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.