10 Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Works

You’re going to love the “Unified Antonio Theory.”
Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images (hand with skull), Shaumiaa Vector/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

Fans often like to read between the lines to develop theories about their favorite books, movies, and TV shows, from Jar Jar Binks being a Sith Lord to all of the Pixar movies taking place in the same universe. Most of these theories don’t stand up to scrutiny, but they sure can be fun. Here are 10 such theories about Shakespeare’s works, ranging from the almost believable to the utterly outlandish.

In King Lear, Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor.

Cordelia and Lear. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Role doubling usually happens for one of two reasons: There aren’t enough actors for each role or to strengthen the subtext between two characters. It isn’t known if doubling was used in the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, but it has been suggested that in King Lear, Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor. The two characters are never on stage together, so this theory is possible, and they are linked by being the only two characters to tell Lear the truth. Plus, at the end of the play, Lear mourns his daughter with the words, “my poor fool is hanged.”

Iago is in love with Othello.

Scene from Shakespeare's Othello, 19th century.
Scene from Shakespeare’s Othello, 19th century. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The typical view of Othello is that the plot is driven by Iago’s hatred for the titular character. The play opens with Iago complaining that Othello has promoted bookish Cassio to lieutenant over himself—a seasoned veteran. A few scenes later, Iago also says that he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife: “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / ’Has done my office.” But perhaps these reasons are a cover for Iago’s true motivation: His unrequited love for Othello. Evidence for this theory lies in Iago’s misandry throughout the play—he tells his own wife that all women are volatile and untrustworthy—as well as his declarations of love for Othello. Is his statement “I am your own forever” false flattery or his true thoughts? You decide.

The Tempest’s Prospero was based on John Dee …

When penning The Tempest, some believe that Shakespeare looked to John Dee—a polymath who served as Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer—when creating Prospero. The biggest similarity between the two is that Prospero is a wizard, while Dee experimented with the occult. Other parallels include both of them having large libraries (Dee had one of the largest private libraries in England) and both experiencing misfortune (Dee’s brother-in-law sold many of his books without permission, while Prospero was exiled).

… Or Shakespeare himself.

The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), c1610.
The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), c1610. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Another suggestion is that Prospero is actually a stand-in for the playwright himself. Both magic and writing are acts of creation, and Prospero controls the events of the play in the same way as a writer. To cap this theory off, Prospero’s epilogue is sometimes perceived as a farewell speech from a retiring Shakespeare. But Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford, points out that for that puzzle piece to fit, The Tempest would need to have been Shakespeare’s last play—a position which probably belongs to The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, or the now-lost Cardenio.

The characters named Antonio in several of Shakespeare’s plays are one person.

The name Antonio crops up several times across Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s been theorized that rather than being separate characters, all of these Antonios are one man at different stages in his life. Dan Beaulieu and Kevin Condardo from the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company have dubbed this the Unified Antonio Theory.

The theory starts with Antonio as a captain in Twelfth Night, rescuing and falling in love with Sebastian. Antonio makes passionate declarations of love to Sebastian—“If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant”—and willingly endangers himself to accompany him to Orsino’s court. Sebastian, however, ends up marrying Olivia. Then, according to the theory, Antonio becomes the Duke of Milan and later finds himself shipwrecked in a storm caused by his brother Prospero in the events of The Tempest.

Once back on the Italian mainland, Antonio becomes a wealthy merchant and falls in love with Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. The connection between these two men is so passionate that some productions even add in a kiss between them. But Bassanio also marries a woman, leaving Antonio to end up as a side character in Much Ado About Nothing.

Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is actually Lady Macbeth’s suicide note.

Macbeth (Act I)
Macbeth (Act I). / Culture Club/GettyImages

In Act 5 of Macbeth, the titular Scottish king receives word that Lady Macbeth has died by suicide. He then gives one of the most famous soliloquies in the play, known as the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, traditionally taken as a rumination on the futility of life by a husband in the depths of grief. But an alternate way to look at the speech is that Macbeth is reading his wife’s suicide note. Just a few scenes earlier, a guilt-stricken and sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is described by one of her attendants as writing something on a piece of paper, which could be a suicide note. This idea is also supported by Macbeth’s speech changing in style halfway through: The first section, full of long and soft-sounding words, could be Lady Macbeth’s words; the second section, which uses short and plosive words, comes from Macbeth himself.

Shakespeare once played the part of Lady Macbeth.

Another Macbeth-based theory is that Shakespeare himself once played the part of Lady Macbeth. This theory is actually tied to the famous curse that led to the play being referred to as “the Scottish play” in theaters. According to the legend, during the first performance of Macbeth, the actor playing Lady Macbeth (who would have been a man; women didn’t professionally act at that time) unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare jumped in to save the day. The First Folio does list Shakespeare as an actor in his own plays, but there isn’t any surviving evidence about which specific roles he played.

Hamlet is linked to the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet.

Hamlet holds the skull of  the jester Yorick
Hamlet holds the skull of the jester Yorick. / Culture Club/GettyImages

In 1596, Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, died—an event the playwright never directly commented on in his work. Although many academics steer clear of searching Shakespeare’s plays for biographical breadcrumbs, some believe that there’s a connection between Hamnet’s death and Hamlet, which was written around 1599–1601.

The Prince of Denmark’s name almost matching the name of Shakespeare’s deceased son is likely a coincidence (although the names were basically interchangeable at the time!). Hamlet is believed to have been based on a now-lost play from the 1580s, and the story itself is much older than that, so it didn’t spring solely from Shakespeare’s mind. But Harvard Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt argues that working on the tragedy “may have reopened a deep wound.” He also points to the potentially imminent demise of Shakespeare’s father, John, which—coupled with Hamnet’s death a few years earlier—“could have caused a psychic disturbance that helps to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet.” But this is mere conjecture.

Ophelia is pregnant in Hamlet.

Ophelia, mad with grief, mourns Polonius' death
Ophelia, mad with grief, mourns Polonius’s death. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Another theory about Hamlet is that Ophelia—who meets her end by drowning (whether by suicide, accident, or murder is unknown)—is pregnant. To start, there are hints that Hamlet and Ophelia may have had sex: Hamlet teases Ophelia with sexual innuendoes, such as “shall I lie in your lap?,” while Ophelia (who has gone mad) later sings, “Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.” The strongest evidence of Ophelia’s potential pregnancy comes in the scene where she gives out flowers and herbs in Act 4. The plants she names—rosemary, pansies, daises, etc.—were used to treat physical and mental pain [PDF], and she decides to keep some rue for herself. This herb may just symbolize regret, but according to John M. Riddle, a specialist in the history of medicine, rue’s “most recognized use in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages was as an abortifacient.”

The “Fair Youth” sonnets suggest that Shakespeare was gay.

Of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, 126 of them are addressed to a mysterious male figure known as the “Fair Youth.” Although the identity of the young man remains unknown, the fact that the sonnets are Shakespeare’s most personal writings has led some people to believe that they are proof that he was gay. Many of the poems are certainly passionate, but they may not be straightforwardly confessional as there is often a distance between a poet’s private identity and the persona they craft for their writing. Shakespearean expert Dr. Elizabeth Dollimore neatly sums up what we really know about whether the playwright had sexual feelings for men: “It’s certainly not impossible that he did,” but “it’s certainly not definite that he did.”

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