Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The Shakespeare Project: The Merchant of Venice

If it weren’t for the ending, I would like this play a lot better. As it is, it has its moments of brilliance, particularly Portia’s ridiculing of her past suitors and Shylock’s famous speech. The romantic subplot is side-lined, generating little tension. The idea that no one thought to pick the lead casket strains credulity. And maybe it’s just me, but the sidekicks — who usually generate much of Shakespear’s humor — seem subdued. But, all in all, this is a typical entry into the cannon — quotable, fun and a fast read.

Until, that is, Act IV.

Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish but the ending of this play infuriates me. Shylock is deprived of a perfectly reasonable debt by a legal theory that wouldn’t water in a kangaroo court administered by someone who, technically speaking, has no legal authority. The logic used to defeat Shylock — that he could not get a pound of flesh without spilling blood — easily destroys Portia’s argument that he tried to kill a Venetian. A more typical twist of this would be to have Portia’s argument used to threaten the hero, then to have him rescued by a wiser ruling. But, of course, the entire court scene is a farce, degenerating quickly into an excuse to impoverish, humiliate and convert Shylock, a character I find unsympathetic and deserving of a comeuppance, but not one as arbitrary and total as the one he gets.

That, of course, brings me to the big question about this play: is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic? Well, there’s a good case to be made that it is. Jews and Judaism are denounced repeatedly. The hero of the play admits to abusing and spitting on Shylock. The happy ending has both Shylock and Jessica converting to Christianity and there is zero irony or ambivalence about it. To the extent that there is sympathy for Shylock — his famous speech — it still regards his religion as more of a tragic flaw. Othello the Moor’s religion was treated with more respect than this.

Historically, the role was played was little sympathy until modern times. The fact that the role can be made sympathetic has less to do with any subconscious sympathy in the writer and more to do a key factor of Shakespeare’s enduring brilliance: the ability of the plays to resonate in any context or performance. The Taming of the Shrew still appeals when converted into a teen comedy; Macbeth is still compelling even, as my Twitter friends discussed, he’s a vet with PTSD; and Shylock can be made into a sympathetic character. This happens because Shakespeare spoke to deep needs, fears and emotions. This happens because all of his characters and plots are multi-layered. This happens because he was Shakespeare.

(Defenders claim Shylock is vilified and humiliated more for his greed and usury than his religion. Apart from ignoring the plain text, this misses the context. Banking was synonymous with European Jews in the last millenium because Christians tought charging interest was sinful. Since Jews were going to hell anyway and were barred from most other professions, they naturally became bankers. And it wasn’t long before the caricature of the greedy Jew arose. So vilifying Shylock for usury and greed, in the Elizabethan Era, isn’t that far from vilifying him for his faith.)

In the comments on one play, I noted arguments I had in college over Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale”. The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-semitic but my professor and my class bent over backward to pretend that it was really mocking anti-semitism. I countered that their desperation to prove Chaucer was free of or wasn’t exploiting any anti-semitic feeling was a form of modern chauvinism. Chaucer didn’t invent anti-semitism. He was a man of his time, born into a country that had expelled Jews and regarded them as intrinsically evil. Anti-semitism would be as natural for a man of 14th century England as racism was or a man of the 19th. His writing is just as brilliant if he were anti-semitic than if he weren’t. In fact, the Prioress’s tale is quite well-told, for being a blood libel story.

Shakespeare didn’t invent anti-semitism and, to my knowledge, it doesn’t appear in any other works. And it’s likely that, like Chaucer, his use of a Jew as the villain more to do with is culture that any particular feeling of his. But the disdain for Jews and Judaism by the heroes of Merchant is unmistakable. Why should we refuse to accept that he might have accepted the same things about Jews that everyone else did?

Frankly, the beliefs of artists don’t really bother me. There are many modern artists who embraced the murderous soul-crushing evil of communism. There are many who have embraced racism, anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, sexism and any other form of bigotry you care to nominate. We shouldn’t ignore the brilliant things they make when they are not irreparably tainted. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. Merchant of Venice is a great play. That Shakespeare might have bought into the common and official belief that Jews were evil does not change that.

Next Up: As You Like It

The Shakespeare Project: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.” – Bottom

What can I say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has not already been said? It is (so far) the best of the comedies. Some of the lesser comedies drag on a bit (at least on the page) and I have to will myself to finish. Every time I read Dream, I fly through it, delighted with everything I’m reading — every plot twist, every beautiful turn of phrase, every word. Not a character or scene is wasted. By the time I reach the end, I feel like I’ve rushed through the story.

I did notice one thing this time around, something I’m noticing when I read plays that I read previously in high school or college: the characters with whom I identify the most has changed. The first time I read Dream, my favorite character was Puck. But this time, I found myself in far more sympathy with Bottom, the little man who so dreams of being big. The play at the end, which previously annoyed me, now seems almost poignant.

(As an aside, the 1999 film version of this play is quite serviceable. Kevin Klein, Stanley Tucci and Michelle Pfeiffer all show a wonderful ease with the material, eschewing the usual overdramatic intonation that tends to characterize bad Shakespeare productions. It’s not great, but it’s very watchable.)

Next Up: Merchant of Venice

The Shakespeare Project: Love’s Labours Lost

I tried, but I just couldn’t get into this one. Maybe it’s because my reading was spread over many weeks; maybe it’s because I was reading it while tired. Or maybe it’s because it’s a very “in” play with contemporaneous references that aren’t as relevant today. I was frequently thanking the heavens for the Kindle’s ability to look up words with a click. Shakespeare’s other plays have aged well, but this one just hasn’t.

There was some stuff I enjoyed. Some wordplay was clever and the character of Berowne was good. But it was just missing something. Situations that should have been clever — Costard mixing up the letters, the overlapping overheard conversations, the attempts by the men to conceal their feelings — just washed over me. The games the women played at the end — games played so well in, say, Merry Wives of Windsor just seemed cruel and arbitrary. And then it end up in the air.

Humph. Maybe Love’s Labours Won would have redeemed it. In fact, the whole thing plays like a prelude to the possibly apocryphal second play. Unfortunately, we don’t have that play. So we’re stuck with one of the weaker comedies.

Up Next: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy Dream. One of his best.

The Shakespeare Project: Much Ado About Nothing

For it so falls out That what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why, then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession would not show us whiles it was ours.

Much Ado is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and would fight it out with Midsummer Night’s Dream for the title of favorite comedy (Puck has a good right hook). Everything works. The drama is strong, the characters vivid. The dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice sizzles on the page and explodes in performance. They even made a good movie out of it, Keanu Reeves not withstanding.

One element that jumped out at me on a second reading was the critical scene after the failed wedding. Leonato immediately denounces his own daughter, then turns 180 degrees and promises to kill those who slandered her. He is so mortally obsessed with his honor, he almost single-handedly changes this comedy into a tragedy. One could easily see it careening off to having all the leads dead by their own or others’ hands. All because Leonato’s outrage sways with every wind that blows.

What saves the action is the Friar, a part not commented on very much. It is he who suggests delaying rash action until the truth is known. It is he who comes up with the plan to provoke Claudio’s remorse by faking Hero’s death. He literally saves everyone. It’s been pointed out that the only men who survive Hamlet are a student and a soldier. Interesting that the only man in Much Ado who retains hold of his senses is a man of God.

One much-commented upon aspect of the play is the War between the Sexes, as best embodied by Balthazar’s song about the nature of men (which Branagh notably selected as the first words of his marvelous film adaptation). I’ve been recently following the debate between Dan Savage and others about the feasibility of monogamy. Savage has been advocating that people unsuited to it would be better off if they tolerated relationships that are, in his words, “monogamish”: where the occasional infidelity is tolerated so long as the primary relationship is respected and maintained (this being common for much of history). Shakespeare, being an Elizabethan, embraces the idea that men should abandon the “masculine” temperament for sleeping around for the “feminine” temperate of settling down (I’ve described Hollywood versions of this as the Male Maturity Movie). He also embraces the madonna/whore duality and tight control of female sexuality that was so prevalent in his day and has been so damaging to Western thought.

I’m not game to impose modern attitudes on him and pretend that he’s mocking these attitudes: he clearly isn’t. The thread runs through all of his plays. But Much Ado is a great play built on this essential conflict in the natures of men and women and the incompatibility of those natures with societal strictures.

Somewhere, my old English teacher just had an orgasm.

Next Up: Love’s Labours Lost

The Shakespeare Project: The Comedy of Errors

Marry, sir, she’s he kitchen wench, and all grease; and I know not what use to put her to, but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rages, and the tallow in them, wil burn a Poland winter: if she lives till Doomsday, she’ll burn week longer than the whole world. – Dromio

The Comedy of Errors is simple pure fun. Oh, I’m sure plenty of people can find deep meaning it. But you don’t have to go that deep to enjoy the pure foolishness of the plot, the characters and the dialogue. I literally laughed out loud a few times, notably in Dromio of Syracuse’s description of Dromio of Ephesus’ wife, from which the above is drawn.

Even in this comedy, however, you see once again how Shakepeare balances his comedies right on the edge of tragedy. A single mis-step and poorly timed meeting and you end up with one brother killing another for sleeping with his wife, the father executed, the servants in prison and the mother flinging herself from the nearest tall building. But the genius of the comedies is that they never have to play out that way. They don’t have a shocking ending for its own sake. We know, from the first scene, that all will end in laughter rather than tears. In fact, I had the whole plot in mind by Act 2. But, as I’ve said, it’s the journey from Point A to Point B that makes these so enjoyable.

Next Up: Much Ado About Nothing. One of my favorites.

The Shakespeare Project: Measure for Measure

but man, proud man! Dress’d in a little brief authority,– most ignorant of what he’s most assured, His glassy essence, — like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make he angels weep; who with our spleens; Would all themselves laugh mortal.

One of the reasons I started this was to find plays I was unfamiliar with but would enjoy. Measure for Measure is definitely one. It doesn’t reach the heights that Shakespeare is capable of and the humor isn’t very strong. But one of the advantages of being a “problem play” is that it has a large share of drama that works well. The confrontation between Angelo and Isabella, from the above quote is drawn, is one of the better parts as is the subsequent scene in which Claudio eventually asks his sister to sleep with Antonio for his life. The plot ties together a little too neatly in the end, sharing a narrative trick with All’s Well so that everyone ends up married. And the Duke ex Machina ending drags out a bit.

But, as always with Shakespeare, it’s how you get there that’s the fun part. Antonio, in particular, is a good villain — the archetypal small man who should never be given even a modicum of power. (It’s nice to know that hypocrisy from hyper-moralistic politicians is nothing new.) It’s a pity that he has to be spared to fit in with the comedy.

Next Up: The Comedy of Errors

The Shakespeare Project: The Merry Wives of Windsor

All right, cards on the table time. Here is the list of the Shakespeare plays I was familiar with before I started plowing through my kindle: Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Henry V. This is basically my high school reading list. There are also one or two plays I’ve seen that I don’t remember the names of. I once saw Shakespeare on the UC Santa Cruz campus among the redwoods. It’s a fantastic experience that I recommend highly. But, uh, don’t drink as much California red wine as I did. You tend to forget which play you saw. I think it was As You Like It but I may be wrong.

Anyway, you can see some pretty big gaps there. Most of the comedies and histories are new to me. And that means I have, to this point, never encountered one of the more important characters in English literature — Falstaff.

I’m told that the Merry Wives Falstaff is not as good as the one of Henry IV. I’ll let you know when I get there. If so, I’m really looking forward to those plays, because Falstaff in Merry Wives is quite fun, even if he is something of a secondary character to the wives themselves.

Wives is another play that probably plays better than it reads. The wordplay off the accents of Evans and Caius, in particular, is a bit difficult on the page. Envisioning it in my heads makes it more amusing. And there’s a momentum in the last acts that stalls a bit when you’re having to take breaks to play castle with your daughter. I’m also sure that the climax, in which the spurned suitors accidentally marry boys, was even funnier when women’s parts were played by boys. Overall, however, I found this comfortably within the gaussian of Shakespeare quality.

Next up: Measure for Measure.

The Shakespeare Project: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Two gentlemen is close to being great Shakespeare, but it doesn’t quite there. Some of the dialogue is fantastic, as you would expect, particularly the wordplay of Launch.. What unravels it, as sometimes happens with the Bard, is the ending, which tries too hard to tie everything up neatly and get everyone married. Proteus never gets the comeuppance he so richly earns and the characters seem almost casual in whom they end up with. Scholars tell us Shakespeare had some hidden meaning in this. I think it’s just the limitations of trying to shoehorn the play into the genre of “comedy”.

It’s an interesting look, however, at an artist stretching his arms before he upends everything. I’m reminded somewhat of Beethoven’s first and second symphonies, which occupy an odd niche of respecting classical tradition but giving hints of the greatness that was to come. Given the organization of the First Folio, however, it will be a while before I get there.

Side Note: Cracked and I are on a wavelength (warning: gruesome Shakespeariness). I am really not looking forward to Titus Andronicus. Woody Allen once said that the end of the universe and the extinguishing of all human achievement might be acceptable if it got rid of Titus.

The Shakespeare Project: The Tempest

Now that’s more like it.

The Tempest is much more of what I think of as Shakespeare, with sympathetic characters, some comedy and great words. It was his last solo play and it’s a bit past his prime. The ending, in particular, I’ve always founds somewhat unsatisfying after a great first three acts.

One of things I’ve always noticed about Shakespeare’s plays is that the comedies are a thin layer from being tragedies and vice versa. That is, the difference between the happy conclusion of Much Ado About Nothing and the tragic conclusion of Romeo and Juliet is a tiny diversion in narrative. A few more seconds here, a few words there and Romeo becomes a comedy while Much Ado becomes a tragedy. Reading the Tempest, I wonder if it would have played better as a tragedy. It’s interesting to note that some works inspired by The Tempest — the movie The Forbidden Planet, for example — have gone in that direction.

One of the problems with this project is that Shakespeare’s plays do not read as well as they play. Shakespeare was an actor and wrote plays, I think, that would feed on great acting. One can read them by visualizing the play in one’s head, but it is never quite the same. This is particularly true of the comedies where much of the humor depends on delivery.

The Shakespeare Project: All’s Well That Ends Well

Earlier this year, I paid a couple of bucks to download the entire works of William Shakespeare to my Kindle. While I have seen a number of the plays, I’ve never read through all of them and, now that I’m pushing 40, probably should. So I’m going to tackle it the way I tackle everything: start at the beginning and push through from sheer bloody-mindedness. And I’ll post the occasional update and thought.

I’m going to follow the order in the First Folio from his point on, but the first one I actually read was All’s Well That Ends Well, since the Kindle lists them in alphabetical order. This is one of the so-called “problem plays” since it’s one of his lesser works and of the two leads, one is an asshole and the other is kind of passive. Helena was particularly unpopular in the Victoria era, according to wikipedia, because of her “predatory” nature. So performances, which are rare, try to redeem the couple.

Personally, if I were to put the play on, the theme would be comeuppance. Betram is a fool and a rascal — someone spoiled by wealth, class and, most likely, good looks. He ends up married to a woman he despises who now has his title, his wealth and a much higher standing in the eyes of the King and his mother. I’d let that be the moral — that an arrogant asshole got what was coming to him.