"To be or not to be" might be Hamlet's question - but the real is question is, "What does 'thematic ambiguities' mean?"
MU emeritus English professor Mack Jones told a full house on Monday that the doubts included in William Shakespeare's plays is what made them stand out as reflections of life.
The lecture was part of the "Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend" traveling exhibit that explores the aspects of Elizabethan rule and culture. It will be at 40 different sites across the country, and the one at Ellis Library ending Nov. 16 will be the only stop in Missouri.
Jones' lecture, "To Be or Not To Be: Shakespeare's Thematic Ambiguities," was the first event.
In his lecture, Jones explored the different types of uncertainties in Shakespeare's plays. Jones began his lecture by highlighting the differences between the morality plays of the Middle Ages and the Humanist dramas of Shakespeare's time.
"In most morality plays there is an overriding theme, which states: 'You have to be good or you are going to burn,'" Jones said. "But Humanist dramas have a theme of insecurity and indecision."
This shift is also evident in some of Shakespeare's plays. Jones highlighted "Hamlet." At the beginning of the play, the title character is positive of what is right.
But through the rest of the play, Hamlet and the audience are both unsure about their actions and leave more to divine interpretation.
The play culminates in Hamlets own words, "Let it be," which take the focus off individual actions.
Jones analyzed the different types of ambiguity in some of Shakespeare's plays. In "Hamlet," there was an individual uncertainty, but "Richard III" displays political ambiguity, he said.
"At the beginning of the play, the audience assumes that the king is good," Jones said. "But throughout the rest of the play we see Richard making one bad mistake after another."
Next, Jones analyzed the character ambiguity in the play "The Merchant of Venice." He said this refers to how the audience reacts to a certain character, such as Shylock the Jew or Antonio the Gentile.
Jones's final example is the family ambiguity in "King Lear," which depicts an example of a bad father-daughter relationship. But the trouble comes because we do not really know who is in the right.
Jones used all of these examples to illustrate how Shakespeare created a truer than life depiction than in medieval plays.
"Shakespeare wrote these plays in order to teach us about a world of uncertainties," Jones said. "This world that Shakespeare wrote about is the world that we live in today."