that the treasure is always hidden in the guise of ugliness?
  • In Much Ado About Nothing, the character of Claudio is consistently portrayed as a fresh-faced young ball of Wangst, whose willingness to be fooled by Don John and public rejection of Hero makes him look all the more callow and culpably gullible. If one takes Benedick's description seriously though, Claudio is better seen as a huge, raging moose of a professional warrior, genuinely unused to female attentions, socially clumsy, and inspired to flights of language that aren't natural to him. He doesn't trust his good fortune; he's afraid of looking like an idiot, and half-prepared to hear that he's been taken for a fool all along. This combustible mixture doesn't make his meltdown and public treatment of Hero less horrifying, but it puts the character into focus and helps one understand why Hero might be prepared to forgive him.
  • Othello:
    • An alternate interpretation of Iago's actions are those of a scorned lover. Iago manipulates the situation to destroy everyone around Othello except for Iago himself. If his plan had gone correctly the only person left that Othello could trust, and thus who he would naturally turn to, would be Iago.
    • Theories go so far as to suggest that Iago is Satan himself.
    • One 2015 performance in Stratford had Iago being played by a black actor, adding some fascinating new dimensions to his rants against Othello.
    • There's also Desdemona herself - an innocent, young woman or just Obfuscating Stupidity? Remember that she did manage to "seel her father's eyes" and elope with Othello amongst other not so innocent acts.
    • A possible motive for Iago is class-resentment, and indeed, this is the only motive he expresses with any consistency.
    • Racist interpretations of the play sometimes see Desdemona as am empty-head strumpet who only marries Othello because she can't control her libido and condemn her for "miscegenation". See the quotation from John Quincy Adams below.
      • Of course, Adams' frothing about Desdemona's 'betrayal' of duty, race, sex and country also stems from his ideas about everything women should be striving for- to be the perfect consorts of men like their own families (and betraying one's own sex presumably meaning not keeping women of one's own station an exclusive commodity to men of one's own status or preferably higher, therefore presumably degrading their value), and churning out sons in the image of one's own people. Desdemona's relationship with Othello is in this respect behaving as if she's her own individual person, rather than a conduit for Venetian sons- unforgivable.
    • There are alternative views of Othello himself: Hero, fool or downright monster? The critic John Sutherland noted that in the original story, Shakespeare's source material, the unsympathetic Othello-equivalent plotted with the Iago-equivalent about how to kill his wife in a way that wouldn't leave a mark/would look like natural causes, so that he could escape punishment and could maintain his position. While Shakespeare's Othello is way more sympathetic overall, there's a few lines that indicate that he too attempted such a plan, putting him in a worse light. Sutherland also discusses how despite making grandiose claims about his handkerchief, in other instances, Othello treats it like a normal handkerchief, and his later obsession with it has elements of Believing Their Own Lies.
    • At one point, Othello has a seizure according to Iago. If Othello truthfully has epilepsy, then it's one more obstacle that makes him different from the Venitians and might feed into his insecurity.
    • According to Othello, Desdemona once said that she wished God had made her a man that could go on the adventures Othello's described. The obvious, and indeed, most common interpretation is that Desdemona wishes God had made her a man to marry, since it's established that Othello's strength and bravery are are a huge part of what won her over. However, others have suggested that Desdemona means she wishes God had made her a man, so that she could go on these adventures herself. The former is probably what was meant, but it's interesting to think about, and potentially throws Desdemona's character in a different light. (And, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the double-meaning may not have been an accident.)
    • One of Iago's alleged motives is that he heard a rumor that Emilia cheated on him with Othello. There's no indication that this is true, and most readers agree that it's probably not, but Emilia does have a speech where she claims that adultery can be (and often is) justified, particularly if a woman cheats on her abusive husband. Iago is certainly awful to Emilia, and Emilia overall demonstrates a far more cynical and "practical" outlook on marriage (and life in general) than Desdemona. It's not too far-fetched to think that she may have sought companionship elsewhere — if not with Othello, then with somebody.
  • Richard II: Is Richard a capricious tyrant or a sheltered twit who, either way, places too much value in his divine right to rule? Was Bolingbroke after the crown from the start, or was it something he fell into, as the circumstances surrounding his motives changed? Was he right in taking the crown from Richard and ahead of Mortimer? Did he order Richard's death, or was he genuinely regretful? And more generally, was he an unscrupulous usurper, or England's great hope brought low by the deadly politics of the age? It's worth noting that the real Bolingbroke was a real life Knight in Shining Armor, a principled administrator, a forceful and decisive ruler, and hailed by people from all walks of life as England's savior when he took the throne. History paints a picture of a deeply conflicted king, assailed on all sides by rebels and traitors, and terrified for the state of his soul in light of the Necessarily Evil sins he committed in restoring order to England.
  • Richard III:
    • Some productions like to depict Anne as being rather crooked and ambitious in her own right, and imply that she marries Richard not thanks to the power of his words and personality but because he puts her that much closer to getting a tiara again. This interpretation makes her own death rather karmic.
    • It is possible to get laughs into the scene where Richard seduces Anne. Watch.
    • "I am determined to prove a villain" - is Richard saying Then Let Me Be Evil, that he is choosing to be a murderous bastard out of pure spite; or, is he claiming he is Forced into Evil by fate and circumstance, that due to his condition he is unable to enjoy the "idle pleasures of these days" the way his contemporaries can, and that murdering his way to the top and wrecking havoc is the only pleasure he has left?
  • Romeo and Juliet:
    • There's the battle between people who believe the titular couple were really, deeply in love, and those who think they were just dangerously hormonal.
    • Romeo, a romantic hero who just found his One True Love - or dangerously passionate, fickle nutcase? Did he sweetly entice Juliet, or poison her reason with his vile tricks?
    • Similarly, Paris is either a genuinely nice guy who really cared for Juliet or a Gold Digger who regarded her strictly as property.
    • Another common question is how serious the feud between the two houses really is, and how deeply each character supports it. In particular, when Tybalt discovers that Romeo has infiltrated the party and threatens to kill him, Capulet shuts him down, saying that he has heard nothing but good things about the boy; this implies that it is at least feasible that he would have endorsed Romeo's marriage to his daughter if he had heard, especially both he and Montague were under heavy pressure to end the feud; this also implies that the feud may have been taken more seriously by the younger generation than by adults.
    • It could also be argued that what Romeo and Juliet thought was true love was in fact just romantic infatuation intensified by Forbidden Fruit.
    • Friar Lawrence. Is he a kindly man of God, trying his best to help the two lovers live happily ever after? Or a Manipulative Bastard who knows full well how dangerous his plans are, but wants peace in his city and is willing to risk two children's lives for the greater good?
    • Tybalt is the closest thing the story has to a main antagonist, but in the Zeffirelli version, when his friends drag him away from his fight with Mercutio, you can see clear shock on his face as he realizes he has actually stabbed Mercutio, suggesting that most of his villainy was nothing more than posturing and that he never meant to really hurt anyone.
    • In the 1978 BBC Television Shakespeare version, following Romeo's line "Good Capulet, whose name I tender as dearly as mine own, be satisfied", Tybalt just turns and starts walking away without so much as a taunt or laugh. This effectively shifts much of his culpability for the ensuing fight onto Mercutio's shoulders, making the latter come across as something of an Asshole Victim.
    • Paris can vary in characterization depending on how the production presents him. Some will show him as a Jerkass to justify Juliet fleeing her proposal, while others could show him just as yet another victim in the feud. Notably his role in the play is to be an obstacle preventing the lovers from being together, yet not out of any maliciousness of his own.
  • The Taming of the Shrew:
    • No way Katherine's speech at the end about women needing to submit to their husbands is meant to be taken literally. She doesn't gradually weaken under Petrucchio's mind games but suddenly, out of sheer exasperation, grits her teeth and starts agreeing with him to get him to do what she wants. Who really "tames" the shrew here? Katherine seems to be the one who tames herself and learns self-control, which reaps more benefits than tactlessly bitching at the world.
    • Rather than being "tamed" by Petruchio's bullying ways, could it be that Kate is charmed by it — that she genuinely finds him lovable for being a man after her own heart, nagging, and unpleasant, and boorish — someone who doesn't flee from her outbursts but instead answers in kind, and with spirit, too? It is possible to stage the play with both obviously having fun during their initial rows. (As for the later part, the ending speech is easily filed away as her playing along to win both of them the wager's money.)
    • The Musical version, Kiss Me Kate, calls for a sly Fourth Wall breaking wink at the end of this speech, a gesture that is no big deal now, but scandalous in the 40s. You can tell which side of the argument a director lies on by whether they keep or omit the wink.
    • This one goes hand in hand with the characterization of Petruchio. Is he trying to break Kate psychologically? Or is he trying to help her to become a better person through Tough Love? Is this a game for him, a contest for dominion, his idea of a friendly argument? One performance involved a Petruchio who was a good 30 years older than Kate (probably pretty historically accurate at that) which led to a paternal vibe of "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you."
    • Another Alternative Character Interpretation: Petruchio has no interest at all at taming Kate (as he says early on, he actually likes her for her wit), but all his friends expect him to try to. Therefore he makes an absurdly big show of taming her to hint to her that he's not serious while he looks like he's trying really hard to his somewhat dumber friends. The scene where she comes over is where she finally gets it and starts to play along. The moral of the story, and especially the ending scenes, is not therefore "wives, submit to your husband" but rather "a happy marriage is built on trust and not the man and woman struggling against each other."
    • The film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (talk about your Reality Subtext) adds an interesting twist. After the first dinner scene, when Petruchio takes away all of Katherine's food and screams violently, she retires to her room and does seem genuinely afraid...until a look of recognition comes into her eyes, and she lets out a low, satisfied laugh. This suggests that she's figured out what Petruchio is up to, and decided to play along to trick him.
    • Is Petruchio lampooning society (specifically gender roles) throughout the play? The "taming" is really him trying to get Kate to play along with him without having to drop the joke by telling her in front of other people.
    • Petruchio's act is meant to show Kate how ridiculous her behavior must seem. She eventually catches on to this and the rest of the play is a prank on everybody else.
    • Kate gets in on the bet and delivers the last monologue to get her and Petruchio the money. This would require some side gags.
    • Kate intended to be a "good" wife all along, but just wanted a strong husband. Once she realized that her act wasn't scaring Petruchio away, he earned her respect.
    • Outside of the Petruchio/Kate controversy, we have Tranio (loyal servant with Lucentio's best interests at heart or underhanded schemer attempting to win Bianca for himself?) and Bianca (sweetie or shrew?)
  • The Tempest:
    • In most productions, Caliban is a savage at heart, acting only on emotion and instinct, devoid of compassion; meanwhile Ariel is a pure creature of the spiritual realm, incapable of malice. However, some productions go as far as reversing the two - noting Prospero's vicious mistreatment of Caliban, they see him as a tragic creature, whose 'rape' of Miranda was a simplistic, disastrous attempt to express his love for her, for which he has been cruelly abused ever since; while Ariel is shown as an evil spirit who is kept in check by Prospero (why was he imprisoned in that tree in the first place, hm? Why does Prospero keep changing his mind about freeing him? Is it possible that a being who describes so poetically how he whipped up a massive storm and dashed a ship to pieces is a little dangerous?).
    • A little more on Caliban: he has one line about how Miranda wasn't exactly refusing his affections. Brian Aldiss expanded this into a short story, with the two genuinely in love and Prospero forcing them apart for his own reasons.
    • The possible interpretation that Ariel is actually gay. This was explored in the 1979 film version of the play.
    • Prior to the events shown in the play, was Prospero a wise ruler who studied magic on the side, or was he just a deluded old man who cared more about magic than about his family and responsibilities? Is his antisocial personality the result of his righteous anger at everyone who wronged him, a byproduct of his years of isolation on the island, or has he been that way ever since he took up magic?
    • Though Prospero seems think that Antonio is just a lying, opportunistic scumbag who wrongfully usurped the dukedom of Milan out of sheer lust for power, Antonio can alternately be read as a pragmatist with a far better understanding of the responsibilities of ruling than his sorcerer brother - who outright admits that he cared more about his mystical studies than about his duties as duke.
    • Doing a Gender Flip on Prospero, as Julie Taymor did in her 2010 film and Joe Dowling did at the Old Globe in 2018, has a profound effect on the sorcerer. Prospera as a mother relates differently to her daughter, Miranda, with more understanding of what she's going through, and when she returns to Milan, she gives up a great deal more freedom than her male counterpart.
    • What exactly Caliban and Ariel are is subject to interpretation. Ariel's species is unclear, while Caliban's appearance has been much debated with interpretations ranging from some kind of ape man to a fish person, to a normal, non-white human.
  • Troilus and Cressida:
    • Pandarus is the text is seen as lecherous and scheming, which is where the word pandering come from. Though this reputation isn't deserved. The Iliad mentions him as a well trained soldier and a noble fighter. Shakespeare got his interpretation from the works of Chaucer. Not the Iliad.
      • Although Pandarus was the one who broke the truce between the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad when he thought he would get wealth and glory for it. Granted a god was the one tempting him but he didn't know that. So maybe he shouldn't be remembered so fondly.
    • Achilles in this play is very different from the character in Homer. He actually supports the idea of peace! The Achilles of the Iliad would be disgusted by the thought.
    • Hector is far more viscous to his wife whom he loves very dearly in the Iliad. Interesting to note that the Iliad portrays women far more equally than Shakespeare's play.
  • Twelfth Night:
    • Feste's generally witty lines leave the majority of viewers genuinely amused and enjoying him as comic relief, but his somewhat bittersweet closing song ("the rain, it raineth every day" - see The Cover Changes the Meaning, on the main page) make others view him as a subtly tragic Sad Clown. Finally, the ludicrous extent of his Disproportionate Retribution (again, see the main page) makes others argue he is a Monster Clown with total sociopathy, willing to unmake any character as thoroughly as he did poor Malvolio if given half a chance to get away with it.
    • Directing a production of Twelfth Night takes on an extra dimension if you're familiar with Alan Gordon's excellent Fools' Guild mysteries, to whit: Feste is a secret agent, engineered the twins' "shipwreck" in order to stabalise the political situation in Illyria, and falls in love with Viola to the extent that after his assignment's success, he spends a lot of the rest of his life trying to drink away the heartache. Oh, and Malvolio is apparently working for Saladin. Introducing these concepts to the actors playing these roles doesn't remotely translate to the audience, but is a hell of a lot of fun.
    • The respective sexual identities of Orsino, Olivia, and Viola are very up in the air, considering that Orsino falls in love with his page "boy" and Olivia falls in love with a woman that she thinks is a eunuch. And unlike Rosalind in As You Like It, once outed Viola is never seen again on-stage in her woman's weeds (although modern productions may have her come out in a dress for the curtain call).
    • Malvolio could be cast or played as being Olivia's own age, or an older but still handsome fellow, or as a man way past his prime but still daydreaming that the Countess will fall for him.
    • Many productions imply that Feste knows Viola is actually a girl, and uses lines such as - "Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard" - in order to tease and bait her. (They did this in the 1996 film, although Feste had an unfair advantage there, since he saw the survivors of the shipwreck getting washed up on the shore.)
    • You could make a case for Viola being trans or nonbinary.
    • Is Antonio gay, or is his "love" for Sebastian platonic? It's all up to the individual production.
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