Romeo to Juliet, “I doubt it not, All these woes shall serve for sweet discourse in time to come.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1594–1596.
Thoughts on Shakespeare’s Woes
Here I am looking out the window with sober thoughts on Shakespeare’s woes.
There are, of course, the simple woes of having to think great thoughts. There are the greater woes of outrageous fortune and “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” There are imaginary woes and real.
The Real Woes of William Shakespeare
When William Shakepeare wrote his thoughts of woe in Romeo and Juliet in 1594, little did he know how reality could be so harsh and bitter.
In 1596, his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven, in 1598 the authorities banned plays in the City of London, and so Shakespeare and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had to move the theater from Shoreditch to the south-side of the Thames River. Three days after Christmas, the theater was disassembled piece by piece and moved through the snow and over the bridge. For this, they were promptly sued by the owner of the land on which the theater sat. Prevailing, they proceeded to put on plays for the price of a penny a patron.
“O, woe is me!” Ophelia moans. Play Hamlet, written 1599-1601.
“I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.” Sonnet 30, Published 1609.
In 1610, the muse is done, Shakespeare has written his last play, The Tempest.
Gonzolo to Alonso:
Beseech you, sir, be merry. You have cause,
So have we all, of joy, for our escape
Is much beyond our loss. Our hint of woe
Is common. Every day some sailor’s wife,
The masters of some merchant, and the merchant
Have just our theme of woe. But for the miracle—
I mean our preservation—few in millions
Can speak like us. Then wisely, good sir, weigh
Our sorrow with our comfort.
In 1613, the Globe Theater burns down and Shakespeare retires from London to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Othello to Iago:
Avaunt! Be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.
I swear ’tis better to be much abused
Than but to know ’t a little.
On 23 April 1616, his 52nd birthday, William Shakespeare died, leaving us to wonder at his bequest:
“Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”
In 1661, years after Shakespeare’s untimely death, the vicar wrote in his diary: “Shakespeare, (Michael) Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”
From comedy we learn to laugh, from tragedy we learn that half a glass of wine is better than the bitter dregs of the glass that is now drained, and woe is me when I have none.
The etymology of Woe.
A synonym for woe is sorrow.
“Woe” arrived in Britain in the 5th century as the Romans departed, replaced by Germanic tribes from northern Europe. These invaders, called Angles and Saxons, had their own word for sorrow and misery, wa:
wā I. (see also wēa) m. ‘woe,’ affliction, misery, evil, Æ.
II. interj. (occly. governs d.) woe! alas! CP. wā lā, wā lā wā, wei lā wei ah! oh! alas!
In time, this morphed into Middle English, “wo, wei, wa, from Old English wā, wēa, from Proto-Germanic *wai, whence also Dutch wee, German weh.”
This common interjection was the source of many puns, the most common stemming from the Germanically derived word, women, which derives from “Wo” meaning “with” and not “alas”.
This brings us back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ophelia, a woman in love moaning:
“Oh, woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”
This phrase is psychologically significant on many levels. One, its reference to the Bible and God’s punishment of Eve for her transgression in eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow (woe).” A little knowledge, as Othello observed is a curse worse than much abuse. There is also the obvious play on words of “woman” and “Woe is me”. And finally, there is Shakespeare’s own woe over the loss, three years earlier, of his son Hamnet.