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Shakespearean Characters

November 2021

For this prompt, I chose to use Shakespeare's own words. It is the letter that Hamlet wrote to Ophelia that is intercepted by her father. Polonius reads it - well, some of it - to his wife Gertrude in Act II scene ii.

“To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia”
“In her excellent white bosom, these...
(here Polonius interrupts his reading and "spares" Gertrude the sexy stuff)
Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
Thine evermore, most dear lady,
whilst this machine is to him.

(There is more about Ophelia and other Ophelia poems on our blog post for this prompt.)

For this issue, we were looking for poems where a character(s) from Shakespeare is brought into our time or the voice of the poem identifies with some aspect from the character's life. We asked that poets make it clear which character (play?) they are alluding to, and if quoting lines from the play indicate that with quotation marks or italics.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.

Moor, spirit, fairy - no Asian
characters I could find -
Aerial Ariel? No.
Lily Hayashi


It’s as if, like Goneril,
I’d spent my life waiting him out,
the tense-lipped eldest daughter.

Cold even in the small room down the hall
from where he laid, tubed and monitored,
my siblings silently accepting their grief
having as many sources
as my vengeance has motives.

Years have passed yet
“Ingratitude, that marble-hearted fiend”
defines me still, dismissing
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child.”

I did not intend to
“Dismantle so many folds of favor.”
Better to sew them together,
wear them ostentatiously,
my emblem of how
“Pride is not plainness.”

Rob Friedman


I’ve been gnashing this morning,
muttering to myself while backtracking
in a labyrinth of joint design.
Turning, turning turning
in the why why why
she banished me the way she did.

Naked to the elements and their facts
I find more crisply where she was sovereign
in deciding that who I am is not
who she wants to be with,
to make her comparisons
where I failed to fare well,
that left me looking less than,
no longer worth her her time, patience, her love.
I tell myself the reasonable truth that she had
the right to finally fully judge me bankrupt,
unworthy and undeserving, now disposable
and deposable, suited only to the throne of the broken.

This unsympathetic eye is the lens I look back through
on my moments of exposed folly,
where I fumbled through being human,
and she did too. Where we both learned
lessons paid for in pain.
As rejection’s pupil, I see again,
my ruminations to the point of disconnection,
my failures to voice, to release myself
to the ecstatic dance of the unknown.
I woke up too late to the madness made of my uncontrolled control concerns
and crushed love’s light wings
as I flailed in delusion's shimmer.

My body clinches in the cold wind,
exposed to the snow driving sideways
where my arms clutch only me to myself.
This contraction lets my bones listen in, they who rattle and speak out.
They, who still have the presence to know that my mind may not
be the best place to find reason, right now.

Jason Imanuel

(with apologies to A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Those boys calling me ‘fairy’ from their proud
town’s firehouse tower with its bell to ring
conflagration, to rouse all the people
as the town goes burning up – those lack-loves,
a crew of rudes swaggering, and oh, how
they check with a black-stroke X in the box
M in respect to their manhood – what trick
might I, male fairy yclept hobgoblin,
play on them now? They stir more confusion
on Main Street than a coven of witches.
I deem they won’t believe in such mythic
creatures as right live fairies, but only
go on following darkness like a dream.
What the hay? as folks like to say in these
Wild West crossway parts. Magic is one thing.
Mayhem is another, and not my style.
Look quick, let me think on a trick tonight.

Taylor Graham


My name’s the same,
an unchanged Caliban.
A dark soul, half man
half spell-bound and deformed.
You taught me language
thought me the fool
but I learned to curse
the cruelty of your rule.
I curse again the chains
of sorcery that bind me still
in ancient strands of slavery.
You came and set yourself
a king, you ruled my world
with iron hands as you
bind me still with painful bands.
More are coming as you did
in search of respite, peace and rest.
These migrants, weary refugees
paid their dues and bartered lives
to grubby fists and squalid lies
to try to reach my island realm:
if they survive the tempest hell
of storm-plagued ice-cold seas.
Has nothing changed
in these centuries?

Julie Anne Gilligan


Might I be she?
Not a leading role.
Easily played by an Elizabethan man
in the Henry plays with lewd malapropisms,
the double entendres of an innkeeper's wife.
The joke that Nell is a quick-lay.
She laughs and drinks a pint.
Widowed, remarried, and after her death

to be reborn in The Merry Wives of Windsor
with a new personality.
Not a merry wife but a doctor’s servant,
a messenger delivering notes

I would not scoff at a second chance.
Reincarnated a bit better for it.
A friend of Falstaff, popular enough
to be in several plays, holding her own
and in a practical joke on Falstaff,
she pretends to be the Queen of the Fairies.
I would dance my way across the boards,
loving the laugher, embracing the applause.

Lianna Wright


Caliban’s in battle fatigues, his
brute legs march around shorelines,
parade in boroughs, frequent hamlets,
plod through freshly sown farmland,
nodding approvingly at boisterous butlers
and conniving clowns who stamp down
wheat fields, create pseudo crop circles,
spread discontent, produce division—
plot with false gods, pursue revenge.

Like a Don Quixote disciple,
the calvaluna trickster celebrates
romantic ideals; his brunette form
attacks high-rise windmills, woos
streetwise Dulcineas—timeless traders
who neither disparage his earthy touch,
nor discourage far-fetched notions
envisaging all coarse young women
fair Miranda’s mirror image.

Feckled, half-human son of Sycorax
the native South Pacific island inhabitant
bewails cold, cavern confinement;
having known freedom’s air, the moon-calf
seethed long before he peered into Prospero’s book,
learned transformation’s just a single incantation—
a spell away—to regain enclave sovereignty,
kneel to no one, people his isle with little Calibans
sans guile, san pain, sans censure, sans judgement.

Sterling Warner


Welcome to this century
Surprised by what you see?
You shouldn't be
Black folk like you
(Colon Powell, Usian Bolt, Patricia Bath,
to name a few)
Relied upon for prowess in their field
And yet, still shunned ...
It's how things were
When you defended Venice
And still is
Whites, today, might tolerate
You wedding Desdemona
But it would be because
You were a Rock Star
And, even then, they'd talk
Behind your back

Why did you believe
You'd been cuckold and deceived
By such an innocent?
Was it because you felt
Not good enough
For one so fair as she ...
Despite your resume?

The evidence suggests
We are racist at the core
Vestigial attitudes
We claim to deplore
But secretly embrace
It's a disgrace, and self-destructive
But part of who we are

So, pull up a chair
And rest your weary soul
You've come far to be here
And still have far to go
Before you leave
We'll talk
Of love and suicide
Politics and War
Poetry ... and so much more

Frank Kelly

(based upon William Shakespeare's Hamlet)

Ahh, what can one do for one’s country?
To take the tiny jab or not ?
Is there really a question still?
For there is no nobleness in fear
Nor the continuance of such suffering

Do we offer up our arms?
And in so doing end these troubles?
The heartache, the injuries
To which we are so vulnerable
Why must we yet bear this agony?
Be it fear itself? Fear of some unknown?
But what is known is sickness and death itself –
Aye, there’s the rub

Many have safely taken the journey
Yet we cast our lot to fate and chance
Delay and insolence are yours
Yet all bare this burden
And some more than others

I tire of the insults and ignorance
The arrogance and abuse
And above all the death
Be anxious if you must
But make the leap now
These times require urgent action
Seize the opportunity
To settle your debts
With God and country
With nothing more than a gentle prick

Speak no more of freedom
For is not mine equal with yours?
Together we are still shackled by this plague
So do not before me wave our glorious banner
When your countrymen are dying
And you do nothing

Woe to you for your lack of conscience
It is most despicable and maddening
Hear me -
When you offer up your prayers
For the sick and mounting dead
Let shame and sin be yours

To be part of the problem or the solution?
That is the question

Terri J. Guttilla


“I am more an antique Roman than a Dane”
I once said a long time ago when I
Was young, following that moody Prince
About the wastes and battlements of yore.
I counseled reason, skepticism, an
Enlightened way of looking at the world.
A lot of good it did, things falling into
Chaos and bodies piling up like wood.
But then, reason only works on ordered
Minds, not those bedeviled with ghosts and sprites.
I confess I’ve had little influence since.
Five hundred years of playing attendant
On kings, emperors, presidents, madmen,
Always trying to restrain their brutal
Impulses, yet always failing to bend
Their lust for power, their quick aggrievement,
The world always diving into shocked surprise.
That Renaissance, that quick enlightenment,
Years of growing knowledge led but to war
After war, death raining from darkened skies,
And all the while I tried to ween the great
From such savage entertainments that would
Destroy so many, wreak such havoc on
A world teetering above an abyss.
And now everyman’s become a prince,
Prinked out in such finery as would cause
Claudius himself to envy; no one
Listens anymore to such men as I,
But grasps at bounding pleasures as they run,
Obeys the same old phantoms of the mind,
And dotes on passing whims as so much dies.
Time to retire, stop the sermonizing,
Ditch this jaybird’s suit and tie, walk away,
Join a monkery and hope soon this curse
Of attendant life will let me die, lie with
The skull of Yorick in his mossy grave.
No “flights of angels” to “sing me to my rest,”
Just bones to molder 'neath the latticed earth.

Robert Miller