Sunday, September 18, 2011

July Review: The Taming of the Shrew

This play, if interpreted literally, can be hard to read. A harsh, bitter, headstrong woman is tricked into marriage with a man who is interested in her because of her fortune. He then proceeds to completely embarrass her at the wedding by showing up drunk in horrible clothes and doesn't even let her go to the reception. This is followed by a day or two of no sleep and little food which forces her to bow to his will and call a man a maiden and noon night in order to visit her family again.

However, Tony Tanner's Prefaces to Shakespeare come to the rescue yet again. Rather than encouraging a feminist, angry reading of the play, he points out Petruchio's redemptive actions. Kate in some ways is trapped in this shrewish character that she may have put on as a response to her father's favoritism of her sister Bianca. Petruchio had no need to transform her into a likable character just to get her money. Since he does, it seems he has come to care for her by the play's end. In Tanner's view, his domestic "torture"--beating his servants, throwing food, tearing apart the bed--show her what married life would be like if she remained a cat and not Kate. Reading it from this perspective, I empathized with Kate and noticed her lines in Act II: "What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see she is your treasure, she must have a husband; I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day, and for your love to her lead apes in hell." Clearly she was miserable--her father wanted to be rid of her but because she was so miserable no one wanted her. Then along comes someone who allows her to become a real person by being willing to bend to someone else's will.

The play reminds me of The Philadelphia Story--Katharine Hepburn's character could be viewed as another shrew. She had married and divorced her Petruchio (Cary Grant) because he didn't meet her standards. She too was harsh and inflexible, though maybe not so violent, and had to learn to be "yar" as she says in the movie: "easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right." I think as a society we overemphasize our rights and needs and esteem stubbornness and a rigid demand of our own way which can only make relationships harder. Marriage is not about seeking your way but what is best for both, which requires being "yar", being flexible, compromising rather than digging in your heels.

In addition, Taming of the Shrew is great to watch. The exchanges between Kate and Petruchio are both sharp and funny and the play as a whole calls for a lot of physical comedy. The only remaining off note I find is the servant who deliberately misunderstands what others say--this type of comic dialogue occurs in other Shakespeare plays as well and I just don't find it that funny.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

June Reviews: Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus seems to me to be the epitome of tragedy--a war hero returns to Rome to bury some of his sons and proceeds to choose the wrong man to be emperor and chooses the wrong prisoner of war to offend by sacrificing her son. These actions lead to the rape and mutilation of his daughter, the death of three more sons, and one of those final Shakespearean scenes in which everyone, even the title character, lies on stage dead but two people who will somehow make things better.

However, it goes beyond that as Tony Tanner notes: "It is all, simply and literally, too much--Titus' grief is as uncontainable as Aaron's evil. Shakespeare was always drawn to the study of what 'disdaineth bounds'--excess of all kinds". The horrific violence, the sudden changes on the part of Titus from mourning his sons to killing a son who opposed the emperor's desire to marry his sister who was already promised to another, the barbarian empress encouraging her sons to rape and murder--it becomes unreal. As does the ending--Lucius, the remaining son of Titus Andronicus becomes emperor and hopes to "govern so, to heal Rome's harms and wipe away her woe!" Yet in some way, I think he was responsible for the whole mess--it was his suggestion in the first place to sacrifice Tamora the Goth's son at his brothers' tomb in revenge for their deaths at the hands of the Goths. And this led to the escalation of Tamora's revenge against the whole family. Lucius himself was exiled in the process and used the Goths, his former enemy, to bring down the emperor, Tamora, and her African lover, Aaron. His final words do not presage an end to the extremes, merely an end to his enemies--Aaron is to be half-buried alive to starve to death and Tamora's body is to be left for the birds to consume. If this is how "civilized" Rome will continue to deal with her enemies, what will keep her from falling back into the violent extremes at the hands of another Aaron or Tamora? Unlike most Shakespearean tragedies, no lessons seem to have been learned.

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"May" Review: The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors requires a bit more of the suspension of disbelief than some of the other Shakespearean comedies I've read. The idea that two sets of identical twin brothers (one set the masters, the other the servants) should run around a town for a day confusing each other, the townspeople, and one set's family members and servants is quite ridiculous. That assumes that their clothing was identical and that they all spoke the same language, with the same accent, even though two were from Ephesus and two from Syracuse. Not to mention, the unlikely accident that both sets of twins were given the same names--Antipholus and Dromio. That said, it was a very fun read, especially after all the Henry plays!

While the play had a lot to say about family and identity, it also, less obviously, added to the nature/nurture debate and, I think, comes down on the nurture side. Egeon and Emilia, husband and wife, and parents to twin boys with twin servant boys, were both shipwrecked. Fate would have it that each parent lashed themselves to a spar with one of each twin. Egeon and his set ended up in Syracuse while Emilia was separated from hers. When the play opens, the adult Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have been searching for their counterparts and have become separated from Egeon, who arrives in Ephesus to find them. (Needless to say, all the important family members are now in Ephesus, the home of the other A & D, and the place in which Emilia has lived as an Abbess, unbeknownst to her two).

The adult Ephesian Antipholus is a womanizer who makes his wife Adriana miserable with his absences. He also seems to regularly abuse his servant Dromio, who is engaged to a large cook in the household. Syracusan Antipholus seems more amenable to a solid marriage--he speaks of his love for Luciana, Adriana's sister: "I am thee: Thee will I love and with thee lead my life". Luciana thinks he's acting true to character, however, because she mistakes him for his brother. Also, this A. allows Dromio to tease him and treats him more like a friend, at least until the craziness of their situation intensifies. Also, this Dromio finds his brother's fiance grotesque and over-powering. The main difference between both sets of twins is that one set had a father and the other set was "orphaned" with their mother missing. That and the Syracusans knew they had missing twin brothers.

This is definitely a play I'd enjoy seeing staged, though again, I would be curious about how believable it would seem.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Comedy of Errors

Just a quick post to note that I am really excited to be leaving the history plays behind for the month as I move on to The Comedy of Errors. This is a new play for me and it may have been Shakespeare's first comedy.

Hope all of you who signed up are still plugging along with your plays and hope to see some more reviews soon! Also please feel free to link to any interesting performances coming up over the summer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

April Reviews

I think reading Richard III in 10th grade was what made me realize how fun Shakespeare can be. As a class, we read the play aloud, taking various parts and stumbling over Elizabethan English. But somewhere along the way (probably in Act I), we all got it. Richard was read by a goofy jokester who enjoyed teasing us girls and we enjoyed teasing him back. So, he was the perfect candidate for the various exchanges of insults between Richard and Anne and Richard and Margaret--"never hung poison on a fouler toad," "hateful with'red hag", "bottled spider," etc. Add to that the drama and larger than life action and I understand completely why my teacher chose to have us read this play over some of the milder comedies.

Reading it again, after having read some more history as well as Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour (a pro-Richard novel), I spot some gaps. For instance, 3 Henry VI left off with Edward IV newly crowned, a new father to Prince Edward, and Henry VI recently murdered by Richard. Richard III has the hero villain wooing Anne over Henry's corpse while his brother Edward is ailing and there is talk of the younger son of the king growing taller than the older who speaks as if he's at least 8 years old. So, how long did Henry lie dead in state--8 years? Also, Anne resists Richard as her husband and father-in-law's killer yet she was never married. Also, I find it a little more incredible that she would accept him if he were the monster he appears here.

I've heard the argument that Richard was depicted as such a monster by Shakespeare and his sources to paint the Tudor takeover as a deliverance from the horrors of civil war (Yorks vs. Lancaster) and power-hunger gone mad. Clearly, he was not completely the ogre that he appears but the mystery of the princes in the tower isn't completely answered by the pro or anti Richard sides.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare's play is more than propaganda--it's myth, as Peter Saccio suggests in Shakespeare's English Kings. It's an exploration of evil, of conscienceless man. He begins as an actor and ends as a madman. And it's still thrilling to read and watch.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March Reviews

Sorry if I've been a little slack in posting things lately. I decided not to do background notes for my last Henry VI play and I'm just now trying to finish it. Please post your reviews below either in the comments or by using Mr. Linky to link to your blog post.

Added 4/4: My Review for 3 Henry VI

While part of me is saying, "phew, finally done with Henry", most of me really enjoyed the journey. Overall, the three plays are a great prologue to Richard III. I look forward to rereading that one this month with a much more thorough background knowledge of the characters, especially the title one who appeared very vicious already in 3 Henry. For example, he says in a soliloquy in Act III: "Would he [his brother, King Edward] were wasted, marrow, bones, and all, That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring, To cross me from the golden time I look for!" Edward has only recently become king, ousting Henry and yet already Richard is hoping to be rid of him and his brother George of Clarence as well. By the end, after murdering Henry in the Tower, he kisses his young nephew Edward, naming himself as Judas in an aside, perhaps foreshadowing Edward's death in the Tower yet to come.

Throughout the play, Henry becomes more priest and prophet than king. He is told not to join the various battles because his wife, young son, and knights fight better without him. Also, in Act IV his nobles say farewell, kissing his hand, and he blesses each one more like a maiden than a king: "my Hector, and my Troy's true hope. . .Sweet Oxford, and my loving Montague." However, he does bless Henry, Earl of Richmond aka Tudor, and predicts that he is England's hope. And when Richard comes to kill him, he recounts all the evil signs that came at his birth as well as the orphans, widows, and old men who will mourn because of him. I felt sorry for him, yet it was clear that Shakespeare held him and his haughty queen responsible for the civil war. Various characters hinted that if he were more like his father (Henry V) this wouldn't have happened. The Yorkists even say through (King) Edward that they would not have pursued the throne so strongly if Margaret hadn't been his wife because she cost England treasure and land in France, leading to dishonor.

It's almost unnecessary to state that this is a very violent play. From Clifford exacting revenge on Richard Plantagenet for his father's death to various sons killing their fathers and fathers killing sons to the York brothers stabbing Prince Edward (Lancaster) before his mother Margaret to Richard killing Henry VI in the Tower; I would be interested to see how all of this appeared on stage.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

February Reviews and Comments

Overall, I think I enjoyed this second part of Henry VI much better than the first. It was definitely more cohesive and it also gave me more of a sense of Henry as a king. The general trajectory of the play consisted of the powers behind the throne(Queen Margaret, Suffolk, the Cardinal, and York) plotting to get rid the only good guy besides the king, Humphrey of Gloucester, the Lord protector. Once he was killed, everything unravels until only the Queen and York are left--Suffolk is beheaded by a pirate and the Cardinal dies raving about Gloucester's ghost.

Throughout, I felt sorry for King Henry partly because he was powerless but also because he clearly loved and revered Gloucester. He consistently defends him but when he is arrested he bemoans his inability to do anything and trusts that somehow he'll make it through his trial. Part of me wanted to shake him and remind him that he was king, for goodness sake!, but at the same time, he little suspected that his other trusted advisors would have him killed. After Gloucester's death, he does banish one of the malefactors, Suffolk, but still holds out hope for the Cardinal to make a good death and trust in God. I think that at that point he was casting pearls before swine. Throughout, Shakespeare shows that his heart was not in ruling but that he would have done better as a monk. At one point, he has Henry say, "Was never subject long'd to be a king as I do long and wish to be a subject." Iden, a foil for the king, rhapsodizes over his simple, quiet life on his country estate and yet even he is thrust into the court life when he kills the rebel Jack Cade.

I was also struck by how little the queen tried to hide her malice and her love for Suffolk (perhaps invented by Shakespeare). When Gloucester's death is discovered, she doesn't even pretend to comfort her husband who swoons (again, not very kingly) but laments that Henry does not care for her in the same way as he does for Gloucester. She claims he would rather her be dead and that her difficult journey to England was for nothing. However, this "difficult" journey cost the English people 15% of their income and earned her father two territories in France, thanks to Suffolk. Also, when Suffolk is banished, she begs for his release and also grieves openly upon his death.

Not many lines stood out in terms of poetry but I did enjoy the pirate lieutenant's description of night:

The gaudy, blabbing, and remorseful day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea;
And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night;
Who with their drowsy, slow, and flagging wings
Cleep dead men's graves, and from their misty jaws
Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air.

The perfect setting for their evil deeds of murdering Suffolk and dealing with their other prisoners.

I realize I didn't really touch on York here but I guess his treachery seemed like a prelude to the next play so I'll address that more after I read the last part of Henry VI (hurray!).

Sorry it's taken me so long to post this! Please link to your reviews of the plays you've been reading this month using Mr. Linky below.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Second Part of Henry VI: Background Notes

Since I've just been immersed in the first Henry VI play, background info seems a little less necessary for the next one. Nevertheless, the preface I just finished reading was fascinating (Tony Tanner's Prefaces to Shakespeare). Evidently, this play holds together a bit better than the first and is a little more historically accurate. Shakespeare still compresses history and adapts a few things to fit his theme but it sounds like a great read.

As Tanner writes, "In the first part of the trilogy, England lost its old heroes. In this second part, it loses (in the symbolic form of one man) its law-givers." The new queen, Margaret of Anjou, Suffolk, and Cardinal Winchester plot against Gloucester, the Lord Protector. His wife is accused of witchcraft and imprisoned and he is eventually murdered, though historians doubt the latter. All these complicated plans backfire, however, and leave the kingdom open for Richard, Duke of York (father of Edward IV and Richard III) to claim the crown and begin the War of the Roses. The play depicts the fall of a leader and the descent of the nation into mayhem with riots, pirate attacks, and battle.

Interestingly, one of my historical sources pointed out that the War of the Roses would not have been severely felt by most of the common people. There were only two major battles and the skirmishes may have had negative affects on the towns and fields nearby but the whole nation was not embroiled by the conflict and most of the deaths were of the nobility. Now what that meant for the government at large is a different matter, perhaps why Shakespeare is so interested in displaying the dangers of civil war.

I will be interested to see how the Yorkists become "evil" as the play progresses. Richard, Duke of York didn't seem especially villainous--I was cheering for him to re-attain his family's title in part I. Also, young Richard III appears, already with hints of malice, though in most scenes he either would have been elsewhere, imprisoned with his mother, or would have been too young to be present.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

January Reviews and Comments

After having read 1 Henry VI through twice, I still feel rather mixed about it. There were some beautiful passages of poetry, especially in the first scene with Henry V's funeral:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!

At the same time, the battle scenes were confusing, especially the siege of Orleans. I had to keep checking to see which side was supposed to be inside the town because sometimes it seemed like they switched places. Also, I was unsure as to why France settled with the English that Charles would merely be a viceroy when it seemed like they had been winning. Was Joan of Arc's capture really that crushing of a blow? I seem to remember that in "real" history they handed her over to the English.

I think the play would have been much tighter had Shakespeare written it later. There were several layers of plot and at least three sets of characters that were vying against each other throughout besides the French and English forces as represented by Talbot and Joan of Arc. This is not unusual for Shakespeare but it seemed like too many loose ends in this case and no central story. The jockeying between the Lord Protector and Cardinal Winchester for control over the young king was one interesting strand, as was the conflict between Somerset (red rose) and York (white rose). Both were resolved quite inefficiently by their sovereign demanding them to shake hands and make peace in his name. And the final twist of Suffolk arranging the marriage of Henry with Margaret of Anjou seemed to come out of left field--who was this random earl? I suppose that's why there are two more plays to come. Overall, I'm glad I read it and look forward to seeing how Shakespeare deals with all the confusion in the next play.

If you have anything you'd like to share about your January Shakespeare reading, please use Mr. Linky below to link to your blog post. Use the convention YourName(play read/discussed). If you don't have a blog, please feel free to write your review in the comments section.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The First Part of Henry VI: Background Notes

1 Henry VI begins Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy, if you leave out Henry VIII and King John. Though chronologically out of order, he wrote the Henry VI plays and Richard III before Richard II, the Henry IV plays, and Henry V. I’ve never read these early works, probably because they are not highly regarded and for many years were disputed in terms of authorship by some. It seems quirky, if nothing else, that Shakespeare devoted three plays to the story of such an ineffectual, possibly mad king as Henry VI. Nevertheless, as Hershel Baker wrote in the Riverside intro, “if the Henry VI plays had served no other purpose, it would have been enough that they supplied him [Shakespeare] an apprenticeship and prepared him for that great event [writing Richard III].”

All three plays deal with England’s gradual loss of French territory, increased factions among nobles, and eventual civil war due to internal strife. This first part focuses on the loss of France--if one can call a compression of thirty years into five acts focusing--and encompasses Henry V’s funeral, Joan of Arc’s triumph and death, hints at the beginning of the War of the Roses, and ends with the betrothal of Margaret of Anjou to the king. The plays may be viewed as a justification for the Tudor rule after Richard III but also more broadly as Shakespeare’s attempt to dramatize the causes and patterns of a medieval past for the audience of the Elizabethan present. (See Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare for more if you’re interested--it’s great!)

I’m curious to see if the play will seem “less Shakespearean” since it was his earliest. I’d also be interested to find out whether there are any recent performances that have been recorded of it. I noticed in passing somewhere that the three plays have been combined and abridged in various performances but I’m not sure if 1 Henry VI has been performed on its own very often.

Brief challenge housekeeping notes: Please feel free to post comments or links to anything you all are posting about your reading here. I will create a January review page once I finish my own reading but if I’m too slow for you, please feel free to post your review links here as well. Also, if you’ve joined recently and your blog requires an invitation to view it, please invite me! And, welcome everyone--I’m so excited that so many of you joined me!