skip to Main Content

Answer the Question, Question Authority, and Read Inclusively: Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear

Answer The Question, Question Authority, And Read Inclusively: Macbeth, Othello, And King Lear

Let me begin by declaring that, unlike my fellow colleagues, who are college professors, I am an independent, unaffiliated scholar.  My status entitles me to quip that, if I have nothing to say, I do not have to say it.  So I have been free to research if, what, and when I please.  This paper marks my retirement from new research because I know that I have nothing new to say; indeed, I worry that this paper suggests that I am retiring too late.

In 50 years of intermittent teaching and researching Shakespeare—my day job was as a consultant in fields far from academe—, I have been concerned by two things.  One, a growing divide between teaching and research; the other, reductionist efforts of extra-academic interests to bridge the divide.  My purpose is to suggest ways to narrow the divide, mutually benefit both endeavors, and do justice to the humanistic enterprise.

We know—you know better than I—that many colleges make teaching a necessary condition for tenure and promotion, publication the sufficient condition.  This threat—publish or perish; in some institutions, publish yet perish—prods many professors to search for subjects significant enough to warrant publication.  The fortunate ones will publish articles or books, or present papers, on increasingly specialized topics in traditional areas; trendy topics in areas traditional or nontraditional; or even topics altogether odd or obscure.  Whether such research benefits teaching is doubtful.

Have I not read an erudite article on Othello which begins with a long and detailed discussion of Spanish conquistadors’ encounters with Aztec communities, and the efforts of each side to accommodate itself to the “other”?  After elaborating this mutuality of otherness, the author analogizes; the dynamics of such inter-societal and cross-cultural experiences illuminate the tensions in the play.  Thus, Othello’s jealousy results from his inner struggles as an outsider assimilated but insecure because of disparities between Venetians and Moors.  But we need no analysis of Aztecs and their civilization to restate this cliché of Othello criticism.  By exploiting the far away to explain the near at hand, the author displays his up-to-datedness in his recourse to colonialism.  And have I not heard a fanciful paper on Macbeth as a dramatization of failed environmental policy?

To such scholarship apply apt words from Gibbons’s Decline and Fall: “The name of Poet was forgotten … A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”

I think that students enrolled in Shakespeare courses might well doubt the relevancy of foreign conquest or ecological collapse to understanding his plays, and suspect that including such topics or emphasizing class, gender, or race reflects more preaching than teaching.  Yet, if professional and institutional pressures which have created a rift between teaching and research continue, they will intensify, and widen it.  Research will become increasingly recherché; students will remain—well, students.

As scholars who both teach and research Shakespeare, we should exploit that fact.  Students remain students, but they change over time.  What they know or not matters less than how they perceive themselves, others, and the world in which they have lived and will live.  We must encourage them to do as we should do—ask questions, question authority, and read inclusively—to inspire effective teaching and worthwhile research.

I continue with first principles.  The humanistic study of works of literature—here, Shakespeare’s plays—purposes to understand others’ experience expressed in literature the better to understand our experience in life.  This goal necessarily addresses personae as other and is—as in literature, so in life—apposite today in a world in which we more often encounter others who are indeed other.  To understand them as such, we must try to understand them as they are, without filtering them, without seeking for similarities or screening out differences.  We must not exploit, but explain, in what ways they are like and unlike us so to render ourselves intelligible to us.  In teaching and researching Shakespeare, we should not try to colonialize and convert this dramatist of a different time and place by making him an early modern who anticipates or even approves of us.

The clear implication is that, when we study a work of literature from a humanistic perspective, for teaching or research, the basic questions are: who are the personae, what do they say or do, what does it all mean in contemporary, not modern, terms.  So we ask about character, plot, and theme—the traditional, primary subjects of both enterprises—which is to discount, not dismiss, matters of historical and literary context, and of genre.

For such study, I offer three recommendations.  One, focus on these basics.  Although we know that scholars have explored them for centuries, we need to remind ourselves that, though Shakespeare has not changed, we who live after him have.  Thus, studying him in his time serves as the basis for studying ourselves.  Two, prepare to teach or research by reading earlier and contemporary literature, including sources, and criticism of the plays.  The important issues are likely those about which students have asked or which scholars have addressed over time.  Three, be comprehensively receptive without being irresponsibly eclectic.  What we are open to in our engagement with, and reaction to, Shakespeare can supplement, supplant, and shape what we know of ourselves.

To conclude in the terms of my title, I offer examples of my three injunctions, which are not, and are not presented as, mutually exclusive.  To “answer the question” deals with Macbeth; to “question authority,” Othello; and to “read inclusively,” King Lear.  My examples go back to my first and formative experiences in teaching and researching Shakespeare.  I hope that they show the reciprocal relationship of both undertakings.  I acknowledge a very great debt to my students in those early classes, for they became interested enough to participate in spirited discussions.  I pushed them to link responses to the text, and they pushed me to probe Shakespeare more closely and polish my teaching.  Unknowingly, they prompted my research and, years later, its publication.

My first injunction is to answer the question.  In the case of Macbeth, my prompt was a student’s question.  What piqued my curiosity in reading readily available criticism was the received opinion that the scene in the English court is, to mince no words, a failure: too dull, too long, too limited in its function.  Malcolm is a cypher or a stuffed shirt, not a man to ascend to leadership of his country.  His testing of Macduff makes him tedious or shifty and unworthy; only Macduff’s response to the news of his family’s slaughter energizes the scene and establishes the basis for the following action.  According to this consensus, Shakespeare, at the height of his creative powers, devoted over ten percent of his shortest tragedy to a scene of dubious merit.  He did not nod; he slept soundly.  I had my doubts.  I trusted Shakespeare more than I trusted his critics; the consensus about Malcolm’s testing of Macduff particularly puzzled me though I was not clear why.

When we came to the “Court Scene” in my first Macbeth class, I began discussion by asking for student responses and, what matters more, their reasons for them.  After a few answers, I informed them of the views of critics, which we kept in mind as we analyzed the scene.  We approached the personae as if people, their perspectives as defined by their earlier experiences in the play, and the issues between them.

Then a student asked the question which had been in the back of my mind: why does Malcolm test Macduff?  Although the spoken question prompted my silent answer, I asked him why he asked.  His response: the audience already knows him to be loyal, so the test is unnecessary.  Then I asked whether Malcolm knows what the audience knows.  The unfolding discussion put us first in Malcolm’s position, then in Macduff’s; finally in the scene and the play.  In the end, the apparent narrative redundancy suggests a dual purpose, dramatic and thematic.  Malcolm having found untrustworthy others before Macduff, Malcolm’s testing Macduff dramatically demonstrates his ability to find what his father, Duncan, could not: “the mind’s construction in the face” and thereby resolve the thematic dichotomy of appearance and reality.

Approached in this way, the scene reads differently.  From the start, it is moving, as it shows two good men struggling to come to terms with each other, when distrust is the order of the day; to establish a trustworthy relationship between the rightful king and his closest subject; and to rescue their country.  The scene thus enlarges the focus of the play, from the narrow personal issues of Macbeth’s ambition and abuses to the broad political theme of royal succession.

We sought and found support in two points, one never, the other rarely, remarked by critics, which bear upon an estimation of Malcolm as a leader.  One, Malcolm states that he will be worse than Macbeth after he replaces him on the throne, “When,”—note: not “if”—“I fhall treade vpon the Tyrants head,/Or wear it on my Sword.”  That is, Malcolm is fully confident of his ability to defeat Macbeth in single combat, and—note this, too—Macduff does not snicker or protest.  Two, Malcolm urges Macduff to “Difpute … [his grief] like a man.”  Macduff declares that he will do so, but he does not discredit Malcolm’s advice as coming from someone not himself a man.  In short, Macduff shows us that Malcolm is not the nobody or the milksop which critics have made him out to be.

Although I did not recognize it at the time, the answer to my student’s question later aligned with the central quest of my scholarly research and, in the obvious feedback loop, informed my teaching.  After I learned about the tradition of English chivalric romance, I came to understand the scene as a three-part turning point in the larger structure of the exile-and-return motif common to such romances.  After that, it was “Katie-bar-the-door,” as I found that Shakespeare’s major non-Roman tragedies—so called; I prefer to call them “tragic romances”—made sense in the light of that tradition.

My second injunction is to question authority.  In the case of Othello, my prompt was a traditional conundrum of criticism, Othello’s jealousy.  The authorities were critics whose psychological or social motivations have led to diverse interpretations of Othello’s jealousy, as we would expect when race and gender are involved in an inter-marriage.  Critics have been wonderfully creative: Othello is susceptible to jealousy because he is insecure as a black man, an older man, an alien, an unpolished person in a sophisticated society, or a naïf or bore as a military man, however accomplished in his profession.  I have known more than one critic to think that his first night with Desdemona is his first sexual experience—and a shocking one.  Did I not suggest that some professors have been driven to say almost anything?  To me, the proliferation of such interpretations, however intricate or exotic, demonstrates the unsatisfactoriness of them all, rather as Iago’s multiple motives convince no one of any of them.

To question these authorities, I summarized their accounts and asked students to assess them.  They discovered that the only evidence is Brabantio’s, Roderigo’s, or Iago’s words of bigotry; or Othello’s rationalization of Desdemona’s imagined infidelity in like terms.  After scrutiny, students saw that the Senate discredits this bigotry, and that his rationalization reflects Iago’s bigotry after his insinuations have made Othello jealous.  They rejected what Iago sells and Othello buys—none of it new by the middle of the play—or what critics repackage and resell: defamatory views of Othello or demeaning opinions about his susceptibility and responsiveness to Iago’s insinuations.  We remained puzzled not only by Othello’s jealousy, but also by its sudden onset.  Then I thought that something said or done must cause Othello almost instantly to see himself as a cuckold.

Which consideration led to the obvious first question: what is new, said or done, to effect Othello’s paradigm shift?  Once asked, students found what is added: Desdemona asserts emphatically the role which Cassio played in the courtship and, after she leaves, Iago immediately asks a question to which he already knows the answer.  Cassio’s role as an intermediary is a datum.  It means something to Iago and Othello, but what?  Thus, the second question: what does the role mean, or what do Othello and Iago know about intermediaries which we do not?  To answer that question, I worked to learn for myself, then teach to my students, something about Elizabethan cultural knowledge, the courtly love motif, exploited by Shakespeare because known by his audience.  Looking back, we saw that, as early as Othello’s speech to exonerate himself of the charge of witchcraft before the Venetian senate, Shakespeare prepares the audience for the roles of knight, lady, and intermediary which, indicated by Desdemona, affect Othello’s self-perceptions.

My third injunction is to read inclusively.  In the case of King Lear, my prompt was puzzlement about the sword fight between Edgar and Edmund, introduced by heralds and dressed in full armor.  Does it fit into the play, and how, and what does it mean?  And why, given many versions of the Lear story, did Shakespeare add a story from Sidney’s Arcadia?  Questions for teaching and research, indeed.  In this example, I offer no narrative of classroom instruction; I trust its application will be clear enough.

Again, a useful starting point in my preparation was the critical consensus that Sidney’s story offers a subplot paralleling and counter-pointing the main plot.  The consensus sees the play as mocking chivalric heroism.  It sees Edgar, his platitudes, and his undertaking as naïve and unrealistic.  It discredits its moral and political idealism with the entrance of Lear bearing the dead Cordelia and, moments later, with his death—after and despite Edgar’s defeat of Edmund.  But this consensus that the play is pointedly anti-heroic is too pat in its easy modernism.  For it depends on ignoring inconvenient data in the text.  Let me point out what has been overlooked or excluded.

First, a word unique in Shakespeare but almost entirely ignored: “Godsonne.”  The word implies that Lear undertook Edgar’s religious and moral upbringing.  This fact sheds new light on his platitudes—Edgar learned them from Lear—and on the subplot.

Second, immediately after Regan identifies Edgar as Lear’s “Godsonne,” she indicates that Lear “nam’d” Edgar—more evidence of the close relationship between them.

The conjoint mention of godson and naming reflects the rite of baptism according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  The allusion, the only clear yet often overlooked Christian reference in the play, establishes the close personal, moral, and religious bond between Lear and Edgar.  Regan’s comments intend a double smear, to associate Edgar with Lear’s badly behaved knights, thereby to indict Lear as Edgar’s guide.  But, as we later learn, Lear was a talented knight, and Edgar triumphs as another—both for good.

Third, on the heath, Lear refers to Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, as “my Philofopher” and a “good Athenian.”  The references reinforce their intellectual and moral affinity already indicated by the baptismal relationship between them.

Fourth, but a moment earlier, a literary quotation unique as such in Shakespeare—“But Mice, and Rats, and fuch fmall Deare,/Haue bin Toms food, for feuen long yeare”—from Bevis of Hampton and, a bit later, an allusion—“Childe Rowland to the darke Tower came”—from a folk tale about the knight Orlando.  Notes identify these allusions, but critics ignore their aptness and import.  Edgar, like Bevis, is at the nadir of his quest; and like Rowland, undertakes to rescue prisoners—both undertakings of a chivalric knight.

Fifth, Lear’s response to a lord’s affirmation of his claim to have slain the knight who hanged Cordelia.  “Did I not fellow?/I haue seene the day, with my good biting Faulchion/I would haue made him skip.”  Frankly, teachers and researchers disgrace themselves and discredit their work by disregarding these portentous lines.  In this poignant moment, Lear expresses an old man’s pride in his prowess as a young knight, with his “godsonne” Edgar close by, victorious in single combat, and soon to succeed him.  In Shakespeare, chivalry is not dead; we are dead to it—which fact signifies much about us.

My examples offer news both bad and good.  The bad news is, for all the study of Shakespeare, many teachers and researchers read carelessly or selectively, overlook or omit data, and thus fail to address and analyze all data.  The good news is that students evolve and the text survives, both rich with possibilities.  Teachers and researchers can coordinate and advance their undertakings by returning to two fundamentals of communication: audience and purpose.  If we think that teaching addresses students only and that research addresses other professors only, teaching risks regurgitating received opinions, and research risks repeating itself or generating erudite irrelevancies.  To avoid these risks, we should address a mixed audience yet satisfy scholarly standards.

As scholars in the humanities, we should guide our teaching and research to reveal Shakespeare’s plays as instructive as well as attractive representations of human experience.  In doing so, we should approach them in ways which enhance an understanding of ourselves by first addressing the virtually infinite variety of their otherness.


Originally presented with the same title at the 63rd Conference.  South Central Renaissance Conference (2014).

Michael L. HaysMichael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays is formerly an independent consultant in defense, energy, and environment; a full- or part-time teacher for the past forty-five years under diverse auspices; a civic activist for public education as a columnist and blogger; and a retired independent scholar with his doctorate in English, specializing in Shakespeare.

Back To Top