Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare-_2991459b

Welcome to the site! Allow me to introduce its purpose, themes, and format.

I created this site for an undergraduate Shakespeare class at Emory University. The class, ENG 210W: Shakespeare’s Globe, explored a handful of Shakespearean plays and performances, with an emphasis on how they inform contemporary issues, particularly environmental concerns. This site, then, serves as a record of my own inquiries into how these enduring and esoteric plays survive to illuminate current issues like climate change.

For the purposes of this site, Shakespeare becomes a kind of ecology—a living, breathing subject that responds to shifts in culture and academia. These plays, while historically significant, offer much more than their historical interpretations might suggest. They reflect on the very psychology and sensibility that comprise the human condition. In particular, Shakespeare frequently comments on humanity’s relationship with nature. In what ways do these considerations of nature and human influence shine light on today’s environmental concerns? That question, along with some other considerations, become the subject and purpose of this website.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare does not offer a definitive interpretation of nature. For Gonzalo and his sailors in The Tempest, nature offers a potential for innocence and abundance. For Prospero and King Lear, however, nature becomes subjugated for their own advantage and ambition. In Titus Andronicus, nature provides an asylum for Chiron and Demetrius’s dark desires to play out, causing other characters to contemplate whether our planet’s natural order promotes life and prosperity, or chaos and violence. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s conflicting portrayals of nature parallel humanity’s own complicated relationship with the environment, which is precisely why Shakespeare studies can inform contemporary environmental issues.

Along the way, other assignments spurred me to consider other topics, like language, violence, and power. I explored these topics through a variety of mediums. The class emphasized “multimodal research techniques” to overcome a common handicap in conventional Shakespeare studies—the impulse toward historicist interpretations. While historical contexts certainly prove vital in understanding the plays, the concepts and themes benefit from their consideration not only in relation to contemporary issues, but also through contemporary means.

It is my hope that this site demonstrates Shakespeare’s capacity to contribute meaningfully to current conversations about climate change and other environmental issues. Furthermore, I hope that this site illustrates the benefit in addressing Shakespeare through unconventional, alternative methods by transcending, but not ignoring, traditional interpretations and presentations.


As I mentioned, this site tackles Shakespeare through a variety of analytical styles. Although the site exists more or less as a blog in terms of format, most entries reflect greater consideration than a casual blog post. The entries include a paper, an infographic, a presentation, a digital edition that includes a glossed text, and a handful of blog posts.

This variety of techniques challenged me to step out of the conventional rhetorical frame that most English classes operate within. I saw how analysis could occur and develop without thesis statements or even words, at all. The most compelling explorations of Shakespeare leverage not only their content, but also their presentation.

The first short paper, covering The Tempest, provided an opportunity to gain footing not only with writing about Shakespeare, but also with working through the diversity of interpretive modes within Shakespeare studies. In the paper, I examined an essay by Ingo Berensmeyer that advocates for “media ecology,” or the potential for a work like The Tempest to function across many mediums and generations due to its emphasis on fundamental, unchanging human drives and concerns. The essay, a familiar format, offered a chance to grapple with new ideas surrounding Shakespeare studies within a comfortable medium.

The next assignment tugged at my fledgling artistic sensibilities. Using Piktochart, I created an infographic that examined Shakespeare’s use of insults and, more broadly, the uniquely volatile character of vernacular language. The assignment developed my eye for design. I was challenged to consider what my viewers would think, where they would look first, in what sequence they would read through the graphic. Unlike in writing a paper, I thought acutely about how my work would be interpreted rather than merely developing an argument.

This newfound awareness of the reader carried over to my “Digital Edition,” an assignment that argued for the parallel between the ingratitude that King Lear’s daughters show toward their father in his final years, and the ingratitude that humans show toward our “mother” earth. I examine the strange phenomenon of caring for one’s original caretaker, or parent, as they grow older, and how this relates to the current need to care for the Earth. Again, I sidestepped the conventional frame of analysis and looked at both critical responses to King Lear and contemporary stagings of the play. It concludes with a close reading and glossed text of a passage from the First Quarto of the play.

My last assignment, a presentation of violence and power in Titus Andronicus, leveraged the power of images to convey the significance of violence. Although I kept it PG-13, the images nevertheless helped illustrate concepts like the commodification of human flesh, and the relationship between Saturninus and the Saturn of Roman mythology. This unconventional medium provided further evidence for the idea that Shakespearean analysis benefits from contemporary modes of presentation.


Going forward, I aim to apply the skills I’ve learned in this course when thinking through other contemporary problems. Climate change is not merely an isolated, recent issue; it is the manifestation of a hubris that began long ago, and that Shakespeare comments on frequently. I intend to explore how other classic texts and celebrated authors dealt with the human-nature dynamic, and how that can further inform today’s conversations.

Furthermore, this class has developed my research and presentation skills, which I will confidently carry over to law school one year from now. The diversity of both content and presentation that this course encouraged will help me to think through concepts and understand how older documents, like Supreme Court cases, can inform today’s issues. Law school frequently demands robust personal consideration of past attitudes and legal decisions. I am confident that this course has taught me to not only respect historical interpretations, but also formulate my own ideas within my position in contemporary society.

I have a newfound appreciation for mediums like visual renderings and slideshow presentations to convey ideas that are typically confined to an essay. Certain concepts, like violence, benefit from audiovisual enhancement. In the future, I will actively consider how new forms of media can supplant or complement conventional methods. This site mainly examines Shakespeare’s relation to contemporary environmental concerns—which is, after all, just one example of how the past can inform the present.

Image source.

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Blog Post: Shakespeare’s Dark Depiction of Nature in “Titus Andronicus”

nature dark

Humans typically belong to two camps concerning their relationship with nature.  Either we stand wholly apart from the natural world, and it merely serves as the setting for our civilizations to unfold, or we belong entirely to the same order and environment that surrounds us.  The former idea suggests a level of anthropogenic dominance and subjugation of nature, while the latter encourages cooperation and mutuality.

In Titus Andronicus, nature serves as the setting for great violence and atrocity, yet the characters remain enmeshed in it, rather than apart from it.  Consider this passage in which Titus and Marcus lament Lavinia’s tragic rape and mutilation in the woods:

Titus
Lavinia, wert thou thus surprised, sweet girl,
Ravished and wronged as Philomela was,
Forced in the ruthless, vast and gloomy woods?
[Lavinia nods.] See, see!
Ay, such a place there is where we did hunt –
O, had we never, never hunted there! –
Patterned by that the poet here describes,
By nature made for murders and for rapes

Marcus
O, why should nature build so foul a den,
Unless the gods delight in tragedies?

Here, Titus considers nature “made for murders and for rapes.”  In contrast to an idyllic conception of innocence in nature, a la the Garden of Eden, Titus contends that nature is designed for nefarious behavior.  The “vast and gloomy woods” provide sufficient asylum for humanity’s dark impulses to take root.

Furthermore, it is important to note their original activity in the woods—hunting.  As Titus says, “O, had never, never hunted there!”  The very activity of hunting suggests a domination over nature and its occupants.  Now, Titus perhaps regrets their participation in the hunt and the pretense of domination that the activity suggests.  It becomes ironic, then, that Lavinia gets “hunted.”   Rather than offering up its space for sport and recreation, nature offers its space for treachery and violence.

Marcus similarly condemns nature, but places blame on the gods.  For Marcus, nature provides its “foul den” for the gods to “delight in tragedies” therein.  A den, according to Merriam-Webster, is a “lair of a wild, usually predatory, animal.”  So if nature is a den, then it belongs to animals, and humans exist apart from it.  Furthermore, by invoking the gods, Marcus again separates man from nature.  Marcus would seemingly advocate for humans to steer clear of nature’s dark dens and the gods that govern them.

Ultimately, Titus seems to consider humans woefully enmeshed in the “vast and gloomy woods” of nature.  In contrast, Marcus comments on the inherent perils of nature and hot it serves as the twisted playpen of the gods.  In other literature, the notion of human participation and cooperation in nature seems to produce a positive, symbiotic relationship.  In this particular play, however, nature becomes a setting for dark desires to beget gruesome tragedy.

Presentation

For my presentation, I chose to examine violence in the first two acts of Titus Andronicus.  Violence is rampant in the play, and I think an examination of its effect and merit is warranted.  I contend that violence in the play originally serves as a hallmark of power and esteem, as evidenced by Titus’s triumphant return from battle and his assumed candidacy for emperor.  Later, violence becomes cowardly as Chiron and Demetrius ambush Bassianus and violate Lavinia.  Lavinia’s plight illustrates powerfully how cowardly people can use violence to their advantage.  I look at how Shakespeare’s language contributes to the idea of a commodification of human flesh, and the trouble with this attitude.  I also look at how Alarbus’s untimely and violent death casts doubt on Titus as an emperor, suggesting that unnecessary violence can injure a reputation as much as violence on the battlefield can bolster it.  Ultimately, I conclude that the violence in the play largely reflects cowardice rather than courage.

Click here to download the PowerPoint.

Digital Edition

Introduction

Shakespeare’s King Lear revolves around relationships between parents and children. These relationships carry grand implications: wealth, land, even murder. For Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, the desire for land and power supersedes any instinct for paternal love. But beyond the running theme of filial ingratitude, there exists an interesting reversal of family roles. As Lear becomes increasingly mad, he begins to resemble a “bad” child, one who requires discipline, direction, and care. Goneril and Regan, like distressed parents, must deliberate over what to do with their troubled father. As Goneril states, “By day and night he wrongs me. Every hour / He flashes into one gross crime or other / That sets us all at odds. I’ll not endure it” (1.3.3-5). Like a troublesome child that drives a wedge between puzzled parents, Lear sets his daughters “at odds.” This inverted dynamic, while perhaps emblematic of aging parents, nevertheless parallels an interesting ecological dynamic currently taking place—for the first time in history, humans are now charged with taking care of their “Mother Earth.”  As Robert Silhol explores in his essay “Unconscious ambiguities in King Lear,” the absence, or perceived absence, of a mother can lead to a sense of entitlement.  Regan and Goneril feel entitled to their father’s land as they begin to strangely adopt their own matronly position toward their father, “caring” for him and hosting him.  Similarly, humans enter the world and assume certain provisions from the Earth.  Now, however, humans must begin to care for an aging Mother Earth.

While centuries have passed since humans first began exploiting the Earth for energy and profit, only recently has the problem of exhausting our resources begun to surface. King Lear, a play centered on parents and children, also sheds light on the giving and taking that occurs within these relationships. While many, like Cordelia, seem happy with their lot, others, like Edmund, twist every relationship toward their own selfish advantage. Much like many humans reject any obligation to protect the natural world that they inherit, the children in King Lear show a similar disregard toward their parents, electing to take from them rather than care for them in their final moments. With the help of King Lear, contemporary society can learn from these twisted relationships and move toward an attitude of care for the aging Earth. In this post, I’ll examine the play and two critical responses to it, and also reflect on how King Lear operates on an ecological level today.

Critical Responses

Prior to King Lear’s first appearance on stage, the play opens with a discussion of Edmund’s bastardy and, more notably, Gloucester’s impression of the mother.  Gloucester says, “Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making” (1.1.20-23).  Here, Gloucester implies a certain disregard toward the mother of his child.  While the mother is “fair,” she is now absent, and her child represents an embarrassment for the Earl.  Lear’s daughters are also notably without a mother. In his essay, “Unconscious ambiguities in King Lear,” Robert Silhol dissects how absent mothers contribute to the play’s familial dynamics.  As King Lear becomes an infant, Regan and Goneril become like mothers, caring for their hapless father.  Silhol writes, “the mother [has been] termed absent and wicked from the start, a conviction amply verified by the way Goneril and Regan behave with their father” (Silhol 2012).  Silhol, too, recognizes the role-reversal at work and understands it as related to an attitude toward the mother that deems her “absent and wicked.”  If one believes their mother to be absent and wicked, the obligation to care for her disappears.  This concept holds true for ecological attitudes, as well.

Today’s societies, more industrialized and urbanized than ever, often forget their ecological “mother”—the Earth.  In the United States, 81% of the population lives in cities.  These same city-dwellers are now charged with caring for a Mother Earth that has been absent both mentally and visually.  In reality, however, the Earth has been a generous parent.  The only argument for its absenteeism falls on our (humans’) own shortsightedness and ecological hubris.  Silhol says, “it is the essence of tragedy to remind us of a fundamental loss at birth” (Silhol 2012).  Perhaps this “fundamental loss” now represents a necessary obligation to care for the Earth that we inherit at birth. Whether parent or planet, humans often neglect this strange responsibility to care for their caretakers.  For Lear’s daughters as well as contemporary environmental stewards, this concept of care can seem oblique and futile, but I believe that King Lear shines light on these issues.

King Lear Today

A common point of contention within the play arises in whether the behavior of Lear’s daughters results from their own ingratitude and impatience, or from their father’s anger and senility.  Are they right in defying the old man and his rambunctious knights?  Or do they forget their fortune and inheritance?  As M. M. Gullette reports in her article “Losing Lear, Finding Ageism,” all contemporary productions seemingly cast Lear as curmudgeonly and demanding.  She highlights one particular portrayal: “In the program note for a 1997 Young Vic production, Lear is an old woman in a nursing home who used to visit her two daughters until ‘the old woman’s demands grew increasingly irksome’” (Gullette 2007).  Another instance: “A Brandeis University Lear (Taylor, 2005) is entirely set in a clinic where a man lies dying” (Gullette 2007).  Despite the inherent victimization of an old, dying parent, Lear’s general abrasiveness still warrants his (or her) daughters’ ire and ingratitude.  When one considers the aging Earth and its illness—namely, anthropogenic climate change—do humans benefit from a similar excuse not to care?

I contend that they do not.  Humans, having caused the Earth’s troubles, can blame only themselves for its “anger,” or, the effects of climate change.  Industrialization has established not only a dependence on Earth’s resources, but also a diminished regard for Earth’s beauty.  As urban populations grow, the sensitivity toward Earth’s natural patterns softens, and those who generate the most pollutants become the most oblivious to the effects.  Contemporary stagings of King Lear comment on this issue by validating the daughters’ behavior as a reasonable reaction to an ornery parent.  This attitude contributes to a collective sense of ageism—we owe nothing to our parents, or our planet.  Lear himself says that “When we are born we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (4.1.178-179).  Lear deems the Earth a “stage of fools.”  Our entire tragic condition, for Lear, results from something that we never wanted, never asked for.  We come into the world crying, which for Lear suggests a sadness toward the burden of our responsibility to live and care.  Goneril and Regan, for example, find difficulty in affirming this condition and accepting their obligation to care for their father.  The correct response, however, arises from an acceptance of this strange, new responsibility to care for our caretakers. While King Lear can certainly help in understanding contemporary climate concerns, let us hope that the climate change issue and the play don’t share a similar, tragic ending.

Glossed Text

Sc. 7 Text Line Number
Regan O Sir you are old,
Nature in you stands on the very verge of her confine,
You should be rul’d and led by some discretion,
That discernes your state better thẽ you your selfe, 1430
Therfore I pray that to our sister,you do make returne,
Say you haue wrong’d her Sir?
Lear Aske her forgiuenes,
Doe you marke how this becomes the house, (1)
Deare daughter, I confesse that I am old, 1435
Age is vnnecessarie, on my knees I beg,
That you’l vouchsafe me rayment, bed and food.
Regan Good sir no more, these are vnsightly tricks,
Returne you to my sister.
Lear No Regan, 1440
She hath abated me of halfe my traine,
Lookt blacke vpon me, strooke mee with her tongue
Most Serpent-like (2) vpon the very heart,
All the stor’d vengeances of heauen fall on her ingratful 1445
Strike her yong bones, you taking ayrs with lamenes.
Duke Fie fie sir.
Lear You nimble lightnings dart your blinding flames,
Into her scornfull eyes, infect her beautie,
You Fen suckt fogs, drawne by the powrefull Sunne, 1450
To fall and blast her pride.
Regan O the blest Gods, so will you wish on me,
When the rash mood—
Lear No Regan, thou shalt neuer haue my curse, (3)
The tẽder hested nature shall not giue the or’e 1455
To harshnes, her eiesare fierce, but thine do cõfort & not
Tis not in thee to grudge my pleasures, to cut off my train,
To bandy hasty words, to scant my sizes,
And in conclusion, to oppose the bolt 1460
Against my coming in, thou better knowest,
The offices of nature (4), bond of child-hood (5),
Effects of curtesie, dues of gratitude (6),
Thy halfe of the kingdome, hast thou not forgot
Wherein I thee indow’d. 1465
Regan Good sir too’th purpose. (7)
Lear Who put my man i’th stockes?
Duke What trumpets that?
Enter Steward
Regan I know’t my sisters, this approues her letters, 1470
That she would soone be here, is your Lady come?
Lear This is a slaue, whose easie borrowed pride
Dwels in the fickle grace of her, a followes,
Out varlet, from my sight.
Duke What meanes your Grace? 1475
Enter Goneril
Goneril Who struck my seruant, Regan: I haue good hope
Thou didst not know ant.
Lear Who comes here? O heauens!
If you doe loue old men (8), if your sweet sway allow 1480
Obedience, if your selues are old, make it your cause,
Send downe and take my part, (9)
Art not asham’d to looke vpon this beard? (10)
O Regan wilt thou take her by the hand?
Goneril Why not by the hand sir, how haue I offended? 1485
Als not offence that indiscretion finds
And dotage (11) tearmes so.
Lear O sides you are too tough,
Will you yet hold? how came my man it’h stockes? (12) 1490
Duke I set him there sir, but his owne disorders
Deseru’d much lesse aduancement,
Lear You, did you?
Regan I pray you father being weake seeme so, (13)
If till the expiration of your moneth, (14) 1495
You will returne and sojorne with my sister,
Dismissing halfe your traine, come then to me,
I am now from home, and out of that prouision,
Which shall be needful for your entertainment.
Lear Returne to her, and fiftie men dismist, 1500
No rather I abjure all roofes, and chuse
To wage against the enmitie of the Ayre,
To be a Comrade with the Woolfe and owle, (15)

Notes

  1. Lear implores Regan to understand how an apology from him might “become the house,” or affect the familial dynamic. He suggests that an apology from him would upset convention. For Lear, fathers should not apologize. Therein the parent-child contention that plays out in this dialogue.
  2. Lear compares his daughter Goneril to a serpent. This connotes not only venom, but also, in a biblical sense, a villain of a nature.
  3. Regan will never have Lear’s curse. Lear’s love for his daughter is unconditional, unlike hers, which is marked by conditions and ingratitude.
  4. Offices of nature–one’s natural obligations. Lear implores Regan to consider her position as his child.
  5. Childhood becomes a bond, one that Regan aims to escape. This illustrates her sense of ageism. See “Losing Lear, Finding Ageism.”
  6. Similarly, Lear suggests that Regan forgets her gratitude. Humans, too, forget their gratitude toward the Earth.
  7. Regan responds brashly, effectively telling her father to “get to the point.”
  8. Lear acknowledges his old age and asks for Regan’s love nonetheless. Lear’s love is unrequited. Regan fails to adopt any obligation to care for her father. Perhaps this attitude can be attributed to the absent mother, as Silhol argues.
  9. “Take my part” could mean “take up my care.” Lear asks for mere hospitality from a daughter to whom he gave a kingdom.
  10. The beard clearly exists as a sign of his age, but also, perhaps, his wisdom. The beard also suggests authority, as Stanley Wells’s annotation points out.
  11. Dotage: a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness. From Merriam-Webster.
  12. Lear asks, for the second time, why his man is in the stocks. He is being ignored, much like (as I argue above) the Earth’s metaphorical cries are being ignored.
  13. Regan ignores her father, and calls him weak, further contributing to the running theme of filial ingratitude.
  14. I first thought “expiration of your moneth” meant the expiration of Lear’s money, but it actually means month.
  15. Finally, Lear resigns himself to nature. His daughters’ ingratitude is both hurtful and, to Lear, unnatural. He will make comrades with the wolf and owl, both nocturnal creatures, which perhaps suggest his resigning to death. Ultimately, Lear returns to the Earth as he cannot make sense of its occupants and their hubris.

Blog Post: Shakespeare and Climate Change-An Odd Couple

climate-joke

Although many environmental concerns seem to have only begun to surface in the last few decades, the relationship between humans and nature has transfixed literature throughout many centuries.  With these ecological issues finally coming to the social and political fore, one might consider them solely in the context of contemporary science and media.  The potential for Shakespeare’s plays, one might argue, to reflect on these problems seems ridiculous.  But when one considers how delicately and creatively Shakespeare positions man in relation to nature, particularly in his King Lear, the robust cross-section between Shakespeare and contemporary environmental anxiety begins to take shape.

King Lear’s relationship with his land reflects the fundamental disconnect that humans feel toward nature.  Rather than recognizing his own position within nature and his evolution from nature, the king sees nature as his own, as something to divide and preside over.  Today, humans still consider nature apart from themselves.  Nature is a resource, a mere supplier, a setting, at best.  Despite overwhelming evidence for our development from nature and our interconnectivity with nature, we cannot collectively overcome a certain attitude that separates us, divides us from nature.  The Earl of Gloucester articulates this sentiment: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.  Though the wisdom of nature can reason thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects.  Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide” (1.2.102-105).  Here, Gloucester recognizes that while the heavenly bodies might align, humans nevertheless do not.  Despite any natural influence, humans continue to operate in opposition to nature.  This defeatist attitude parallels the contemporary attitude around climate change.  Only 60% of Americans believe in anthropogenic climate change while 97% of scientists agree about it.  Humans blame the Sun, saying that it has simply increased its radiative output.  In reality, periods of high solar activity alternate every eleven years roughly, and besides, solar output has actually decreased on average since 1960 while temperature has increased an average of 0.85° Celsius across the globe.  Despite the proverbial “alignment” of evidence and effect, humans remain quick to discredit the science and disassociate from nature, much like the Earl of Gloucester.

King Lear himself views nature as his subject.  He orders, “Hark, nature, hear! / Dear goddess, suspend thy purpose if / Thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful. / Into her womb convey sterility” (1.4.265-269).  While this definition of nature conflicts with the previous notion of nature as the natural world, it nevertheless illustrates an attitude of superiority over natural processes.  Another climate change critique parallels this air of superiority—many people argue that since humans only cause 4% of total carbon dioxide emissions that we need not accept blame for the shifting climate.  While this figure is true, that “mere” 4% actually does enough to upset our planet’s natural cycle of carbon dioxide emission and absorption that held steady for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution.  Many people act disassociated from natural processes when in fact their influence is enormous.  Just like King Lear fruitlessly invokes nature to “convey sterility,” people today fruitlessly try to bargain with nature, scrambling to find asinine morsels of science to validate their comfortable existence.

Source: I’m currently enrolled in ENVS 120: Defining the Anthropocene, a class that looks extensively at climate change and the attitudes that surround it.

Image source.

Visual Rendering

Vulgar language seems to evolve more rapidly than common, cordial dialect.   In reading Shakespeare, one encounters many instances of profanity that fall on unfamiliar ears. The words “knave,” “villain,” and “whoreson” appear often in the great playwright’s works, yet seem disconnected from contemporary vernacular. While knave and whoreson have all but disappeared, villain has taken on a stronger, criminal connotation. A villain, for Shakespeare, might suggest a mere rival or adversary. Whoreson seems autological; it means, in the literal sense, a whore’s son. But like today’s “son-of-a-bitch,” whoreson was another sharp insult in Shakespeare’s time. Knave, on the other hand, carried less venom, as it stemmed from a Germanic word for “boy.” But as the Oxford English Dictionary can attest, these words all carry an endearing connotation, as well.

Like the meanings of the plays themselves, the words within them transform with shifting cultures and geographies. This post will explore the origins and meanings of these words with especial regard to Shakespeare’s canon. The following two images illustrate these terms and their meanings, usage, and history. Click the links below them to view the full charts.

Insults1 (1)

Insults2

See full chart, part 1 here.

See full chart, part 2 here.

“Foolish Knave!”: Insults in Shakespeare

Vulgar language seems to evolve more rapidly than common, cordial dialect.   In reading Shakespeare, one encounters many instances of profanity that fall on unfamiliar ears. One such word, “knave,” appears thirteen times in The Taming of the Shrew alone. This post will explore the origins and meaning of this word with especial regard to Shakespeare’s canon.

Throughout the play, the word carries an insulting connotation. For example:

“The bass is right; ‘tis the base knave that jars.” (3.1.40)
“Where is the foolish knave I sent before?” (4.1.56)
“A whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-ear’d knave!” (4.1.91)

Without ever having encountered this term before, one can gather that it serves as an insult. One might liken it to “fool,” “clown,” or “punk.” The Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines knave as simply “A male child, a boy.” But in the second and third definition, the insulting undertones become apparent:

2. A male attendant, page, or other servant; (also more generally) a man of low rank or status … Often contrasted with knight.
3. A dishonest unprincipled man; a cunning unscrupulous rogue; a villain … Freq. as a term of abuse.
 
See the full OED entry here.
 
A search in Open Source Shakespeare reveals 197 mentions of the word or its variants across all of Shakespeare’s available plays. All’s Well that Ends Well shows 24 mentions. Henry V has 10. King Lear: 16. Merry Wives of Windsor has 21. The Tempest: only 2.  Click below for a visual rendering of this information.

knavepiktochart

One variant, “knavery,” seems common. Shakespeare likely contrasts this word with bravery. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom says, “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; / to fright me, if they could” (3.1.58-59). While the primary definition seems rather dull, Shakespeare extracts much more meaning from its subtler definitions and also uses wordplay to convey even more insult.
 
In conclusion, while Shakespeare’s insults may seem foreign at first, a quick trip to the OED reveals many layers of meaning that in turn reflect back on his work. Insults evolve rapidly, and researching them can be not only interesting, but also insightful.