Sunday, July 4, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We can't avoid it forever. In the quest to read the complete works of Shakespeare, we eventually have to read the histories. So, here we go: This week's reading assignment is King John.

Generally, we've been approaching the plays in loose chronological order, based on our best estimate of the publication date. I want to approach the histories a bit differently, so that we're reading them in chronological order according to the characters and events portrayed. That gives us the following approach:

King John
Richard II
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Richard III

Henry VIII

Don't worry; we're not going to read them all in a row. Let's just slog our way through King John, try to find some redeeming qualities in the play, and move on. (As you can probably guess, I've never read the play, and I've never heard one good word spoken about it. I'm hoping I've been misinformed.)

Happy Independence Day!


  1. I LIKE King John! Okay, it's not my favorite, but it's not bad. There's a great speech at the end of act 2, delivered by the "Bastard," on "Commodity," self interest.

  2. I also like King John. I've never been able to see it performed, unfortunately, but I think that it would be great with a sympathic cast.

    The Bastard is a wonderful character -- he almost steps off the page into real life. It would be a lot of fun for an actor to play. Eleanor has some great lines; since she's Eleanor of Aquitaine, I imagine her played by Kathrine Hepburn as in "The Lion in Winter." Constance, also, has a great chance to chew up the scenery.

    Great fun!

  3. I'm two acts into the play, and I already agree with you about the bastard. What a great character -- an early mix of Edmund and Falstaff.

  4. Interesting observation about being a mix of Edmund and Falstaff. I knew I liked him for some reason.

  5. Ok, a question...

    "38 plays, 52 weeks, one very overloaded brain"

    This means we're not gonna tackle the sonnets?

  6. Oh, I just wanted a catchy slogan! We're definitely going to tackle the sonnets, Lucrece, Venus & Adonis, etc. I really want to get through the complete works!

  7. So, someone enlighten me: why are the history playes generally avoided? I was under the impression Henry IV was absolutely revered, as was Richard II's poetry and Henry V's patriotism (though, having not read it, I would bet Shakespeare more mocked national pride than anything else).

    I knew very little about the War of the Roses, and still Henry IV was very enjoyable.

  8. I think the general consensus is that the histories are dry in comparison to the comedies and tragedies, but I don't necessarily agree with that statement. I think, for example, that Henry IV, Part I, is one of the Bard's best works, and I always enjoy Henry V and Richard III, too. Now, King John, on the other hand, has a bit of a reputation for awfulness ...

  9. Wow, I definitely did not get "dry" from Henry IV. And I figure Richard III's super-badass-and-evil lead character piques everyone's interests. I'm waiting for Richard II in the mail, but from the little verse I've read, this one especially seems like a poetic powerhouse.

    So, how's King John going? Why the bad reputation? And, this being Shakespeare, would you say a bad King John beats a good "insert-other-literary-work-here" most of the time?

  10. Henry V has been done so many different ways, often as a pro-war propaganda piece and also an anti-war propaganda piece. Olivier's was made during WWII, and was meant to bolster morale. But I've also heard of one stage production in which the English and French are depicted as men on a soccer field playing their little war games. Branaugh certainly didn't shrink from a more realistic depiction of gruesome warfare. But I must say, his "Band of Brothers" speech almost make ME want to go war.

  11. P-e-s, I was reading Hazlitt's "Characters of Shakespeare's Plays" last night, and I found a quote that might speak to why the histories tend to be less popular:

    "If we are to indulge our imaginations, we had rather do it upon an imaginary theme; if we are to find subjects for the exercise of our pity and terror, we prefer seeking them in fictitious danger and fictitious distress. It gives a soreness to our feelings of indignation or sympathy, when we know that in tracing the progress of sufferings and crimes we are treading upon real ground ... That the treachery of King John, the death of Arthur, the grief of Constance, had a real truth in history, sharpens the sense of pain, while it hangs a leaden weight on the heart and the imagination ... a drawback on the pleasure as well as the dignity of tragedy."

  12. As far as the histories go, most of the Henrys make for quite good reading and discussion.