Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The Shakespeare Project: Richard III

Richard III is the polar opposite of Henry V. Whereas Henry is one of the few full-throated heroes in Shakespeare, Richard is a completely unrepentant villain. And Shakespeare is clearly fascinated with both. He earlier explored the heights of Henry’s character; now he plumbs the depth of Richard’s.

And what a plumbing it is. Richard is a fantastic anti-hero: crafty, amoral, and completely unprincipled. His soliloquies allow him to take the audience into his depravity. The first three acts are a whirlwind of intrigue, verbal sparring and conniving. The funny thing is that, once Richard has power, he gets kind of boring. In the first three acts, he had an underdog thing going for him. But in the fourth act, his actions are just cruel and arbitrary. And Shakespeare seems to tire of him. It’s quickly onto Bosworth field and the dramatic finale.

This is Shakespeare’s second longest play, but it felt shorter than some of the less approachable tragedies and comedies. Despite the many machinations (I read the play on my iPad while having a book open to the beginning to make sure I knew the characters were), I was rarely lost.

Next Up: Henry VIII

The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part 3

Well, that was a bit of a whirlwind.

Summing up the complicated War of the Roses in a manner that would be amenable to Shakespeare’s Tudor rulers must not have been an easy task. As a result, Henry VI, Part 3 has a tendency to get confusing, even for the author himself (the character of Montague seems a bit confused as to which side he is on). Just in the span of Act IV, Edward is king, exiled and king again. Nobles change sides seemingly on whims. The few strong moments — the scene in the French King’s court for example or the murder of Rutland and its echoes throughout the play — tend to disappear into the dizzying plot turns and twists. By the time it was over, I really felt that it was this play that suffered from “middle chapter syndrome”, killing off masses of characters from the previous two plays and setting up the epic Richard III, which looms over this play like a thunderhead.

While I found this play to be one of the lesser of the histories, I have to disagree with the critics as to why. They usually talk about the amount of action on stage, citing classical tendencies to have action off-stage. I actually think the battles work pretty well (I mean, it was the War of the Roses, not the Polite Chat of the Roses). The action also sets up one of the play’s few iconic moments when Henry VI laments the father killing his son and the son killing his father. It also enhances the play’s running them of violence begetting violence and England descending into a chaotic state of barbarism in the absence of a strong king. No, I think the play’s weakness is the one I identify above: trying to squeeze too many historical turns into too short a time.

That having been said, I still am finding the histories easier to follow than some of the comedies and therefore, as a group, more enjoyable. And I’m so excited about the next one that I’ve already started Richard III, whose opening soliloquy is already one of the best of the canon.

The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part Two

Henry VI, Part Two could never be accused of “middle chapter syndrome”. Starting the end of Part I, it advance the story in leaps and bounds, dispatching character after character and plowing through the early battles to set up Part III and Richard III. By the end, you really feel that England will never be the same.

I found this play to be a bit of a tough read. It’s very good, keeping the characters sharp and the intrigue furious. It covers a huge amount of ground and takes us a long way through the War of the Roses. The scheming and conniving of the characters, the slow decay of Henry’s rule, the loss of all honor and loyalty — it all works.

But, Lord, is it depressing. The only worthwhile man in the entire play — Gloucester — sees his wife fooled and shamed and is then murdered. By the time the play ends, the floor is slick with the blood of dispatched rivals and the vile York is in ascendance. I can only imagine things will get darker.

Next Up: Henry VI, Part Three

The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part I

Wikipedia tells me that Henry VI, Part I was one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories. It shows. It lacks the verbal fireworks and beauty of his later works and there is little, if any comedy. It’s workmanlike and bases a lot more on action and more direct drama than his later works.

Of particular note is the character assassination Shakespeare renders on Joan of Arc. She starts out reasonable enough but then tries to sell her soul to demons for help, begs for her life and tries to lie and deceive her way out of the stake. Given what we know of Joan of Arc — even after hefty English rewriting of the historical record — this is pretty far from the truth. By all accounts, Joan was a smart woman who met her accusers effectively and died bravely. Had the French listened to her and protected her, the Hundred Years War might actually have finished in a hundred years. This one of the rare times when the Tudor propaganda aspects of the histories really jumps out (and possibly a bit of misogyny as well). I’m told that in some performances, Joan is more of a comic character, as are most of the French. I didn’t find them particularly funny.

Still, the play has its good parts. The action is easy to follow and the conflicts well-described. Henry VI is effectively portrayed as a bit too innocent, inadvertently dooming his house when he chooses to wear a red rose. It’s a tiny moment that is one of the most important moments in the Henry VI tetralogy. Talbot is the most developed character and the scene where he and his son beg each other to leave the doomed field of battle is one of the highlights of the play. And the theme of the histories — that England is weak when divided — shows most strongly in this play when the rivalries between the English lords destroys England’s occupation of France.

So definitely a worthwhile read. Hopefully, I’ll finish part II on a time scale of less than six months.

Next Up: Um, Henry the VI, Part II, of course.

The Shakespeare Project: Henry V

I said below that Shakespeare had a fascination with fallen characters and villains. Henry V is an exception. He is presented a full-throated heroic figure — a military genius, a just and wise ruler, a man with a touch for the common folk. Of course, this comes after his redemption over the course of Henry IV. But Henry is the rare memorable Shakespeare character is pure hero.

I’ve said before that I don’t think Shakespeare is as subtle as some people like to pretend he is. There’s a school of thought that claims that Henry V is actually an anti-war play, especially given some of the vivid descriptions Henry gives of the horrors of war. I don’t think this is the case. Shakespeare can acknowledge the horrors of war while still making it out to be glorious. There’s a common refrain out there that war-mongers are necessarily “chicken-hawks” who do not understand the horror they contemplate. I find that attitude amusing. Some of the most aggressive warlike leaders in history were themselves veterans. They knew how awful war was. It either didn’t bother them or it pleased them.

There are a few interesting issues with some of the scenes in the play. Branagh’s film version played the comedy bit straight, which was an interesting choice. I like them better as comedy myself to balanced out Henry’s seriousness. But the final scene — in which Henry “woos” Katherine — is a bit problematic. It is played straight in Branagh’s film but I read that many consider it comical or satirical. I must admit I lean a little bit toward the latter as the scene doesn’t really work as romance for me.

Next Up: Henry VI Part 1. Probably be a while before I get to it.

The Shakespeare Project: Henry IV, Part 2

It’s amazing how fast I can go through these things when I’m on vacation.

I would have to say that 2 Henry IV is a bit of a letdown after Part 1. Oh, it’s still very good. But it suffers a bit from “middle chapter syndrome” between the outstanding Part 1 and the epic Henry V. Some plot threads from Part 1 are wrapped up too quickly and not much groundwork is laid for the next installment.

Part 1 struck an excellent balance with the low comedy of the Falstaff scenes and the high drama of the politics. It featured an fantastic counterpart to Prince Harry in Hotspur and built to an exciting battle. Part 2 doesn’t quite balance as well, with the low comedy being a bit much and the high drama not working as well. Northumberland’s waffling and selling out of allies is dropped too early. York is never made into a great villain. The conflict is resolved hastily (and, to my mind, dishonorably). It only reaches a real high point when Henry IV is dying and immediately thereafter, as Harry assumed the mantle of leadership.

Falstaff is wonderful, although I feel he played better off Prince Hal, who was his equal in verbal gymnastics, than he does off Lively or Doll. Henry’s rejection of him is heart-breaking, although not milked the way it should be (and indeed many, including Branagh, add this missing touch in their productions of Henry V).

In any case, I’m loving the histories. Maybe it’s because Shakespeare was bound by actual events, which makes the plot more linear and less dependent on twists. Maybe it’s because it combines the best elements of comedy and tragedy instead of being hamstrung by the conventions of either. Maybe it’s just because I love history. Whatever, the case, don’t expect a long wait before my next update.

Next Up: Henry V, of course. One of my favorites.

The Shakespeare Project: Henry IV, Part I

So that’s what everyone was on about.

One of the reasons I started this project was the realization that my only encounter with Falstaff was his brief (but poignant) cameo in Branagh’s Henry V. And until two days ago, my only real experience was from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is fun in Wives, but nothing like what he is in this one. Whenever the action moved to Hotspur or Henry IV, I found myself wondering when they were going to get back to Falstaff. As noted by many, his recounting of the attack by the robbers, the way he turns the conversation when Hal reveals his own involvement, his verbal outfoxing of Quickly … all of it is pure joy. And the counterpoint of his relatively harmless shenanigans to the devastating wars of the honorable characters is unmissable.

Would this play be as good without Falstaff? Yeah, I guess. Prince Harry and Prince Hostpsur are good characters and I’m fascinated by the history. I suspect without Falstaff, we would get more of the sub rosa politics of Richard II. But it’s clearly Falstaff and Harry who elevate this play to great.

Next up: Well, I guess it’s Henry IV, Part 2. My goal is to complete the Henry tetralogy by the time I head back to the states.

The Shakespeare Project: Richard II

LIke many authors, Shakespeare seems much more fascinated with fallen characters and villains than with heroes. Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Prospero, Prince Hal before he becomes Henry V, etc. Just as his comedy centers around common people, his tragedy and drama center around those who have fallen from grace in some way, whether it is Hal’s antics or Iago’s treachery or Prospero’s vengeance.

Richard II, as a character, is one of the better examples of this. When the play starts out, he is king and not terribly interesting. But as he loses power (and possibly his mind) his character becomes stronger and stronger, getting some of the bet speeches in the play. His melancholy dialogues in Act III are a highlight and he dominates Act IV, talking rings around everyone else.

The thing I liked most about Richard II was that so much was sub rosa. The past conspiracy to kill Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s gradual rebellion even as he proclaims his loyalty, his evident relief at Richard’s death — these all are belied by the words that come out of the character’s mouths. Very rarely in Richard II does anyone say what they really mean; they always dance around it. And it is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s skill that I, five centuries later and having to read about the War of the Roses on Wikipedia, can grasp this, even incompletely.

Next Up: Henry IV, Part I

The Shakespeare Project: King John

I think I’m going to like the histories.

I say this not because King John is a great play. It’s not. It’s narrative is very straight-forward. Many of its character, particularly John himself, are bland. I don’t recall grinning like a baboon at any particularly excellent dialogue.

However, it has one advantage over the comedies: it’s easy to follow. The comedies rely a great deal on clever dialogue, phrasing and references that often go over the heads of even an educated contemporary reader (Love’s Labours Lost especially). It’s very difficult to get into a play when I’m touching every third word to find out what it means. John, by contrast, and I suspect the histories in general, are less cumbersome to the Brocca’s Area.

John has some big weaknesses: the seemingly arbitrary shifts in loyalty among the barons (probably reflective of reality, but not very accessible); the shrewish sparring between Lady Constance and Queen Eleanor; and Arthur’s pleading for his life doesn’t really work for me. But things liven up every time the Bastard is on stage. I found myself hoping he would succeed John to the throne.

Not a bad start, actually, despite its reputation as the weakest of the histories.

Next Up: Richard II

The Shakespeare Project: Pericles and a Comedy Overview

Scholars suggest that the first two acts of this play were written by George Wilkins while the last three were written by Shakespeare. I have to say this sound imminently plausible. The first two acts are boring, running through several locations and a cast of characters with little flavor, drama or humor. You could cut them out of the play entirely with almost no loss.

The last three acts work much better and have more of the plot twists and court shenanigans that we know and love. It’s still not one of the Bard’s best efforts. But there’s some humor in how Marina fends off her potential clients and the reunion scene between Pericles and Marina is genuinely moving. But I’ve really not much to say about this play because there’s very little to it. It lacks the fire, humor or insight of the other comedies. It’s not really a problem play or one that flirts with tragedy. It’s just … kind of … there.

So I’m not going to waste much time digging into Pericles. Nor, for now, will I read Two Noble Kinsmen, which is supposedly even worse and is in neither my Kindle nor my bound edition. Instead, I’ll give a quick overview of what I thought of the comedies.

Reading through all the comedies was an illustration of just how important performance is for comedy. The best comedies do work on the page. But I found that the bulk of the comedies occasionally dragged on the page. Comedy — even just light drama or fantasy — is highly dependent on subtlety and on an actor bringing you in. There are a number of passages where the lines read almost like an instruction manual — setting up the actors to carry the show. The combination of language and lack of stage direction often made the action difficult to follow.

If I were to rate them, I would say the best were A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, although the latter is poorly described as a comedy. Three of those I was familiar with but Twelfth Night was a genuine surprise and a pure delight. It’s no accident that these are the most familiar comedies as they stand head and shoulders above the others. Not a phrase is wasted, not a humorous opportunity lost. The dialogue, especially, is so crisp, one is easily drawn into the plays. You don’t need a dictionary and stage directions to follow along and grin with every clever line or plot twist.

The remainder are eminently readable and have some fine moments. And having seen one or two in performance, I can say that are enjoyable on stage, when the actors can add their own flourishes. But they all have some slow passages, some pointless characters or some flaw that denies them the pinnacle of the top four: Merchant‘s absurd idea of justice, Two Gentlemen‘s tedium, Labours slow pace and sudden ending. I am very glad that I have now read them. And if I get an opportunity to see them in performance, I will. But I can’t see myself reading through them again.

Well, it’s on to the histories. And we’ll dive right in with King John.

The Shakespeare Project: The Winter’s Tale

Do people really think that Hermione is literally brought back to life in Act V? Reading it, it was obvious to me that Hermione had been alive, living in secret. Paulina keeps the statue in secret and visited it twice a day; she discourages Leontes from touching it; the statue is of an aged Hermione. I knew what it was a ruse (in fact, I suspected it from her off-screen death in Act III). But apparently, there is some controversy over this point.

(Of course, Mamillius remains dead. In that respect, the Winter’s Tale reminds me of the biblical story of Job. All ends in happiness when Job gets a new family. But I often wondered about his first family, whose destruction and death seems little more than a plot point in the story of Job’s life. The death of Mamillius is swept under the carpet, a side note to the redemption of Leontes.)

The Winter’s Tale is another problem play, possibly better defined as a romance. It does seem a bit schizophrenic at times, with Leontes delivering biting lines in Act I and an epic peak of tragedy in Act III. But Acts IV and V proceed to dance on the edge of tragedy while turning to comedy with the minor characters and a love story between the two major ones. This contrast is embodied by Autolycus, whose singing and joking create a very different mood, often in the midst of high drama and touching love-play.

One nettlesome aspect is that the finale and all the big revelations and plot twists happen off stage. I really am confused as to why Shakespeare did this so often — e.g., moving the funniest parts of Taming of the Shrew offstage. Perhaps this is a performance vs. reading thing?

One of the constant themes that comes up in Shakespeare is the contrast between the nobility and the commoners. It is the nobility who become so obsessed with honor and status that they drive people to despair, suicide and ruin. It is their petty squabbles and jealousies which drive the plays’ conflicts. And it is the commoners who, more often than not, save the day with common sense. The Winter’s Tale embodies this well. Leontes is one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve encountered in a comedy — vindictive, jealous, arrogant and unheeding. Polixnes throw away whatever good will we might have born him by flying into a vindictive rage over his son’s marriage plans and almost brings about a second tragedy. You can contrast that against the simple shepherd who saves Perdita, matches her with the Florizel and brings about the final resolution.

Up Next: I’ll go ahead and throw in Pericles even though Shakespeare only wrote half of it.

The Shakespeare Project: Twelfth Night

That’s more like it.

Twelfth Night is why I started this project. I had never read it; never seen it. And it was a pure delight. As usual, the nobility in the play — the Duke, Olivia, Viola and Sebastian — are mainly background to the true comedy workings of the secondary characters. The interplay between Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria, Fabian, Feste and Malvolio is the highlight of this frantic play. Their interactions, particularly in the cruel plank played on Malvolio, are hilarious. A good comedy needs a straight man but Twelfth Night features two: the vain Malvolio and the idiotic Sir Andrew, both of whom are played like fiddles for the amusement of Sir Toby.

That’s not to give short shrift to the convoluted romance around Viola. The overbearing melodramatic proclamations of the Orsino and Olivia serve as a sharp contrast to the more practical behavior of the others. Today, the homoerotic aspects — Orsino in love with a boy and Olivia in love with a girl — would be played to the hilt. I’m not quite sure how it went in Shakespeare’s day, with Viola being played by a male actor (a boy pretending to be girl pretending to be a boy). But the plot is tighter than a drum, culminating in a head-spinning Act V when everything finally comes to fruition and then is resolved neatly.

As I think about it, however, my favorite character has to be Feste, the Clown. He is the most intelligent and insightful person in the play, playing his role as a fool perfectly, moving the characters with subtlety and giving the last melancholy lines. He rapidly became one of my favorite Shakespeare creations.

Next Up: The Winter’s Tale

The Shakespeare Project: The Taming of the Shrew

Wikipedia has about 745 pages on this play attempting to divine its true origin, its possible version and its possible meaning. You will rarely see people bend themselves into such amazing shapes to try to somehow exonerate the writer of a piece of literature and claim that the words on the page either aren’t his or aren’t really what he meant. The discussions continually circulate back to he old, “oh, that’s satire” excuse, even though Shakespeare is not generally that subtle.

But there’s a good reason for all this rigamarole: The Taming of the Shrew … well … isn’t good.

Oh, it has some redeeming qualities. Kate starts out as a good character. Smashing the lute over Hortensio’s head made me laugh, even thought it happened off stage (in act, almost all of the really hilarious stuff, including the wedding, happens offstage). Her initial wordplay with Petruchio is so sharp that I hoped I would go on to read more, that this would be another Beatrice and Benedick. Alas, by the end of that very scene, she is already reduced to a passive complaint woman, not even objecting to being engaged.

There is some fun dialogue when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to woo Bianca. But that whole plot twists itself with the needless disguises, ultimately resolved in about two lines of dialogue. The character of Tranio is one of my favorites. He is probably the smartest man in the play. If there were any justice, he would have run off with Bianca.

Really, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the notions that this was a rough early draft or something that Shakespeare rushed out on deadline. There are just so many missed opportunities, so many problems, so many plot holes that I can’t believe this is what he intended to write.

Hence the contortions.

Next Up: Twelfth Night

The Shakespeare Project: As You Like It

I would say that it was due to reading on a trans-pacific light. But this is the second time this play had failed to make much of an impression on me. This was the play I saw in the redwoods at Santa Cruz and I barely remember any of it (I only recognized it because the actor playing Jaques looked into his pants when discussing what the time was.)

This just seems to be a play built from segments of other plays, notably the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The villain disappears almost immediately. The device of Rosalind’s disguise is a bit too clever. And most of the couples fail to make an impression.

There are some amusing parts and Jaques’ “All the World is a stage” speech is justifiably famous. I found it amusing in performance. But I’m inclined to agree with the critics on this one that it lacks the depth of the best comedies.

Next Up: The Taming of the Shrew