The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

“A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we heart it cry.
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.”

In a quest to focus on my Shakespeare Project for 2017, I’m reading through some of the plays following the schedule of the A Bard a Month group on Goodreads.  They have The Comedy of Errors listed as the first play of Williams Shakespeare yet my The Life and Works of William Shakespeare has it listed as the 5th.  From the evidence, the only thing that’s certain is that no one knows for sure, right?  In any case, it definitely shows in its structure and method a rather simple presentation of a budding farce that nevertheless manages to capture the audience’s interest and tickle their humour.

The play appears to be dated somewhere between 1589-1591.  It did not appear in Quarto form but made its first appearance in the Folio of 1623 and the first documented performance in the Gesta Grayorum was at Gray’s Inn on December 28, 1594.  In dating this play, the rhyme scheme is also of assistance, and classical allusions, fantastic imagery, wire-drawn wit, conceits and puns abound as in earlier plays.  The action occurs within a single day, and the buttressing of dual improbabilities in the duplication of the twin masters and servants, the romantic tension of the parties, and the blending of tragedy and comedy bring some complexity to this unseasoned work.  Resembling Plautus’ play, Menæchmi, portraying whimsical confusion and mistakes involving twins of Syracuse, The Comedy of Errors may also have the basis in another drama, The Historie of Error, performed in 1577-78, although the parallels are certainly less apparent.

source Wikimedia Commons

A trader from Syracuse, Egeon, is apprehended in the port city of Ephesus.  As the law forbids either inhabitant from entering the other’s city, Egeon is sentenced to death unless someone is found to provide the fine of one thousand marks.  In despair, he reveals to the Duke of Ephesus that thirty-three years ago in a storm at sea, he was separated from his wife, one of his twin sons, and one of his two twin servants; he and one son were picked up by a Corinthian ship and his wife, his other son and the other servant by an Epidaurian ship.  The years pass as Egeus grieves the loss, renaming his remaining son Antipholus after his lost son and the servant, Dromio, after the lost servant.  Now, against all statues, he is here in Ephesus to discover the fate of the missing part of his family.

Without a friend in the city, Egeon’s fate seems certain, but his son, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, turn up in Ephesus unbeknownst to him, also looking for his missing brother as he has been searching for seven years.  And lo, the missing Antipholus of Ephesus indeed resides in the city with his servant, Dromio, and thence the “errors” begin, causing a rollicking adventure of humour and suspense. Adriana chastizes her husband, but why does he not appear to know her?  Lady Luciana, her sister, is horrified by the advances of her brother-in-law.  A gold chain ordered by Antipholus of Epheus, mistakenly ends up in the hands of his brother and accusations, threats and recriminations follow.  An abbey becomes a refuge, yet who exactly is the regal abbess, and will Egeon eventually be saved and the family reunited?

A Scene from The Comedy of Errors
Thomas Stothard
source ArtUK

In spite of all my questions, there wasn’t much mystery to the play, but while hilarity is perceived by the audience who can regularly guess at the outcomes of situations, the characters themselves are often in states of anguish, irritation, despair, and confusion, not at all comedic from their point of view.  The well-crafted tension between these two aspects of the play gives us a glimmer of promise for Shakespeare’s later works and taste of his genius to come …..

Further reading:

Henry V by William Shakespeare

“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

Written in the Second Period of Shakespeare’s development, Henry V is the eighth of his dramas, and part of the Henriad, his historical tetralogy which also includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2.  The play is thought to be composed late in 1598, as it was produced between March 17 and September 28th of 1599.

The earliest known volume is the first Quarto printed in 1600, which was followed by Q2 and Q3, reprints of the first edition, published in 1602 and 1608 respectively.  The first Folio edition differs extensively from the Quartos, as it is twice the length of the latter, which omits the first scenes of Acts I and III, the second scene of Act IV, the choruses and the epilogue, as well as some of the characters.  Prose is also transformed into metrical form, it can only be supposed to effect an increased length of the play.

King Henry V
source Wikipedia

Set in 1415, immediately before and after the events at the Battle of Agincourt during the 100 years war, Shakespeare appears to have deviated from his promise at the end of the play, Henry IV, Part 2, where he assured a reappearance of the bumbling, comedic Falstaff.  Instead, the play echoes of tones of impressive military management versus French incompetence, and a king who is lauded as a hero.  The play shows technical weakness with an awkward chorus who speaks a prologue explaining the upcoming scenes in the drama, however with the sources drawn upon (Holinshed’s Chronicle and an old play, The Famous Victories of Henry V) and his own additions, Shakespeare has shown a legitimate constancy.

With very little constructive plot, the play ties in various episodes in Henry V’s leadership role before and after the Battle of Agincourt. As it begins, Henry appeals to the Archbishop of Cantebury as to whether he is justified in his claim of the French crown.  Supported by his conscience, he feels a duty towards his French subjects, but the French king has another view of the matter.  When the French ambassador turns up in the English court with an insulting gift of tennis balls from the king’s son, the Dauphin, Henry is incensed, but manages to keep control of his temper.

“We are glad the dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.  
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chaces ……”

Henry will:

“…….. dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea strike the Dauphin blind to look on us,
But all this lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal.”

Yet soon after this honourable rhetoric is delivered, he learns that his friend, Lord Scroop and two lords, Cambridge and Grey, are plotting his demise and the king is forced to dispatch them in an execution.  The injection of this betrayal is quickly presented and appears awkward and unconnected with the whole, but it does afford us some insight into Henry’s character and the historical situation.

Henry V Discovering the Conspirators
Henry Fuseli
source ArtUK

The scenes move from England, to an English camp in Harfleur, to the French camp, contrasting English courage, fortitude and skill to the French forces and strength which threaten their much smaller contingent, but exemplify a bombastic and almost bumbling French confidence of an easy victory, that is obviously misplaced.  The eve before the battle, Henry is represented as not only a capable king, but as a man of the people, as he walks among them in disguise, learning of their thoughts and opinions of the coming war.  His responsibilities rest heavy on his shoulders and he asks God for strength in arms and His favour, in spite of the fault of his father’s taking of Richard II’s crown.  With the French more than confident in their strength of arms, and the English somewhat dismayed by their lack of soldiers in comparison, the battle begins.  With some of Shakespeare’s trademark humour, the fighting continues until the English, against the odds, claim victory and peace is negotiated.  Henry then woos Princess Katherine, daughter of the French king, bringing together the two countries with the bonds of love.

Lewis Waller as Henry V
Arthur Hacker
source ArtUK

As for characters in this drama, the principle one is certainly Henry V.  Henry’s motivations for ruling France do not lie in personal, monetary or territorial gain, but in a sacred trust for which he feels responsible.  He shows a marked similarity to his father, Henry IV, both sewing their wild oats when young, but extirpating their follies and irresponsibilities in time of need of their country.  Both become strong, forceful kings with a material sense of duty, to both God and their kingdom, and who successfully protect English identity and sovereignty.  Even in presenting the English forces, there is a unity in their soldiers as we are introduced to Captain Jamy, a Scot, Captain Macmorris, an Irishman, and Fluellen, a Welshman.

My enjoyment of the play somewhat fluctuated throughout my reading.  While it has a simple charm about it and Shakespeare’s heroic rhetoric draws the reader in, it is obviously not as clever, or elaborately structured as many of his other plays.  The reader can admire and rejoice in the honourable and admirable traits of the English king, the incarnation of England itself, but there is a definite lack of density and richness that imbues his other plays.  Nevertheless, it is enjoyable in its own right and a fine ending to the Henriad.

Further reading:

A Lover’s Complaint by William Shakespeare

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale,
My spirits t’attend this double voice accorded,
And down laid to list the sad-tuned tale;
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain,
Storming her world with sorrow’s wind and rain
This “fickle maid” relates her story, a story of love unrequited, but as she describes her inner conflict, we receive a vision of the maid, no longer young:
“Whereupon the thought might think sometime it saw
The carcass of a beauty spent and done;
Time had not scythed all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven’s fell rage,
Some beauty peept through lattice of sear’d age.”
Crying despondently and wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, the maid tells a respectable man, who is grazing his cattle nearby, of her troubles.  
“Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power;
I might as yet have been a spreading flower, 
Fresh to myself, if I had self-applied
Love to myself, and to no love beside.”
She fell in love with a young man with a silken tongue and enchanting brown curls, who stole her heart in spite of other more questionable qualities.  
“His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden-tongued he was, and thereof free;
Yet, if men moved him, was he such a storm
As oft twixt May and April to see,
When winds breathe sweet, unruly though they be.
His rudeness so with his authorized youth
Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.”
She “gave him all my flower,” without being demanding of him like others.  She claimed that “mine honour shielded” but she became an “amorous spoil.” Even though she knew of his other women, of his “foul beguiling” and of his illegitimate children, still she is taken in by his false charm.  Yet, in spite of this sorrow that is a burden to her heart, she claims that she would be captivated by him all over again.
O, that infected moisture of his eyes,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy  lungs bestow’d,
O, all that borrow’d motion seeming ow’d,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid.
Young Woman in a Straw Hat (1901)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
source Wikiart

Popular in medieval and renaissance times, this “complaint poem” is written in rhyme royal (ababbcc), with seven lines per stanza in iambic pentameter, which I just encountered while recently reading The Brubury Tales (in The Feet’s Prologue), a take on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  Because this style was unusual for Shakespeare, some critics question his authorship, yet there are parts of the poem that certainly echo of Shakespeare, and coincidentially the first stanza is very close to the first stanza of The Rape of Lucrece.

As for figures of speech, the following are included in the poem:  alliteration, anaphora, hyperbole, metaphor, paradox, personification and simile.  Could I identify them all on the first read?  No, but that means that I’ll have to read it again!

Deal Me In Challenge #4 

Hamlet: The Prince or The Poem? by C.S. Lewis

Hamlet the prince or the poem

“A critic who makes no claim to be a true Shakespearian scholar and who had been honoured by an invitiation to speak about Shakespeare to such an audience as this, feels rather like a child brought in at dessert to recite his piece before the grown-ups.”

In Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem, Lewis begins his lecture by claiming that his aim is not to examine what other critics have before him, but to consider why the critics have failed to agree about the procrastination exhibited by the character of Hamlet.  He first outlines the three different camps:

  1. Those who think the play “bad” and that there are no motivations to explain Hamlet’s actions
  2. Those who believe he did not delay and acted with as much alacrity as was possible.
  3. Those who believe he did procrastinate and explain his paralysis through his psychology.

 

Next, he asks you to suspend all knowledge of the play, as if “you had no independent knowledge of the thing being criticized,” and proceeds to examine each view.

In the first case, if Hamlet is indeed a failure, we waste our time investigating why his actions were delayed.  Yet, if this failure were indeed a reality, why does Hamlet touch us so?  Why does it echo with “the sense of vast dignities and strange sorrows and teased ‘with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls'”?  If Hamlet is failure, then perhaps failure is better than success, and such a verdict could never be rendered with less certainty.

With regard to point two, the opponent to this view is Hamlet himself.  He declares that he is a procrastinator, a cowardly soul who wavers with indecision.  The ghost, for the most part, is in agreement.

The last point seems to be the most logical, yet why then, in all three camps, does the play appear to hold each in thrall, enchanting the very critics who criticize it?  Does the mystery and magical appeal of the play have little to do with Hamlet’s actual character, but instead is due to something entirely different?

 

Czachórski Actors Before Hamlet
Czachórski Actors Before Hamlet
Wladyslaw Czachórski
source Wikimedia Commons

 

Lewis brings to light Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, which is an imitation not of men, but of action and life and happiness and misery, yet “action” by ancient standards means “situation.”  Instead of always attempting to delineate a character, one should first “surrender oneself to the poetry and the situation.” It is through poetry and situation, and for their sake, that the characters exist.

Hamlet's Vision
Hamlet’s Vision (1893)
Pedro Américo
source Wikimedia Commons

For Lewis, the ghost does not merely tell of the murder of Hamlet’s father.  Instead, the ghost and Hamlet are inseparable, and indeed the spectre is different from most vile ghosts in Elizabethan drama; this ghost is willfully ambiguous.  Its presence lends an enigmatic uneasiness to the play, filling Hamlet’s, and even other character’s, minds with doubt and uncertainty.  ” ….. the appearance of the spectre means a breaking down of the walls of the world and the germination of thoughts that cannot be thought; chaos is come again.”

The subject of Hamlet is death.  Lewis does not base the theme on the numerous deaths of the characters, rather the situations they find themselves contemplating.  We read it in the ghost, in the line of “melting flesh”, in the rejection of suicide, in the graveyard, the skull ……..  As we read Hamlet, we cannot escape it, which gives the play its quality of obscurity and apprehension.  There are other elements to the play, but there is always this groping toward the final end and questions about the destiny of the soul or body.

Hamlet’s vacillations do not balance on his fear of dying, but instead a fear of being dead.

“Any serious attention to the state of being dead, unless it is limited by some definite religious or anti-religious doctrine, must, I suppose, paralyse the will by introducing infinite uncertainties and rendering all motives inadequate.  Being dead is the unknown x in our sum.  Unless you ignore it or else give it a value, you can get no answer.”

 

Hamlet and Ophelia
Hamlet and Ophelia (1858)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet Lewis says that Shakespeare’s own text does not confirm his theory, nor has Shakespeare given “us data for any for any portrait of the kind critics have tried to draw.”   We enjoy Hamlet’s speeches “because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass, rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it”.  And, in fact, Hamlet is an Everyman.  He is a hero yet also a “haunted man — man with his mind on the frontier of two worlds, man unable either quite to reject or quite to admit the supernatural, man struggling to get something done as man has struggled from the beginning, yet incapable of achievement because of his inability to understand either himself or his fellows or the real quality of the universe which has produced him.”

The critics have never doubted the greatness or mystery of the play, but they simply put it in the wrong place, “in Hamlet’s motives rather than in that darkness which enwraps Hamlet and the whole tragedy and all who read and watch it.”  It is the mystery of the human condition.

Lewis ends by acknowledging the weakness of his theory, only because his type of criticism does not have centuries of vocabulary to support it, as does the other type of criticisms.  Yet he wishes that Hamlet could be played as “a dishevelled man whose words make us at once think of loneliness and doubt and dread, of waste and dust and emptiness, and from whose hands, or from our own, we feel the richness of heaven and earth and the comfort of human affection slipping away.”  Perhaps his views are childish, yet children remember the details of stories.  So, is Lewis a literary child?

“On the contrary, I claim that only those adults who have retained, with whatever additions and enrichments, their first childish response to poetry unimpaired, can be said to have grown up.”

 

 


Deal Me In Challenge #1 

 

deal me in challenge
deal me in challenge

 

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

“To be or not to be, that is the question …….”

First publish around 1602 (although a working copy is thought to have been in use in 1601), Hamlet has come down to us in two forms. Issued in 1603, a corrupt or crude and probably pirated copy called the “First Quarto” (Q1) was produced, then in 1604 a more complete and artistically styled “Second Quarto” (Q2) followed.  It is supposed that the errors in Q1, complete with pretentious and often meaningless rhetoric, spurred Shakespeare and his company to press for a more complete and credible version.  Surprisingly, Hamlet was never performed or printed in its entirety during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the copies we read today are a compilation of Q2 and the 1623 Folio edition.  In spite of the errors and incompleteness of the play, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare’s as it was performed by his own acting company. The evidence of the dating of the play is quite fascinating, as it not only uses clues from registries, but clues imbedded within the play to events that happened in 1601 and 1600. Shakespeare actuates very detailed detective work.

Portrait of Hamlet (c.1864)
William Morris Hunt
source Wikimedia Commons

The legend of Hamlet goes back centuries, dating to around the Scandinavian sagas.  It was familiar to the people of Iceland in the 10th century, although Shakespeare possibly drew from Histories Tragiques (1559-70) by Francis de Belleforest, relating tragic stories of great kings and queens whose lives had been ravaged by love or ambition.  A second hypothesis is that Shakespeare revived an extant version of a play by Thomas Kyd, revising this earlier piece to become the Second Quarto (Q2), and then afterward rewriting the complete acting text and play, which then became the basis for the Folio of 1623.  With regard to the first hypothesis, the similarity of the stories are too apparent to be coincidental, but there are differences in names and some differences in narrative that indicate Shakespeare was intent on making the play his own.

Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice hosted a Hamlet Read-Along beginning in October and set a very leisurely pace, which was wonderful as it allowed me to dig very deeply into the play.  My scene-by-scene postings were as follows:

Act I :   Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV,  Scene V
Act II:   Scene I,  Scene II
Act III:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV
Act IV:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IVScene V,  Scene VI,  Scene VII
Act V:   Scene I,  Scene II

 

The Young Lord Hamlet (1867)
Philip Hermogenes Calderon
source Wikimedia Commons

The play itself begins in Denmark at Elsinore castle where two soldiers see a ghost on the ramparts.  It is the ghost of the newly dead King Hamlet and immediately they inform his son, Hamlet, of the apparition.  Horatio, his friend, keeps watch with him the following night, whereupon the ghost claims to his son that he has been murdered by his own brother, the new king, Claudius.  To add insult to injury, Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, an outrage that can hardly be borne by Hamlet.  Yet questions pile upon Hamlet, enough to smother.  Was the ghost truly there, and if so, was it really his father?  Revenge was called for but how could the deed be done, and was he justified in taking a life?  His father’s life was cut short “in the blossoms of his sin”, but if he dispatched Claudius in his guilty state, would not their deaths become parallel?

Hamlet encountering the Ghost (1768-69)
Benjamin Wilson
source Wikimedia Commons

The contrary questions paralyze Hamlet into a mire of inaction.  He then works out a contrary persona, playing at an odd type of insanity, yet often dispensing insightful, sharp and clear rhetoric to torment Claudius into confusion.  Is Hamlet as dangerous as Claudius believes or is he merely an innocent victim of the circumstances, grief-stricken over the death of his father?  After Hamlet unwittingly commits the murder of Polonius, the advisor of Claudius, he forces the hand of the new king who sends him to England, with the intent of extinguishing any threat to his kingdom.  Yet Hamlet has also injured the mind of one once dearest to him, Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, and her decent into madness colours the kingdom with further calamity. Upon Hamlet’s return, the culmination of this revenge tragedy is set into motion. Will Claudius’ plotting bring him success?  Can Laertes avenge his father, Polonius’, murder, and will Hamlet’s revenge bring him the peace he seems to seek?

You can see throughout the play the emphasis on action vs. inaction, words vs. action, thoughts vs. action, etc.  While Hamlet bemoans his inability to act to avenge his father’s death, on the surface seeming cowardly and ineffective, the actuality is quite the opposite.  All throughout the play, Hamlet uses thoughts and words to manipulate his enemy.  His thoughts, though he bemoans them, actually have more of an effect than he imagines, controlling certain small acts in a very effective manner.  His act of insanity twists Claudius into a Gordian knot of uncertainty, his letters announcing his return to Denmark pushing Claudius to drastic action. Thoughts and words appear to be more important and certainly more effective than action, torturing his enemy to the very limits of his endurance.  While it’s demonstrated in the play that revenge only brings suffering, is there a underlying theme that words can be more effective than action?

Ophelia (1863)
Arthur Hughes
source Wikiart

While the cultural precepts of the Danish society in Hamlet seem to support the desire for revenge, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have viewed the thirst for vengeance as primitive, and perhaps rather shocking. There is evidence throughout the play that revenge brings only suffering and death to those involved.  Fortinbras, the heir of the Danish kingdom at the end of the play, calls for all the noblemen to hear the story of Hamlet:

”                                    Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience ……”

He wants the nobles of the kingdom to attend to this tragedy and learn from it. Horatio responds:

“But let this same be presently performed,
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.”

Hamlet does get a hero’s remembrance, but the deaths, suffering and pain caused by his vengeful actions, and those of others, are strongly emphasized.

There is a question throughout the play of Hamlet’s sanity.  Is he truly mad, or is it simply an act produced to set a trap for the murderer of his father?  I tend to think the latter, but Shakespeare appears to quite closely link insanity with revenge, perhaps alluding to the fact that vengeance has a detrimental effect on our minds, distorting perceptions to bring about a type of madness.  Hamlet is playing at being mad, but madness also plays with him, his malevolent sentiments poisoning his very psyche, and modifying his entire moral perspective.  The whole character of Hamlet is played out in the agonizing conflict within his mind.  Mad he is, and mad he is not, perhaps making him at once to be and not to be.

 

 

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The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

“What’s gone and what’s past help, should be past grief.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, grew up together in a type of idyllic paradise, becoming as close as brothers.  At the opening of the play, Polixenes has been visiting Leontes and his queen, Hermoine, and is ready to return home after his nine-month stay.  Leontes begs his friend to remain longer, yet when he refuses, the king employs the queen’s pleading to try to change his mind.  And change his mind, Polixenes, does, unwittingly sparking a torrential storm of jealously within Leontes, as he, with Gollum-like psychosis, convinces himself that Hermoine has been unfaithful to him with his friend, and that the child she is about to give birth to does, in fact, belong to Polixenes.    Attempting to gain the sympathy of a Sicilian nobleman, Camillus, Leontes reveals his plot to poison the Bohemia king, but Camillus’ sensible and gentle nature will not allow him to commit such an atrocity and instead, he warns Polixenes and they both escape to the kingdom of Bohemia. Yet their escape leaves Hermoine at the mercy of her husband’s wrath and, against all the protests of his noblemen and, in particular, the wife of Antigonus, Paulina, Leontes tries Hermoine with the intent to condemn her to death.  While imprisoned she bears the child, a girl, who Leontes entrusts to Antigonus to abandon it in the wild, whereupon Antigonus leaves the child in the kingdom of Bohemia.  But tragedy strikes when part way through the hearing, Leontes learns of the death of his only son, Maxmillus.  Hermoine faints, then dies and Leontes suddenly realizes his foolish behaviour and repents.

Act II, Scene III
John Opie/Jean Pierre Simon
source Wikipedia

The child of Hermoine, Perdita, grows up in Bohemia as the daughter of a shepherd and we meet her again when she is sixteen and the love of Florizel, the son of Polixenes.  Through a quarrel with his father, Florizel and Perdita seek sanctuary in Sicilia, where Leontes has been spending the last 16 years doing penance for his harsh actions.  Paulina, in control of the situation as ever, makes Leontes promise not to marry unless a women in the likeness of Hermoine is approved by her, and he consents.  She then takes him to see a statue of his dead wife but lo!  This statue moves and Hermoine is alive again! There is much rejoicing and more when the identity of Perdita is discovered.  Winter has melted away from Sicilia and spring has come once again!

Perdita
Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
source Wikipedia

I really felt that this was certainly a weaker play of Shakespeare’s.  The audience was asked to immediately accept Leontes intemperate jealousy without any back-story or obvious proof of unwise behaviour on either the part of Hermoine or Polixenes.  What would cause a person who has always trusted and had the best relation with this friend, to suddenly question his character and honesty?  No other character believed in Hermoine’s guilt, yet Leontes persists in his delusion.

I also was taken aback by some of the staging of the play.  One senses that much of the important action takes place off stage:  the reason or backstory for Leontes’ jealousy; a reason for his immediate contrition; and shockingly, the climax with the reunion and reconciliations is not shown to us but told to us through a third party medium.  I’m still trying to grasp Shakespeare’s purpose in this structure.  The lack of all these critical ingredients cries lack of development and therefore, a lack of impact.  It’s not sensible, it’s not plausible and it’s certainly far from Shakespeare’s usually masterly grasp of his material and his audience.  I remain, puzzled.

I read this play for my Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course.

Richard II by William Shakespeare

” For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings ….”

Why do they call this play a “history”?  It was an absolutely tragedy …. gut-wrenchingly tragic, and I still feel depressed about the outcome.  Dare I say this is my favourite Shakespearean play so far?  Isn’t that weird?  An historical play about a king of whom I knew little about ……..  Yet Shakespeare’s verse is astonishingly beautiful.  The words flow around you like a bubbling river, conveying the anguish, terror, loss, loyalty, courage, deception, abandonment and hopelessness.  Not only is the play alive, but the story is alive and the words have a life of their own.

Richard II, King of England
portrait at Westminster Abbey (mid-1390s)
source Wikipedia

The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bullingbrook (Bolingbroke), cousin to King Richard, and Thomas Mowbray, Bullingbrook accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money and claiming that he was part of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (which was probably orchestrated by Richard), yet before either can accomplish a duel, King Richard decides to banish both, Bullingbrook for 6 years and Mowbray for the term of his life.  John of Gaunt, is broken hearted at the exile of his son, Bullingbrook, and soon becomes sick with grief.  Upon Gaunt’s death, Richard decides to expropriate his estates and money, thereby defrauding Bullingbrook of his inheritance.  As Richard leaves to deal with the wars in Ireland, Bullingbrook gathers supporters and lands in England for the purpose, it appears, of regaining what is rightfully his.  Because Richard has taxed his subjects without remiss, and has fined the nobility for errors of their ancestors, most of the nobles rise up against him.

John of Gaunt
father of Henry IV
source Wikipedia

When Richard returns to England he is left with a small contingent of supporters including his cousin Aumerle, the Duke of York’s son, and lords Salisbury and Berkeley and other retainers.  Upon meeting with Bullingbrook, Richard relinquishes the throne to him, and Bullingbrook wastes no time in appointing himself King Henry IV.  Immediately, Richard is placed in prison.  When an uprising by Aumerle is discovered by his father and vehemently exposed, Aumerle is graciously pardoned by Henry IV, yet with dire threats towards the other conspirators.  In prison, Richard attacks his warden in frustration and is killed by Exton; when Henry hears about the murder, he is distressed and the play ends with his sad lament.

When I finished this play, I was so anguished by Richard’s sad end and how he’d been treated, yet reading some pre-history would have perhaps measured my emotions, as the good king was not entirely as innocent as he is made out.  Richard inherited the title of king when he was 10 years old and spent many years of his reign under the control of counsellors and advisors.  It wasn’t until later on, that he appeared to throw off their power and come into his own.  However, the fact that he taxed the populous to such extreme extents to finance his wars and royal coffers, contributed to the fact that he was not well loved or respected.  He was a king who ruled by impulse and without a justness that would have connected him to the people.  In fact, in the play, when he is walked through the streets, people dump garbage on his head, not a very fitting display for a monarch who truly believed that he was anointed by God.

Richard being taken into custody
by the Earl of Northumberland
source Wikipedia

Another consideration is that Shakespeare is writing drama.  He is known for taking the framework of history and then chopping and changing and perhaps, speculating for dramatic and political effect.   It is interesting that at the end of the play, Richard is seen as a pitiful figure who has voluntarily given up his kingship, and Bullingbrook condemns his murder, leaving the new king innocent of the crime and helpless to stop its culmination.  A very safe and uncontroversial tact on both sides for our playwright!

My favourite speech of Richard’s pulses with foresight, nostalgia and lament:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.
All murdered.  For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnible.  And humoured thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle walls, and farewell king!”

As Richard begins to realize the possible outcome of the circumstances and tries to reconcile them with his belief that a king is sanctioned by God, we see his syntax begin to break down, with his pronouns of “we”, being reduced to “I”.  It is truly pitiful.

Richard II
Anonymous impress from the 16th century
source Wikipedia

On a political note, this play was used to stir up populous support for Robert, earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favourite, during his rebellion against her.  On the eve of the uprising, his supporters paid for the play, Richard II, to be performed at the Globe Theatre, but Essex’s attempt to raise a coup against her failed. Retaliation was swift, however.  On February 25, 1601, Essex faced his execution and was beheaded on the Tower Green.  His was the last beheading at the Tower of London.

This was another wonderful experience with one of Shakespeare’s historical plays.  I had expected to like them least in the canon, but they are certainly quickly becoming by far my favourites!

Watched:  The Hollow Crown:  Richard II

Othello by William Shakespeare

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Othello the Moor is lauded over Venice for his help in attempts to rid them of the pesky Turks in their battle over Cyprus.  Yet when Othello weds the beautiful Venetian Desdemona in secret, some opinions of his prowess change, notably those of Desdemona’s father.  And unbeknownst to Othello, Iago, his third-in-command, is plotting a dastardly revenge for being passed over for promotion, the position being given to Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio.  Hence proceeds perhaps the most shocking example of manipulation in literature, as Iago takes possession of Othello’s mind and emotions, like a beast taking possession of its prey, transforming our noble Moor from a honest, straightforward, respected man into an enraged, vengeful monster who believes every evil of his innocent wife, including her unfaithfulness with his second-in-command, Cassio.  Othello’s jealousy manages to eclipse anything within our understanding.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
ben Mohammed Anoun,
Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I
suggest inspiration for Othello
source Wikipedia

Iago reveals that, as well as the injury of being passed over for promotion, he also harbours a suspicion that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia, who is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.  There is no proof of this accusation in the play, and it is likely that Iago is expecting people to act with the same lack of integrity and base bestial urges, that he himself would, in the same circumstances.

How does a gentle and admired military leader allow himself to be reduced to a maddened beast, his fury leading him to commit the worst atrocity against a perfectly innocent human being, and one who has loved and supported him through their short marriage?  What hidden button inside Othello’s psyche has Iago discovered and pushed, knowing that it will make him snap?

Maria Malibran as Rossini’s
Desdemona
Françoise Bouchot
source Wikipedia

Certainly there are various issues that come into play and work against Othello.  He is used to being a commander, yet is unused to being a husband and obviously, when in love, is out of his depth.  Perhaps he sees Desdemona as a possession that he has conquered and, instead of being able to relax in his marriage, he, like a military leader, feels that he must wage battle to keep her.  And when difficulties do arise, instead of trying to search out the truth, he acts like a military leader and attempts to “conquer the enemy”.  He has insecurities that lead to him being a willing pawn of Iago’s machinations. The jealousy that Iago is able to set aflame within him, corrupts his normal good sense and his actions become intemperate.  I certainly have compassion for his state, as I believe these aspects have severely affected his decison-making and emotional state, but, that said, he is still human and he still has the option of choice.  He knows right from wrong, yet he decides to allow his emotions to rule and himself to be led down the tragic path of mindless jealousy.  In reality, he allows himself to turn into a beast.

Othello & Desdemona
Antonio Muñoz Degrain
source Wikipedia

Shakespeare’s exhibits an uncanny ability to weave endless possibilities into a Gordian knot of drama and draw the reader into his poetic spell.  Will we ever know exactly what motivated Othello and his spiral from an honourable man to a madly jealous murderer.  Will we ever understand why he believed Iago without any “ocular proof”?  What happened to the military commander that must have been used to exhibiting self-control?  Do intense emotions subvert our ability to act as a human beings?  There are so many avenues to explore and no obvious or set answers.

Of all the characters in the play, my favourite character was Emilia.  While she remains surprisingly unaware of the plotting and intrigues of her husband, upon realizing the truth, she becomes the voice of the audience, who has until this point been mute in horror, and satisfyingly spews vile recriminations on the head of Othello.

T.S. Eliot had a different view of the last actions of Othello than many older critics:

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello.  I am ignorant whether any one else has ever adopted this view, and it may appear subjective and fantastic in the extreme.  It is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature. What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”

I read this play as part of a Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course that I’m taking online, and it’s definitely moved in among my favourites!

Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branaugh
Othello 1995
source Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

“O, Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Of, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Of course, we all know the story.   In Medieval Verona, the Capulets and Montagues are feuding, their hatred spilling over into battles in the streets; revenge and killings abound.  Yet Romeo, the Montague, meets Juliet, a Capulet, and all thoughts of his former love, Rosaline, fly from his head as his heart is captured by her beauty.  Will Romeo and Juliet’s love survive the heated rivalry and secret machinations of the houses of Montague and Capulet?

Well, no, of course not!

Juliet
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

While Romeo and Juliet is certainly a story of young love, it is also a cautionary tale against letting one’s heart (and other body parts) rule one’s head with unhealthy intensity.  Friar Lawrence cautiions Romeo during his effusive praise of Juliet after only one glance of her:

“These violent delights have violent ends 
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, 
Which, as they kiss, consume.  The sweetest honey 
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately.  Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”

Romeo and Juliet the tomb scene (1790)
Joseph Wright
source Wikiart

Later, when Romeo’s friend, Mercutio is slain by the Capulet, Tybalt, cousin to Juliet, love is forgotten in the passions of revenge and Tybalt’s life is forfeit under the steel of Romeo’s sword.  A sentence of exile is pronounced as the lovers’ hopes spiral into a well of despair.  A message gone astray, culminates in the deaths of these two lovers, echoing a tragic pathos that the reader can sense building throughout the play.  Right from the beginning, when you view their impulsive, forbidden love, blossoming amongst the fields of vendettas, discord and enmity, you know that it cannot last.  It’s like an explosion of fireworks that streak across the sky in a pattern of colours and textures and beauty.  But eventually these grand passions burn themselves out and in place of the awe-inspiring spectacle, darkness remains.

Yet while there is tragedy in the fateful story, Shakespeare also shines rays of hope.  With the deaths of the two heirs of both the Montagues and Capulets, all animosity melts away as the families share the pain of a double grief.  So instead of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths being merely tragic, the lovers’ demise turn out to be a kind of sacrifice, two deaths that culminate in the saving fate of the two families.  Is Shakespeare alluding to the belief that peace in society is more important than a passionate love of two individuals?  Who knows, but it’s a thought that resonated with me long after I turned the last page …….

Juliet and her Nurse (c. 1860)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
source Wikiart

I read this play for my edX Shakespeare: On Page and Performance course, play 1 of 6.

Productions Watched:
         Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare Stratford Collection    (★★★☆)
Audiobooks:
         Archangel Audiobook – Romeo & Juliet (★★★★★)                           

My Shakespeare Project

Inspired by Melissa at Avid Reader’s Musings and also, embarrassed by my complete lack of progress for my 2014 Shakespeare Challenge, I have decided to launch a new project for myself!  As if, I needed another, right?

My Shakespeare Project is my attempt to read through all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.  And I’m giving myself no time limit, so there will be no pressure …….. well, maybe just a little bit of pressure.  This project will also help me to check some books off my Classics Club list, which is always welcome.

I really like how Melissa has challenged herself to read a play, see a performance and watch a movie of the play.  It gives you a much richer experience, and I hope to do this as well.  You can check out my list here.

So wish me luck as I embark on an Elizabethan voyage with the Bard.  Bon voyage!

Edited:

Here is a wonderful post from Sophia from Ravens and Writing Desks on Tips for Reading Shakespeare.  Check it out!

As Sophia mentions in her post, she likes the Folger editons, which I’ve realized that I like more than I had indicated in a below comment, but I still prefer the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) editions if you have some experience with Shakespeare.  For beginners I recommend the No Fear Shakespeare books.  These have a limited number of plays available, but they do contain Elizabethan English on one side and modern English on the other which is very helpful for beginners.