Sunday, December 12, 2010

Discussion: The Sonnets, Part One

How is your sonnet reading going? One thing is certain: You're farther along than I am, or at the very least we're equal, because I haven't read a single one. I'm enjoying this "choose your own adventure" month of sonnets. It's perfect for procrastination, a skill at which I'm very accomplished.

Instead, I've been on a little Kurt Vonnegut kick, re-reading The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. (Vonnegut certainly hated his hometown of Indianapolis!) Today I'm reading Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail.

What do those books have to do with Shakespeare? Absolutely nothing -- although Bryson has also written an excellent biography of Shakespeare. The sonnet reading is due Jan. 2, so we have plenty of time for holiday parties, frantic shopping and reading that has no relevance to this project. After all, January is a whole month from now. We have plenty of time. (I'll keep saying that until around midnight Jan. 1).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Extra, Extra: "Tempest" Movie Reviews

I can't see Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" when it opens today in limited release, because Indianapolis isn't on the short list. But the reviews are in, and they are disappointing. On the plus side, it makes me less frustrated about not seeing this film right away.

Here's a quick round-up of the reviews I've seen:

Marshall Fine at the Huffington Post: "Slow and grinding, Taymor's version of The Tempest would be dwarfed by any teapot she might decide to set it in."

Robert Beames at the Telegraph: "... time watching The Tempest is not wasted. Even if it is not quite the brave new world for Shakespeare at the cinema that it might have been."

A.O. Scott at the New York Times: "These ideas and others circulate through Ms. Taymor’s film, but rather than cohere into a compellingly new — or satisfyingly traditional — rendering of the play, they slosh around, generating glimmers of insight, slivers of feeling and spasms of sensation, as well as empty dazzle and frustration."

Deborah Young at the Hollywood Reporter: "Far less daring than (Taymor's) 1999 Titus, which took an electrifying, stylized approach of a lesser-known play, The Tempest in comparison looks disappointingly middle of the road."

Betsy Sharkey at the L.A. Times: "Julie Taymor, filmmaking savant of extraordinary vision and voice, suddenly and surprisingly folds. This is a tentative film and a disappointment ..."

On the other hand, Helen Mirren is getting great reviews for her performance as Prospera -- which is to be expected, considering Mirren's abilities. I will still see the movie when it opens here, but definitely with less anticipation than before.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Discussion and Reading Assignment

I read "The Phoenix and the Turtle" this week. So -- allegory of ideal love, turtle dove and phoenix, very sentimental and sweet, la la. "Either was the other's mine" is a lovely little description of selfless love.

So, that's all I really have to say about that.

If your house is like mine, the holidays are already starting to get crazy. So, we're going to do things a bit differently for December. From now through Jan. 2, we're going to focus on the sonnets. Take things at your own pace -- a few each day or all together in a frenzy on New Year's Day.

I've been looking for a handy way to divide up this reading, and the folks at Shakespeare Geek offered some great suggestions. Here is my favorite of the comments, from William Sutton, who runs the I Love Shakespeare blog (thanks, William!):
Read the first 17 as one batch. This is the “make another you” bunch.
Then from 18-35. This is the “getting to immortalize you” batch.
Then from 36-49. This is the “you cheating SOB” batch.
Then 50-76. This is the “take an Ovidian break” batch.
Then 77-90. This is the rival poet and “letting you go” batch.
Then 91-114. This is the “one last chance” batch.
Then 115-126. This is the “it’s over FYM” batch.
Then 127-136. This is the “getting to know the mistress” batch.
Then 137-152. This is the “see what a biatch you are” batch.
Finally 153+154. This is the “see, love is blind” batch.
This is a "choose your own adventure" couple of weeks for "Shakespeare in a Year," but I'll be doing the Sunday posts as usual. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We're Halfway There!

Today marks the halfway point of our Shakespeare in a Year Challenge. How are you holding up? So far, which plays have been your favorites -- and your least favorites? Now that we're halfway through, what benefits are you seeing from this challenge?

For me, the value of Shakespearean immersion is the ability to spot connections between plays that I otherwise wouldn't notice -- similar lines, similar plot twists, characters with similar world views. Shakespeare's plays present myriad possibilities when read singly, but reading the canon as a whole expands the view still further.

Another bonus: After a few weeks, the Shakespearean language becomes familiar and easy -- no more struggles with the archaic phrasing and vocabulary.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We're almost halfway through the Shakespeare in a Year project (congratulations!), and I know some of you are trying to get caught up. So, your assignment this week is very, very short: "The Phoenix and the Turtle," an allegorical poem first published in 1601. It's probably in your Complete Works. If not, you can find the full text here. I've never read this one, so I look forward to our discussion!

Discussion: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

The plot tweet: Hamlet's childhood buddies star in their own "behind the scenes" play, but they meet the same fate as in Shakespeare's tragedy.

My favorite line:
Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. It must have been shattering -- stamped into one's memory. And yet I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure.


This is my first time reading this play, and I'm fascinated. I'm desperate to see it on stage. I've just spent an hour online trying to find a convenient upcoming performance, so please let me know if you're aware of anything.

This play interests me on two levels: as a play in its own right and, of course, as another perspective on Shakespeare's Hamlet. I laughed out loud every time Guildenstern asked what Hamlet was doing, and Rosencrantz replied, "talking." It's true, Hamlet does that a lot. I also enjoy R&G's statements on the cause of Hamlet's melancholy and madness, whether real or feigned. For example:
Rosencrantz: To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?

Guildenstern: I can't imagine!
You might not like absurdist, existentialist metatheater in the vein of Waiting for Godot, but you have to admit, this play is funny. And, of course, it is weird. Why are R&G so lost and confused, even about their own identities and pasts, and why don't they have more control of their own fate? What causes the string of 92 coins landing heads-up? What is behind the sense of unease that pervades the entire play?

Just as with every Shakespeare play -- and just as with every good play, really -- these are questions that can be successfully addressed (or intentionally not addressed) on stage, creating endless variations of interpretation. I'd love to see and compare several productions before drawing my conclusions (or admitting the impossibility of doing so).

At the moment, however, the only thing I can picture is this past summer's outstanding production of Waiting for Godot at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin. I fear the similarities between the two plays are clouding my judgment.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This month, our readings are all about Hamlet. We started with The Spanish Tragedy, an earlier play that influenced Shakespeare's own revenge tragedy, and of course we've read the play itself. Now, let's read a contemporary play based on Hamlet: the Tony-winning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

A few of you just cringed and said, "Contemporary drama? Really? I only like the old stuff." I used to feel that way, too. When I started spending long weekends at theater festivals -- especially the Stratford Shakespeare Festival -- I sometimes needed an extra play to fill up my schedule. So, I first saw plays like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by accident. Trust me: The new stuff is worth your time. After all, what might Shakespeare have written had he lived in the 20th century?

Discussion: Hamlet

The play: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

The plot tweet: Ghost orders Hamlet to revenge dad's murder; he delays, sets up play within play, kills girlfriend's dad. Play ends with bodies everywhere.

My favorite line:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


We could, if we wanted to do so, ignore the rest of William Shakespeare's work and spend our entire year on Hamlet. We'd have plenty to do, even if we only read the best and most influential of the criticism focused on this play.

So, it's daunting to tackle Hamlet in a little weekly blog post. I'm not even sure where to start. Should we talk about the back story of Hamlet and Ophelia? Of Claudius and Gertrude? Why does Hamlet feign madness, and to what extent is that madness actually feigned? Why does Hamlet delay his revenge? Does Hamlet know he is being overheard in his "get thee to a nunnery" meeting with Ophelia? Why does Ophelia go mad? Is her death a suicide or an accident? To what extent are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern complicit in the plot on Hamlet's life? In what ways does Hamlet's outlook change during the play? How much time has passed from the first to fifth acts, and how old is Hamlet, anyway?


When I wrote about Merchant of Venice, I said the play was like a kaleidoscope: Every time you look at the play from a different angle, the entire meaning shifts. The same is true of Hamlet. Hundreds of questions have been posed about this play, so the possibilities for interpretation are, perhaps, infinite.

On this reading, the question that intrigues me the most is this one: What was Hamlet like before his father died and his mother remarried? After all, we're not exactly seeing him at his best.

We know from Claudius that he is beloved by the people, and Ophelia says that he has been "the glass of fashion, and the mold of form, th' observed of all observers." She also refers to him as a scholar, a courtier and a soldier. During his time at university, he's been learning to fence, making friends with actors and carousing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We tend to think of Hamlet as a bookish, melancholy (and perhaps even whiny) scholar who can't make up his mind to act, but that's apparently not true of the pre-mourning Hamlet we don't get to meet.

Hamlet has always seemed like a "real person" who could walk off the stage into everyday life. Thinking of him as a normal guy in difficult circumstances makes him seem even more alive. As many critics (most notably Harold Bloom) have pointed out, Shakespeare's creation of Hamlet changed our understanding of what it means to be human.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

Okay, okay, okay. In the past few weeks, you've waited very patiently during our little foray into the works of Shakespeare's Elizabethan contemporaries. Now, it's finally time to read Hamlet. Go.

P.S. I know you're not reading any CliffsNotes during this challenge. Right? Because that would be super-duper bad and defeat the whole purpose. But, if you need a reading aid for Hamlet, check out this awesome poster on Etsy: a fascinating diagram of this play's complicated plot.

Discussion: The Spanish Tragedy

The play: The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

The plot tweet: A ghost and Revenge oversee murders and a (delayed) revenge plot, set the stage for Hamlet.

My favorite line:
My heart, sweet friend, is like a ship at sea:
She wisheth port, where, riding all at ease,
She may repair what stormy times have worn,
And leaning on the shore, may sing with joy
That pleasure follows pain, and bliss annoy.


Several years ago, one of our local universities had a "spring cleaning" event, in which books that had been pulled from circulation were available for free. I picked up An Anthology of English Drama Before Shakespeare, intending to learn more about mystery plays, morality plays and the like. Instead, the book sat on my shelf -- until this week, when I finally got around to reading The Spanish Tragedy. Here is what the book's editor, Robert B. Heilman, has to say about the play:
The Spanish Tragedy is historically notable as one of the vehicles by which various elements of Senecan tragedy were naturalized in English drama -- a declamatory manner, the revenge theme, the ghost -- and as a repository of other devices which Shakespeare was to use later: madness, pretended madness, the tardy avenger, the multitude of violent deaths, the play within a play.
In other words, Hamlet. Next week, we'll see how Shakespeare makes this genre his own, with more beautiful poetry and vastly richer characterization.

In the meantime, is anyone else disappointed in the women of this play? If you want revenge, stabbing yourself doesn't really accomplish much. (At least Bel-Imperia manages to accomplish her revenge first.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week's foray into the works of Christopher Marlowe has taught us an important lesson: We can better understand the genius of Shakespeare when we understand his contemporaries and his influences. So, before we read Hamlet (next week, I promise), let's read Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Written between 1582 and 1592, this play was wildly popular in its time, and it established a new category of drama, the revenge tragedy -- of which Hamlet is perhaps the ultimate incarnation. The play also contains elements that Shakespeare refines in his own play, such as the vengeful ghost and the play-within-a-play strategy to expose someone's guilt.

Don't have a copy of The Spanish Tragedy on your bookshelf? It's available online here.

Discussion: The Works of Marlowe

The play: Doctor Faustus

The plot tweet: Faustus trades his soul for magical powers, wastes his time with petty magic tricks, gets dragged to hell by demons.

My favorite line:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.


It boggles the mind, but a frightening number of Shakespeare "scholars" are doggedly trying to prove that his work was written by someone else. Maybe it was Francis Bacon, who had a university education and useful court connections. Maybe it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who actually wrote a few (awful) plays under his own name. Or maybe, they say, it was Christopher Marlowe, who perhaps faked his death in that 1593 tavern brawl and then went into hiding, writing under Shakespeare's name.

I don't have much patience for these conspiracy theories, which seem to be based on the elitist idea that a provincial actor without a university education could not possibly have produced works of such genius. (See Bill Bryson's summary of this argument in his excellent Shakespeare biography.)

But the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theorists drive me especially batty: Have they ever actually read Marlowe's work? Every time I do -- as I did this week with Doctor Faustus -- I am disappointed and underwhelmed. Doctor Faustus is little better than a souped-up morality play. The plot is nonexistent, the characters are underdeveloped and the poetry is flat. At the end of the play, I closed my book and thought, "That's it?" I had the same reaction several years ago to The Jew of Malta.

Granted, Marlowe was more successful than Shakespeare before his untimely death, and his early plays are regarded as better than Shakespeare's early plays. (Think of that scene in "Shakespeare in Love" where dozens of hopeful Romeos recite the same line from Faustus for their tryouts.)

For years, Shakespeare struggled to break free of Marlowe's influence, even after Marlowe's death. Thank goodness that Shakespeare did so and that he survived until retirement. Can you imagine a universe where Tamburlaine and Faustus -- not Hamlet and King Lear -- are regarded as the pinnacle of literary achievement? *shudder*

Friday, November 5, 2010

Plummer's Tempest Now on Film

If you missed The Tempest this past summer at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, you're not alone. The play, starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, sold out many of its performances at the Festival Theatre, an unusual feat for the festival's largest venue.

But all is not lost: The acclaimed production is now on film. It will be shown at theaters in Canada only, but we should be able to get a DVD copy south of the border. (It's not on Netflix or Amazon, but I'll keep looking.) It's worth tracking down: I've never seen a funnier, more whimsical production of this play.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Sci-Fi Henry V?

The Shakespeare blogosphere is all aflutter over a newly announced movie, "Henry5," a sci-fi version of Henry V starring Michael Caine. The synopsis sounds a bit strange. Will the film use Shakespeare's original language? How closely will the Henry V story be followed? We'll just have to wait and see -- perhaps for a long time, because the film hasn't yet started production.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

With Richard III, we've finished both the major and minor tetralogies of Shakespeare's history plays. This week, we could finish the history plays with Henry VIII, or we could do a comedy, perhaps Twelfth Night. We could even read Shakespeare's first mature tragedy, and one of his greatest triumphs, Hamlet.

But this week, we're not going to read any of those plays. In fact, we're not going to read Shakespeare at all.

Dating Shakespeare plays is a sketchy science, but so far we've covered his career from 1592 or 1593 through approximately 1600 -- the year the Bard wrote his transformative Hamlet. Before we move into this new era of Shakespeare's work, I'd like us to take a step back. We have been reading his work in a literary vacuum, but Shakespeare drew from historical sources, theater tradition and -- perhaps most important -- the work of his contemporaries.

Among those contemporary playwrights, perhaps none was as influential as Christopher Marlowe. He and Shakespeare were the same age, and critics are fond of pointing out that Marlowe's early plays were much more promising than Shakespeare's. Had he not died young, Marlowe might hold Shakespeare's place as the greatest playwright in history.

So, this week, you have a different assignment: to read a play by Marlowe. It's your choice: Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta or whatever appeals to you. I read The Jew of Malta a few years ago, so I think I'll read Faustus.

Don't think Marlowe should be included in the Shakespeare in a Year Challenge? That's your call. Use the week to catch up on a play you missed, or get a head start on Hamlet or Twelfth Night, both of which are coming up soon. But I hope you will accept this mini-Marlowe challenge, and I look forward to our discussion next Sunday!

Discussion: Richard III

The play: King Richard III

The plot tweet:
"Deformed" Machiavellian Gloucester goes on killing spree, claims crown, but Margaret's dire predictions all come true. Enter the Tudors.

My favorite line:
"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days."


Whenever I finish a Shakespeare play, I read the relevant chapters in my little pile of critical texts, such as Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All and Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. For Richard III, however, all of my usual texts referenced an unusual critical source: Sigmund Freud.

Luckily, thanks to my compulsion, I already had Peter Gay's Freud Reader on the shelf.

The gist is this: In 1916, Freud published a series of essays, "Some Character Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work." One of those essays, "The Exceptions," focused on patients who -- perhaps like Richard III -- feel that they should be exempt from societal rules because of some childhood trauma or congenital disadvantage. According to Freud, this explains Richard's behavior and our connection to him, since all of us would like to claim the same exemption:
Richard is an enormous magnification of something we find in ourselves as well. We all think we have reason to reproach Nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love.
Do you agree with Freud's assessment of Richard? To what extent is this play's dual protagonist-antagonist driven by issues related to his deformity? I'm inclined to disagree with Freud, because Richard rarely seems hindered by his disabilities. In the Henry VI plays, he proved himself to be an able soldier; in this play, he proves that he's capable of charming and manipulating everyone -- even the women whose husbands, parents and children he has murdered. The deformity he describes in such detail in his first soliloquy doesn't really seem to be holding him back, and he seems to know that.

Henry VII, who emerges victorious at the end of this play and ends the War of the Roses, was Queen Elizabeth's grandfather. So, it's not surprising that Shakespeare should portray the Tudors' final Plantagenet enemy in a bad light -- even if Richard's alleged deformity has no basis in historical sources. The power of Shakespeare, and of this dynamic character, is that this portrayal overshadows everything else we know about the real Richard III.

As many critics point out, this play has plenty of faults. It is long and uneven, and the female characters do nothing but whine and moan (even Queen Margaret, who took such an active role during her late husband's reign). Richard steals the show, and the scenes in which he doesn't appear feel thin and empty, perhaps because none of the other characters is fully developed.

And yet this play has always been one of the most popular Shakespeare plays in performance -- probably because we're so drawn to Richard. He soliloquizes early and often, making the audience complicit in his plots. We pity him and root for him even as we are increasingly horrified by his Machiavellian schemes. You might love him or hate him (and by the end, you probably hate him), but he's fun to watch.

A Halloween Treat

Happy Halloween! To celebrate, here's a Shakespeare double feature from the Savage Chickens comic strip. (Or, here's one about the bloody mess at the end of Hamlet.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Monday Distraction

We haven't talked much about Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare's contemporaries and perhaps one of his most important influences -- but we're going to remedy that oversight very soon.

In the meantime, here's one of Marlowe's best-known poems, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." (Personally, however, I've always been more amused by "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Walter Raleigh.)

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We're going to read Hamlet very soon, I promise. But first, let's finish up this batch of history plays with Richard III. I'm eager to see what happens to the slimy Edward IV and the other nobles standing in Richard's way of becoming king. As always, your deadline is next Sunday. Happy reading!

Discussion: Henry VI, Part III

The play: The Third Part of Henry VI, with the Death of the Duke of York

The plot tweet: Henry is king. Now Edward is king. Now Henry again. Now finally Edward ... but Richard is waiting not-so-patiently in the wings.

My favorite line:
Why, courage then! What cannot be avoided
'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear.


In All of Shakespeare, Maurice Charney calls Henry VI "undoubtedly Shakespeare's most military play," and I have to agree. As soon as one tumult is resolved, another begins. The crown bounces from one head to another in this dynastic battle, and innocent citizens are the ones who suffer -- as Shakespeare reminds us poignantly in the set piece of the father who has killed his son and the son who has killed his father. Henry VI is a perfect chorus for this moving scene, but he doesn't manage to do much of anything else.

As in Henry VI, Part II, the ineffective king drives me batty. He abdicates responsibility at every possible turn. Queen Margaret, horrid as she is, gets it right when she says, "Enforced thee? Art thou King, and wilt be forced? I shame to hear thee speak." Fortunately for her, Henry doesn't get to speak much anyway. He's always being out-shouted and kicked out of battles, and others are always acting on his behalf. When Warwick decides to re-throne the deposed Henry, it doesn't seem to be in England's best interests.

I struggle with the characterization of Queen Margaret here. She is lambasted by the male characters as a "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide," and she is certainly quite cruel. On the flip side, she excels in diplomacy and military strategy, leading the military into battle when her husband cannot or will not do so. The reigning Queen Elizabeth must have seen some of herself in this character, so I'm surprised Margaret comes across as badly as she does.

It's fun to watch the conniving, heartless Richard III emerge in this play, but we must also pity him a bit. Although he is fearsome in battle and carries himself well in general, he's always being dismissed as the "crookback," the "indigested and deformed lump" or the "foul misshapen stigmatic." Although he's clearly a villain in his own later play, I have trouble attaching that label to him here -- even when he murders Henry VI (which, to be frank, is probably the best solution for everyone).

Of course, we'll feel differently about him next week, when his villainy achieves its greatest heights in Richard III. But, for the moment, let's be glad that the "sour annoy" of the War of the Roses has reached a temporary halt.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

My husband ran a whole, actual marathon this morning (hooray!), but a Shakespeare reading marathon is more my style. So, let's continue our immersion in the history plays with Henry VI, Part III. What will become of this completely inept king, his horrid wife and the daring Duke of York? As always, you have until next Sunday at noon to finish up.

Discussion: Henry VI, Part II

The play: The Second Part of Henry VI, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey

The plot tweet: All the nobles are plotting against each other and the king; lots of people get beheaded; the War of the Roses gets underway at St. Albans.

My favorite line:
Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.


I find it difficult to comment on this play, dependent as it is upon the resolution that will come in Henry VI, Part III and, to a certain extent, Richard III. Here, in the seventh play of Shakespeare's histories (speaking in historical order), the legendary War of the Roses shares the stage with Cade's almost-successful peasant uprising and a devastating loss of territory in France. Poor Henry VI is beset with troubles on all sides.

One could almost feel sorry for him, if he weren't so naive and incompetent. It's hard to imagine any son of Henry V turning out this way.

Several times while reading this play, I found myself writing exasperated comments like "Man up!" and "Why doesn't he take charge?" I really struggle with act three, scene one, in which Gloucester is falsely accused of treason and arrested. Henry wails that he "can do nought" to help Gloucester, that he "cannot do him good," and that Gloucester's enemies are "so mighty" that he cannot oppose them. Clearly this guy is not cut out to be king.

Only the sight of the dead Gloucester, murdered in his sleep the night before his trial, finally prompts Henry to exercise his authority and snap at his treacherous queen. But it's too late. The nation has already crumbled around him. From this point, he just yells at various traitors and orders others into battle, without once picking up a sword himself -- exactly the opposite of what his father would have done.

I am eager to see his development (or lack thereof) in Part III, and I'm looking forward to the culmination of the War of the Roses. We've just met the future Richard III, as well, and I look forward to getting to know him better; these devious villains are always the most fun to watch.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Romeo and Juliet on TV?

ABC is reportedly developing a TV pilot based on Shakespeare's teen-angst tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Andrea Berloff is writing the script, and director Catherine Hardwicke -- of "Twilight" fame -- has been named as a possible director. If it works, it will be the first time Romeo and Juliet has been successfully adapted to the small screen.

I feel torn about this. On the one hand, more Shakespeare is good. Anything that encourages tweens and teens to explore the Bard's work must have some value.

On the other hand, how can the show possibly stay true to Shakespeare's poetry and plot, especially if the show continues over multiple seasons? Will viewers respond to a program whose ending is so well known? Of course, theater-goers continue to respond to the real R&J, and we already know how that's going to end, too.

I just don't know -- let's wait and see how it goes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Monday Distraction

Here's the trailer for Julie Taymor's upcoming adaptation of The Tempest. I admit, I was nervous about the gender-bending casting, but the trailer is reassuring.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, let's continue our study of the history plays with Henry VI, Part II. Will we meet any characters as colorful and engaging as Joan of Arc? Will Suffolk really rule the kingdom through the new Queen Margaret? We'll have to read on and find out.

Discussion: Henry VI, Part I

The play: The First Part of Henry VI

The plot tweet: England loses French territories despite Talbot because nobles can't stop bickering; Joan of Arc steals the show, gets burned at the stake.

My favorite line:
Marriage, uncle! Alas, my years are young,
And fitter is my study and my books
Than wanton dalliance with a paramour.


Scholars put a lot of energy into dating Shakespeare's plays. Some say that Henry VI, Part I is the Bard's first play; others say it is merely his first history play. Others say this play was written as a prequel after what we know as the second and third parts had already been performed. Other scholars say that this play was a collaboration among many playwrights, so it's not even wholly Shakespeare's.

I think we can all agree that Henry VI, Part I is, at least, not Shakespeare's best work. It lacks the poetry of Julius Caesar and the characterization of Hamlet. The plot -- although it differs wildly from actual English history -- still feels a bit crowded and convoluted.

Nevertheless, I enjoy this play for its handful of memorable characters, especially the sassy Joan of Arc. She consorts with fiends of hell, makes up pregnancy stories to save her own skin and even snottily rejects her own father because he is a peasant. Shakespeare's portrayal of her is surely unfair, but it feels like a breath of fresh air. I keep picturing the virginal Leelee Sobieski and thinking, "You know, if you'd played it that way, your movie would have been much more interesting."

A key benefit of reading Shakespeare's early work is watching him experiment with themes, images and characters that will re-appear in perfected form later in his career. In real life, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake not because she consorted with devils but because she wore male clothing -- just as Shakespeare's greatest comedic heroines will do. The scene here in which Talbot dies with his son in his arms will appear again -- with much greater impact -- in King Lear. And the three fiends who visit Joan will appear again, with considerably more gusto, as the three witches of Macbeth.

In a way, we're watching Shakespeare grow up, both as a person and as a playwright, by reading our way through his career. We're getting to know him quite well, and yet he's as much of a mystery as ever.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Monday Distraction

Each year, we have a massive Halloween party. I bake for days, spend a gazillion dollars at the local cheese shop, arrange half a dozen bouquets of orange flowers, and decorate my whole house with orange pumpkins and similar Halloween knickknacks.

This year, however, I decided to elevate the decor, finding a way to incorporate a literary theme. At Etsy, I found this wonderful print, a steal at just $11. This artist also has quotes available from Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson and other literary greats.

Another fun Shakespeare find: these labels for potion bottles featuring the ingredients mentioned by the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. Or, try one of the disturbing Shakespearean prints in the Immortal Longings shop, like this one of Titus Andronicus. (It's not my style, but it seems very popular.)

If you're not careful, Etsy can become a time-suck black hole. I recommend setting a timer for 15 or 30 minutes and allowing yourself just that much time. Otherwise, the whole day will be shot, and you'll wind up with six vintage purses, four original art prints, a new set of throw pillows and a bracelet made entirely of buttons. Trust me, it happens.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

Most critics agree that the Henry VI plays were Shakespeare's first, or at least among the first. We've skipped them so far, because we're going in chronological order on the history plays. But, before we move on to the great plays like Hamlet and King Lear, let's wrap up our study of the earlier portion of Shakespeare's career.

So, your reading assignment for this week is Henry VI, Part I -- and, as you can probably guess, we'll be doing parts II and III in the following two weeks.

Happy reading!

Discussion: Julius Caesar

The play: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

The plot tweet: Brutus and conspirators slay "ambitious" Caesar; clever Antony incites people to civil war. Brutus and Cassius lose the battle, kill selves.

My favorite line:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. (Caesar)


As a lifelong Indiana resident, I have a special place in my heart for native son Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five and dozens of other novels, short stories and essays. While reading Julius Caesar this week, I've been thinking about a passage from Slaughterhouse:
I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for a while after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.

Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, "You know -- you never wrote a story with a villain in it."

I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.
Shakespeare created many villains in his plays, from the relatively harmless Don John in Much Ado About Nothing to the terrifyingly effective Iago in Othello. But who is the villain of Julius Caesar?

Perhaps it is Cassius, who manipulates Brutus to join the assassination conspiracy. Perhaps it is Brutus himself, who murders a dear friend (or perhaps his father, according to historical tradition) and then botches everything by consistently misjudging those around him. Even Caesar is not blameless; he does in some cases behave like the tyrannical ruler he is accused of becoming.

Or, perhaps the play has no villain at all. In this strange melding of history and tragedy, Brutus is almost a tragic hero, whose tragic flaw is his continual misjudgment of others. Caesar could also be cast in that role, his tragic flaw being his refusal to acknowledge his own humanity and vulnerability. (Have you ever wondered why the leader of the Roman empire doesn't have a protection detail?) Here, we don't have "good guys" and "bad guys." We just have people, living life, doing what they believe should be done. It goes badly. That happens sometimes.

Julius Caesar is often studied in high schools because (1) it contains absolutely no sex, not even a bawdy innuendo, and (2) it is structurally superior -- a lovely little plot mountain, with the climax of Caesar's murder right smack in the middle of the play. Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, points out that each act focuses on a particular character: act 1 centers on Cassius, act 2 on Brutus, act 3 on Caesar, act 4 on Antony and act 5 on Octavius -- who will develop from a "peevish schoolboy" at the play's beginning to an authoritative new Caesar at play's end.

If Shakespeare took such care in structuring the play and creating such conflicted characters, why do critics so often deride the play as "cold and unaffecting"? (Bloom calls it "inhibited.") Perhaps it is because Shakespeare's language is more restrained here than elsewhere, and perhaps it is the play's relative lack of comic relief.

For Bloom, however, the answer lies in Shakespeare's refusal to foreground the Brutus-Caesar relationship. Brutus was, by historical tradition, an illegitimate son of Caesar, something both Shakespeare and his audience would have known quite well. It is a relationship rife with dramatic possibilities, and yet Shakespeare never even hints at it. Rather than offering his usual kaleidoscope of dramatic interpretations, Shakespeare deliberately holds back here, limiting our view. We'll never know why he did that, but perhaps that restraint spilled over into the rest of the play.

It is, still, a wonderful pleasure to read -- well-constructed, with interesting action and engaging characters. The play contains some of the most beautiful lines and memorable speeches in the Shakespeare canon. But I wish it had a bit more vitality, a bit more soul.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Songs Inspired by Shakespeare

The folks over at 365 Days of Shakespeare are doing a project similar to ours, and at the moment they're counting down the top 10 songs inspired by Shakespeare. What do you think? Do your favorites make the list? I would have put the Indigo Girls song higher on the list, but I have a weakness for indie folk rock.

Now, I have to go download Tragically Hip's "Cordelia," which somehow I don't already own.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Monday Distraction

Have a case of the Mondays? Take a break with "Animaniacs," the wonderfully irreverent '90s cartoon. This segment is the show's (very loose) translation of Puck's closing speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Look around on YouTube, and you'll also find loose translations of Hamlet's Yorick speech and the three witches of Macbeth.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

One of my earliest exposures to Shakespeare was Julius Caesar, which we read during my sophomore year of high school. I will always remember reciting Mark Antony's funeral speech while my friend Jon sprawled on the floor to represent Caesar's dead body. I look forward to revisiting this text, and I look forward to our discussion starting next Sunday.

Discussion: Much Ado About Nothing

The play: Much Ado About Nothing

The plot tweet: Beatrice and Benedick wrangle, are tricked into falling in love. Claudio and Hero woo, are tricked into falling out of love. Resolution = mass wedding, as usual.

My favorite line:
I do love nothing in the world so well as you.
Is not that strange?


When I was in Italy a few years ago, our Tuscan tour included a stop at Vigna Maggio. The winery looked vaguely familiar during the tour, and eventually I realized -- thanks to a poster displayed in the lobby -- that the winery had been the setting for Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version of Much Ado About Nothing. "Huh," I thought. "This place looked grander on film."

It's not a bad analogy for Much Ado About Nothing. The play is frequently performed and received well by audiences, despite the fact that, on closer examination, the plot is painfully contrived, the villains are relatively unambiguous, and the clown of the play (i.e., Dogberry) is a one-trick pony of misused vocabulary. What is it that we find so appealing?

The answer, of course, is that we love Beatrice, one of Shakespeare's greatest female comic roles. When performed well, she is a joy to watch, despite her edge of bitterness. We delight in her dazzling war of words with Benedick and marvel at her quick wit. We wonder about the couple's back story ("marry, once before he won [my heart] of me with false dice"), and we speculate endlessly about whether this couple will live happily ever after.

One could make a serious argument that Beatrice and Benedick are the most engaging couple in Shakespearean comedy.

That's fortunate, because these two characters are bigger than their own play. Nobody seems to care much about Claudio and Hero, the play's other pair of lovers. Claudio is not remotely likable: He is too cowardly to woo his own wife, and his motives for choosing her are questionable ("No child but Hero; she's his only heir."). He is quick to accuse her in the most callous way possible, and he makes light of her death (until, of course, he learns that she was innocent).

Then we have Hero, who for some reason puts up with Claudio's nonsense. Shakespeare gives her very little personality, no back story -- nothing to engage us. I have seen her played well on stage, but she doesn't come across well in print.

It occurs to me that Claudio and Hero could simply switch places with Romeo and Juliet. Then, the true lovers, our beloved R&J, could ride off into the sunset, and Claudio could swallow some poison in Hero's fake tomb instead.

To draw another comparison, measure the characters in Much Ado against the characters who populate The Merchant of Venice. The characters of our current play seem flat and empty in comparison, with weaker personalities (always excepting Beatrice and Benedick) and fewer ambiguities. In fact, the only truly ambiguous character in Much Ado is Don Pedro. Why does he volunteer to woo Hero on Claudio's behalf? How serious is his marriage proposal to Beatrice? Why doesn't he have a wife already? Why, at the end of the play, is he sad during the pre-wedding dance? In this play, Don Pedro alone presents the kind of mysteries we are used to exploring among multiple characters in most other plays.

Fortunately, Beatrice and Benedick are engaging enough to transcend the weaknesses of their play. One gets the sense that if Shakespeare ever had a true love, she might have been very much like Beatrice.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hamlet Humor

A friend sent me a link to this fabulous comic strip today. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, we'll be reading Much Ado About Nothing, which features one of Shakespeare's most beloved couples: Beatrice and Benedick. Will they find true love? And, if they do, will they manage to live happily ever after? We'll have lots to discuss -- starting next Sunday at noon, as always. Happy reading!

Discussion: Henry V

The play: The Life of Henry V

The plot tweet: Prince Hal grows up, fights war in France. He wins miraculously and woos French princess, but triumph will be short-lived. Side note: Falstaff is dead.

My favorite line:
Gloucester, 'tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be. (King Henry V)


How strange this play must have seemed to theater-goers in Shakespeare's time. At the end of Henry IV, Part II, they'd been promised another history play featuring the beloved Falstaff -- and then the "fat knight" dies early in the play, off-stage, as barely a side note. And perhaps, as I do, they felt a disconnect between the Prince Hal they'd encountered in the earlier plays and the formal, ceremonious King Henry of this play.

But they must have felt such a swelling of patriotic pride, watching their nation's supposedly miraculous victory at the Battle of Agincourt. It even gets me a little bit, and I'm American.

Perhaps, because of that, they forgave Shakespeare for so unceremoniously killing off such a well-liked character. (I, for one, am not sorry to see him go.)

Henry V has several of Shakespeare's best known lines and speeches, and the playwright skillfully builds tension surrounding the Battle of Agincourt. Yet when I saw this play performed -- last year, at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin -- it was deflating, like an extended epilogue to the Henry IV plays. We find out what becomes of Hal, Falstaff, Pistol, Mistress Quickly and other familiar characters, and we see the completion of Hal's redemptive cycle. But the play feels vaguely empty, as if Shakespeare were going through the motions to complete his cycle of history plays and tie up loose ends.

One clue that perhaps Shakespeare was being lazy: The chorus that opens each act -- which has always seemed a bit odd to me -- describes every detail of the setting, a job that in most other plays is handled skillfully by the characters themselves, in context.

What do you think? Do you connect with Henry V as a character? Do you miss Falstaff? Is this play merely a history lesson, or is it successful as a dramatic work?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

After reading the unfortunate Merry Wives of Windsor, let's put Falstaff to rest, once and for all, with Henry V. I look forward to discussing Hal's growth and development from the Henry IV plays. As always, I'll post my thoughts next Sunday at noon, and I look forward to the discussion.

Discussion: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The play: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The plot tweet: Falstaff woos two women to get at their money -- but quickly becomes the fool in his own game. The Bard at his weakest and most commercial.

My favorite line:
Ford: I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
Mistress Page: Be sure of that -- two other husbands.


Let's start today's discussion of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which should be Falstaff's triumphant moment in the spotlight, with the words of renowned Shakespeare critic A.C. Bradley:
[Falstaff is] baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible.
The tradition is that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who had seen at least Henry IV, Part I and wanted to see Falstaff "in love." Shakespeare didn't take the command very seriously, as Falstaff's romantic attachments in this play are merely mercenary, and we have a sense that he didn't enjoy his assignment. His witty wordplay and beautiful poetry are almost entirely absent from this -- dare I say it -- pedestrian comedy of small-town life.

Shakespeare didn't put his whole heart into this play, and thus he didn't give us the real Falstaff. Bloom writes, "the hero-villain of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a nameless impostor masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff." The same could be said for this play. One wishes we could remove this piece of fluff from the Shakespeare canon and assign it to some lesser playwright.

Oddly enough, the most engaging character in this play isn't Falstaff at all. For me, it's Ford/Brooke, who suspects his wife of infidelity but eventually joins her plot to shame Falstaff. I saw this play recently at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and Ford/Brooke got more laughs than every other character combined.

As a side note, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is presenting Merry Wives as one of its headline shows next season, in its largest theater. I assume the director has something special planned, but this still seems to be a very strange decision. We'll see.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Program Reveals Shakespeare's Face (Maybe)

What did Shakespeare really look like? We have several portraits, which don't all look alike (and might not even be Shakespeare anyway). And now we have a 3D model of his face, based on his death mask -- that is, an alleged death mask whose authenticity has long been questioned.

The image will be featured in "Death Masks," a History Channel documentary scheduled to air Sept. 13.

What do you think? Does the face look like the Shakespeare you imagined? Honestly, I can't work up my enthusiasm for this project. Does it really matter what he looked like?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company: Much Ado About Nothing

Did you ever encounter an actor who simply rubs you the wrong way? Someone whose performance you are guaranteed to dislike, no matter what the role? I love the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which does outstanding productions on very small budgets, but the current performance of "Much Ado About Nothing" gives a starring role to a performer I just can't stand (and who is woefully miscast). As soon as I saw the playbill, I groaned.

Unfortunately, the evening didn't get any better from there. This production is riddled with flaws. Set in 1968, the production opens with a peace rally. Throughout the play, the characters smoke pot, make Molotov cocktails and dance around the stage while intoxicated. The jangly bracelets, fringed vests and voluminous bell bottoms distract from the text -- the cardinal sin of any Shakespeare production. Several of the jokes are over-played, and the scenery, featuring neon flaps that open and close, makes absolutely no sense. I spent way too much brain space trying to figure out why certain flaps were opened at certain times.

You know my rule: You can do anything you want with a Shakespeare text -- any setting, any costumes, any casting -- as long as it enriches rather than detracts from the text. Usually, CSC does that very well. Not this time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

For this week, let's visit Falstaff one more time with the much-maligned Merry Wives of Windsor. In addition, I'm giving myself some extra homework: I owe you an update on my recent three-country whirlwind of Shakespearean theater (which I promise to write just as soon as I unpack).

Discussion: The Merchant of Venice

The play: The Merchant of Venice

The plot tweet: Antonio borrows money from Shylock so Bassanio can woo Portia. Bassanio succeeds; Shylock tries to claim "pound of flesh" but is outwitted.

My favorite line:
In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself. (Antonio)


It is, perhaps, now impossible to understand Merchant of Venice in the way Shakespeare intended. After the horrors of the Holocaust, we simply can't view Shylock as the purely comical character that Shakespeare might (or might not) have intended. In the midst of culture wars over gay marriage, we can never understand the Antonio-Bassanio relationship in the same way that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have done. And, in a post-feminist era, we find it difficult to interpret the spunky but also submissive Portia. Reading Merchant today is like falling into Alice's rabbit hole: It is endlessly fascinating, but it leaves us feeling a bit upside-down.

Even the name of the play sometimes causes confusion. Ask the casual Shakespeare fan who the "merchant" of the title is, and he or she is likely to answer "Shylock." (I once made that mistake on a crossword puzzle.) The right answer is, of course, Antonio, the merchant who becomes the target of Shylock's murderous plot. This is not Shylock's play: He appears for the final time in 4.1, and he actually speaks very few lines. Yet he is the character we often remember and discuss, and after he exits, the rest of the play can feel rather empty.

Shylock would seem to be more at home in a tragedy, and perhaps the character got away from his author. His defeat in the courtroom scene is so total -- and so difficult for a post-Holocaust audience to watch -- that it seems Shakespeare was determined to crush him and get back to the comedy he intended to write.

I also find Antonio endlessly fascinating. I could fill a whole post with my questions about him. Why is he so sad at the beginning of the play? Why has he treated Shylock badly in the past? What is his romantic history (if any) with Bassanio, and why does he risk everything for him? What are his feelings about Portia? How does he feel at the end of the play, when the paired-off lovers exit without him? For each of these questions, I can think of at least three possible answers, and every answer offers a whole new interpretation of the play.

One thing modern readers can understand about this play is the Venetian culture of wealth and credit. When Antonio says he is sad, his friends suggest that he is concerned about his investments. When Bassanio wants to woo Portia, he must borrow the money to do it in style -- a theory no one ever bothers to question. The language of this play returns so often to words like gold, treasure and wealth, we would hardly be surprised to see Paris Hilton make a cameo appearance.

One critic has suggested that Antonio is sad because he alone recognizes the emptiness of the Venetian lifestyle, and that he hates Shylock because the money lender embodies what Antonio hates about his own friends. Perhaps so.

Just as I don't know what to think of Antonio, I can't make up my mind about Portia. She is contemptuous of her suitors, often in a racially charged way, and her much-lauded "quality of mercy" speech is merely a hypocrisy, since she soon afterward refuses to show any mercy to Shylock. She is spunky and independent but also bows to the will of her late father and her new husband. She is generous with her friends, but perhaps only because she takes her wealth completely for granted. She has been praised as one of Shakespeare's great heroines and dismissed as a spoiled brat; my own opinion is probably somewhere in between.

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare's work is that we often come away with more questions than answers. Reading a play like Merchant is like looking into a kaleidoscope; the view keeps shifting every time you consider a new possibility. For that reason alone, Merchant is among my favorite Shakespeare plays.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

After two weeks of Henry IV, let's take a break from the histories and try Merchant of Venice. It is one of Shakespeare's most intriguing plays, and I look forward to our discussion!

Discussion: Henry IV, Part II

The play: Henry IV, Part II

The plot tweet: Rebellion is quelled and wayward Hal is finally transformed. Henry IV dies, Henry V is crowned, and Falstaff is finally banished for good.

My favorite line:
I know thee not, old man ...
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.


This play tries my patience. It reads as an extended and unnecessary epilogue to Henry IV, Part I. We've already seen Hal redeem himself at the Battle of Shrewsbury, but now we must sit through another cycle of his redemption. We've already heard Falstaff make eloquent speeches about life and honor, but now we get unmemorable rants about sack. Short of giving the popular Falstaff more stage time, what's the point? Everything we see here could be wrapped up in a quick prologue to Henry V.

This probably annoys me more than it should because I simply can't stand Falstaff. Harold Bloom is one of my favorite Shakespearean critics, but in this respect we differ widely; his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human fawns over Falstaff for dozens of pages, enough to turn my stomach. Falstaff is a superbly drawn character, full of wit and vitality, but I can't understand why Bloom should exalt him as the greatest character in all of Western literature. I mean, come on.

Critics often dislike Falstaff for moral reasons, and I suppose that is part of my objection. Bloom claims that Falstaff is "free" of societal structures and expectations, but that's simply not true. He takes money and goods he knows he can't repay, forcing others to bear the burden of his lifestyle; he deliberately leads poor, weak men to their deaths in battle. He leaves pain and destruction in his wake, and there is nothing admirable about that.

All the same, I do feel pity for Falstaff when the newly crowned Henry V rejects him so publicly. The audience has seen it coming, but Falstaff has not. He genuinely thinks that "the young king is sick for [him]" and has already started passing out favors to his friends. Hal told him outright in Part I that he would be banished, so we must assume Falstaff is blinded by his own genuine affection for the new king. That is Falstaff's one redeeming quality. It's more than enough for Bloom, but it's not enough for me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

Let's stick with the history genre this week and move straight to Henry IV, Part II for more of those wonderful characters, Falstaff and Hal. As usual, the discussion begins at noon next Sunday. Enjoy!

Discussion: Henry IV, Part I

The play: Henry IV, Part I

The plot tweet: Hotspur and Co. rebel against king they helped to the throne; Prince Hal and Falstaff live badly; Hal reforms and kills Hotspur in battle.

My favorite line:
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. (Prince Hal)


Last Friday, I saw this play performed at the re-created Globe Theatre in London (more on that in another post), and as always I was struck by how vibrant and real the character of Falstaff feels. He is a character who could walk fully formed off the stage into real life, and in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom cites Falstaff as one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements.

He is, of course, a despicable character, who leads the crown prince astray, steals money, drinks to excess, brags and lies to suit his purposes, and sacrifices his poor, untrained soldiers for monetary gain. Hal knows all of this, so what attracts him to Falstaff? Perhaps he is seeking a different father figure, or perhaps Falstaff is just a fun guy to be around.

Falstaff is the best developed character in the play, but I always find Prince Hal more interesting. His speech at the end of act one, about his plan to "redeem time" and reform later in life, can be viewed either as cold calculation or desperate justification. Which is it? When he and Falstaff perform the little "king" play in act two, his coldly delivered line "I do, I will" seems to indicate that he knows exactly what he's doing -- and will abjure Falstaff and his entire way of life as soon as it becomes necessary to do so. (Falstaff's disquiet and attempt to defend himself seem to indicate that he realizes this, too.)

Either way, at the end of the play, he does seem genuinely reformed, offering his own life in single combat to settle the dispute with Hotspur (which is rejected by his father), fighting bravely in the battle, and finally encountering a one-on-one fight with Hotspur anyway. During the battle, we see Hal's touches of annoyance with Falstaff, who will not take the battle seriously. I haven't read Henry IV, Part II yet, but I assume those touches will become more frequent until the two pals finally separate, leaving Falstaff to an offstage, postscript death in Henry V.

I read Richard II for the first time only a few weeks ago, and it was interesting to have that background while reading this play. Knowing Shakespeare's version of how Henry IV gained the throne, we know that Hotspur and Co. are telling the truth about it. And yet our sympathies lie not with gallant Hotspur, whom Shakespeare is careful to depict in domestic scenes with his family, but with the unruly Hal and the degenerate Falstaff, who are depicted as drunken thieves. How does Shakespeare achieve this?

Or, to put it differently, why do we hate Falstaff so much and yet continue to root for him?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We've already started Shakespeare's second tetralogy of English history plays, the "Henriad" cycle that includes Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. So, let's move right along to Henry IV, Part I, the debut of the inimitable Falstaff and perhaps Shakespeare's most popular history play.

As always, you have until noon next Sunday, when I'll post a few comments to start the discussion. Happy reading!

Discussion: Romeo and Juliet

The play: Romeo and Juliet

The plot tweet: See the prologue. That pretty much covers it.

My favorite line:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (Juliet)


About a year ago, I attended a performance of this play at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Afterward, in the lobby, a man next to me sighed and said, "It always ends the same way." It's so close: If Juliet had awakened a few minutes earlier, or the friar had arrived a few seconds earlier to explain to Romeo, or the friar's original letter hadn't gone astray ... We certainly come to agree with Shakespeare's description of these lovers as "star-crossed." Yet, every time, I can't help hoping that this time things may work out for the best.

(Or maybe not. See this poem by Maxine Kumin about what might happen if they survived.)

The best thing about Shakespeare is that every reading presents a new perspective and new insights. With this reading, I found myself entranced by Juliet's parents, the Capulets, who are partly to blame for the predicament in which the young lovers find themselves. Here's something I just noticed:
Paris: Younger than she are happy mothers made.

Capulet: And too soon marred are those so early made.
Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she;
She is the hopeful lady of my earth.
In the very next scene, Lady Capulet says to Juliet, "By my count, I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid." So, what's going on here? Does Capulet think his wife is "marred" as others are? Over time, what has he damaged in his tendency toward rage?

At least the Capulets have raised a strong, independent child. When the prince speaks of Juliet and "her" Romeo, it references the fact that she's in charge here. While Romeo is swearing by the moon and murdering her kinsmen, Juliet is the one proposing marriage and making plans. We never really see Romeo interact with his parents, but she is more than able to stand up to her parents when necessary. She might not see all the options (such as the obvious one, going to Romeo in Mantua), but she is at least a spunky gal.

One thing that does not change for me on multiple readings is my impression of the nurse. She is bawdy and talkative, of course, but she can also be quite cruel, withholding information from a desperate Juliet, advising her to betray her husband, and even misleading her about who exactly is dead after the play's fateful duel. I always rejoice a bit when Juliet says, "Go, counselor! Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain," even though for Juliet this marks a very difficult, very lonely moment in the play.

Finally, I'm always struck by the beautiful language of this play. It is not my favorite play, and sometimes I get tired of it. (One friend refers to it as "junior varsity" Shakespeare.) But then I read it again, and I get lost in the poetry as if for the first time.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Helen Mirren's New "Tempest" Film

Okay, what? Helen Mirren is starring as a female Prospero in a gender-bending version of The Tempest, to be released this December. (Here are a few production photos.) Although I trust Mirren's judgment, the drunken Trinculo will be played by Russell Brand. Yes, that Russell Brand, who has starred in such films as Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Right, so, this could be interesting.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two Exciting Updates

I am getting on a plane today for London, and a theater extravaganza is soon to follow. On the schedule: sister productions of As You Like It and The Tempest, directed by Sam Mendes, at the Old Vic; a production of Henry IV, Part I, at the re-created Globe; and a production of King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company's theater in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I'm hoping for great things and promise lots of updates. But I'll still be keeping up with the reading schedule, so you should, too!

The other piece of exciting news is the present my husband gave me this week: My own donation tile at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. We were in town to see Blithe Spirit, which was very nicely done, and I was reading the quotes on the tile wall as usual. Imagine my surprise to see my own name and my favorite quote from my favorite play!