To be or not to be may be the question most people think of when they think of Hamlet, but I'm all about a different question: is the ghost of Hamlet's dear old dad prowling around in purgatory when he's not busy haunting peeps in this world?
In my book Hamlet in Purgatory, I explore the major conflicts surrounding belief in purgatory during the Renaissance period as a result of the Catholic vs. Protestant debates about all things doctrinal. I argue that Hamlet is actually about the religious debates going on in England back in the day. Existential crises? Please. Give me some play of social forces, thank you very much.
I have an absolute ball discussing Othello in my book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Power, sex, race, improvisation, submission, violence? All in one play? Yes, please.
In this book, I take Desdemona, everyone's favorite heroine-victim, and turn her into an ultimate threat. I argue that it's her very willingness to submit to her husband's will that allows for all the death and destruction that happens in this play. To back my claims up, of course, I go historical: I say that a lot of what goes on in Othello is a reflection of some thorny ideas floating around in Renaissance England—like the idea that loving your wife too much can be a bad thing.
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's great fantasy stories, but even fantasy is historical, I say.
Set on an island with a wily magician, this play is a great platform for Shakespeare to talk about things like magic, religion, betrayal, forgiveness, and freedom. I argue that this setting also allows Shakespeare to deal with issues like exploration and colonization, topics that were making the front page (if there had been a front page) back in the early 17th century.
Take a look at the last chapter of Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England if you want to get a taste of my economic exposé of joint-stock company connections in The Tempest. And if you're curious about how conflicting European notions about language in relation to Native Americans features in the subtext of this play, take a look at the first chapter of my book Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture.
Macbeth is evil. Period. End of sentence.
Okay, maybe I don't want to actually go that far, but I do think it's something worth considering. I mean, in my analysis of this play, I take a look at two other important texts of the time period: King James's Daemonology and Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft to show just how real—and dangerous—belief in witches was during the time Shakespeare was writing.
I think that Shakespeare, rather than coming down on one side of the debate or the other, presents a view of witches and their power that can be interpreted either way. He doesn't let us know if he thinks witches are real or not real. By leaving that question open to the audience, he makes it possible for people to keep believing in witches... which, if you think about it, could lead to more people being burnt at the stake, right? Well, I think that's bad.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that this book by Lucretius actually changed the world. In my big book The Swerve, I argue that On the Nature of Things changed pretty much everything its literary light touched. I think this book made the world modern by getting rid of superstition and making people accept that they're just a transitory bunch of atoms.