ENGL 339: Shakespeare’s Drama

Dr. Ed Risden

Fall 2017, Junior Year


  • Short Journals
  • 1 Midterm Assignment (mine was a creative short story)
  • 1 Final Essay


After studying a number of Shakespeare’s works, we were to devise an essay surrounding a greater claim on a theme, character, or observance of style.  The journals we wrote throughout our readings of the plays lead to what we planned to talk about in our essays.  For mine, I looked at how impulsive decisions crept up in a number of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Dangers of Rash Decisions and Emotions in Shakespeare Plays

Shakespeare knew the human soul before general psychology sprung into understanding.  Each of his complex characters found substance in every event, motive, and feeling.  Yet, Shakespeare wrote each with a flaw—commonly in decision making.  Shakespeare wrote many plays showcasing the extremes of emotions and the after effects of them.  People naturally rush to decisions, an unfortunate disposition of humanity.  In Shakespeare’s plays, rash decisions mixed with intense emotions bring on cataclysmic events.

Rash decisions usually arise because of emotions.  Humans contain a cesspool of feelings that do not do well when bottled up.  Melissa Cyders and Gregory Smith identify four reasons for rash decisions:

Sensation Seeking (the tendency to seek out novel and thrilling experiences), Lack of Planning (the tendency to act without thinking), Lack of Perseverance (the inability to remain focused on a task), and Urgency (the tendency to act rashly in response to distress, or what we here describe as negative urgency) (Cyders and Smith 808).

Each of these factors cause problems for those who indulge in their coercive pulls to rush into action.  Cyders and Smith propose adding a fifth reason for rash action, which would be categorized as positive urgency, meaning that the action is provoked by positive emotion instead of distressing (Cyders and Smith 808).  Cyders and Smith argue for the fifth reason because of the trend of studies they conducted on college students where they noticed that on a normal academic week the likelihood of students drinking lowers when compared to how much they consume to celebrate.  They also found that the chances of adolescents engaging in rushed decisions derives from both happy and dismal feelings (Cyders and Smith 808-809).  These results also concur in adults, though the results appear more shocking in younger demographics.

Shakespeare focused more on urgency in his works.  All his characters experience depths of emotion that Shakespeare knew to be sensitive about how they showed their passions, typically for the worst.  Humanity grew into emotions as a survival mechanism that aids and impedes.  “Emotion’s facilitation of action is fundamentally adaptive.  Emotions lead one to focus on one particular set of needs or stimuli, out of all the possible stimuli to which one could conceivably attend” (Cyders and Smith 812).  Without emotion, humanity may not have existed this long.  However, emotions also create problems that decrease the quality of life, especially when people concede to the overwhelming prowess of their emotions and the destructive decisions that come from them.

In his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare highlights the foolishness of love and anger, but also on the problems rash decisions cause.  People are pig-headed and self-absorbed to the point that their stubbornness causes them to ignore the desires of others, bringing harm and strife to their relationships.  They overlook the importance of empathy and general human decency.  Shakespeare draws attention to the necessity of keeping emotions under control and spacing decisions out in a thoughtful manner.  The characters in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream exemplify how detrimental the consequences of rashness can be.

The problems in A Midsummer Night’s Dream begin with the anger of Egeus.  Hermia does not want to marry Demetrius who her father favors as a suitor over Lysander, even though they are equals in status and fortune.  The only difference between the two is that Hermia loves Lysander while her father loves Demetrius.  Lysander makes a quip to accent this point as he states, “You have her father’s love, Demetrius; / Let me have Hermia’s. Do you marry him” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1. 1. 93-94).  Instead of compromising with Hermia and taking her opinion into account, Egeus demands her to be executed as his right by Athenian law.  He lacks empathy or understanding of Hermia’s feelings about the arrangement and jumps to a drastic action, even if the action is within his power.  Theseus reminds Hermia of Egeus’ right and emphasizes his reign over her: “To you your father should be as a god— / One that composed your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure or disfigure it” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1. 1. 46-51).  Though Hermia is a human being, her opinion is second rate compared to her father’s, even if she too has a life.  Egeus ignores reason and skips to a quick fix for his daughter’s disobedience.

Hermia and Lysander also rush into a hasty action.  Theseus extends Hermia’s alternatives to either death, marriage, or a nunnery with an answer expected on Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding day.  With this looming decision, Hermia and Lysander foresee no other options but to run away to Lysander’s aunt’s house, which lies outside the jurisdiction of the Athenian laws.  The couple declare their love to each other and hasten to prepare their departure.  Yet, neither of them look for another way.  They allow their fear of being broken apart to drive them to fleeing rather than come up with another option.  The plan to escape opens the door to the problems the couple encounter with the enchantment in the woods, though neither would have happened if Egeus quelled his anger and allowed Hermia to marry Lysander.

Oberon’s desire to have Titania’s foster child creates another situation that would have caused less issues if Oberon partook in careful thought.  No sane reasoning is present in why he wants the child for a servant other than his pride being diminished by Titania’s rejections and his jealousy over her attention being elsewhere.  Titania explains to him that she had a loyal “vot’ress” or follower who “…being mortal, of that boy did die; / And for her sake do I rear up her boy, / And for her sake I will not part with him” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2. 1. 123, 135-137).  She pays attention to the boy not out of spite but to honor her dead follower.  Despite her explanation, Oberon still feels cheated and slighted by her attentions being focused on someone other than him.  He claims that he must “torment” Titania for the “injury” he sustains from her shunning his attention for the boy’s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2. 1. 146).  He does not allow time to dwell on Titania’s explanation.  Instead, he spins out a plot to trick her.  Enlisting his faithful servant Puck, Oberon decides to not only devise a plan to claim the boy as his servant but also a way to make a fool out of Titania to avenge his pride, giving in to the negative urgency of his situation.  Oberon orders Puck to find a flower that Cupid’s arrow fell on, which will make a “love juice” that will cause Titania to become obsessed with a foul beast.  All in the name to heal his wounded pride.

Pride and rash decisions trickle through other Shakespearean plays, such as King Lear.  In the beginningthe play soon finds itself amongst King Lear and his three daughters.  His intent to split his kingdom between the love of his daughters leads to a spike in emotion and quick decisions.  The one with the prettiest and more convincing expression of love will receive the most. With this elevation in complimenting words, King Lear would give into positive urgency and bestow more on whoever spoke the best.  In his mind, this appears to be a sound way to distribute the kingdom lands.  However, the daughter that should have received the land lost the most.  According to his plan, his eldest daughters inflate his ego by declaring their love for him to be unmatched by one another, their lives, and their happiness.  King Lear believes them and expects Cordelia to match their words. Against expectations, she declares she has nothing to say.  Lear responds, “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” (King Lear 1. 1. 90).  She realistically pursues that she will love him as her father and some of her love will go to her husband.

Because Cordelia clings to her realistic claims, as sensible as they are, King Lear does not appreciate the lack of flattering words and disowns her, exemplifying negative urgency.  And so begins the tragic fruition of this play and the problems—Lear banishes Cordelia and his faithful advisor, Kent.  King Lear’s pride sits at a low point because of losing some of his power as he jumps to heal his broken pride and crooked crown while he abdicates the throne.  He ignores the obvious manipulation of his eldest daughters and only focuses on the supposed betrayal of his youngest and favored daughter.  He turns a deafened ear to his right-hand man’s objections and shoves Cordelia off on France.

Lear’s hotheadedness leads to his downfall.  His eldest daughters realize he has lost his mind and quickly treat him like a senile old man rather than the king he once was.  He rushes from one to the other until they plot against him and side with the dastardly bastard, Edmund Gloucester.  Lear ends up touched by madness over the loss of his true daughter and the betrayal of his conniving daughters.  No kingdom, no apparently decent kin, Lear jumps into a downward spiral of despair.  Later, Lear regrets his quickness to disown Cordelia, but with the damage done, all the characters act out the consequences of his decision, leading to the death of Cordelia through treachery and his own death by a broken heart.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, the rash decisions lie in the people and possibly in Hal’s future.  Though in history the world works out in King Henry IV’s time, the Henry in the play, or Hal, does not know his future and risks his kingdom by pretending to be a rapscallion, indulging in sensation seeking and malice.

All the kingdom hopes that Hal will surprise them.  Prince Hal’s father, King Henry III, thinks his scoundrel son needs to reform himself before he becomes ruler.  What the king does not realize is that his son purposefully causes people to hold him to a low standard so he can surprise them all when he becomes the greatest of them all:

So when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off (Henry IV, Part One 1. 2. 212-219).

Following his strategy, Hal hangs out with hoodlums, like his buddy Falstaff, and helps rob people.  A mix of malice and somewhat good intention, Hal keeps people on their toes.  In one scene, he screws with a bar servant, just because he can, indulging in sensation seeking and mirth at the expense of the servant.  Yet, he also returns stolen goods that he and his buddies stole.  Not all his actions appear purposeful, but everything seems to fit within his identity strategy.

King Henry plays right into Hal’s hands.  Because King Henry does not know about his son’s intent, he wishes that Hal resembled more of Hotspur.  He ventures as far as to wistfully wonder if maybe the two boys had been switched at birth by fairies.  Saying something like this would negatively impact how the kingdom and any noble saw Hal.  In the end when the King is about to die, Hal swoops in and saves him.  The King says in astonishment that Hal does value his father’s life (Henry IV, Part One 5. 4. 48.).  Doubting his son’s willingness to save him shows how lowly King Henry thought of Hal.

The immediate judgements of King Henry III and the kingdom lay into rash decisions.  They see a young boy who will never amount to anything.  They do not investigate—instead they assume that what they have seen of him sets the tone for all he will be.  No one stands up for his character and argues for a new perspective.  Again, this plays into Hal’s plans to wow the kingdom later rather than presently.  This is a rash decision on Hal’s part.  By exuding this personality, he runs the risk of losing the throne or being viewed as an imposter when he attains the title of king.  He may not want the responsibility now, but he cannot afford to be this way.  One king had been usurped already—would the people care if he was also thrown off the throne?  In Shakespeare’s continuations of Henry IV’s history, Hal does prove himself as a ruler, but in his youth, he almost gambled it away.

Taking on a similar trope as Henry IV, Part One, Hamlet uses strategies that manipulate the outlook of a character’s identity with plans that do not move accordingly.  Hamlet showcases more murder, mayhem, and the costs of jumping to actions without fully appraising the possible consequences.

Like Prince Hal’s strategy of making others have an entirely different impression of him than the reality, Hamlet misleads people around him.  Hamlet acts mad to cause his family to believe he grows unbalanced by the death of his father.  Only his friends know of his act:

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,

How strange or odd some’er I bear myself—

As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on—

That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,

With arms encumb’red thus, or this headshake,

Or by pronouncing some doubtful phrase…

Or such ambiguous giving out, to note

That you know aught of me—this do swear,

So grace and mercy at your most need help you (Hamlet 1. 5. 169-180).

With his friends sworn to silence, Hamlet carries out acting.  Appalled by the new Hamlet, the court goes to Claudius and describes Hamlet with “lunacy” and as “distempered” (Hamlet 2. 2. 49, 55.)  Polonius boldly states “That he’s mad, ‘tis true, ‘tis true ‘tis pity, / And pity ‘tis ‘tis true—a foolish figure, / But farewell it, for I will use no art. / Mad let us grant him then, and now remains / That we find out the cause of this effect, / Or rather say, the cause of this defect…” (Hamlet 2. 2. 97-102).  No one believes Hamlet is well.  His plan works.

What he does not plan for is the murder of Polonius at his hand which triggers the unfortunate happenings of the ending.  Because of the confusion over vengeance that shadows Hamlet, he jumps at the chance of slaying his uncle.  Sadly for Polonius, he ends up being the person behind the curtain in Gertrude’s chambers and is slain by Hamlet.  Now that Hamlet killed Polonius, he has a sin on his hands, a mournful ex-girlfriend, and a vengeful son on his conscience.

With the murder of Polonius, Hamlet dooms Ophelia.  Ophelia becomes undone by her father’s death, leading to her own destruction either by murder, happenstance, or suicide.  She shows the tumultuous nature of grief and its effects on the mind.  Claudius relates her grief to poison as the demise of Polonius undoes her (Hamlet 4. 5. 74).  After Hamlet leaves, she wanders before the court singing songs and handing out flowers.  Each flower she gifts notes a different meaning.  She hands Claudius a columbine flower, noted for meaning ingratitude, and to Gertrude, she passes a rue flower for sorrow and repentance (Hamlet 4. 5. 178-182).  Initially, Ophelia shows she knows what they have done.  Maybe this was intended to protect her—a little blackmail for insurance purposes.  Sadly, she knows more than she should and ultimately leads herself to her own demise.

Claudius, taking advantage of the situation, elicits Laertes into a murder plot to end Hamlet once and for all.  He worries that Hamlet will kill him, so Laertes becomes an opportune weapon.  Fueling Laertes’ rage at his father’s demise, he tests Laertes’ temperament:

Not that I think you did not love your father,

But that I know love is begun by time

And that I see, in passages of proof,

Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.

…But to the quick of th’ ulcer:

Hamlet comes back.  What would you undertake

To show yourself indeed your father’s son

More than in words? (Hamlet 4. 7. 110-127).

Laertes responds he would slay Hamlet in retaliation for his father.  He shows Claudius a poison that he intends to prick Hamlet with and kill him with.  As with many plans in Shakespeare plays, their intentions do not go according to plan.  Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet all perish at the end because of rash decisions fueled by ill intended emotions, the majority put in motion by Hamlet’s somewhat accidental killing of Polonius and his own distress at discovering the truth behind his father’s death.

In Much Ado About Nothing, shady characters cause the ill intent that forms the play.  Don John, a self-proclaimed villain, formulates problems to cause Claudio to create the main event of the play—the shaming of Hero.  Though the problem is planned after Don John’s tinkering, Claudio still jumps into action to end the innocent Hero, playing into negative urgency.

With the help of his minions, Don John shows Don Pedro and Claudio a shadow of who they believe to be Hero cheating the night before her wedding.  Claudio vows to denounce her in front of their wedding party and ruin her reputation.  Neither Claudio nor Don Pedro confront Hero before the wedding to see what she has to say in her defense.  Instead, they jump into ruining the wedding and do not appear remorseful when it appears that Hero died from the shock.  They both jump to react to their distress in damaging ways to others and lack empathy or concern for what would happen to Hero, her family, and friends.

Beatrice also caves to her distress and tasks Benedick to challenge his friend.  She blatantly tells him to kill Claudio (Much Ado About Nothing 4. 1. 288).  When he protests, she sways him with her desire to avenge the wrong done to Hero: “Sweet Hero!  She is wronged, she is slandered, / she is undone… Oh that I were a man for his sake!  Or that I had / any friend would be a man for my sake” (Much Ado About Nothing 4. 1. 311-312, 316-317).   She plays on Benedick’s desire to prove his love to her while fixing the reputation of Hero.  Benedick rises to her desire, a mixture of negative and positive urgency, and agrees to challenge Claudio.  Negative urgency fits here because of his distress at Beatrice grieving over Hero’s predicament and positive in that he feels this connection to and love for her that he wants to do whatever it takes to make Beatrice happy.  Either way, Beatrice and Benedick fuel their decisions with emotion that leads them to precarious situations.  Luckily for them, Hero is revealed to be innocent and cleared of her reputation before the challenge takes place.  As a comedy, the ending works out as best as any Shakespeare play does with all ambiguity implied.

Shakespeare has no qualms in taking past story plots and integrating it into other plays.  An example of this can be found in Much Ado About Nothing and Othello.  As with Much Ado About Nothing, lack of communication and rash actions creates problems. A villain character works to cause all sorts of problems to suit his own needs.  Instead of Don John, however, this chaos seeker owns the name Iago.  The eloping of Othello and Desdemona, a rash decision on their part, occurs before the play begins.  Desdemona’s father was not sought after for his approval before it occurred, introducing the destined fall of the play.  Othello and Desdemona view their love as mature and ready for them to be bound to each other.  Yet, this does not stand to be true.

A handkerchief embodies the supposed love of Othello and Desdemona.  Othello puts an emphasis of his sentimentality into the handkerchief as it relates to his mother.  Yet, he lacks the ability to see the level of love he and Desdemona share.  Like a normal innocent object, he quickly overlooks it.  When Desdemona tries to attend to Othello with the handkerchief, he brushes it aside, causing it to fall (Othello 3. 3. 325-330).  Later, when he demands her to bring it forth, she is unable to, not because she lost it, but because Othello causes her to.  Because Othello ignores the handkerchief earlier and allows it to go unnoticed, his marriage mimics the decline of his attention, allowing those who wish to devise harm, a.k.a. Iago, an easy plotting time.

Reminiscent of Claudio’s quick acceptance of infidelity, Othello believes Iago’s claims with little evidence.  He rushes to brand Desdemona with disloyalty and decides her just punishment deserving of death (Othello 3. 3. 466, 543-545).  At no point does he seek Desdemona out and confront her.  Only “honest” Iago’s word matters in his rage.  Yet, Othello never thinks to look past the nickname and see Iago as the corrupt man he is.  Iago, much like Don John, enjoys his role as the villain and revels in his ability to manipulate and bend Othello’s rashness to his benefit.

Emilia, Iago’s wife, also partakes in the problem.  What little affection she holds toward Iago leads her to betraying her lady and her untimely death.  Iago asks her to retrieve the handkerchief.  Aware that Iago seeks reparations for his slight, at least subconsciously, Emilia looks the other way from his mischief and hands over the handkerchief without really pondering why he would want such a trinket.  When asked later by Desdemona about the location of her handkerchief, Emilia lies and allows Desdemona to worry over where it could have wandered to.

The events in Othello do not resolve in a somewhat happy manner like its counterpart.  Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, and Iago’s wife die because of Iago’s mischief and the problem of their rash decisions.  Shakespeare comments time and time again to not assume information to be true and to converse with people.  If the characters would ask each other questions and confront their concerns head on, the depressing ending of Othello would not have occurred.

Because of Shakespeare’s thoughtful nature, he connected the intensity of emotion to the problems of rash decisions.  In the heat of a moment, a person can do despicable acts.  In a moment of high bliss and affection, the world can jump to new heights that were not originally intended.  Humans naturally contain an abundance of emotion.  The problem lies in how their minds and actions use that emotion to drive them.  If people take a moment and step back from a situation, the chance to see a situation clearly allows their actions to turn out differently.  With other situations, communication is key and demands for people to attend the problem head on instead of skirting around “he said, she said.”  By confronting others with a cool headmore problems and cataclysmic events can be avoided.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays would have turned out differently if his characters learned this lesson and understood how to utilize and control their emotions in a productive manner.


Works Cited

Cyders, Melissa A. and Gregory T. Smith. “Emotion-Based Dispositions to Rash Action: Positive and Negative Urgency.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 134, no. 6, 2008, pp. 807–828. Jstor, doi:10.1037/a0013341.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Skiles  Howard, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Susanne L Wofford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV, Part One. Edited by Sylvan Barnet and Maynard Mack, Penguin, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al., 9th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2012, pp. 1254–1339.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Edited by David Bevington and David Scott Kastan, Bantam Dell, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 1993.