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.