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.