Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Just Call Him Snakespeare

Marissa Skudlarek provides a snake-a-licious dessert course to yesterday’s Harry Potter smorgasbord.

In yesterday’s blog post, Ashley Cowan provided an introduction to the traits of the four Hogwarts houses, and then we Sorted seven of our favorite playwrights. But what about the Big Guy, the man we celebrate every April but especially this April (because as of April 23, the world has been bereft of him for four hundred years), the playwright whose works haunt and taunt every other English-language writer, Mr. William Shakespeare? What Hogwarts house does he belong in?

Ashley’s and my Sorting of playwrights was inspired by this piece in The Toast about Sorting 19th-century British novelists. In the comment section of that piece, someone suggested that Shakespeare was a “Ravenclaw who hung out with Hufflepuffs for inspiration,” which I kind of love, because it makes him sound like a real-life version of his character Prince Hal: a reserved, cerebral type who was often found in the company of earthier, jollier folks.

But upon further reflection, isn’t Prince Hal a Slytherin who hangs out with Hufflepuffs at the pub? (Hal isn’t intellectual enough to be a Ravenclaw, and his “Herein will I imitate the sun” soliloquy is pure Slytherin cunning.) And – strange as it sounds at first – mightn’t Shakespeare be a Slytherin, too?

Don’t be shocked. J.K. Rowling’s novels certainly paint Slytherins in a very sinister light, but it seems kind of illogical for one-quarter of all British wizards to be assigned to a house that represents pure evil. Therefore, many Harry Potter fans take a revisionist line on Slytherin. According to the Sorting Hat, Slytherins are “power-hungry” and “ambitious,” but those qualities need not always be yoked to amorality or corruption. Voldemort is the most famous Slytherin, but not all Slytherins are Voldemort. What Slytherins have in common is ambition, drive, resourcefulness, flexibility, and the cunning (if not necessarily the poison) associated with their mascot, the serpent.

For proof that you can be a Slytherin and still a good guy, as well as a talented and word-drunk playwright, take a look at Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda’s public persona is upbeat, nerdy, earnest, and amiable – pretty much as far from Voldemort as you can get. But he is incredibly driven and accomplished (note the inspirational meme that says “Remember, you have just as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda”) and he identifies as a Slytherin.

He's got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

He’s got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

So, why do I think Shakespeare was a Snake? First, his plays deliver a fantastic rogue’s gallery of Slytherin villains and anti-heroes: Richard III, Prince Hal, Iago, Shylock, Edmund, Macbeth and his Lady. Indeed, Macbeth is basically a treatise on What It’s Like To Be Slytherin. These are incredibly memorable characters that created the template for the self-delighted, crafty, manipulative villains that we still see in movies and TV today. Shakespeare also enjoys playing with the audience’s sympathies, sometimes making us cheer these characters’ wicked deeds: the more evil Richard is, the more we love him. I think that any kind of playwright can write a Slytherin villain, but it takes a Slytherin playwright to make us like or sympathize with that villain.

Even many of Shakespeare’s non-villainous protagonists show the Slytherin traits of cunning, resourcefulness, and a willingness to bide their time till their plans come to fruition. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dressing up as a boy in order to train the man she loves to treat her better? Slytherin. All of Portia’s actions in The Merchant of Venice – mocking her suitors, waiting till the very last moment to save Antonio from the knife, and all that manipulative business with Bassanio’s ring in Act V? Totally Slytherin. And, while it may seem folly to sort as complex a character as Hamlet into a Hogwarts house, his feigning of madness in order to quietly pursue his goals is a very Slytherin move.

Shakespeare understood the dark side of human nature, even if he did not fall prey to it himself. He was an unusually empathetic Slytherin, to be sure, but a Slytherin nonetheless.

Shakespeare didn’t just write Slytherin characters well and frequently. Though much of his life is a mystery, what little we do know is consistent with a Slytherin Sorting. He was an ambitious writer and a shrewd businessman. He went from being a provincial nobody to being a leading shareholder in the king’s own company of players. His plays flattered the monarch and nobility; he enjoyed thinking about power, and he enjoyed being close to power. He clearly valued knowledge, but I think he valued it in a Slytherin way, as a means to the end of writing good plays, rather than valuing knowledge for its own sake, as a Ravenclaw does. It is notoriously difficult to discern Shakespeare’s own personality or political views from reading his plays; he was slippery, like a snake. And, at the end of his life, he had “Cursed be he that moves my bones” chiseled on his tomb, and isn’t that a Slytherin epitaph?

It’s also interesting to contemplate the Slytherin strain in Shakespeare fandom: I am of course speaking of the Oxfordians, who assert that Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by a nobleman rather than a glovemaker’s son from Stratford. In Harry Potter, the Slytherins are the only House obsessed with “blood purity” and aristocracy, and the Oxfordians seem to have a similar obsession.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, St. George’s Day, and popular tradition says that he was born on St. George’s Day as well. George, who according to legend slew a dragon or serpent, is the patron saint of England; and England, like Gryffindor, is represented by a red lion. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is almost a secular patron saint of England, but make no mistake: he was no lion. He was the serpent.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and Ravenclaw. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

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