Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rounded with a Sleep

As you might have noticed, this blog has been dormant for a few months. I had a whirlwind summer of travel through England, where I saw some fantastic Shakespeare plays, and then did my usual tour of the Shakespeare festivals and theaters in the Midwest. I thought every day about what I had learned during the "Shakespeare in a Year" project, and I can't thank you enough for sticking with me through this process.

Now, it's time for the next phase of my education. I've just started an MFA program in creative writing, and that's where my energies are focused now. I have a vision for part two of the "Shakespeare in a Year" project, but it might have to wait a few years.

Thank you again for sharing your insights into the plays and for constantly providing encouragement. I hope this project has reignited your passion for Shakespeare as much as it has mine.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shakespeare at Mini University

This week, I'm at Mini University, an annual "lifelong learning" conference at Indiana University in Bloomington. We come to campus for a week, attending three different lectures each day from IU professors and other industry experts. That equals 15 fantastic nuggets of knowledge, on topics ranging from space exploration to Mexican immigration.

This year, two of my 15 sessions were related to Shakespeare -- perhaps because I wrote, on my evaluation last year, that I wanted "as much Shakespeare as possible."

My first session, taught by actress Fontaine Syer, was titled "Shakespeare in Performance," and she emphasized right away that she was an actress rather than a scholar. She discussed some of the things actors consider as they prepare for a Shakespeare role, including the need to discover new layers in the text -- especially because Shakespeare's work is "the most elastic text in the world," she said.

Another consideration: How to perform the soliloquies. Is the actor talking to himself, to a higher power, or directly to the audience? Should a soliloquy in Richard III, for example, be performed the same way as a soliloquy in Hamlet? Interesting question.

Here is my favorite quote from the session: "If you're in love with Shakespeare, you'll be in love with him for your whole life," Syer said. "The more you learn, the more there is to learn." (You and I already knew that, didn't we?)

Today I attended "Merchant of Venice and Early English Antisemitism" with professor Ellen MacKay. She started by describing the pervasive antisemitism in early modern England, including the "blood libel" claim that Jews killed young children and used their blood and bones in Passover matzoh. MacKay explained this rumor as a displacement of Catholics' own cannibalistic queasiness about transubstantiation (the communion wafer turning into the body of Christ).

Also at play: Many Christians condemned Jews for betraying Jesus based on the Passion narratives of that time. Jews were also condemned as usurers, even though they had been backed into that profession because Christians were forbidden to loan money with interest.

Shakespeare may also have been influenced by the Lopez plot, in which Queen Elizabeth's Jewish physician was (probably falsely) accused of trying to poison her and subsequently executed. And, Shakespeare was certainly familiar with Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which he both echoes and transcends in his own play.

(As Syer said yesterday in relation to the authorship controversies, "Marlowe? Come on. Who ever heard of a Marlowe theater festival?")

In the midst of pervasive antisemitism, Shakespeare created a character who reflected some Jewish stereotypes but refuted others. As we've already noticed, Shylock makes some pointed critiques of his Venetian (and, by extension, Elizabethan English) society. He does play the villain, but he is not wholly unsympathetic.

MacKay pointed out that Shakespeare could have made Shylock a more definitive villain by making his daughter, Jessica, more sympathetic. And yet we have a character who steals money and spends it wastefully, carelessly gives away mementos from her dead mother and elopes with a guy she barely knows. She claims that living with Shylock is terrible, but how much can we trust her?

Other things to think about: The nature of bonds and contracts in Merchant of Venice (friend to friend, spouse to spouse, parent to child, borrower to lender and servant to master) and the culpability of Venetian authorities, who easily could have found a way to release Antonio from his bond without Portia's intervention.

I'll be considering those questions -- and many more from my other classes this week -- until it's time for next year's Mini University. For more information on my non-Shakespeare classes this week, stop by my lifelong learning blog, That'll Teach Me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why "Shakespeare in a Year" Matters

For weeks, I've been struggling with what to say in this "wrap up" post. After a year of Shakespeare immersion, I feel pressured to say something profound about what I've learned and how it has affected my life. A project like this has immense value; I know this deep down, but it's hard to explain.

The most obvious effect of the "Shakespeare in a Year" project is my (somewhat obnoxious) ability to use Shakespeare quotes in arguments. When my husband says, "We really don't need that," I can counter, "Oh, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous." Sometimes that argument even works.

Another obvious result of this project is that I am, unquestionably, more knowledgeable about Shakespeare and his work than I was before. When I first started attending the Stratford Shakespeare Festival five years ago, I was awed by the Bard-related conversations I heard around me at restaurants and theaters. (Yes, I'm a chronic eavesdropper.) Now, after this project, I feel right at home amidst these Shakespeare lovers.

In fact, when I attended Merry Wives of Windsor a few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear a woman behind me say, "Now, who wrote this play again?" Her companion must have looked at the playbill. "See here," she said, "it says Shakespeare." How that woman got to the play without knowing who wrote it, I'll never understand.

At intermission, the woman next to me said to her husband, "Huh, I thought Falstaff died offstage at the beginning." Wrong play, honey.

Now, I don't think these playgoers were representative of the festival crowd, which in general is quite well-informed. But those two incidents made me realize that I am now safely among the well-informed playgoers, which is a nice accomplishment on its own.

Some Shakespeare scholars are accused of "bardolatry," i.e., blind worship of the Bard. When I started this project, I was guilty as charged. Now, however, my perspective on Shakespeare is more balanced. Yes, I'm still awed by King Lear and Hamlet. On the other hand, I can say without reservations that Merry Wives of Windsor and Troilus and Cressida are terrible plays, that I really don't care for Shakespeare's narrative poetry, and that there is something deeply wrong with the so-called "problem plays." Shakespeare was a literary genius, but he wasn't infallible. Unlike some of the scholars whose work I read this year, I'm not going to make excuses for, or try to explain away, Shakespeare's mistakes.

In the end, why does it matter? After four centuries, why is Shakespeare's work still relevant, and what does it have to teach us? To answer, I must borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom: Shakespeare teaches us what it means to be human. More than any other author, he shows us the "mingled yarn, good and ill together" of our consciousness. With Shakespeare, as in life, there are never any easy answers.

It is bittersweet to know that I have read every extant Shakespeare work -- that I will never again hang on tenterhooks to know whether Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after or whether Benedick and Beatrice get together. I know all of the stories now, and there's something sad about that.

On the other hand, with a Shakespeare play, knowing the plot is just the beginning; the Bard "borrowed" most of his plots from other sources anyway. Now that we've read everything at least once, we now need a new goal: to mine the rich depths of every play, to continually explore new possibilities and perspectives.

This blog will remain active for that exact purpose: To chronicle my ongoing Shakespeare journey through re-readings of the play, exploration of scholarly analysis, and ongoing reviews of Shakespeare productions across the globe.

This summer, look for updates from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Join me on a week-long London theater extravaganza, which will include David Tennant's Much Ado About Nothing and Kevin Spacey's Richard III. And, join me at Oxford University for a week-long continuing-education course about Shakespeare's London.

We've come to the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" project, but the real education is just beginning.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Discussion: The Tempest

The play: The Tempest

The plot tweet: Marooned and usurped duke Prospero uses magic powers -- and Ariel's help -- to be "revenged" on his enemies and find husband for Miranda.

My favorite line:
My library was dukedom large enough.


I have a special place in my heart for Shakespeare's most magical plays, Midsummer and Tempest. If you'll forgive the pun, these plays bewitch me, and they reawaken my wonder at what can be accomplished on a little wooden stage.

Since we learned our lesson last week about autobiographical readings of Shakespeare's work, let's soundly reject the traditional view that The Tempest is Shakespeare's farewell to the stage -- especially since we now know that he wrote other plays afterward. But it's hard, isn't it? It's hard to read lines like this and not see a double meaning:
... These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
It's hard to imagine that Shakespeare -- who surely knew he was nearing retirement -- didn't feel a double meaning in these lines. But, as Oprah said in her farewell show this week, "When you know better, you do better." Thanks to James Shapiro, we now know better, so we'll set the autobiographical implications aside.

I'm also deeply uncomfortable with readings of this play (or any Shakespeare play) that impose the reader's own ideology, be it feminist criticism, Marxist criticism or what have you. Some scholars read this play as a critique of colonialism and set up Caliban as the hero, defending his island from colonization. I can't accept this reading. Caliban has few redeeming qualities; instead he is both an attempted murderer and an attempted rapist. We have no reason to suppose that Shakespeare intended us to side with Caliban -- unless we are prepared to twist the play to suit our own views.

If The Tempest is neither a colonialist critique nor an artist's farewell to the stage, what is it?

First, it is one of just a handful of Shakespeare's plays to observe the three classical unities of action, time and space. (Comedy of Errors is another.) It's interesting to me that Shakespeare would return to this idea late in his career. He seems to be returning to the classical roots of his art. The effect on the audience is to make them participants in the magic of the play, because they are experiencing the onstage events in real time.

Second, The Tempest shares many themes, such as reunion, forgiveness and redemption, with the other late romances. But, rather than show us the entire back story, as The Winter's Tale and Pericles do, The Tempest skips over the first part of its own story, bringing us directly to the moment of reunion.

These two factors combine to create a real intensity, beyond what I normally feel in a Shakespearean "comedy." Prospero is in charge here, and every moment he is moving us closer to the grand culmination of his plot.

Here's something I haven't yet decided: At what point does Prospero abandon his plan for revenge and choose the "rarer action" of forgiveness? If he intends to destroy everyone, why not just wreck the ship at the beginning? That's not his plan at all, of course; he intends all along for Ferdinand and Miranda to meet and fall in love. But what had he planned to do to the others, once they were within his power, before Ariel changed his mind? I'd love to invite Prospero to a dinner party and ask him that. I'll bet it would have been good.

Coming to the end of The Tempest -- and the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" challenge -- is a bittersweet moment. In a few days, I'll do another post about the overall challenge. For now, I'm still absorbing the idea that I will never read anything new by Shakespeare, unless some dotty English matron finds Cardenio in her attic. On the other hand, the magic of Shakespeare is that his work, even after four centuries, continues to be new every time it is read and performed.

Thank you, Will, for an incredible journey.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stratford Shakespeare Festival: Merry Wives of Windsor

For several months, I've been withholding final judgment on Merry Wives of Windsor. Although I've recently seen productions at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, I knew this season's production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival had the best chance of making me finally like this play. (And why not? It worked for As You Like It last year.)

My devotion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival isn't far from idolatry. So, I must clarify that there is absolutely nothing wrong with its Merry Wives production. The scenery is breath-taking, the costumes are perfect and the acting is superb (with a few minor exceptions). The production stars two of my favorite festival actors, Geraint Wyn Davies and Tom Rooney (who completely steals the show as Ford), and the production sticks close to the letter and spirit of Shakespeare's text.

Which is, actually, the problem. Shakespeare can be riotously funny -- as any good production of Comedy of Errors makes clear. But that comic genius never emerges in Merry Wives. Shakespeare can create memorable, lifelike characters, including the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays -- but those characters never come to life in Merry Wives, not even Falstaff himself. Shakespeare can provide striking and startling insights into human nature -- but he doesn't bother to do so in this play.

Now that I've seen the Stratford production, I can finally say this with confidence: I really don't like Merry Wives of Windsor. It is one of my least favorite plays in the Shakespeare canon (just barely ahead of Troilus and Cressida). If it disappeared forever, I wouldn't really mind.

The playbill for the Stratford production explains that the play is derided by scholars and readers but is a favorite of theater audiences. I've now seen the play three times in one year, and I'm not sure that statement is true. Even the best possible production -- and the Stratford production comes pretty close -- can't change my mind about this weak entry in the Shakespeare canon.

P.S. As a side note, I also saw the Stratford productions of Camelot and Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend, and they are both fantastic. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

(Drum roll, please.) Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the final week of the "Shakespeare in a Year" challenge. This week's adventure is, of course, The Tempest, which has traditionally been viewed as Shakespeare's farewell to the stage.

As always, we'll start the discussion next Sunday at noon. It will be our final discussion, so let's make it a great one!

P.S. I know, I know, it's not the last play Shakespeare wrote. We already know that he later collaborated with Fletcher on Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII and the lost Cardenio. So it's not technically Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, and some of you will accuse me of being overly romantic and sentimental in my scheduling choice here. To those people, I say, "Yep." My project, my schedule. :o)

Discussion: Contested Will

This weekend, I'm making my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the best classical theaters in North America. I am so madly in love with this place; one of these days I'm just going to stay.

Within walking distance of my historic hotel are some of the best restaurants in Ontario, some of the cutest boutiques I've ever seen, and four of the continent's best theaters. The best part of being here, however, is that the entire community is built around a passion for theater. Being here means being part of a community that eats, sleeps and breathes Shakespeare.

Reading James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare this weekend in Stratford, I realized why the Shakespeare authorship controversy bothers me so much: The conspiracy theorists create a rift in the global Shakespeare community, forcing us to argue about Shakespeare rather than appreciating, debating and studying his works. Furthermore, as Shapiro points out, the conspiracy theorists denigrate the very things that made Shakespeare unique -- his boundless imagination and his understanding of human nature.

For the record, I'm a confident Stratfordian, which means I believe William Shakespeare's poems and plays were actually written by Shakespeare, as opposed to Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or any of the dozens of others whose names have been suggested. At the moment, the Oxfordians are the most vocal bunch.

For the sake of my own sanity, I'm not going to nitpick the Oxfordian point of view here. The Oxfordians are well organized online, and they are adept at picking fights with bloggers who disagree with their cause -- as a simple Google search will show. There is no reason to rehash the same old arguments here. Shapiro has already done an excellent job of picking the Oxfordian viewpoint apart (as did Bill Bryson in his excellent biography of Shakespeare).

But I do understand the desire to know Shakespeare -- and the frustration people feel with the disconnect between the documentary evidence of Shakespeare's life (mostly legal papers) and the genius revealed in his plays. It's hard to imagine that the author of Hamlet would have a neighbor arrested over a debt of just a few pounds. For some, it's also hard to imagine that a provincial actor with little formal education could write so eloquently about foreign travels and life at court (which is, quite frankly, pure snobbery). From there, as Shapiro says, it's just a short leap to believing that we must be dealing with two different men.

As Shapiro points out, one of the fundamental problems here is an underlying assumption -- made by Stratfordians and Oxfordians alike -- that the works are autobiographical. (Autobiographical works are commonplace now but were almost unheard of in Shakespeare's day.) Even Shapiro has been guilty of this mistake: "I flinch when I think of my own trespasses," he writes, perhaps in reference to his recent book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

I'm guilty as charged. I, too, assumed the plays and poems were at least partly autobiographical, and I have said several times during the "Shakespeare in a Year" project that reading the complete works has been like "getting to know" Shakespeare. After reading Contested Will, I realize the limitations of that statement -- and am finally aware of the unconscious assumptions I have been making as a reader.

We won't be able to persuade the Oxfordians (or the Marlovians or the Baconians) to become Stratfordians. (One can't have a reasonable argument with an unreasonable person.) But we can be more careful, as readers, not to assume that the complete works of Shakespeare are a kind of life story. It's so tempting to do, because we want so desperately to have those glimpses into Shakespeare's mind. Still, it's a habit we must break. Shakespeare is long gone, and we must judge his literary legacy on its own merits.

P.S. If you ever get to Stratford, go to the Parlour and order this. It is quite possibly my favorite food on this planet.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Monday Distraction

Want to feel good about what we've accomplished so far? Take a look at the Challenge Checklist. It's hard to believe we have just one play to go!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

I can hardly believe it: We have just two weeks remaining in the "Shakespeare in a Year" challenge, and just one Shakespeare play to go (The Tempest). Time flies when you're having fun!

If you've done the basic math, you know we have a spare week. Here's what we're going to do: We're going to put these Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories to rest. Our reading for this week is "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" by James Shapiro.

To appease the Oxfordians who show up on this blog whenever Edward de Vere is mentioned (that Google alert is working pretty well for you guys, huh?), I'm also posting a link to the Shakespeare Oxford Society's review of the book. The reviewer seems pretty mad, which I'm taking as a good sign that I'll agree with Shapiro's conclusion.

Discussion: Double Falsehood

The play: Double Falsehood

The plot tweet: Duke's son rapes Violante and woos friend Julio's love, Leonora. After botched wedding and some wandering, it ends with marriages all around.

My favorite line: n/a


The Arden third series has long been my preferred Shakespeare text (and not just because it has the best paper for underlining and making notes), and I tend to trust the decisions made by its editors. So, when Arden released Double Falsehood last year, I thought, "Okay, maybe there's something to this idea that the play is based on Shakespeare and Fletcher's lost Cardenio."

Let me just say this: If the Arden editors are right about this, I'm not sure I want to be right. The obvious Shakespeare touches are there -- the heroine disguised as a boy, the overbearing parent forcing a daughter to wed, the escape into a pastoral setting. These are touches that would be easy for Lewis Theobald to fake.

What can't be faked is Shakespeare's genius for characterization and his brilliant bursts of poetry -- neither of which are present in this play.

The Arden editor, Brean Hammond, gives a very guarded endorsement of this play's Shakespearean heritage:
Finding a manuscript of the lost Cardenio would be the only way of proving beyond all doubt that Theobald did not forge it. I cannot claim to have achieved that, but I hope that this edition reinforces the accumulating consensus that the lost play has a continuing presence in its eighteenth-century great-grandchild.
If you'd like to draw your own conclusions, give Hammond's introduction a thorough read. In the meantime, I'm choosing to withhold my endorsement. With any luck, some dotty English matron will find a copy of Cardenio stashed in her attic, and we can finally have the real play instead.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

As we've seen, Edward III has a reasonable claim to Shakespearean authorship (at least in part). This week's play, Double Falsehood, is definitely not by Shakespeare, but it is allegedly based on the lost Cardenio, which Shakespeare co-authored with John Fletcher.

The play has been in the news a lot lately, with a flurry of recent productions and a new Arden edition of the text, so it seems like a timely play to include on our agenda.

After this, we have just two weeks left. Can you believe it? I think we're actually going to pull this off. As a heads up, next week's reading isn't a play at all, but rather Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro. If you don't have it, go find a copy!

Discussion: Edward III

The play: Edward III

The plot tweet: English battle both Scots and French; Edward takes a break to woo a married woman. Rejected, he heads to France, gives son a trial by fire.

My favorite line:
... Shall I not
Master this little mansion of myself?


We're almost at the end of our Shakespeare in a Year journey, but with this play we're back at the beginning. This play was written early in Shakespeare's career, almost certainly as a collaboration, and it reminds me very much of his other early history plays.

The authorship of Edward III is hotly disputed, with many critics refusing to acknowledge it as Shakespearean. According to my edition of the play (the New Cambridge Shakespeare), there is some scholarly consensus that Shakespeare wrote 1.2, 2.1, 2.2 and 4.4 -- the Countess of Salisbury scenes and the taunting of Prince Edward by his French foes. Yet the play was printed anonymously in both 1596 and 1599, and it doesn't appear in the First Folio of 1623.

The New Cambridge editor makes a persuasive argument about this: The play was "forgotten" by Shakespeare and his contemporaries because, in the later years of Elizabeth's reign, there was a crackdown on derogatory stage portrayals of Scots. That obviously continued when James I (also James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne. So, when the First Folio was being assembled a quarter-century later, it's not surprising that its compilers would forget one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, a collaboration that hadn't been performed in decades.

Either way, this feels like an early Shakespearean history play to me, with similar language and themes. It's no secret that the history plays aren't my favorites, but Edward III seems to move more quickly, and Prince Edward's bravery is a nice preview of Henry V.

I'm not sure how to feel about Edward III here. His interlude with the Countess of Salisbury (while he has a pregnant wife at home), his refusal to send help to his son during a battle, his alternating cruelty and mercy toward the French citizens -- I don't know the actual history here, but doesn't this guy seem like kind of a snake? If you're better schooled in British history than I am, please advise.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Monday Distraction

Look what my Google alert found: A sound clip of Alan Rickman reading Shakepeare's sonnet 130. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

We've read many plays wholly by Shakespeare and several plays partly by Shakespeare. This week, we're going to read a non-canonical play, i.e., a play whose Shakespearean authorship is questionable. Edward III is almost certainly not in your Complete Works, so head to the library or read it online here.

Yes, I know, we could probably get away with skipping it. But after working so hard on the Shakespeare in a Year project, you might look back years from now -- when perhaps this play will be part of the official canon -- and think, "Darn, we almost made it, except for Edward III." You don't want that, and neither do I. Consider it insurance.

(I will understand, however, if you can't get to it this week because you're too busy watching the royal wedding over and over again ... or shopping for hats.)

Discussion: The Two Noble Kinsmen

The play: The Two Noble Kinsmen

The plot tweet: Two cousins fall for the same girl, defy prison and banishment to be with her. A duel decides it, but the gods have sneaky plans.

My favorite line:
This world's a city full of straying streets,
And death's the market-place where each one meets.


Here we have an interesting reboot of some very early Shakespearean plot lines, including the Midsummer love rectangle framed by the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The jailer's daughter echoes both Ophelia and Desdemona, and the two kinsmen echo the earlier gentlemen of Verona, who also fall for the same girl.

To me, though, something seems off. The play veers from tragedy to farce too quickly, and not in a coherent, intentional tragicomic way. Am I supposed to be laughing out loud at the scene where Arcite and Palamon swear their undying love and then see Emilia and instantly start threatening to kill each other? (I am.) Am I supposed to think the deceitful "cure" of the jailer's daughter is funny? (I don't.) Either the tone here is odd and uneven or I am misreading this play.

It makes sense for the play to be uneven, though, both because it was co-authored by Shakespeare and Fletcher and because it was first published -- with who knows how many revisions -- long after both men had died.

Scholars have more or less come to agreement about which scenes are Fletcher's and which are Shakespeare's, and no doubt your edition mentions this somewhere in the introduction or notes. At the moment, just consider this: If this is the last play Shakespeare wrote (and it probably is), and if Fletcher wrote the epilogue (and he probably did), then the final lines Shakespeare wrote in his long, successful career are spoken by Theseus in 5.4:

Oh, you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off
And bear us like the time.

I'm just going to leave it at that.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

It's time this week for Shakespeare's other surviving collaboration with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen. I've never read this play, but it's said to contain a more distinct Fletcherian style than Henry VIII. Let's see if we agree.

P.S. Coming up, we're going to read a few non-canonical works, including Edward III and Double Falsehood. These certainly aren't in your Complete Works, so it's time for a visit to your favorite library or bookstore.

It's a good thing I already bought my copies, because I'm not allowed in any bookstores after last week's frenzy at a Borders liquidation sale:

Discussion: Henry VIII

The play: Henry VIII or All is True

The plot tweet: In idealized reign of Henry VIII, great people fall and Anne Boleyn gives birth to glorious future queen. No mention of upcoming beheading.

My favorite line:
I know myself now, and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience.


More than any other Shakespeare play, Henry VIII needs to be seen rather than read. The pomp and pageantry, buried in dry stage directions within the text, can no doubt be breath-taking on stage. Likewise, characters whose speeches are ambiguous, especially the king, can be "filled out" on stage. Is Henry a corrupt and lusty king or a pious ruler who fears for the future of his kingdom? That's a question any good stage production would answer.

This is Shakespeare's final history play, written toward the end of his life in collaboration with John Fletcher (with whom he also collaborated on Two Noble Kinsmen). Some scholars hate it because it is episodic and lacks a central character. Other scholars, like the editor of my Arden edition, see it as the glorious "grand finale of Shakespeare's history plays."

I'm withholding judgment until I see the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of the play next January. I want to see the masques and processionals, hear the tone Anne Boleyn uses when she claims she doesn't want to be queen, see how Henry reacts when Katherine refuses Wolsey as her judge. More than any other play, Henry VIII leaves these questions for the production to decide.

One thing that fascinates me about this play, though, is the immediacy of the action to Shakespeare's own time. Queen Elizabeth, whose birth is celebrated as just shy of miraculous, died in 1603, and this play premiered at the Globe ten years later, in 1613. (We know the exact year because the Globe burned down during one of the first performances.) At the time, the reigning king (who was patron of Shakespeare's theater company) was Elizabeth's cousin and a descendant of Henry VII. In other words, Shakespeare had to walk a fine line here, which is probably why the king and Anne Boleyn come off better in this play than they do in historical accounts.

What, then, was Shakespeare trying to say with the play's original title, All is True? Is it his smartypants way of admitting that the play is a fabrication to make the Tudors look good? Or, is he saying that the characters' perspectives are all accurate in their own way? Once again, I'm withholding judgment until I see this play on stage. No pressure, Cincy Shakes.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Birthday to the Real Shakespeare

Today is William Shakespeare's birthday--and, if you happen to live in Illinois, it's also Talk Like Shakespeare Day. This seems like a good day to remember that Shakespeare was a real, living, breathing person, not a pseudonym.

An upcoming film, "Anonymous," will make the case for Edward de Vere's authorship of Shakespeare's work. This really gets me steamed, so I'm trying to ignore the whole to-do as much as possible. But the film prompted this excellent column defending Shakespeare's authorship, and I wanted to share it with you all.

Can we all make a pact to completely ignore this ridiculous film, which might make the authorship conspiracy theories a topic of everyday conversation? The last thing I want is to say, "Hey, I'm reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year," and have everyone else say, "Hey, what's up with this Edward de Vere guy?" Nothing. Nothing is up with him at all. End of story.

Anyway, happy birthday, Will!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for our final history play: Henry VIII: All is True.

This is one of several plays for which Shakespeare allegedly collaborated with John Fletcher (along with Two Noble Kinsmen and the now-lost Cardenio). It was written in 1613, just a few years before Shakespeare's death. We can date it with such certainty because the Globe burned to the ground during one of the play's first performances. (And yet Macbeth is the play with the theater curse?!)

This play doesn't get staged much, but the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is doing it this season as part of its canon completion project (with A Man for All Seasons as a companion piece). If you live in the Midwest, this is a rare chance to catch this play in production.

As always, we'll start our discussion at noon next Sunday. Enjoy!

Discussion: A Funeral Elegy

The poem: "A Funeral Elegy"

My favorite line:
When all shall turn to dust from whence we came
And we low-level'd in a narrow grave,
What can we leave behind us but a name,
Which, by a life well led, may honor have?


Oh, man.

When I assigned this reading last week, I knew its authorship was debated. (It was published in 1612 by a mysterious W.S.) What I didn't realize is that this poem is a key sticking point for the Oxfordian camp, who claim that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, actually wrote Shakespeare's work.

It's pretty simple, really. This poem was clearly written in 1612, shortly after William Peter was murdered, and Edward de Vere was long dead by then. The logic pattern here is: The earl was actually "Shakespeare," but he was already dead, so clearly this poem is not by "Shakespeare." (Here is a summary of the Oxfordian perspective.)

The authorship issue was hotly debated in the late 1990s, when Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 published an essay suggesting Shakespeare's authorship (Richard Abrams, "WS's 'Funeral Elegy' and the Turn from the Theatrical," Spring 1996). Donald Foster's book, Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution, also comes down on Shakespeare's side. In Guilty Creatures: Renaissance Poetry and the Ethics of Authorship, writer Dennis Kezar speaks of the poem's "emerging Shakespearean canonicity."

I've made my thoughts on Oxfordian/Marlovian/Baconian authorship conspiracy theories pretty clear. In brief: They're a giant load of crap. But even if we rightly believe that Shakespeare authored his own work, we still can't say for certain that this poem is his. Maybe W.S. stands for Wilbur Smith or Wilhelmina Stout.

I'm kind of hoping that's the case, because this poem bores me to tears. It does, however, carry through some of the themes Shakespeare discussed in his sonnets. What do you think? Does this poem "sound" like Shakespeare to you?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

We're almost there: Just a few collaborations, non-canonical works and The Tempest to go. This week, let's take a quick break from the plays and focus on the final remaining poem, "A Funeral Elegy." The authorship is debated, so let's see what judgments we can make about it based on our new-found knowledge of Shakespeare's work.

Enjoy this week's short assignment!

Discussion: The Winter's Tale

The play: The Winter's Tale

The plot tweet: Leontes' jealous rage = dead son, "dead" queen, banished daughter, 16 years of remorse. But, as a late romance, it ends with reunion, redemption.

My favorite lines:
For my travel bug:
"And when I wander here and there, I then do most go right."

For one of the most romantic speeches in English literature:
" ... What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever. When you sing,
I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens."


I just want to be honest here: I really struggle with this play. I willingly concede that it is among Shakespeare's best plays, that it has intriguing characters and beautiful poetry, and that it contains several of the best scenes in the entire Shakespeare canon. I just don't like it that much.

Frankly, it bores me, both in text and in performance. (I feel the same way about Julius Caesar and Love's Labour's Lost, since we're being honest.) In the first half of the play, I'm galled by Leontes' ceaseless ranting and Hermione's selflessness. In the second half of the play, the audience already knows how the relationship of Perdita and Florizel is going to wind up, so Autolycus (who gets a lot of praise from scholars for his thematic implications) is to me just an annoying distraction/stall tactic.

This week, however, the reading had an upside: I realized how much I have learned in this year-long reading project. As I read the first scene, I thought, "Oh, good old Shakespeare, here once again he uses relatively minor characters who foreground the play and foreshadow the upcoming crisis." Toward the end, I thought, "Oh, look, a typical Shakespearean 'unscene' where minor characters describe a major event offstage."

When we read Cymbeline last week, I joked that we could play a bingo game of Shakespeare's most over-used plot points when reading the play. I didn't think about it at the time, but now I realize that you need to have read an awful lot of Shakespeare plays before you're able to say to yourself, "Oh, lord, here we go again with the heroine dressed as a boy."

Now, reading The Winter's Tale, I realize that my knowledge of Shakespeare now goes even deeper -- not just to what Shakespeare does but also to how he does it.

When it comes to Shakespeare, I'll never have all the answers. Nobody will. The enduring magic of Shakespeare is that his plays present new questions and new possibilities with every new reading, every new generation and every new production. But, this week, I realized how well equipped we are, now, to question and begin to understand the possibilities of these plays.

In other words, we're getting kinda smart about this stuff, and that's neat.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

We are getting so close to the end now. After discussing Pericles and Cymbeline, let's continue our study of the late romances this week with The Winter's Tale. I'll see you at noon next Sunday!

Discussion: Cymbeline

The play: Cymbeline

The plot tweet: Plot-heavy self-parody concludes with reconciled lovers, reunited siblings, vanquished enemies and confessing villains. Happily ever after (except for Cloten).

My favorite line: What an infinite mock is this, that a man should have the best use of eyes to see the way of blindness.


Anglophile that I am, I have a small weakness for BBC melodramas with low budgets and terrible special effects. Hence, "Merlin," which I watch each week with a friend. We enjoy the show, but lately we've been noticing that the writers rely on a mash-up of the same plot points in every episode.

We decided the show would be more entertaining with "Merlin" bingo cards, where we check off these over-used plot points until somebody has five in a row. (For the win: mysterious sorcerer arrives in Camelot, King Uther goes on a witch hunt, Merlin sneaks into visitor's room at night, Morgana walks down hallway in flowing cape, Gwen has angst-filled moment with Arthur.)

I mention this because the same bingo game could be played with Cymbeline, where Shakespeare rehashes many of his already over-used plot points. You might win with a series like: Heroine dresses up as boy, long-lost family members are reunited, sleeping potion creates appearance of death, somebody gets decapitated, British army wins against impossible odds. Shakespeare is known for his skills in characterization rather than plot, but even for him this seems a bit lazy.

Unless it's intentional. Many scholars believe Cymbeline is a deliberate self-parody, written by a man who was approaching the end of his career and perhaps a bit tired of the whole thing. Harold Bloom calls the play "a revenge by Shakespeare against his own achievements." He continues, "Compulsive self-parody does not exist elsewhere in Shakespeare; in Cymbeline it passes all bounds."

The exception is Imogen, who has more consciousness than other characters in Shakespeare's late plays and who seems to transcend the rampant self-parody of her play. Many scholars -- especially male scholars of previous centuries -- have been madly in love with her and presented her as an ideal woman. As a 21st-century woman, I can't quite agree, but she is sweet and lovely and altogether too good for this play.

I have seen Cymbeline performed only once, several years ago at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It was staged as high camp, with an evil Queen dressed as Maleficent from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" and a Cloten (played by the wonderful Giles Davies) as a bow-legged buffoon with an overbite. The sleeping potion was actually an apple, a la "Snow White." But, again, Imogen was a universe unto herself, untouched by the campy antics.

Cymbeline is not considered one of Shakespeare's masterworks, and it certainly doesn't stand up to Hamlet or King Lear. But, even if his motive was artistic exhaustion or disillusion with his craft, there's something wonderful about the idea of Shakespeare mocking himself. Scholars say that every diligent Shakespeare reader has a secret favorite among the "lesser" plays, and perhaps Cymbeline is mine.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, let's continue our journey through the late romances with Cymbeline. We're getting so close now -- just eight weeks to go -- and we're seeing the themes that interested Shakespeare near the end of his life. (Am I the only one starting to get nostalgic about this?)

As always, we'll start the discussion next Sunday at noon. Happy reading!

Discussion: Pericles

The play: Pericles

The plot tweet: Once upon a time, characters faced incest, murderous plots, shipwrecks, pirates, prostitutes and resurrections. They lived happily ever after.

My favorite line:
... You gods, your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well,
That on the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. O come, be buried
A second time within these arms.


Let's start with the obvious: The first two acts of Pericles are ghastly -- and almost certainly not by Shakespeare. Even when Shakespeare does show up, in Act III, the plot remains ridiculously improbable.

Consider just Marina's story for a moment: She is born during a tempest at sea, and her mother dies in childbirth; she is placed with a king and queen who later plot her death; her attempted murder is thwarted by pirates, who sell her into a brothel; she preserves her chastity by converting all of her would-be clients -- including her future husband -- to a more virtuous life; she encounters her father on a diplomatic mission; she later reunites with her "resurrected" mother at a temple of Diana. This has to be one of the most outlandish plots in Shakespeare.

Beyond that, so many of the plot twists in Pericles could be solved by sending a letter or a messenger. Pericles could say, "Hey, I've been shipwrecked. Send me some money." Thaisa could say, "Hey, I'm not dead. Come get me." Marina could say, "Hey, Dad, I've been sold into sexual slavery by pirates. Come rescue me." These are some very practical solutions, so why don't the characters use them?

Here's why: We're not in Kansas anymore. With Shakespeare's late romances, we're now squarely in the realm of fairy tale, where good overcomes evil and everyone lives happily ever after. I love the idea that, as Shakespeare aged, he granted his characters opportunities for redemption, reconciliation and reunion.

In the past few weeks, we've seen Shakespeare retreat from his creation of in-depth characters; he will never create another Falstaff or Hamlet. Here, in the late romances, he instead focuses on relationships -- parent and child (especially father and daughter), husband and wife, servant and master.

Many professional scholars scorn the idea that we can make inferences about Shakespeare's biography based on the themes in his plays. But, I can't resist thinking about the personal life of the artist. At this point, Shakespeare has been living in London for many years, with his wife and two daughters -- now grown, one with a child of her own -- back in Stratford. (His son has died already.) Shakespeare has almost certainly missed many milestones of his daughters' lives and may have seriously strained his marriage. Now, as he considers his imminent retirement and return to Stratford, is it any surprise that he begins to focus less on individuals and more on relationships, reunion and (as we'll see more clearly in The Winter's Tale) forgiveness?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

We move now to Shakespeare's late romances, starting this week with Pericles. The authorship of this play has long been disputed, and most scholars now accept that it is Shakespeare's only in part. I read the play back in college, and at the time I thought the weaknesses were fairly obvious. I wonder how I will feel about it now, with so much more Shakespeare crammed into my brain?

As always, we'll start the discussion at noon next Sunday. Have a great week!

Discussion: Timon of Athens

The play: Timon of Athens

The plot tweet: Timon gives too generously, goes broke, gets no help from so-called friends. He rails against mankind for two full acts, then dies quietly.

My favorite line:
Ceremony was but devised at first
To set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes,
Recanting goodness, sorry ere 'tis shown.
But where there is true friendship there needs none.


This week, my usual set of critics actually agrees on something: Timon of Athens is unfinished, which means Shakespeare abandoned it -- for reasons we'll almost certainly never know. There is no record of this play ever being performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, which is true for just a handful of his plays.

In his Lectures on Shakespeare, W.H. Auden points out the problems:
During the period in which he wrote Timon, Cymbeline and Pericles, Shakespeare was either ill or exhausted, and he worked on plays that he didn't finish. The verse in Timon is of his late period, but the play is imperfectly constructed. The Alcibiades subplot is perfunctory -- we don't know whom Alcibiades is defending. In the last scene Alcibiades changes character and style without warning, and throughout the play he has little relation to the main plot. When the senators come and plead with Timon in the cave, there is a sudden suggestion that he is a military leader. The bad senators die for no good reason. And the play is not strictly a tragedy, for Timon's death is unmotivated. He just passes away.
I especially appreciate Auden's final point. For me, the entire fifth act of Timon falls flat. Shakespeare denies Timon an on-stage death and instead focuses on the invasion of Athens, which is such a minor plot point that we hardly care who wins.

I also struggle with Timon as a character, possibly because Shakespeare makes no attempts to humanize him. In a situation that is unique among Shakespeare's heroes, Timon has no family relations, and we are given absolutely no information about his background (except for that vague military suggestion at the end of the play).

Timon doesn't have any soliloquies at the beginning of the play, so we don't know his real motivation for generosity. Is he simply a generous guy who is irresponsible with money? Or, does his generosity stem from his desire to be liked and/or to have power over others? Given his violent reaction to his friends' refusal to help him, I'm inclined to think that his motivations were not wholly unselfish.

Timon of Athens is rarely staged, but I saw a fantastic production several years ago at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is working on a "completion project" to stage every Shakespeare play by its 20th season. In this particular production, the scenery consisted entirely of playing cards -- a powerful visual reminder of the house of cards Timon creates with his false friends and unsustainable lifestyle.

Oddly, I remember the first part of the play very well, up to the banquet of water and stones. But I can't picture the end of the play at all, so I can't remember whether the cards also created the scenery for the cave/forest scenes. This is probably because, as we've already discussed, the ending of this play falls flat: Timon yells at a whole bunch of people, and then he dies mysteriously off-stage, and then some other stuff happens that we don't much care about. Maybe I got tired of Timon's ranting and raving and simply tuned out the second half of the play.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, we continue Shakespeare's so-called tragic epilogue with Timon of Athens. I was lucky enough to see this play last year at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, but I broke my rule of always reading the play first. So, this is my first time to read this much-neglected play.

As always, we'll start the discussion at noon next Sunday. Have a great week!

Discussion: Coriolanus

The play: Coriolanus

The plot tweet: Roman war hero fails at politics, gets banished. Joins enemy to attack Rome; is dissuaded by domineering mom. Killed by enemy (no surprise).

My favorite line: "What is the city but the people?"


This was an awkward week at Shakespeare in a Year. Every time I mentioned that we were reading Coriolanus, someone in the area giggled and made an uncouth joke. The more sophisticated folks would look confused and confess, "Huh, I've never heard of that one."

Now, some of Shakespeare's plays are obscure because they deserve to be obscure. Even the Bard produced a couple of bombs. (I'm looking at you, Troilus and Cressida.) But when it comes to Coriolanus, I'm baffled. Having neither read it nor seen it performed, I assumed it was going to be awful. It wasn't.

As it turns out, Coriolanus is a favorite of Shakespearean scholars, several of whom have declared the play to be dramatically perfect -- high praise indeed. T.S. Eliot said it was Shakespeare's best play (although Eliot wasn't a fan of Hamlet anyway). On this first reading, I found it less arresting than Macbeth or King Lear, for example, but certainly on par with Julius Caesar, if not better than its more-popular Roman counterpart. It also seems easier to stage than Shakespeare's other tragedies.

So, what gives? Why do modern readers and theater directors ignore this play?

Perhaps it's because, after creating the vast consciousnesses of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Cleopatra, Shakespeare gives us a tragic hero who is dramatically flat. He seems to have no inward life at all -- no imagination, no mystery, no soul-searching. As a character, he does precisely what Shakespeare tells him to do. Unlike Hamlet or Lear, Coriolanus doesn't feel "real" to us, and we can't imagine him walking off the stage into real life.

Which begs the question: What happened to Shakespeare? In a span of just months, he had written the greatest tragedies in the English language and created characters whose consciousnesses shaped our understanding of our own humanity. Here, as Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare suddenly pulls back. Like the "problem plays" that marked the end of Shakespeare's comedic career, Coriolanus and the upcoming Timon of Athens close Shakespeare's tragic period.

But why? What is it that drives Shakespeare away from his greatest creations? Maybe it's sheer exhaustion; you can't blame him for that. Or maybe it's something deeper; maybe Shakespeare became disillusioned with tragedy in the same way he became disillusioned with comedy earlier in his career. If so, his tragic epilogue is infinitely more successful than the sour, unsatisfying problem comedies.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Double Falsehood Debate

There's a great article in the New York Times today about Double Falsehood, a play allegedly based on Shakespeare's lost Cardenio. It is perhaps impossible to authenticate the play as Shakespeare's (even in part), and even so it's not regarded as a particularly good play.

I don't have this play on the Shakespeare in a Year schedule, although I do plan to include Edward III, whose claim to Shakespeare authorship is also shaky. What do you think? Should we squeeze in Double Falsehood somewhere?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, we're moving into what Harold Bloom calls Shakespeare's period of "tragic epilogue" with Coriolanus. I have neither read this play nor seen it performed, so for me it's going to be like opening a shiny new present. Enjoy!

Discussion: Antony and Cleopatra

The play: Antony and Cleopatra

The plot tweet: As young Octavius consolidates power in Rome, two lovers from the older generation, Antony and Cleopatra, lose their power and their lives.

My favorite line:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry,
Where most she satisfies. For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her, when she is riggish.


Every week, having read a play and a stack of scholarly analysis, I come to this blog and try to say something insightful and interesting. But here's what I want to say about Antony and Cleopatra: Blah. That's it, just blah.

I already know what you're going to say. "But, Ashley, this is perhaps Shakespeare's masterwork, seamlessly incorporating tragedy, comedy and history. And it contains one of the greatest female roles--perhaps the greatest female role--in all of Shakespeare. And the play has what some critics call the most powerful poetry in the Shakespeare canon."

I know those things, objectively, but I don't feel them. Perhaps it's because I've never seen Antony and Cleopatra on stage (and no wonder, with half a dozen settings and acts that stretch on for 15 scenes). It's possible that the grandeur of this play only becomes evident in production.

Perhaps it's because I can't put my finger on Cleopatra as a "person." Because she is always playing a role, she denies us those interior glimpses we've come to expect with Shakespeare's characters. In fact, as Harold Bloom points out, this play marks the beginning of Shakespeare's "turning away" from the interior development of his characters. The great soliloquies are mostly behind us now, with the exception of one of Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest.

I have read this play only once before, but the thing that struck me most on this reading was the age of Antony and Cleopatra. She is irresistibly alluring, but she is no longer young and beautiful. This is her last of many affairs with various heads of state, and Antony isn't wrong when he says, "I found you as a morsel, cold upon dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment of Gnaeus Pompey's, besides what hotter hours, unregister'd in vulgar fame, you have luxuriously pick'd out."

If you think of Antony and Cleopatra as aging, the play becomes not merely about the values of Rome versus the values of Egypt but also about the younger generation of calculating, power-consolidating politicians (Octavius) versus the older generation of mythic heroes (Antony and Cleopatra). Once again Shakespeare has invoked the theme of inter-generational conflict, and once again he emphasizes that the old eventually gives way to the new.

When Bloom taught his undergraduate Shakespeare class, he always asked his students whether they considered themselves more Roman or more Egyptian. The answers always tracked pretty closely with whether conservative politics (Romans) or liberal politics (Egyptians) were on the upswing. It's not a bad analogy, and it shows that the value conflicts from Shakespeare's day--and even from ancient times--continue to plague us today.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

When my Alabama grandparents watched TV, their programs of choice were Baptist preaching, the Weather Channel and movies about God. So, on those interminable Christmas visits, my sister and I watched "The Ten Commandments" over and over and over again.

Unfortunately for my grandparents, we liked the rich, fancy Egyptians much better than we liked preachy old Moses and the Israelites. We've both grown up with a soft spot for ancient Egyptian history, and we both adore Elizabeth Taylor's epic "Cleopatra." What's not to love about the character with the most costume changes in movie history?

So, I'm looking forward to this week's reading, Antony and Cleopatra, which tells the story of ancient Egypt's final collapse -- and depicts one of the world's great love stories. As always, we'll discuss the play starting at noon next Sunday. Enjoy!

Discussion: Macbeth

The play: Macbeth

The plot tweet: Witches prophesy greatness for Macbeth; he and his wife take matters into their own hands by killing the king. But blood follows blood.

My favorite line:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


For reasons I don't understand, Shakespeare has practically no presence here in Indianapolis. We don't have a dedicated Shakespeare company, as do similar cities like Cincinnati, and our classical theater companies tend to offer lighter fare. So, I was delighted several years ago to see that one of our larger professional theater companies was producing Macbeth.

And then I read the fine print: It was part of the theater's "Short Shakespeare" series, featuring condensed versions of the plays with running times of as little as 45 minutes.

I wrote a letter, a very angry one. I believe it included the sentence, "You only show one Shakespeare play every other year, and then you have the nerve to chop it in half?" I'm pretty sure I swore never to patronize the theater again, a promise I haven't kept.*

Obviously I skipped the production, so I'm not sure what was cut. Since then, I've often wondered about that, because I don't see how Macbeth can be cut. A line here, a line there, sure, but a whole hour? The thing that strikes me about Macbeth is its ruthless economy. It has just a handful of well-sketched characters, a simple and fast-moving plot, and no distractions of sub-plot or comic relief. You can't trim much fat from a play that is already thin.

Sure, you can probably cut the scene with the porter, but it is the one moment of comic relief in the entire play, and it underscores several important themes and terms that show up elsewhere in the play. Sure, you can probably cut the charming scene with Lady Macduff and her son, but it emphasizes Macbeth's descent into bloody tyranny. Except for the two brief appearances of Hecate (which are non-Shakespearean anyway), what can be omitted from this already short and streamlined play?

The Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival produced Macbeth last year (properly, as in, the whole play), and the two scenes I've just mentioned -- the porter scene and the Lady Macduff scene -- were actually two of the most memorable. (The production was also memorable for its depiction of Lady Macbeth as a Michelle Obama look-alike, which was extremely distracting and besides that seemed like a rather odd choice for a Canadian theater company.)

I've been reading some excellent commentary on Macbeth this week, most of it focused on the characters of Macbeth and his wife. But the commentary that really struck me this week, in A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, focused instead on Banquo. The gist: Although he does a better job of resisting the witches' temptation initially, he too succumbs to evil. He keeps silent about the witches, even when the king is almost immediately murdered in Macbeth's house. And, in some of the last lines he speaks, he shows how obsessed he has become with the idea of his descendants wearing the crown:
Thou hast it now -- king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the weird women promised: and I fear
Thou play'dst most foully for't. Yet it was said
It should not stand in thy posterity,
But that myself should be the root and father
Of many kings. If there come truth from them --
As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine --
Why, by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well
And set me up in hope? But hush, no more.
Macbeth's rapid descent into evil overshadows the whisperings that Banquo too is succumbing to temptation, especially when Macbeth shortly afterward has Banquo murdered. Had Banquo lived longer, however, he might eventually have given Macbeth genuine cause for concern.

I want to add just one note about the ending. The rebellion against Macbeth is supported by the English, and Malcolm's final speech proclaims that the Scottish thanes will "henceforth be earls" -- an English term. In the recent Stratford production, Malcom's aides placed an English flag next to the Scottish flag during this speech, which was staged as a press conference, and it was quite clear that the Scots had not expected this and did not approve. Have the Scots lost their country in the process of saving it?


*And thank goodness, because just this weekend I saw this same theater's outstanding production of In Acting Shakespeare, a one-man show by James DeVita, itself an adaptation of Sir Ian McKellen's one-man show Acting Shakespeare. I've seen DeVita perform several times at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, most recently in All's Well that Ends Well and Waiting for Godot, and he is a fantastic actor. The one-man show was a wonderful glimpse behind the curtain, helping us understand what DeVita loves about Shakespeare and how he learned to act the Bard's work in an accessible way. He got an immediate standing ovation, and he deserved it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, let's continue our study of Shakespeare's great tragedies with the Play That Must Not Be Named, aka the Scottish Play, the Bard's play and Mackers. Actually, I'm not in a theater at the moment, so it's okay to say that your reading for this week is Macbeth.

As always, we'll start the discussion at noon next Sunday. In the meantime, if you want a funny take on the alleged Macbeth curse, pick up the second season of "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian series based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It's all fun and games until someone mocks the Macbeth curse and promptly falls off the stage and breaks her neck.

Discussion: King Lear

The play: King Lear

The plot tweet: King Lear divides kingdom among two daughters, disowns the third = unwise. The 1st and 2nd drive him mad, the 3rd dies trying to save him.

My favorite line:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous;
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.


When I was learning to read, one of my favorite chapter books was The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh. It tells the story of humans who flee the destruction of Earth and colonize a new planet, leaving quickly and taking very little with them. They are allowed just one book each. The narrator's father chooses A Dictionary of Intermediate Technology, because he wants to be useful. The sister chooses a book about ponies, and the brother chooses Robinson Crusoe. The narrator herself chooses an empty notebook, which eventually becomes the chronicle of the colonists' new life.
We didn't think. We were excited, disturbed, and we hadn't really understood that everything else would be left behind. Father looked wistfully at the shelves. He picked up The Oxford Complete Shakespeare. "Have you all chosen your books?" he asked. "Yes," we told him. He put the Shakespeare back.
In the end, the new planet's library includes important works like Grimm's Fairy Tales, Homer's Iliad, and three copies of Robinson Crusoe. But there's not a single thing by Shakespeare, and the colonists try in vain to piece together their memories of Hamlet. Even as a child, I recognized this as an incalculable loss.

I often think about The Green Book when people ask me which of Shakespeare's plays is my favorite. If you can rescue only one, which one do you save? Shakespeare is so much a part of the fabric of our culture, it's hard to imagine life without Romeo and Juliet, Hal and Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Lear, Puck, Iago and Macbeth.

Which one do I save? If I'm founding a new colony on a distant planet, where the book I choose will enrich a new culture's intellectual development, I choose Hamlet. I don't see how it can be otherwise. But, if I'm going to be marooned alone like Robinson Crusoe, with just one book to my name, I choose King Lear. There is nothing else by Shakespeare, or by anyone else, to match its grandeur and beauty.

In one blog post, it's impossible even to give an overview of the critical discussion of King Lear. I once wrote a 20-page paper about the delivery of just three words ("What need one?"), and that is just one of thousands of issues raised by this play. We could spend years discussing the ramifications of the sub-plot (which is unique among Shakespeare's major tragedies), the role of the Fool, the multiple (and sometimes conflicting) meanings of words like nature and nothing, and the tragedy's odd echoes of the medieval morality plays. As many scholars have done, we could also debate whether this play is even actable.

But let's not. Maybe it's because I just took a two-hour yoga class, but today I'm inclined to appreciate rather than analyze. I am grateful to have King Lear. And Hamlet. And the 36 other plays, too (although, truthfully, I could do without Merry Wives). I am grateful to know Lear, Cordelia, Kent and even Edmund, cold as he may be.

That said, it's important to remember that what makes King Lear so powerful is its horror, or more specifically a sense that Lear's collapse has broader apocalyptic implications. This summer, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the apocalyptic element was emphasized in scenery that literally fell apart as Lear descended into madness. Before the play started, the actor who played Edgar sat, alone and obviously devastated, on a ruined stage, creating a loop of prologue and epilogue. For the very few characters who survive this play, there's nothing much left of the world they knew.

The production was deeply horrifying, and in that respect it was tremendous. It was the best production of King Lear that I have ever seen, and the best production I ever hope to see. I wept, as did everyone else, for a fictional character we'd met just two hours before. That is the power of all great tragedies, and of Shakespeare's work in particular, and most especially of King Lear.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Friday Distraction

A word of warning: This has nothing to do with Shakespeare. But, if you like Shakespeare, you might be an Anglophile, and if you're an Anglophile, you might love the new BBC version of "Sherlock," starring Benedict Cumberbatch. If so, you might die when you hear this audio clip of Cumberbatch reading "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats. It's enough to make an Anglophile's head explode.

(Thank you to Brooke for the link!)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

I'm so excited, I want to jump up and down and clap my hands. This week's reading is my favorite of them all, King Lear. And, because I have a bit of extra critical reading I want to do (specifically, King Lear in Our Time by Maynard Mack), this is a two-week special.

Yep, that's right, you have until noon on Sunday, Feb. 20, to finish this most vast and horrifying of all Shakespeare plays. Enjoy!

Discussion: Othello

The play: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice

The plot tweet: The black general Othello marries Desdemona and promotes Cassio; the devious Iago persuades him they're having an affair. Murders all around.

My favorite line:
Put out the light, and then put out the light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume: when I have plucked the rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither.


In all of Shakespeare, there are three scenes I find nearly unbearable to watch. Two are in King Lear: the blinding of Gloucester and the emergence of Lear onstage with Cordelia's body. The third is in Othello, and it is of course the murder of Desdemona. The other great tragedies are vast and grand affairs, tales of kings and kingdoms, but Othello is on a more human scale -- which makes it perhaps the most painful of them all.

Each week, after I finish reading the assigned play, I read through a pile of critical responses. This week, the response I've found most useful is in A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. When we discussed Hamlet, we pondered what the title character might have been like before his world collapsed around him. In the same way, Bradley gives a useful description of the pre-tragedy Othello:
So he comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the sun where he was born; but no longer young, and now grave, self-controlled, steeled by the experience of countless perils, hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth, proud of his services to the State, unawed by dignitaries and unelated by honors, secure, it would seem, against all dangers from without and all rebellions from within. And he comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy.
How does such a man fall victim to Iago so easily? Not because he is stupid, as some scholars have claimed. More likely, it's because he is much more experienced and confident in his public life than he is in his private life, which until now he has largely ignored. And, as Harold Bloom convincingly argues, Othello never has time to consummate his relationship with Desdemona. So, when Iago implies that Desdemona has been false, Othello doesn't even know whether she is a virgin.

Iago knows just how to manipulate his general, and he is an outstanding improviser. Every passing word and chance event becomes part of his plot. Not surprisingly, most of the reading I've done this week deals with Iago: who and what he is and what motivates him to ensnare the people around him. As Bradley points out, we can't trust anything Iago says about his motives without seeking collaboration from other characters and circumstances.

Again, I turn to Bradley for the most cogent analysis of the week. What follows is Bradley's own summary of a much longer analysis, which is worth reading in full if you have time:
Let us remember especially the keen sense of superiority, the contempt of others, the sensitiveness to everything which wounds these feelings, the spite against goodness in men as a thing not only stupid but, both in its nature and by its success, contrary to Iago's nature and irritating to his pride. Let us remember in addition the annoyance of having always to play a part, the consciousness of exceptional but unused ingenuity and address, the enjoyment of action, and the absence of fear. And let us ask what would be the greatest pleasure of such a man, and what the situation which might tempt him to abandon his habitual prudence and pursue this pleasure ...

The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority; and if it involved, secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities, and thirdly, the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated ... Now, this is the temptation that comes to Iago ...

His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. What fuller satisfaction could it find than the consciousness that he is the master of the General who has undervalued him and of the rival who has been preferred to him; that these worthy people, who are so successful and popular and stupid, are mere puppets in his hands ... It must have been an ecstasy of bliss for him.
Of course, the tragedy undoes not only Othello and Desdemona but Iago as well. In that sense, Bradley says, we can consider this play Iago's tragedy, too: "It shows us not a violent man, like Richard, who spends his life in murder, but a thoroughly bad, cold man, who is at last tempted to let loose the forces within him, and is at once destroyed."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Day Shakespeare

My city is encased in ice at the moment, and all of my clients are safe at home, sitting by the fire and sipping hot chocolate. So, it's the perfect day for me to catch up on Shakespeare tasks, like purchasing my London theater tickets for this summer!

First on the schedule: Much Ado About Nothing with "Dr. Who" co-stars David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. I know. I know.

Next up: Richard III at the Old Vic, starring Kevin Spacey in the title role. This is the third installment in the three-year Bridge Project, directed by Sam Mendes, which last year featured a fascinating pairing of The Tempest and As You Like It.

My trip also includes a one-week course at Oxford University, called "Riot and Rebellion in Shakespeare's London." As part of that, we're taking a field trip to the Globe, so I'll get at least one more Shakespeare play on the schedule.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting article about why it might be preferable to skip productions of the "lost Shakespeare play" Cardenio/Double Falsehood, which was recently enshrined in the Arden Shakespeare series.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

In the next few weeks, we'll be reading a string of Shakespeare's great tragedies -- starting this week with Othello. These are some of the Bard's best-known works, and rightly so. I look forward to re-visiting them with you.

As always, you have until noon next Sunday to read Othello. Enjoy!

Discussion: Measure for Measure

The play: Measure for Measure

The plot tweet: The duke leaves Angelo in charge, becomes behind-the-scenes puppet master of marriages that are definitely not happily-ever-after material.

My favorite line:
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.


Here we are, at the last of Shakespeare's comedies -- and the last of the so-called "problem plays." With comedies like this one, who needs tragedies? The characters are just shy of insane, the plot makes almost no sense, and the tone is utterly rancid. This is not an LOL sort of play.

When I first read Measure for Measure, back in my undergraduate introductory Shakespeare course, I made myself a note on the final page: "What the hell is going on?!"

A sampling of my questions: Why does the duke temporarily abdicate? Why does he leave Angelo in charge, rather than the obviously more qualified Escalus? Why does he disguise himself as a friar? Why does he tell Claudio that he must die, when he knows perfectly well that he can fix the problem? Why is Angelo so suddenly and swiftly tempted by Isabella? Why is Isabella so violently angry when Claudio begs her to accept Angelo's deal? Why is Barnardine able to simply refuse his own execution? Why does the virtuous Isabella consent to a bed trick that creates the same scenario for which her brother is imprisoned? Why does the duke tell her that Claudio is dead, why does he force Isabella to beg for Angelo's life, and why on earth does the duke propose to Isabella?

And, perhaps most intriguing, does Isabella accept the duke's proposal? Shakespeare gives us no words from Isabella and no stage direction, so this question must be answered in production. I'd be fascinated to see a production in which she refuses him.

A play like Hamlet produces a similar slew of questions, but it's different. In Hamlet, each question generates multiple perspectives, so it's possible to interpret the play in many different ways. That is endlessly fascinating. But, in Measure for Measure, it's difficult to generate even one reasonable, satisfactory answer to any given question.

The duke in particular is enigmatic. He's been compared to a playwright, casting the characters in his kingdom and providing them with scripts. He's also been compared to God. As himself, however, he is selfish, irresponsible and cruel. His speeches are mostly bombast. His solutions are complicated and contrived. He deliberately causes pain in situations where he could instead bring relief. What a horrid guy. Perhaps Shakespeare was already thinking of Iago, and a bit of that character crept into this play.

And don't even get me started on Isabella, who wishes that her strict convent had more rules. She gives up on her brother without a fight, until Lucio urges her to continue her pleas, and she values her virginity over the life of her own brother, a tragedy not just for Claudio but also for his fiancee and unborn child. Perhaps we are supposed to see her as a paragon of virtue, but -- let's face it -- she's a selfish and self-righteous prude.

We have to look pretty hard for a likable character in Measure for Measure. Even Lucio, who charms us throughout the play, loses us at the end by begging not to marry the woman he has impregnated.

In the last scene of his last comedy, Shakespeare gives us four (or possibly three) marriages that are very unlikely to be happy ones. He gives us a rancid, corrupt setting peopled with hateful characters -- essentially, a tragedy that is manhandled to fit the conventions of comedy.

It doesn't work, and perhaps Shakespeare knew it. His next plays were the great tragedies: Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Whatever Shakespeare learned while writing the "problem plays" is about to emerge, full force, in the greatest plays of his career.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

We're getting very close to the series of great tragedies. But, first, let's finish up the so-called "problem plays" with Measure for Measure. Happy reading!

Discussion: All's Well that Ends Well

The play: All's Well that Ends Well

The plot tweet: Helena saves the king, chooses unwilling Bertram as reward. He runs away; she chases him; Parolles steals the show. It doesn't end so well.

My favorite line:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven.


I have seen All's Well that Ends Well performed twice, and both times it was staged as a story of Bertram's gradual maturation and reformation. One production was convincing; the other wasn't. It can be done. But should it be done? Should we give him that much credit?

Seriously, this guy has no redeeming qualities. Without getting into deep Freudian scenarios, it's impossible to understand what the otherwise sensible Helena sees in him. He's selfish, reckless, disrespectful and vapid. He trusts the wrong people. He abandons his wife, disobeys his king and seduces innocent young women. Even in the final scene, when he should know better, he spins a web of lies until the last possible moment and accuses others to save himself. Nothing he says can be taken at face value -- even his alleged mourning for Helena. And when he finally accepts Helena, it's a conditional statement: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly ..." Yep, that's going to turn out really well for Helena.

And don't even get me started on the king, who observes the chaos but makes the same darn mistake with Diana.

No wonder this has been classified as a "problem play." The plot is a problem; the characters are problems; even the title is questionable. Some scholars have explained this discord as a bad mix of biting social commentary and traditional fairy-tale structure (the Cinderella story and the familiar plot of accomplishing tasks to win true love). Whatever the reason, this play is oddly unsettling -- despite the best efforts of the two productions I have seen.

As in many other Shakespeare plays, a minor character, in this case Parolles, steals the show. Like Bertram, he has no redeeming qualities -- but at least he knows it. He endures with as much good grace as he can muster, and his presence is oddly hopeful:
Yet am I thankful: If my heart were great,
'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more;
But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft
As captain shall: Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live ...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

We started the so-called "problem plays" last week with Troilus and Cressida. Let's continue the theme this week with All's Well that Ends Well, a play I find distinctly uncomfortable. As usual, we'll start the discussion at noon next Sunday. Enjoy!

Discussion: Troilus and Cressida

The play: The History of Troilus and Cressida

The plot tweet: During the Trojan War, legendary heroes are painted as ridiculous caricatures, and Troilus and Cressida's courtly love ends in bitterness.

My favorite line:
Thyself upon thyself! The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue.


The light-hearted days of the Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona are far behind us. Here we find Shakespeare in transition. His son is dead, his father is dead, and he's just written Hamlet and Twelfth Night, a comedy with its own odd mix of darkness and light. With Troilus and Cressida, we descend even further into darkness -- into bitterness, disappointment and outright disillusionment.

Troilus and Cressida is the first of the so-called problem plays, which also include All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Shakespeare is working something through here, because immediately after these plays we get the great series of tragedies: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

So, what is it about this play that leaves us so unsettled? Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, points out that this play has no great characters, the kind one can imagine bumping into on the street: no Falstaff and Prince Hal, no Rosalind, no Juliet, no Bottom. He writes:
"There are no such inwardnesses in the problematic comedies ... Before the forging of Iago, Shakespeare pauses in his journey to the interior, and the three 'dark' comedies of 1601-4 give us neither accessible psychological depths nor Marlovian-Jonsonian caricatures and ideograms ... Magnificent in language, Troilus and Cressida nevertheless retreats from Shakespeare's greatest gift, his invention of the human. Something we cannot know drives him, in this play, against his own strength as a dramatist."
Troilus and Cressida doesn't even have a genre. It was published as The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida in the First Folio but as The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida in the 1609 Quarto, where the publisher's note describes it as a witty comedy. It's certainly not a traditional everyone-gets-married comedy. If it's a tragedy, Troilus is surely no tragic hero (although maybe Hector is, a little bit). Perhaps it's best viewed as a history play, or perhaps -- as many scholars have done -- we should just be satisfied with the "problem play" label.

And here's something else that's weird: This play was never performed at the Globe, as far as we know. Perhaps it did appear briefly and flopped, or perhaps it was performed only for private audiences. It was pulled from the First Folio, replaced with Timon of Athens and then re-inserted at the last minute, without page numbers or an entry in the table of contents. It seems that even Shakespeare's contemporaries, and possibly Shakespeare himself, acknowledged that the play was not entirely successful.

In Lectures on Shakespeare, W.H. Auden gives Shakespeare more credit than other scholars for the effort he is making in Troilus and Cressida:
"The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between a major writer and a minor writer ... The minor writer never risks failure. When he discovers his particular style and vision, his artistic history is over. The major writer, on the other hand, is of two kinds. One is the kind who spends most of his life preparing to produce a masterpiece, like Dante or Proust ... The other kind of major artist is engaged in perpetual endeavors. The moment such an artist learns to do something, he stops and tries to do something else, something new -- like Shakespeare or Wagner or Picasso."
As Auden points out, Troilus and Cressida and the other problem plays "don't quite come off." But they are a necessary stop on Shakespeare's journey toward producing the great tragedies.