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.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week's assignment is a play I've never read and never seen performed: Troilus and Cressida. I don't know the characters, the plot or any of the text, so it's rather like discovering a new Shakespeare play in a trunk in Grandma's attic.

As always, I'll post my thoughts at noon next Sunday. Have a great week!

Discussion: Twelfth Night

The play: Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will

The plot tweet:
Viola/Cesario loves Orsino but courts Olivia for him; social-climber Malvolio is mercilessly mocked; all ends well with reunion/marriage.

My favorite line:
"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."


After four centuries of Shakespearean scholarship, you'd think we could come to agreement on a few things -- for example, whether a play is any good. We have clear concensus about, for example, Hamlet (very good) and Merry Wives of Windsor (should have been eaten by Shakespeare's dog, if he had one). Not so with Twelfth Night:
"This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry ... it has little satire, and no spleen." (William Hazlitt, 1817)

"Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's unpleasant plays. It is not a comedy for schoolchildren." (W.H. Auden, 1946)

"Twelfth Night is surely the greatest of all Shakespeare's pure comedies ... (Malvolio) is wickedly funny and is a sublime satire upon the moralizing Ben Jonson." (Harold Bloom, 1998)
So, maybe the play is terrible, and maybe it's one of Shakespeare's greatest. Maybe it's all sweetness and light, and maybe it's a harsh satire of one of Shakespeare's greatest rivals.

One thing is certain: The play is a mash-up of the Bard's previous comedies. We have the vibrant wordplay of Love's Labour's Lost. We have a set of twins separated by shipwreck who turn up in the same town and cause confusion (Comedy of Errors). We have a cross-dressed heroine who educates/influences her beloved (As You Like It). We have a homoerotic character named Antonio who aids a friend at his own peril (Merchant of Venice). Malvolio inhabits the same "outsider" space as Jaques and Shylock. I could go on, but you get the point. There's hardly a character or plot point in this play that Shakespeare hadn't already used somewhere else.

I usually find Marjorie Garber's All of Shakespeare a bit of a slog, but she makes a point about Twelfth Night that is worth repeating. Consider first this stanza of Feste's song, which serves as the epilogue:
A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
Now consider the song sung by Lear's fool in a tragedy written a few years later:
He that has and a tiny little wit,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day.
Garber's commentary on this comparison:
... the growth of exclusion in these plays, the strength of the excluded characters, the disappearance of those marriage dances in which Renaissance poets imitated the harmony of the spheres, indeed, the remanding of the contracted marriages to a time and space outside or after the play, the emergence of the clear, plaintive voice of the fool -- all of these point toward a new phase in Shakespeare's dramatic development, a broader, more painful, but often a staggeringly beautiful and profound vision of humankind in the tragic universe.

The Shakespeare who wrote Twelfth Night was just months away from writing his darkest and most unsettling comedies, All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Then came Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The central question, then, is not whether this play is good or bad, but what it tells us about Shakespeare's growing interest in the darker aspects of his art.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

After our month-long "choose your own adventure" project with the sonnets, it's time to get back into the habit of weekly readings. For this week, let's do Twelfth Night. I haven't read it, and I've seen it performed only once, so I'm especially looking forward to this week's assignment.

As always, our discussion starts at noon next Sunday. Happy new year!

Discussion: The Sonnets

When W.H. Auden gave his famous lectures on Shakespeare, he said of the sonnets that no other work of literature had ever baffled scholars as much. I think most scholars would agree on that -- but not on anything else concerning the sonnets.

For example: When were the sonnets written? Did Shakespeare approve their publication? Does the order of the sonnets matter? Are the poems autobiographical? Is this evidence that Shakespeare was bisexual? Who were the fair youth and the dark lady? Does the autobiographical stuff even matter?

This is my first time reading the sonnets all the way through, and I'm definitely not prepared to answer any of those questions. I will say this: It is very hard not to read the sonnets as autobiographical. Shakespeare usually put his words in the mouths of his characters, but the sonnets seem to remove the intermediary ... unless the narrator is yet another of Shakespeare's characters. That's possible, but the sonnets feel intimate and personal in a way that the plays do not.

Most people know sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") and sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds"), which, incidentally, was sung at my wedding to the tune of "Danny Boy." But my favorite has always been sonnet 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The editor of my edition of the sonnets calls this cruel and misogynistic, but to me it seems honest and playful.

On this read-through, I also discovered a new favorite, sonnet 28:

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day's oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed,
And each, though enemies to either's reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day to please him, thou art bright,
And dost him grace, when clouds do blot the heaven;
so flatter I the swart-complexioned night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild'st the even;
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make my grief's length seem stronger.

Because the sonnets feel so intimate and personal, it seems only right that each reader should have his own favorite -- one sonnet that touches him in a personal way. Which sonnet is "yours"? What sonnet did you discover, or re-discover, during this reading?