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.