Friday, April 30, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Tempest

What I love about this play: The first scene, on the ship during the storm (which could, again, easily be a throwaway) opens up all of these questions about who gets to wield authority:

Boatswain: You mar our labour. Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm ... What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not.
Gonzalo: Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.
Boatswain: None that I love more than myself. You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence and work piece of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself geady in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap ... Out of our way, I say!

And Gonzalo, the nobleman and councilor, is schooled, because the hierarchies of the civilized world are worth nothing against the tempest. (I also love the Boatswain’s curt “Work you, then” – addressed to Sebastian and Antonio, who share Gonzalo’s snobbery but lack his innate decency.)

Pretty much everything else in this play is also about power and authority – who gets to rule the island, who gets to preserve and recount history, and why. Does knowledge confer power? Right of birth? Right of possession? And what happens once all of the characters have found their way to the island, a new world where nearly everything “doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”? (Or not. One of the striking things about the island, with all of its magic and wonder and strangeness, is how quickly it starts to mirror the old world. Mostof the characters’ first instinct is to dominate it, and the second is to figure out how they can turn everything to a profit. As Gonzalo imagines a Utopia, Sebastian and Antonio undercut him:)

Gonzalo: I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty –
Sebastian: Yet he would be king on ‘t.
Antonio: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

I get the sense that this has happened before – that Prospero, and probably Sycorax and Caliban before him, have tried to fashion the island into a paradise according to their varying definitions, and have run hard up against human nature. And really, that struggle against our worst natures is what makes this play interesting; Prospero pretty much has everything his own way, and we know that from the start, so the real conflict is between him and his own dark side. I think Ariel’s “Mine would, sir, were I human” line in 5.1. should be a big turning point, dissuading Prospero from a much uglier revenge. Even so, he takes a really freaking long time and an inordinate number of farewell speeches to abdicate his power, which is perhaps just as well, since the speeches are so gorgeous.

Everybody quotes the “Our revels now are ended” bit – which I do love very much – but since it’s not as well known, I think I’ll finish off my month of blogging with this one:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Favorite memory: This is another one that I got to see at the Globe, this time on my second trip to London in 2000. YOU GUYS I WAS INCHES AWAY FROM VANESSA REDGRAVE PLAYING PROSPERO. I must say this in capital letters. Also, it was generally an awesomely fun show, and the Caliban / Stefano / Trinculo scenes featured fish being thrown into the audience. (There is not, as a general rule, enough fish-throwing at the theater.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Winter's Tale

What I love about this play: OMG, Winter’s Tale! This is another one of those plays that tends to reduce me to incoherent squealing: Polixenes talking of those lost days of boyhood innocence, and Leontes losing his sanity in knotty and incoherent language (“Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one”), and Paulina being COMPLETELY AWESOME. (There are not enough capital letters in the world for Paulina.) Also, that poignant moment between Hermione and her little son, which is so quiet and ordinary and makes me wonder if Shakespeare might be drawing on his own childhood memories – for surely, he must have been the sort of child who made up stories.

Hermione: Pray you, sit by us,
And tell ‘s a tale.
Mamillius: Merry or sad shall ’t be?
Hermione: As merry as you will.
Mamillius: A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione: Let’s have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you’re powerful at it.
Mamillius: There was a man –
Hermione: Nay, come, sit down; then on.
Mamillius: Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yon crickets shall not hear it.

The story is never finished, and poor Mamillius – trying to get a grip on the monsters of the world, as kids do, by putting them in a story – is one of the people who actually die in this play. (While WT is, like all of the romances, steeped in fairy-tale logic and bizarrely plotted, this world feels a little more real to me than the one in Pericles or The Tempest. Not all losses will be restored, and wrongdoing and penitence and expiation are all weighty matters. It feels like a story about real, flesh-and-blood people who happen to find themselves in the middle of a lot of Weird Shit involving sudden accesses of jealousy, oracles, and the occasional ursus ex machina.)

I feel much the same way about the Bohemia scenes. Sure, it’s a magical green world where all kinds of unexpected coincidences occur and problems get worked out, but there are also pickpockets and shopping lists and shepherd girls buying ballads about women turned into fish and speculating breathlessly about whether they’re true. It feels real and human. (Also, I adore the way Perdita is all of the heroines of the tragedies rewritten – in almost everything she says or does, there’s an echo of Juliet or Ophelia or Cordelia – although she herself is unconscious of this fact. But we know. Grace and remembrance be to us, the audience.)

And the last scene is so powerful that I don’t think anything I say can do it justice, but I love the way it preserves the sense of wonder and mystery; there are no long explication scenes, like the ones in the earlier comedies, only questions and awe: “Music, awake her; strike! / ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach; / Strike all that look upon with marvel.”

Favorite memory: This was the first play I ever saw at the Globe, on my first-ever trip to London. Being twenty-one and an English major and attracted to daft theories involving powerful and dangerous women, I spent most of the plane ride home sketching out a theory that Hermione was, in fact, dead for sixteen years and Paulina revived her through not-so-lawful magic. (I think I may have actually argued this in a paper the next semester; fortunately, it was a Women’s Studies class rather than English, so my utter lack of textual evidence didn’t stand out as much as it might.)

Gratuitous DVD plug: Live version by the RSC. So, so good, especially Autolycus.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Shakesblogging: Pericles

What I love about this play: OK, guilty pleasure time. Pericles has a) dubious literary merits; b) a completely daft and incoherent plot even by Renaissance drama standards; and c) some decidedly uncomfortable messages about gender and sexuality, especially at the beginning, when Pericles falls in love with a princess who’s having an incestuous relationship with her father and rejects her vehemently when he learns the truth (father and daughter are later struck by lightning). Oh, and also at the end, when Pericles’ daughter gets kidnapped by Plot Device Pirates and sold to a brothel, where her resolute chastity converts her would-be client, Lord Lysimachus, who subsequently marries her. (I told you this plot was daft.)

In spite of all this, I have a soft spot for this play, perhaps because I’m an ocean person. Pericles is about as episodic as it gets, and the action ranges over most of the eastern Mediterranean: Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, Mytilene, a succession of exotic names and nearly indistinguishable cities. The one constant is the sea, which drives the plot. It’s as unpredictable as fortune itself, prone to storms and “surges / Which wash both heaven and hell.” It destroys life and wealth and sanity, and then restores them again. It gives Marina her name; it induces Pericles to describe himself as “a man whom both the waters and the wind, / In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball / For them to play upon.” Thaisa, apparently dead at sea, is committed to “the belching whale / And humming water”; her coffin is fortuitously tossed ashore in time for the physician Cerimon to revive her.

I also rather like Marina, even though she’s a bit smarmy in her goodness (“I trod once on a worm against my will, / But I wept for it”). She’s the only one of Shakespeare’s heroines who’s a teacher, and I like her determination to make a living while keeping her virtue. And her reunion scene with the ragged, half-mad Pericles is lovely:

Pericles: I embrace you.
Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl! But hark, what music? ...
Helicanus: My lord, I hear none.
Pericles: None!
The music of the spheres! List, my Marina.
Lysimachus: It is not good to cross him; give him way.
Pericles: Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
Lysimachus: My lord, I hear.

There’s a fine line, in this play, between delusion and miracle – but against all logic, except the peculiar logic of Shakespearean romance, the miracles are real.

Favorite poem inspired by this play: Marina, by T. S. Eliot

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shakesblogging: Antony and Cleopatra

What I love about this play: This is easily my favorite of the tragedies. Everything is on a grand, grand scale, particularly the poetry, which is opulent and gorgeous and seductive, and becomes even richer and more laden with hyperbole as the characters start to anticipate the end: “We have kiss’d away / Kingdoms and provinces.” “Come, let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me / All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more; / Let’s mock the midnight bell.” “Where souls do couch on flowers we’ll hand in hand / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze. / Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops.” “I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony... His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm / Crested the world.”

My favorite bit, probably, is Antony’s speech to Eros right at the end, as he’s starting to grasp how fleeting his own life is and how swiftly everything he was has dissolved:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish
A vapour sometime like bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen these signs.
They are black vesper’s pageants...
... My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body.

Naturally, he also reaches for a gambling metaphor – “she, Eros has / Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory” – because he and Cleopatra are gamblers at heart, and they play for absurdly high stakes and lose, just as they do everything else to excess. And this makes them so much more interesting than the sober, sensible Romans. (I recognize that Octavia, in particular, is probably the nicest person in the play, but you see exactly why she leaves Antony so cold.)

Much, much love for the supporting players as well – most of them name-only characters in Plutarch. Charmian and Iras, who laugh off the soothsayer’s prophecies that they “shall be more beloving than beloved” and “have seen and proved a fairer former fortune / Than that which is to approach,” end up having their share of tragic nobleness. And oh, Enobarbus. How do you not love Enobarbus, the blunt-spoken, cynical Roman soldier who is clearly a little in love with Egypt, against his better judgment? (My students last fall didn’t, which baffles me; I suppose they couldn’t forgive him for betraying Antony, but he does have very good reasons, especially if you take Antony’s abuse of poor Thidias as the moment that finally decides him.)

Also, I love Lepidus getting drunk off his head and trying to figure out the crocodile. Too funny.

Favorite memory: I read this for the first time during the Great Blizzard of ‘94, when I was a senior in high school. I can’t remember exactly why – I guess I just thought, “oh, well, we probably won’t have school for a week, might as well read some Shakespeare.” And I baked some cookies, and learned how to ice-skate. We had to stay after school an extra half-hour for the rest of the year – which I thought was sheer torture – but I’ve always been grateful for that week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Shakesblogging: Macbeth

What I love about this play: It’s so tight and dark and tense, with so many lines that give me the shivers. From Act 1 alone: “Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky / And fan our people cold.” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” “Or have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” “What thou wouldst highly / That wouldst thou holily.” “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.” “Come, thick night / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.”

The verse in this play feels intensely imagistic to me – there’s a lot of emphasis on the visual, things seen and partly-seen and unseen, and a lot of recurring visual imagery: blood, birds, fog and smoke and darkness. It’s also just stunning poetry, in general: the long leaden vowels of “Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak”; the slow drag of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” It cries out to be read aloud.

Some nice character touches: Banquo’s “A heavy summons likes like lead upon me / And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose.” (I like the hint here that he’s an almost-Macbeth, sleepless while the innocent are sleeping and grappling with the same temptations that Macbeth is, but he manages to rein them in.) I’m also fond of Lady Macbeth’s “What, in our house?”, which is just the sort of awkward and inappropriate thing people do blurt out when they’re in a state of shock, and I can’t for the life of me work out whether it’s the first sign that she’s losing control of the situation, or quite deliberate, and a stroke of brilliance.

(Random question: Has anyone ever seen or heard of a production in which Lady Macbeth’s child actually appears on stage? I’m staring right now at the “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, / And put a barren sceptre in my grip,” speech, which I’d always taken to mean that Macbeth didn’t have a living heir, but in context, it actually doesn’t; rather, he’s saying that the witches have done this to him by predicting that Banquo’s children will succeed to the throne. And he doesn’t brood or obsess about his own childlessness at all, as you might expect, just about Fleance’s continued existence. I think the kid could easily be alive at the beginning of the play; really, the only thing pointing against it is Macduff’s “He has no children,” and this could just as easily refer to Malcolm as Macbeth. I also think this could be really interesting in performance, especially if the child eventually meets an awful fate as a result of Macbeth’s choices. Yeah, I’m cruel, but there are dead mothers and dead babies all over this play, and it would fit so well, thematically.)

Favorite memory: Re-reading this for my Shakespeare class last fall. For some reason, I’d never had occasion to read it since I was in college, and I’d only seen one very, very bad stage production during the twelve years in between, so it was this huge rush of re-discovery: how did I forget this play was so good?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Shakesblogging: King Lear

What I love about this play: I was tempted to say it’s about the end of the world, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s about the passing of an old world and the birth of a new one, with all of the attendant blood and agony, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

And it’s also tempting to see nothing but anarchy and chaos once those old social orders and loyalties collapse, as Gloucester does: “We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.” But I don’t think that’s entirely right either. Edgar, that young man of a half-dozen roles and disguises, represents the best of the new world; so does the politic and practical Albany; so too, I think, does Cornwall’s nameless servant, who defies power and hierarchy to stand up for justice.

I’m inclined to think that Kent also belongs in this world, even though he doesn’t want to live in it. He, too, is very good with the disguises, and I don’t see any reason to think he is really dying at the end of the play; “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go” strikes me as wishful thinking rather than a literal statement of truth. Or maybe I just want him to survive because he’s such a great character. “What wouldst thou do, old man” is such a gut-punch, and it’s also the most respectful thing anybody says to Lear in that first scene, even though he doesn’t see it. And he’s also got some of the best insults ever: “You base football-player.” “Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!”

On the other side, there’s Edmund, one of my favorite Shakespearean villains ever (and you can probably tell by now that he’s got a lot of competition). The whole “Gods, stand up for bastards!” speech is delicious – fast-paced, witty, when it’s delivered well it carries you along until you find yourself agreeing with him without stopping to think about what you’re endorsing. I’m glad that he makes good – or tries to – in the end, even though it comes to nothing.

Favorite moment: Edgar transforming himself into Poor Tom. This is one of those short scenes that could so easily be a throwaway – Shakespeare needs to put it in so we know Poor Tom is Edgar and not just the same actor playing a different character, but in his hands, it becomes something so much bigger. This soliloquy grapples with the big questions of the play: What is a man? How close can we come to beasts and still be human? What’s left of us when we lose everything? It also offers some striking answers – the crucifixion imagery of “Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices / Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms / Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary.” (Rosemary for remembrance?) And this spectacle, Edgar says, “enforce[s] ... charity.” Which is an amazing idea, really – there’s something essentially redemptive about the “basest and most poorest shape” he’s adopting, something that can bring out the decency in people, a glimmer of the sacred.

Is this too optimistic a reading for Lear? I don’t know; but to me, this play feels like an almost-romance, the same way Othello is an almost-comedy, and the late romances are all about, in Lear’s words, the “chance which does redeem all sorrows.”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shakesblogging: Measure for Measure

What I love about this play: Vice laws. Prostitution. Abuse of power. Reassuring proof that political sex scandals worked exactly the same way 400 years ago: the ones caught up in them are always the loudest moral crusaders. One of the tensest, kinkiest seduction scenes in the history of drama, surpassing even Richard and Lady Anne. (Also, “groping for trouts in a peculiar river,” which is the most awesome euphemism for sex since “making the beast with two backs.”)

Continuing my usual practice of Liking the Villain Better, I must confess that I have a lot more sympathy for Angelo than Vincentio. (Oh, all right, I think Angelo is hot. I recognize that what he does to both Isabella and Mariana is appalling, but I’d have capitulated somewhere around “We are all frail” – there’s something about the repressed deputy having to confess that his blood is not, after all, very snow-broth. Also, his soliloquies always get me – the way he recognizes the trap he’s fallen into – “the temptation that doth goad us on / To sin in loving virtue” – and wants to turn away from it, and isn’t strong enough. And then, afterwards, he’s tortured by it: “This deed unshapes me quite ... Would yet he had lived. / Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not.”)

“Grace” is such a key word in this play; there are constant reminders that “in the course of justice none of us / should see salvation”; grace is the best that humans can hope for, and we’d better start by granting mercy to each other. (I think it’s really Mariana, rather than the Duke or Isabella, who personifies this principle, with her “best men are moulded out of faults” line. I wish we saw more of Mariana.) This is an imperfect philosophy, as imperfect as everything else in this play, and taken to extremes it leads to absurdity (witness Barnardine, who has been in prison for nine years and can’t be executed because he’s perpetually “unmeet for death”). But it’s all we’ve got. And without the ability to give or accept mercy and forgiveness, we’re all Barnardines – “careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal,” in the Provost’s chilling words.

Oh, and Isabella is such a fantastic character – smart, eloquent, determined to hold onto her integrity in the face of incredible pressure – but she has to learn to embrace compromise and accept human frailty the hard way. (I like to think her silence is a “no,” by the way; I recognize it’s at odds with the structure of comedy, but so is much else in this play. I think the clue comes early, in Francesca’s explanation of the convent’s peculiar rule: “Then if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak.” At the end of Act 5, I believe that once Isabella has made the public accusation she came to make, she considers herself already vowed and subject to the rules of her order.)

Finally: There is a Plot Device Pirate in jail in Vienna. That always cracks me up; was Shakespeare under the impression that Vienna, like Bohemia, possessed a seacoast? (Well, OK, from the character names, he also seems to be under the impression that it’s in Italy, so why not?)

Favorite memory: A Washington University student performance a few years back – probably the single best undergraduate Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen. I think this one shaped a lot of my affection for Angelo, because he was clearly shaken to the core by the revelations of the last scene, to the point where he seemed about to collapse if he hadn’t had Mariana to prop him up, and it made me believe absolutely in their relationship.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Shakesblogging: All's Well That Ends Well, plus bonus cupcakes

Look what I baked for Shakespeare's birthday! Aren't they pretty?

What I love find intriguing about this play: I find this a tough play to love, exactly – it’s got a heroine who’s as clever and determined and independent as any of the girls in the earlier comedies, but all of her brains and courage are invested in the single-minded pursuit of a man who is Very Bad News. And Bertram’s reformation in the end just doesn’t work for me (and I’m a pretty easy sell – I’m willing to accept Claudio and Angelo as changed men, but they both have big, shaken-to-the-core moments that can plausibly lead to realization and repentance. Bertram, on the other hand, tries to lie, slander, and weasel his way out of trouble all through the last scene.) I dunno. In lots of ways, Measure is a much more cynical play, but it also has a powerful message about grace and mercy and the potential for redemption; with All’s Well, the most we get is the king’s equivocal conclusion, “All yet seems well.”

That said, there are some really masterful touches in this play, starting with the language. Like a lot of late-ish Shakespeare, it’s written in a strange idiom, elliptical and riddling and hard to parse, but incredibly expressive. Take, for example, this exchange:

Helena: ... Now shall he –
I know not what he shall. God send him well.
The court’s a learning place, and he is one –
Parolles: What one, i’ faith?
Helena: That I wish well. ‘Tis pity.
Parolles: What’s pity?
Helena: That wishing well had not a body in’t
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks.

No wonder poor Parolles is confused; Helena practically never spits out a whole sentence, and the syntax of that last speech is beyond convoluted – but with a sudden flash of clarity and eloquence: “we, the poorer born / Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes.” (Also, of course, Helena doesn’t directly confide her love for Bertram; she speaks in riddles, almost from the beginning to the end of the play.)

And perhaps, after all, she’s under no illusions about her prospects for happiness with him; the most she says of her hopes for the future is “the time will bring on summer, / When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns, / And be as sweet as sharp.”

Favorite moment: Parolles getting kidnapped by fake Muscovites. Gotta love the gibberish. Throca movosus, cargo, cargo, cargo! Oscorbidulchos volivorco!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shakesblogging: Othello

What I love about this play: This is another eminently teachable one. I think it’s partly the fact that it isn’t taught in high schools much, so students don’t come to it with as many preconceptions, and partly the fact that it’s about emotions that are pretty well universal, and not so much about kingship.

I really like the relationship between Desdemona and Emilia – it reminds me a bit of Hero and Beatrice. In fact, this whole tragedy feels so much like a comedy that has missed its way, particularly where the women’s parts are concerned. The Desdemona of Acts 1-3 is a comedy heroine – self-assured enough to defy her father and claim a husband of her own choosing, determined to follow Othello wherever he goes, able to banter with Iago and counter his misogynistic jokes. The pity of it is that she’s not in a comedy. I’m not sure Desdemona ever realizes this, although Emilia certainly does. (I think she’s led a hell of a life with Iago, and she gives him the handkerchief because she is afraid of him, consciously or not. There is a lot of bitterness that breaks out in the “I do think it is their husbands’ fault / If wives do fall” speech, and even more in “‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us.” And then, at last, it turns into outright defiance: “I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak.” That is SUCH a tense, taut, terrifying scene. Love it.)

I also can’t help sympathizing with Othello, as horrible a person as he ends up becoming. I think I’m drawn to him because he’s a natural storyteller with an utterly bewitching way with words (I love “antres vast and deserts idle,” as well as the “‘Tis true, there’s magic in the web of it” speech about the handkerchief). But nevertheless he’s hyper-aware that he’s a foreigner, and convinced that the Venetians can run rings around him with their subtlety. And Iago recognizes that insecurity, and exploits it. (I like the fact that Othello goes out telling a story – even if it’s a story in which he’s casting himself as the malignant Turk, the demon to be exorcised. And it’s a powerful, compelling story, one that captivates and disarms the men who are about to arrest him.)

Favorite moment: The scene between Desdemona and Emilia at the end of Act 4. It’s like the calm before the storm – they both know something is very, very wrong, and are doing their best to distract themselves from it. And so the conversation circles around and around all of the things they’re trying to avoid talking about – the story of Barbary, chatter about Lodovico being a proper man, Barbary’s song again; Emilia trying to make a joke of Desdemona’s question, and finally revealing the depth of her anger and bitterness.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shakesblogging: Troilus and Cressida

What I love about this play: Perhaps “love” is the wrong word, because this is a sordid, unpleasant play, one that I haven’t actually felt much desire to return to. But I’m kind of fond of it because it was my edge-of-adulthood play – one of the many that I read for the first time in freshman Shakespeare, and the one that really resonated with an eighteen-year-old who was starting to get complexity and grey areas.

I was also having my first encounter with real, raw misery, in the person of a roommate who drank too much, slept most of the day, and habitually woke me up when she came in crying at two a.m. I felt like I ought to be sympathetic, but I just wasn’t. In retrospect, I think a lot of her alienation had to do with class and culture; she had been the top student at a tiny high school in rural Virginia, but she was far out of her academic and social comfort zone in college, and knew it. By the time we’d been in college a month, her side of the room was a clutter of dead flowers, empty Zima bottles, and pizza boxes filled with cigarette ash; I had to tiptoe in and out of the room between classes, and I resented it. When I think of Cressida, I think of my roommate: a kid who makes bad choices, but who has been dealt a worse lot, thrust into an alien world and told that she ought to be grateful for it.

Anyway, this is a play that relentlessly tears down the mystique of war, of the classical heroes, and, especially, of romance. In the first scene, Troilus exclaims, “Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair, / When with your blood you daily paint her thus.” Hector will later call her “a pearl / Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships, / And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants” – a nice little echo and reversal of Marlowe; this is beauty that cheapens men rather than immortalizing them.

Also, props to the ending for its sheer audacity: the only Shakespearean tragedy (and yes, I do think it’s a tragedy) that ends not with some sort of cleansing and redepmtion, but rather with an embittered Troilus chewing out Pandarus, who delivers an epilogue about brothels and syphilis and indicts the audience:

Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made:
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss:
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.

Whew. Pandarus just barely slips in a reminder that the conventional epilogue appeals to the audience’s goodwill, and then turns it into a massive “Fuck all of you.” I have to wonder whether this was ever actually delivered, and if so, in what spirit the audience took it.

Favorite memory: “Ulysses just doesn’t get it.”

My freshman Shakespeare prof said this one day, in the sort of voice that makes five rows of heads snap up, as he asked us to turn to the speech about degree.

We’d learned a very ordered, Tillyard-inflected version of How The Universe Works In Shakespeare in high school, and this was the first time anyone had suggested to me that perhaps Shakespeare didn’t entirely believe this particular party line. Click. A whole new world of possibilities.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shakesblogging: Hamlet

Holy crap, what do you say about Hamlet? I have no idea, which doesn’t bode well for my attempts to teach this play. (I think my classes on it last fall were kind of a flaily mess, and I’m not sure this year will be any better.)

What I love about this play: It has so much stuff packed into it – Big Action Scenes, reams of philosophy, a play-within-a-play (with bonus theatrical in-jokes), murder, madness, skulduggery, skull-digging, and (just for the heck of it) Plot Device Pirates. Oh, and an invasion of Poland, although one might reasonably be forgiven for not noticing that part. I have trouble grappling with this play in the classroom because it feels so overwhelming and overstuffed (and I rather suspect the text we have is the equivalent of a director’s cut DVD with loads of bonus scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical version), but it’s mostly really interesting stuff.

For some reason, most of the parts of this play that I really like are random, throwaway bits, rather than the famous ones. It goes without saying that I have much love for the ghost’s speech, perhaps the best opening of a ghost story ever:

I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine....

Also, Hamlet vs. Polonius is a hoot: “My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.” “You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal, except my life, except my life, except my life.” (Poor Polonius is still playing straight man when he’s dead: “At supper ... not where he eats, but where he is eaten.” Plus, Hamlet slips in a bonus Diet of Worms joke: seventeenth-century nerd humor at its finest.) Even more awesome is Hamlet’s reply to Claudius’s query, “Where is Polonius?” “In heaven; send thither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself. Honestly? Never mind the soliloquies – they’re kind of self-indulgent – it’s the darkly hilarious Hamlet who emerges in dialogue with people he doesn’t like who really wins me over. (I also find it rather endearing that the brilliant, university-educated prince is an absolutely awful poet, like many of the Clever Young Men in Shakespeare, and no great shakes as a theater critic. You can just see the players trying to humor their patron, but rolling their eyes behind his back.)

And to single out one last throwaway bit: oh, the gravediggers. I love the way they’re keenly aware that something is not right in Claudius’s Denmark (“If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out of Christian burial”), but the only way they can talk about them is to talk as clowns, a socially sanctioned role for the lower classes, and turn the absurdity of the coroner’s verdict into an even more absurd jest: “she drowned herself in her own defence.”

Favorite memory: This was one of the first Shakespeare plays I ever read. (Because hey, you might as well start big.) My father had gone on a business trip to England, and he brought back a children’s book called Stories from Shakespeare, and for some reason I got bitten by the bug, and decided to read the real thing. And then I tried to make my seven-year-old brother act out the fencing scene, which didn’t go very well because he would only play if he got to be Hamlet, and he always insisted on rising from the dead and yelling “OH YEAH? WHAT ABOUT THE NUNCHUCKS?” So much for “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shakesblogging: Twelfth Night

What I love about this play: It’s got some very, very funny moments – Sir Toby and Sir Andrew carousing, Malvolio in his yellow stockings, Viola and Sir Andrew’s duel – but there are also so many grace notes of melancholy and wistfulness to set off the hilarity and give it depth. (You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a sucker for this sort of tone-play.) Comparing it with Errors is always interesting. Even in the earlier play, there’s real grief and some serious stuff at stake, but in Twelfth Night not all of the losses are recoverable: Olivia’s father and brother are really dead, as is Viola and Sebastian’s father, and the revelations of the last scene leave a handful of characters embittered or alienated rather than mollified. And that potential for sadness makes room for some moments of stunning lyricism, like Viola’s speech from 1.5:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.

(Olivia tries to maintain the skeptical tone she’s been cultivating – “You might do much” – but she’s knocked flat. How could she not be?)

On a similar note, I really love Orsino’s description of the “Come away, death,” song:

Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.

It’s such a lovely, idyllic little sketch of workaday life, but also a bit melancholy, what with the allusion to a lost golden age, and the way the bones for lace-making also provide a neat little reminder of the presence of death (as does the song itself). Really, every word in that scene is so, so right. How in the world did Shakespeare come up with “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm / More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,” when most writers would reach for the convenient phrase “lost and won”? (Having said this, it occurs to me that this just might be a typographical error. If it is, it’s a brilliant one.)

On a lighter note, I really like Sebastian. He’s just so delightfully laid back in situations that would make most people blink at least a little. (Hmm, I seem to have picked up a gay pirate as a traveling companion? Cool. A complete stranger has just pounced on me and decided to marry me? Well, she doesn’t seem to be crazy, so I guess I’ll just roll with it.) He's adorable, in a slightly daft way.

Favorite moment: “O mistress mine,” no question. (Especially in the Trevor Nunn film; this may be my favorite Shakespeare-on-film moment ever.) I have a soft spot for carpe diem poetry, and this is easily my favorite song in Shakespeare, with its acknowledgment that youth and love and laughter are fragile. It’s especially poignant in context – here Feste is, singing to a couple of drunken ne’er-do-wells who are probably past their best years. (I also like the way they call for “a love-song, a love-song” and not “a song of good life,” as if the two are mutually exclusive.)

But don’t take my word for it. Watch for yourself.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Shakesblogging: As You Like It

I have to admit it took me a long, long time to warm up to this play, although part of the problem was that until last summer at the Globe, I’d never seen a really good performance of it. I’m still not as much in love with Rosalind as the rest of the world seems to be. (On the other hand, I think that Celia, who sacrifices her position and inheritance to follow Rosalind into the forest, and who has some nicely sardonic things to say about her cousin’s game-playing, is a highly underrated character.)

What I love about this play: I really like a couple of the bit parts: Corin, who is a real shepherd dropped into this fantasy-pastoral world, and I think it’s hilarious how he can’t make head or tail of the stereotypically lovelorn Silvius. He also holds his own in his defense of country life, even though Touchstone can run verbal rings around him: “Sir, I am a true labourer: I eat that I earn, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” On a similar note, I also love Adam. His entry right after the “seven ages of man” speech provides a nice counterpoint to Jaques’ satirical summary of human life, which is as arid as it is clever; it’s a nice reminder that old age can be filled with loyalty, affection, and value. (Oh, all right, I really like it when the Simple Folk show the Clever Folk up. I think one of my problems with this play is that it’s too darn full of Clever Folk, and most of the plot consists of them wandering around the forest and occasionally bumping into each other and saying witty things.)

That said, I rather like the old Duke even though he’s one of the Clever Folk, and even though his love for the simple country life is just a touch insincere. (Like most of the exiled lords and ladies, he has no intention of staying in the forest at the end of the play – notwithstanding his insistence that “this our life exempt from public haunt / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. I would not change it.”) But still, he’s very, very nice, even when Orlando basically mugs him at swordpoint. (This is a great moment, the one real bit of slapstick mayhem in this play, and then it turns into a wholly unexpected celebration of community.)

Favorite moment: Orlando and Jaques trading insults: “I do desire we may be better strangers.” “I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love-songs in their barks.” “I pray you, mar no moe of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.” “Rosalind is your love’s name? ... I do not like her name.” “There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.” Ooh, snap.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Merry Wives of Windsor

What I love about this play: First of all, I love the slightly askant relationship it has with the history plays. It doesn’t quite fit into the histories’ chronology, but I like to think of it as an alternate ending – a sort of subversive mirror for Henry V, where the kings and nobles are the ones banished from the stage, and the tavern characters find a space where they can live and thrive. Windsor is above all expansive, a little suspicious of the court and of outsiders, but ultimately generous, even with ne’er-do-wells. I like the fact that Pistol and Mistress Quickly have parts in the fairy pageant in the final scene (and that Quickly, in her second turn as player-queen, gets to be the one to pronounce the final blessing on Windsor Castle – which suggests something rather interesting about the interdependence of ruler and subject). I don’t know that it’s a complete reversal of the power politics in the history plays – which incorporate, after all, plenty of challenges to top-down rule – but it’s certainly a world in which one can imagine all kinds of possibilities that are foreclosed in the histories.

And I adore Alice Ford and Margaret Page, who are the kind of women that I can easily imagine the heroines of the other comedies becoming when they are older: competent, witty, able to recognize and laugh at their own blind spots, and devoted to each other as much as they are to their husbands. It’s like having a glimpse of Rosalind and Celia, or Beatrice and Hero, at forty, and it’s lovely. It’s also nice to see middle-aged, middle-class women getting to do something interesting and fun.

We don’t see that much of Anne Page – unlike in the other comedies, the young lovers aren’t really the point – but she does have some nice moments in 3.4. I like her slightly skeptical attitude toward Fenton, as well as her reaction to the prospect of marrying Slender: “I had rather be set quick i’ the earth / And bowled to death with turnips.”

Favorite memory: Actually visiting Windsor for the first time. I’d been blithely writing away about how the final scene takes place literally in the shadow of Windsor Castle, but I hadn’t realized that the whole play does: it’s massive, it’s on a hill, it dwarfs the town. What’s cool is that it doesn’t dwarf the play; the court is mentioned now and again, and we see characters going and coming from there, but it’s always in the background, and it’s the ordinary lives that matter.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry V

What I love about this play: I hardly know where to begin. I guess I’ll start by saying that it exemplifies a lot of the stuff I love about Shakespeare, especially in the complicated balance between the sordid and glorious faces of war, and between Henry’s admirable and reprehensible qualities. It’s a play that presents multiple viewpoints persuasively and makes room for multiple perceptions of the same event. Most readers, myself included, aren’t really up for dealing with that level of negative capability. Frankly, I always have to struggle to give Henry his props, since my own sympathies are with Pistol and Bardolph, and especially with Michael Williams, my favorite bit-part character in Shakespeare. But he is very, very good at what he does, and I think he honestly believes in justice – “the quittance of desert and merit / According to the weight and worthiness” – and tries to see it done. Also, I defy anyone not to get the shivers at the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and I think it’s heartfelt.

That said, I always get even more shivery at Michael Williams’s challenge to Henry’s entire ethos: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such and such a place’; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.” How do you answer that? The king doesn’t, really – Williams gets a glove full of gold and a pardon for speaking his mind, but the bigger questions linger.

Also, Pistol’s exit at the beginning of Act 5 breaks my heart: the disaffected former soldier who has lost everything that anchors him to society and is still trying to make a go of survival – by cheating, stealing, any way he can.

Favorite moment: Falstaff’s impromptu wake, which is also the last moment the tavern characters are together. You’ve probably gathered by now that I have a soft spot for all of them, but especially for Bardolph (“Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell”) and Mistress Quickly (“Nay, surely, he’s not in hell, he’s in Arthur’s bosom if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.”) It’s such a poignant scene, and all the more so because the best way they know how to memorialize Falstaff is by retelling his jests. It’s also the last time they’ll ever see each other.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry IV, Part 2

What I love about this play: Most people don’t rate Part 2 as high as Part 1, and I have to admit that the first two acts sag a little – although they do have my favorite Prince Hal moment, that conversation with Poins in which he almost owns up to grieving for his father’s sickness, and Poins misses the gravity of what he’s trying to say. The last three are like setting off a string of firecrackers. There’s the “uneasy lies the head” speech, and our first glimpse of the ordinary country folk, and dirty tricks at Gaultree Forest, and Henry’s death scene (during which he drops not one, but two bombshells about that crusade he’s been planning for the last three plays; first, that it is a calculated move to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” And then, when we’ve scarcely absorbed this seemingly Machiavellian counsel, he reveals that he has always believed he’ll die there, and has been voicing this death wish all along without any of the other characters recognizing it for what it is). And then “I know thee not, old man” – a punch to the gut, no matter how many times I read it or watch it.

This is kind of a diffuse, decentered play – it’s named after a king that we don’t even see until Act 3, and who promptly dies in Act 4. If there’s a hero, I think it has to be Falstaff. I love the way that, after all of his shenanigans in Part 1, he turns out to have his own brand of courage – the courage to jest in the face of aging and sickness and death.

I really like the little interlude between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, observed by Hal and Poins, who see the absurdity of the relationship but miss its poignancy – “Do not speak like a death’s head, Doll; do not bid me remember mine end.” (Poor Doll. She’s dying of syphilis, which is a horrible way to go despite all the uneasy jokes that the characters make about it, and she sincerely loves Falstaff. I love the way even the bit parts get infused with humanity.)

Favorite moment: The scenes at Justice Shallow’s, with everyone having wine and pippins in the orchard, and Silence getting drunk, and all those glimpses of everyday life – bills to pay, conversation about the price of cattle, reminiscences about old friends. It’s a moment of warmth in an increasingly chilly and impersonal play, and it’s sweet and low-key and a bit tragic, because you know what’s coming, at least for Falstaff. Above all, it’s stable; in spite of all these convulsions in the state, things have not, after all, changed so much for the majority of the English.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry IV, Part 1

What I love about this play: This installment begins more or less where the previous one left off, with Henry’s resolution “to chase these pagans in those holy fields / Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet / Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d / For our advantage on the bitter cross.” It never happens. Shaky alliances break down and civil war intervenes. Meanwhile, the story opens out: from the slightly claustrophobic world of the nobility we move into the Boar’s Head tavern, where Falstaff does impressions of the king with a pillow on his head, Mistress Quickly gets drafted to act the part of his “tristful queen,” and Hal deposes him unceremoniously.

I think that scene pushes every last one of my Shakespeare buttons: metatheater, kingship as performance, reversals between high and low, the sudden shift in tone from high hilarity to Falstaff’s recognition that he’s pleading for his life and Hal’s chilly “I do, I will.” And then there’s a knock on the door, and Falstaff protests, “Play out the play: I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff,” but he never gets the chance. I love that scene so much; there’s the cold edge of foreshadowing, but also so much warmth and wine and laughter in the moment, and it’s a rare glimpse of what these kings must look like to their subjects.

Also, the byplay between the rebels is delicious: Glendower sincerely believes he’s got magical superpowers; Hotspur, who has no patience for this sort of thing, relentlessly undercuts him; Mortimer, the man who would be king, is stuck running interference between the two. (“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” “Why so can I, or so can any man / But will they come when you do call for them?”) And then Lady Percy and Lady Mortimer come out – two young women, neither of whom is going to keep her husband very long – and Lady Mortimer sings a song in Welsh, which is the only language she knows, and it all turns strangely melancholy and haunting.

Favorite one-liner: (I’m too tired tonight to think of anything except one-liners.)

Worcester: ... I do protest
I have not sought the day of this dislike.
King: You have not sought it! How comes it, then?
Falstaff: Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.

Rebellion is always lying in people’s way in the history plays. Funny how that happens...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Shakesblogging: Richard II

What I love about this play: It opens so many conversations and sets so many threads in motion: what is kingship? Who gets to decide who will be king? What drives history – Providence, human agency, happenstance? What is history good for, anyway? Is there any room for women and commoners in all of this?

The play starts with an abortive trial by combat – which only makes sense, as a means of determining justice, if you believe that Providence takes a direct hand in human affairs. (It’s not clear that either of the combatants actually believes this, although I think King Richard does. I also don’t think the play leaves the slightest ambiguity about whether Richard bears any guilt in Woodstock’s murder. Of course he’s guilty. He wouldn’t be so dead set on stopping the combat if he weren’t.) The king’s word is, for the moment, absolute, save for the one crucial limitation that John of Gaunt voices: “Shorten my days thou canst ... but not lend a morrow.”

So by the end of the play, Richard, a lawful and anointed king, has been deposed and murdered; Henry Bolingbroke is king; and nothing is absolute. The world seems to be completely changed – thrown into chaos, if you read it one way; opened up to new and exciting possibilities, if you’re inclined to believe that kingship should be determined by ability rather than birthright. Except, not. In a lot of bitterly ironic ways, we’re back where we started – a king suffering from blood-guilt, a banishment, a lot of tense alliances that we know are about to fall apart. And Henry’s desire to “make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” suggests that he is, after all, afraid that Providence will have retribution. (It also suggests a bunch of other stuff as well, of course, if you know everything about Henry’s motives, but he won’t be revealing them for another two plays.)

Favorite moment(s): Richard’s description of Bolingbroke’s “courtship to the common people ... What reverence he did throw away on slaves, / Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles ... Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench.” Even while Richard affects to find this absurd, he’s also implicitly acknowledging that political power is a craft like any other skilled trade and not merely a birthright; I think this is the moment when he realizes, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he’s screwed.

I also really like the bit with Aumerle and the Duchess of York in Act 5. It’s a nice little comedic subplot in a play that is otherwise relentlessly tragic, and it offers an alternative set of values to the power politics that shape most of the action: “I pardon him as God shall pardon me.” (This is perhaps the last time mercy and forgiveness will carry the day in the histories, except in isolated corners of the kingdom like Justice Shallow’s Gloucestershire. It’s nice that it works out.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Merchant of Venice

What I love about this play: It is so, so much fun to teach, especially 1.3., the scene where Shylock and Antonio maneuver each other into the bond that is bound to be disastrous for at least one of them. (I suspect Antonio has some inkling of how things are going to play out, and is quite willing to die as long as he can bring Shylock down with him. I know this is true of Shylock.) Oh, the gamesmanship! The manipulation! And the money, and all the complicated meanings it accrues! Students always want to argue about who has the upper hand, and who’s the real villain here, and it’s fabulous. And there’s all kinds of sly verbal stuff going on, like the multiple resonances of “kind,” and the moment when Antonio takes the kid gloves off and switches from “you” to “thou,” which make it my go-to bit for teaching demos.

In Bob Dylan’s eloquent phrase, “money doesn’t talk, it swears” – and the characters in Merchant use it to swear at each other, all the time. (Incidentally, I think one of the reasons why Shylock is so bitterly, corrosively, angry at Jessica is that he recognizes that in stealing his money and jewels, she has effectively stolen her own dowry and forced him to give his symbolic blessing to a union which he doesn’t sanction. There is nothing more intimate than wealth in this play, and the theft is a violation of that intimacy on a grand scale. And poor Jessica – her promise to “gild myself / With some more ducats” seems to speak to a fear that Lorenzo won’t love her without them.)

Genre-wise, I think it’s a heck of an interesting experiment, if not a totally successful ones. Most of the villains in the comedies are cardboard cutouts, like Don John and Duke Frederick; Shylock is an antagonist with real character and motivation who calls Christian Venice out on all of its hypocrisies, and he's so compelling that he pulls everything else in the play out of orbit. (My students always want to know how in the world this is a comedy. My quick, glib answer is “Because there aren’t any bodies on the stage at the end,” but of course it’s a play that resists quick, glib answers; the ending is steeped in doubts and loose ends and shades of grey, and the love-plots that all seemed to be resolved in Act 3 are already coming unthreaded. Bassanio and Gratiano choose homosocial bonds over their wives, much to the wives’ chagrin; Jessica and Lorenzo, who know each other slightly better than the other couples, have that lovely “In such a night as this” exchange, which reveals a touch more distrust than trust on her part.) Merchant anticipates the thorny, knotty late comedies, like Measure for Measure – making it an uncomfortable play to watch, but a fun one to wrestle with.

Favorite memory: Portia was my first favorite Shakespearean heroine; I’d even go so far as to say my first Shakespeare crush. I was eleven. Most of the uglier and more problematic aspects of the play went straight over my head; I just wanted to be friends with this girl who said witty, mocking things about her suitors and outsmarted a courtroom of learned men and played practical jokes on her husband. I kind of miss the purity of that love, as much as I also love being able to see all the additional layers.

Bonus YouTube video: Monsters of Venice

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shakesblogging: Much Ado About Nothing

What I love about this play: This is the best love story in Shakespeare. Well, OK, Antony and Cleopatra is right up there, but it’s certainly the best happy love story in Shakespeare, and I’d argue that Benedick and Beatrice have the edge because they’re down-to-earth, real, and not self-absorbed. How can you not love a play in which the heroine has a cold, the hero can’t write a sonnet to save his life, and they both acknowledge that vindicating Hero is far more important than pursuing their own courtship? (“Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?” has my vote for the most romantic scene in the canon, in part because so much about it is aggressively unromantic.)

Also, I must gush for a moment about how much I love Benedick – his relentless skepticism (well, except about the one thing he should be skeptical about, but nobody’s perfect), his quick wit, his willingness to suspend judgment when all of the other men in the play are piling on to condemn Hero. (See, not all of my Shakespeare crushes are on villains.)

As for the women, it goes without saying that Beatrice is all kinds of awesome, but Hero has this quiet courage and faith that always gets to me. This is especially evident in her “And when I lived I was your other wife / And when you loved, you were my other husband” line – which is enigmatic, and I think intentionally so, but the general sense seems to be that she recognizes that both she and Claudio have been transformed, and she trusts their new selves enough to go through with the marriage that went so terribly awry the first time. Which is really amazing, especially in a play that is so much about trust and faith – appearances deceive, and everyone has to rely on instinct and generosity.

I also really like the subplot with Dogberry, especially the “what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” line. This is one of the tropes of Shakespearean comedy that I always love, the clown who sees more deeply into things than the nobleman: Bottom, for example, can see fairies when none of the other mortals can even fathom their existence. It’s nice seeing these characters get their props.

Favorite memory: Watching Branagh and Thompson go through their paces in the basement of the English building when I was a freshman in college. Oh, that movie must have created a generation of Shakespeare geeks. I’m glad I was at the right age to be one of them.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Shakesblogging: Romeo and Juliet

I’ve been thinking about this play a lot over the last few days, because I’ve been watching the DVD recording of the Globe production I saw last summer. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, particularly most of the scenes with the young men – but I’m willing to accept some of this as my fault and not the production’s, because I’m not sure I ever have seen a Romeo who completely satisfies me.

What I love about this play:

OK, here’s why I think Romeo is such a difficult role. As tempting as it is to think of the lovers as a pair, they’ve really got quite different story arcs, and I feel like Romeo’s is both more interesting and less intrinsically satisfying. Juliet, pretty much, becomes who she ought to become. Her story is about growing up. She’s a pliant kid when we first meet her, but by Act 4, when she comes to the realization that “my dismal scene I needs must act alone,” she’s become a woman of great courage and determination in a matter of days. It feels right and natural, like an illustration of Ben Jonson’s maxim: “in short measures life may perfect be.”

I tend to think that Romeo’s story, on the other hand, is not so much about maturing but about falling away. (All of the really bad decisions in this play are Romeo’s; if you accept the premise that death is preferable to life without one’s love – and I think you have to accept it for the play to work at all – Juliet probably makes the best choices she can under the circumstances.) Still, I think most of the mistakes he makes are excusable. Here he is, a young man in a culture where “being a man” means brawling in the streets and making jokes about rape. And at least in the first two acts, he’s trying to grope his way toward a different mode of masculinity – and sure, it leads him into silly Petrarchan excesses, but his instincts are good. (It’s no accident, I think, that he seizes on Friar Laurence as a confidant – who is kind of an unlikely mentor for a would-be lover, but he is the only mature male character in the play who lives by an alternative set of values.) And Romeo’s tragedy is that he ends up becoming the man of blood that he tries so hard not to be, killing first Tybalt and then Paris. It’s messier and more complicated and really, really difficult to convey in performance. You also have to capture the fact that there’s something essentially countercultural and transgressive about his love for Rosaline, even if the love itself is shallow. It’s a tall order.

On another note, one of the small things I really like about this play is the number of casual references to unseen people and things, creating the illusion that the characters have backstories and off-stage lives. (I think this is a new tactic that Shakespeare is starting to perfect in R&J; I can’t think of too many examples from his very earliest plays, or from other Renaissance playwrights.) So, for example, in the space of about two and a half lines, we learn that the Nurse had a daughter named Susan, that she was Juliet’s age, and that she’s now dead (but the “she was too good for me” line, plus the fact that the Nurse uses Susan’s age as a reference point when she’s calculating Juliet’s, gives the impression that she did not die in infancy). Probably, we’re not supposed to make too much of this, but I can’t help wondering how this play would be different if Susan were alive (one of the striking things about Juliet is how isolated she is, in comparison to the heroines of the comedies; we hardly ever see her interact with anyone outside of her own household, other than Romeo and Friar Laurence, and there aren’t any other female characters her own age). I also wonder whether we’re meant to see Juliet as shaped by the early death of a playmate of her own age – whether this is why she perceives death as ever-present and life as a thing to be seized – or whether this is way too much psychology to read into a pre-modern play.

Favorite memory: Not sure this merits the name of “favorite,” exactly, but I do remember watching the Zeffirelli film in high school and being captivated by the language and the visual beauty of it all: a little oasis in the relentless ugliness that was ninth grade.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Shakesblogging: A Midsummer Night's Dream

What I love about this play: Two things, in about equal measure. First, the fairy world, which is one part lyricism to one part menace. One of my favorite bits is Titania’s “These are the forgeries of jealousy” speech, which is easily the most gorgeous thing anybody has ever said about climate change:

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change,
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

Titania is aware of the suffering she and Oberon are causing in the human world – the ploughman who sweats in vain, the rotting corn, the crows fattened with diseased livestock – but she’s prepared to prolong it; the mortals are vague, distant figures, and bigger games are being played. Ultimately, of course, harmony is restored, and the fairies cross the bridge into the mortal world to bless the lovers: “So shall all the couples three / Ever true in loving be; / And the blots of Nature’s hand / Shall not in their issue stand...” This sounds reassuring, until you stop to consider the implications: doesn’t the power to bless also imply the power to blight?

Second, the artisans. Have I mentioned yet how much I adore metatheater? And the whole “Pyramus and Thisbe” subplot (quite apart from being hilarious in performance no matter how many times I’ve seen it before) is all about the power and dangers of the stage. I mean yeah, the whole “dramatic illusion is scary and we’d much better not have any of it” attitude of Bottom and his comrades is exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but they have got accurate instincts; in this world it is terribly easy to lose yourself in illusion, and there are also real risks to displeasing one’s aristocratic patrons. I also like Bottom misquoting Corinthians as he gropes his way, clumsily, toward trying to express what he’s just seen and experienced: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was...”

Favorite memory: Our recent campus production. This was the first time I’d actually sat in on a rehearsal and watched a play come together, and it was cool. I liked a lot of the things about the final result, but I’ll confine myself to mentioning one: this adorable moment when Snug, who was played by a young woman in this production, stood there tongue-tied for a long moment and then suddenly found her inner lion. RAWWWRRR!!!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Taming of the Shrew

I feel rather guilty about liking this play, as if it makes me a Bad Feminist. (I’m also unreasonably fond of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” as long as we’re getting Bad Feminist Confessions out of the way, and had fantasies of doing an ironic, gender-switched cover version back when I was fourteen and wanted to be a rock star.) Nevertheless, I think there are a lot of elements that redeem the gender politics, or at least complicate them. (I have a hard time taking Petruchio seriously as a domestic abuser when his Grand Plan to tame Katharina by depriving her of food and sleep involves doing exactly the same thing to himself.) And hell, it’s just too much of a romp not to enjoy, what with all of those fake schoolmasters, and that completely daft wedding, and Lucentio’s two fathers.

What I love about this play: The Christopher Sly framework, for a start. (I have yet to see a stage or film version with the full Induction, which saddens me because I have a soft spot for metatheater. I do own a DVD of a Stratford Festival production from the 1980s that includes a bit of it, but the main action is framed as Sly’s drunken dream rather than an actual play.) I imagine it becomes quite a different play when the entire plot is presented as a purposefully constructed fiction – and there are so many other characters engaging in various sorts of role-playing and fiction-crafting that it must work like a set of nesting dolls.

The other bit that I really like – and which redeems a LOT of the potentially uncomfortable moments for me – that scene on the road to Padua when Katharina and Petruchio stop being adversaries and become co-conspirators. (And yes, I think she is a free and voluntary participant in the game – she’s clearly having far too much fun hailing the old man as “young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,” and “Happy the man, whom favorable stars / Allot thee for his lovely bed-fellow!” is her own elaboration – Petruchio doesn’t tell her to go that far!) In Petruchio-land, words don’t have to correspond to anything real, and Katharina is finally getting this and starting to grasp the possibilities. Since both of these characters have shown so much delight in speaking absurdities with a straight face, I feel perfectly free to read the “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” speech as one of those absurdities rather than a serious homily.

Favorite memory: I was going to say that I didn’t have one, but then I remembered that Shrew plays a big part in the abortive novel I wrote when I was nineteen, the one that was going to be a lesbian Catcher in the Rye. (Why I decided to pursue such a project when I wasn’t actually a lesbian is something of a mystery, as is the fact that I decided to set it at a snooty girl’s boarding school, a world that I knew nothing about.) My protagonist, a rebellious teenager obsessed with Shakespeare and secretly in love with her roommate, has an evil stepfather who tries to molest her, stroking her hair. In a fit of revulsion, she runs off to the nearest hairdresser and gets it all shaved off, and then pretends – for some reason – to have cancer. This garners her a lot of sympathy from her schoolmates, but when they discover she’s faking it, they all turn against her. She runs away to the nearest large city and hides in a theater, where she watches a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. The actor playing Petruchio eventually discovers her, realizes she’s in trouble, and brings her back to his apartment. Petruchio’s boyfriend arrives, who happens, by an extraordinary coincidence, to be the protagonist’s favorite teacher from prep school. He briefly freaks out, because he doesn’t want anyone at the school to know he’s gay; Petruchio calms him down, and then – for no apparent reason whatsoever – launches into a two-page monologue about the gender politics in the play. Then the protagonist’s mother arrives, and announces that a) she’s pregnant; and b) the evil stepfather has been arrested for having sex with a thirteen-year-old prostitute in Vietnam. (What the heck was he doing in Vietnam? I haven’t the foggiest.)

At this point, wisely, I realized I wasn’t cut out for novel-writing, abandoned the project, and decided to pursue a career in which it actually makes sense to pontificate about Shakespeare at random moments.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shakesblogging: Love's Labour's Lost

What I love about this play: I adore the way it springs to life in performance. It feels rather dead on the page – all those 400-year-old literary in-jokes are tedious when we no longer recognize their thrust – but on the stage it’s absolutely charming. I’ve loved all three of the live performances I’ve seen.

And it has Berowne, the first of a series of witty rebels. (As much as I love Shakespearean comedy, so many of the young men lack character. The women don’t; Lysander and Demetrius, for example, are more or less interchangeable, while Hermia and Helena are not. But a handful of them have real personality and force – and it’s with Berowne’s skeptical question, “What is the end of study? let me know” that this character type is born.)

As with so many of the comedies, the tonal play gets me every time. We start with four young men trying to become SERIOUS SCHOLARS, YO (and swearing impossible oaths just to prove how very very Serious then are), but almost immediately they get drawn back into a courtly culture that seems entirely frivolous – a world of wordplay and wit, masks and love-tokens and entertainments. And then, suddenly, real grief intrudes; the world takes on weight and substance, and they recognize that maybe, cherishing those moments of youth and love and frivolity while you can is the wiser choice after all – for winter, as it does in the songs at the end of the play, will get the last word.

Favorite memory: Finding myself in Exeter last summer on just the right weekend to catch a free student performance, staged at different locations in a public park. For some reason, both of the undergraduate productions I’ve seen were really good – I guess because the play is not so well-known as to be intimidating, and because the young protagonists are so much like bright students at every college in the world, with their exuberance and wit and their silly but heartfealt earnestness. And it is a play that’s meant for outdoor staging; the scene where all the guys are eavesdropping on each other works so much better when they have actual trees to hide in.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Shakesblogging: Richard III

What I love about this play: First off, that verbal fencing scene with Lady Anne? Hothothot, if it’s done right. Oh yes, she should know better, but I can’t blame her for yielding in the slightest, because the Richard of Act I is almost impossible to resist. He’s not, as yet, noticeably worse than the rest of the nobles; indeed, he’s got his finger on the pulse of all of their vices, and makes them fodder for his abundant wit. (“Naught to do with Mistress Shore! ... / He that doth naught with her, excepting one / Were best he do it secretly, alone.” “Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so, / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven, / If heaven will take the present at our hands.”)

And there’s that barbed edge of self-pity that makes me want to make excuses for him, even though I know better: “Upon my life, she finds, though I cannot, / Myself to be a marvelous proper man.”

All in all, it’s a hell of a sexy combination:

Anne: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Richard: Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.
Anne: And thou unfit for any place but hell.
Richard: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Anne: Some dungeon.
Richard: Your bedchamber.

Much later in the play, Richard matches wits with another woman, in a scene that closely balances this one. By then, of course, most of the audience is no longer rooting for him (and I think that Queen Elizabeth does come off the victor in this exchange; he’s pretty clearly on the verbal defensive as she twists his words and uses them against him, whereas he’s on the offensive with Lady Anne).

And, finally, there’s the wonderful “The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight” speech, in which four plays’ worth of civil wars culminate in Richard’s internal monologue, as all that violence turns inward:

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain: yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter...

Favorite memory: Falling in love with Richard – dizzyingly, violently, against my better judgment, and in precisely the way Richard wants you to fall in love with him – when I first read the play as a freshman in college. As an older, more dispassionate reader, I can see all the ways he’s playing the audience. He induces us to fall into the same trap as Lady Anne, dazzling us with his wit and apparent candor, playing up his disability and self-loathing when it suits him to make us pity him, making us feel that we understand him when the rest of his world does not. But I kind of miss coming to this play as a naive reader, unable to see him pulling the strings.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry VI, Part 3

What I love about this play: Part 3 is dark, violent, and chilling; first the Lancastrians, then the Yorkists, kill the head of the opposing family and one of its children. Revenge piles upon revenge; both sides make claims on the audience’s sympathies and then lose them; in a lot of ways, it’s a more morally complex world than the sequel, Richard III, although the two plays are clearly of one piece, and there are lots of touches of foreshadowing. (Particularly of note is Richard of Gloucester’s verdict on Margaret: “Why should she live, to fill the world with words?”) It’s also an increasingly claustrophobic world, as the focus grows narrower and narrower. We don’t see much of the commons in this one, apart from the scene where poor King Henry encounters two of his subjects who emblematize the kingdom as a whole: a father who has unwittingly killed his son, and a son who has killed his father.

This is very much Queen Margaret’s play. I’m not sure she really coheres as a character across all four parts of the tetralogy – she seems more like a collection of feminine archetypes: ingenue, dangerous French adulteress, queen, mother tiger, witch. But she’s a great, tragic character in this installment. She leads armies. She fights for the kingdom her husband has abandoned. She takes bitter, cruel revenge on her enemies, and they butcher her son in front of her in return. She pleads for death, and those pleas are denied, so she curses, and those curses take root.

I also like the fact that the hapless Henry VI – alone of all the characters who surround Richard – calls him on his essential falseness: “What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?” (Pretty nearly everyone will accuse Richard of being a monster by the end of R3; but it is only Henry, in that sharp moment of clarity before his death, who accuses him of being an actor.)

Favorite moment: I’m running out of Henry VI-associated memories, so it’ll have to be a favorite moment: the end of 3.2., when Richard of Gloucester comes into his own. There have been little character touches, lines that are clearly intended to play up the contrast between Richard and his brothers, from the middle of Part 2 onward, but in this 70-line soliloquy he bursts into life – confessing his ambitions, taking the audience into his confidence, promising to put on the performance of a lifetime: “I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor / Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could ... I can add colours to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school. Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?” This is the speech where Richard becomes Richard, and it’s awesome.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry VI, Part 2

What I love about this play: Pirates! Witches! Popular rebellion! More severed heads than any other play in Shakespeare, including Titus! What’s not to love?

This is probably the cheeriest installment of the first tetralogy, although that isn’t necessarily saying much; Shakespeare’s first cycle of history plays is a story about a world spiraling farther and farther into chaos, and conflicts that are growing more and more insular. The international war of Part 1 has been replaced by feuding factions of English nobles; later, the focus will narrow to a single family torn apart by treason and violence; and finally, at the very end of Richard III, to Richard’s inward war with himself. The bitterest moments are in the future, though; there’s trouble enough in Part 2, but there’s also time, as yet, for the carnival mood of the Jack Cade scenes, and a few moments of slapstick as Gloucester exposes the con man Simpcox, and the combat between Peter and Horner, in which there is lots of drinking and a victorious underdog. (This is also the one installment of the first tetralogy in which the commoners play a major role; like Shakespeare’s later histories, it feels like it’s about England instead of about the nobility.)

And then there’s Suffolk and the pirates! This is the first appearance in Shakespeare of the Plot Device Pirates – that convenient band of buccaneers that shows up whenever the playwright has written himself into a corner. (See also Hamlet and Pericles.) Poor Suffolk just can’t get over the fact that he’s about to “die by vile bezonians,” although in fact the pirates are surprisingly erudite, and socially conscious enough to blame the ambitious nobleman for most of the kingdom’s ills.

Favorite memory: Seeing this live in Stratford, Ontario. They did all three parts (condensed into two plays, but I’m counting it as three on my life list). What I remember most about that production are the Cade scenes – all that riot and energy, and rebels tossing loaves of bread at each other, and you get that the rebellion is a holiday for people who haven’t had many chances at liberty in their lives.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry VI, Part 1

I must admit that I found it hard to come up with stuff to say about this play, even though I wrote large chunks of my master’s thesis about it. I think it’s essential for setting up the rest of the tetralogy, so I didn’t want to skip it, but it doesn’t grab me as much as the three sequels, in large part because Talbot just doesn’t interest me all that much. That said:

What I love about this play Evil Joan of Arc! Kicking ass and taking names! Yes, she is the villian – and either a cynical manipulator or totally deluded, or possibly both – but she’s strangely compelling. Also, she feeds fiends with her own blood (for this version of Joan is basically a witch), and there’s this gloriously creepy scene when they abandon her and refuse to do her bidding. In desperation, she offers one of her limbs, her body, and finally her soul in exchange for one last French victory. The stage directions tell a grim story in a few words: They walk and speak not ... They hang their heads ... They shake their heads ... They depart.

Immediately after this moment, we also meet Margaret of Anjou, Joan’s spiritual successor. As yet, she’s a minor character and a wide-eyed young pawn in the men’s political games, but there are a few hints of the formidable figure she will become: “To be a queen in bondage is more vile / Than is a slave in base servility.” The ambitious Suffolk falls in love with Margaret and, weirdly, determines to marry her off to the king and seduce the king through her: “Solicit Henry with her wondrous praise ... That when thou comest to kneel at Henry’s feet / Thou mayst bereave him of his wits with wonder.” The play closes with Suffolk’s final, ominous lines: “Margaret shall now be queen and rule the king; / But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

On a somewhat random note, I also like the awesomely assonant line: “Why ring not out the bells aloud throughout the town?”

Favorite memory: Um. Finally getting done with my MA thesis?

Shakesblogging: Titus Andronicus

... known to generations of critics as “Shakespeare’s worst play,” although this is unfair. It’s a pretty bad play if you compare it to Hamlet or The Duchess of Malfi, but it starts to look like a very good one if your touchstone is The Spanish Tragedy or The Jew of Malta – in other words, stuff people were actually writing in the early 1590s, and not a gold standard that wouldn’t exist for another ten years. It’s good theater: brutally funny, energetic, mesmerizing.

It is also a play that acknowledges that people get a charge out of watching violence and mutilation and broken social taboos, as long as it happens in the safe space of the theater. (I read it for the first time as a college freshman, in the fall of ‘94 when everyone was watching bootleg copies of Pulp Fiction in the dorms at night, and I think it probably resonated more then than it did for two centuries previously: instinctively, we got the concept of violence as spectacle, revenge as art.)

What I love about this play: First off, it’s got the single best stage direction in Shakespeare: Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand. Eat your heart out, bear.

You can see Shakespeare learning the art of the Big Marlovian Line and making it his own: “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull.” “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers / Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey / But me and mine.” “When will this fearful slumber have an end?”

It also has Aaron, one of the most badass villains ever. (I think I have mentioned before that I would LOVE to see him played by Samuel L. Jackson.) He’s got some great zingers: “Thou hast undone our mother.” “Villain, I have done thy mother.” “Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?” “Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.” This much is also reminiscent of Marlowe, but once Aaron’s baby son enters the picture, Shakespeare tries out something more complicated and distinctly Shakespearean. Rome eats its young; we’ve already seen Titus kill not only Tamora’s son, but also his own, all in the name of Roman virtue. It’s Aaron, the barbarian, who has real human affection for his child and does everything he can to ensure the baby’s survival: “This before all the world do I prefer ... I’ll make you feed on berries and on roots, / And feed on curds and whey, and suck the goat, / And cabin in a cave, and bring you up / To be a warrior and command a camp.” There aren’t really any good guys in this play; Romans and Goths and Moors all do unspeakable things to each other, and sometimes to their own families; but to the extent that anyone has any moral claims at all, they’re evenly balanced.

Favorite memory: Freshman Intro to Shakespeare. Classroom performance. Chewable blood pills. Need I say more?