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!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

You've been waiting for this one, I know. It's time for one of Shakespeare's most beloved plays, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Once, after a production at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, I heard someone sigh mournfully and say, "It always ends the same way." True, but I know we'll have plenty to discuss.

As always, I'll post some comments at noon next Sunday to kick off our discussion. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Discussion: Love's Labour's Lost

The play: Love's Labour's Lost

The plot tweet: Lovers both courtly and rustic sit around mocking one another. Nothing much happens and nobody gets married -- a pure festival of language.

My favorite line:
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled shows,
But like of each thing that in season grows. (Berowne)


This play opens with a proposal we know is doomed to fail: The king of Navarre and his three friends swear off love, sleep and food to devote their attention to scholarship.
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
Shakespeare's protagonist, Berowne, already knows this isn't going to work, but he swears along with the others -- who are almost instantly undone by the arrival of the princess of France and her entourage. What follows is a feast of courtly love poetry, much of it intentionally awful on Shakespeare's part, interspersed with comical scenes of the local rustics mocking one another's use of language.

Rosaline is an interesting character here, and scholars often compare her to the Dark Lady in the sonnets. She and Berowne have met before, but Shakespeare doesn't give us the history. It must be bad, because Berowne discusses his fears of being cuckolded by her, and she often treats him with harsh disdain. If their relationship does have similarities to Shakespeare's love of the Dark Lady, however, we'll never know for sure.

Marjorie Garber writes that Love's Labour's Lost is easy to watch but hard to read, because so much of the humor depends on the actors' comic timing and interactions. I wholeheartedly agree: Although I enjoyed the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of this play several years ago, I was actually bored by the text. Did anyone else have this experience as a reader?

I have, at least, found an opportunity to disagree with Harold Bloom, who considers this "festival of language" to be his favorite Shakespeare play, and an important lyrical step in Shakespeare's emancipation from Christopher Marlowe. Bloom is probably right, as usual, but I must agree instead with William Hazlitt, who writes, "If we were to part with any of the author's comedies, it should be this."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This Weekend at American Players Theatre

I am coated in mosquito bites. (Hypochondriac that I am, I am certain I have West Nile virus.) I am worn out from the seven-hour drive to Spring Green, Wisconsin -- which, as far as my AT&T signal is concerned, is the absolute middle of nowhere. And, after spending a weekend in a town with only two decent restaurants, I am craving a good meal.

Yet, when choosing Midwestern Shakespeare festivals for my summer schedule, the American Players Theatre is at the top of my list. This is among the best theaters in the nation, featuring superb actors in intelligent productions. And the setting, an outdoor theater on a wooded hilltop, is stellar. (Get it? Stellar? Because of the stars? Oh, never mind.)

We saw three APT productions this weekend, including Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Shakespeare's As You Like It and All's Well that Ends Well.

All's Well was solidly done, with good acting, an engaging setting and a very funny Parolles. This production emphasizes the violence of the Italian wars, which lends some credence to Bertram's maturation -- although, as one of Shakespeare's problem plays, All's Well will always have a somewhat ambiguous resolution.

But what we really need to talk about is As You Like It, which seems to be the play of the moment. This is the fourth production I've seen within a year, with more on the way. It's not my favorite play, and I feared I would be bored. Not to worry: This production is the best I have ever seen, a melancholy and touching interpretation set in the Great Depression. I am madly in love with Matt Schwader, who plays Orlando, and Hillary Clemens is the most natural, likable Rosalind I have seen. James Ridge's Jaques gave me a new, deeper understanding of this complex character, and David Daniel offers a hilarious, slapstick Touchstone -- the funniest I've ever seen.

I could go on. The play is superb. It's worth a special trip -- or even two. Go right now. Pack bug spray.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Shakespeare in Sand

Check out this sand sculpture of Shakespeare at the Somerset Sand Sculpture Festival. This year's theme is "Great Britain," so Shakespeare is a natural fit. I wonder how the Bard would feel about being grouped with Wallace and Gromit?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

After a little interlude of narrative poems, let's jump right back into the plays. This week's reading assignment is Love's Labour's Lost. I look forward to the discussion (and your predictions about what might have happened in the missing companion play, Love's Labour's Won).

Discussion: Early Narrative Poems

The reading: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece

The plot tweet: Venus loves Adonis, but he spurns her and is gored by a boar; Lucretia is true to husband Collatine but gets raped by king, kills herself.

My favorite line:
Make use of time, let not advantage slip;
Beauty within itself should not be wasted:
Fair flowers that are not gather'd in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time.


These two poems make an interesting set, don't they? In Venus and Adonis, the female heroine is overcome by lust, but she is rejected by her would-be lover, who is then destroyed. In The Rape of Lucrece, the female heroine is chaste, but the king is overcome by lust and rapes her, thus destroying them both. Nobody in these poems actually falls in love, but Shakespeare offers us many examples of lust and objectification.

I am not a feminist critic, but if ever I were to invoke that line of criticism, I would do it here. Why does Lucretia blame herself for being raped, and why does she find it necessary to kill herself? Does her society expect that kind of reaction? Does she truly have no other options? If so, her society is a very backward one, and her situation is a travesty. (I had the same reaction to Lavinia's "honorable" murder in Titus Andronicus.)

And what are we to think of Venus, the goddess of love who throws herself at a chaste boy? Like Tarquin, she certainly forces herself upon her object of lust. Are we supposed to feel sorry that she is rejected? Or, rather, are we supposed to criticize her forwardness and lack of modesty?

My favorite part of these two poems is Venus's 30-line prophecy about the nature of love, which promises jealousy, pain, deception and discord: "Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy / They that love best their loves shall not enjoy." This reminds me of God's casting out of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: Because two people broke the rules, mankind is destined to suffer forever after. Likewise, because Venus's love is thwarted, mankind is destined to suffer in love forever after. (Of course, she takes a few liberties to call her experience love rather than mere lust.)

This is the first time I have read these poems, and I must admit that I find them less engaging than the plays. However, these two poems, written during the plague-related theater closure in 1593-4, certainly go a long way toward establishing the young Shakespeare as a legitimate, talented writer -- not a mere theater hack.