Category: drama

Richard III, Reading Shakespeare, and Another Way to Fail at Kingship

William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.

A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy in Richard III, which I just watched recently:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?…

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Short Thoughts on Titus Andronicus, and Two Comedies

Though I’d heard that Titus Andronicus is one of William Shakespeare’s most violent works, I wasn’t really expecting the story of Procne and Philomela via the Elizabethan Tarantino. Nothing can really shock a modern audience, regardless of how intense a story is by Elizabethan standards, but the revenge, rape, and sadistic violence was enough to make a couple scenes a bit difficult to watch even for me. It’s the type of work where, when characters consider whether they should kill an infant, it seems completely plausible that they might actually do it.

Titus Andronicus was apparently one of Shakespeare’s first works, probably his first tragedy, and often considered one of his weakest. It is weak, I suppose, by Shakespearean standards, though I’d still rather watch another production of this than any of the comedies. I don’t think “entertained” or “enjoyed” is the right word, but it certainly kept my full attention throughout. Tamora and Aaron are good villains, and I liked Titus and Marcus Andronicus. The play was very popular when it was new, and it’s not hard to see why.

The main problem, really, is in comparison to his later work. For example, Titus Andronicus includes (mostly faked) madness by one character, but this is also done later, and better, in Hamlet. Also like, and not as good as, Hamlet is the revenge theme. Aaron, a Moor, brings in a racial element to the story, but again, Shakespeare did this again, and better, later on in Othello. Conspiracies, of course, figure in a number of histories and tragedies, Titus Andronicus included, but are more interesting in, say, Julius Caesar.

I mentioned above that I actually watched this play, specifically this production by the Seoul Shakespeare Company. As I’ve mentioned here-and-there before, plays are meant to be watched, not read, and are far more enjoyable that way. An actual live production is preferable to a YouTube recording, but I’d still like to get through all of Shakespeare’s works this year, so I’m not going to wait for local productions. The only problem with this approach is that stage acting always comes across as somewhat awkward and overwrought on film, but after a few minutes I mostly got used to it, except for Demetrius and Chiron’s scenes.

Since my goal this year is to become a Shakespeare completist, I should add that I did read the first couple acts of Two Gentlemen of Verona, but dropped it. As much as I enjoy the histories and tragedies, I find the comedies a chore to get through. Maybe this means that I’ll need to put an asterisk next to my “completist” achievement, but frankly I don’t care. I also skipped over The Taming of the Shrew entirely, because I read that in college and even saw an abbreviated live production, but still didn’t enjoy it.…

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Henry VI Part III, or Two Ways to Fail at Kingship

So, at last we come to Henry VI Part III, or The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth, even though Richard’s brother Edward seems like a more central character than Richard, and historians would contest how much of it is true, but whatever; far be it from me to question the Bard or Oxford’s editors, and The Historically Dubious Tragedy… isn’t as catchy a title, anyway.

In any case, I mentioned that Part II is a study in bad kingship, and Part III continues that theme with two examples of bad kingship. Starting with Henry VI, he seems like a nice guy; I’m sure he’d have made a fine constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, he’s a sad sack. The Duke of York literally sits right down on Henry’s throne and demands that Henry recognise him as the legitimate king, and the two compromise because Henry agrees to disinherit his son Edward and name York as his heir in exchange for York allowing him to live out the rest of his reign as king. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all; his wife, Queen Margaret, understandably protests and she and Edward go off to gather support, and very quickly we’re back at the civil war game.

I hate to say it, but Henry’s like the Jeb Bush of this contest. Later on York’s supporters, now led by York’s heir, confusingly also named Edward, are arguing with Henry’s (or rather, Margaret and Prince Edward’s) supporters; Margaret tells Henry to be quiet, and Henry objects, “I prithee give no limits to my tongue / I am a king, and privileged to speak.” Everyone else just keeps talking over him, anyway, and he doesn’t say another word for the entire scene. Later on, the Duke of Exeter tells Henry that he fears that Edward (York, not Henry’s son) will seduce their supporters to change sides. Henry says of his subjects:

My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allayed their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears.
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppressed them with great subsidies,
Nor forward of revenge, though they much erred.
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace;
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

“[T]hey love Edward more than” you, Henry, because you don’t inspire them. He gives a monologue at one point about how he wished he could have been born a commoner, which reminded me somewhat of a comment J.R.R. Tolkien once made, that he would like a king whose main interest was something like stamp-collecting. Now, I know what Tolkien was getting at, but Henry VI is an example of why stamp collectors don’t make good kings.

On the other hand, we have Edward, who inherits the claims of his father, the Duke of York, and who provides an example of the opposite problem; he wants and enjoys the powers of kingship too much. It is, of course, ultimately his party that starts the civil war, though Henry provided the opening. We don’t see a lot of what Edward does in power, but he’s clearly not above abusing his position. He meets with Lady Gray, who asks him to give her late husband’s estate to her and her children, which had been confiscated because he had fought for York. He offers to grant her request if she fulfill “an easy task,” that is, “to love a king.” She at first assumes he means the loyalty of subject to sovereign until he clarifies, “To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.” She answers “To tell you plain, I had rather lie in prison.” He offers her marriage, and it’s clear that she’s not going to get her estate back unless she agrees.

Now, after they’ve been married a while, her attitude totally changes and she comes across about as dedicated to his cause as Queen Margaret is to Henry and Prince Edward’s. While Edward was wooing her (sort of), though, he’d already sent Warwick as an emissary to arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of the King of France, and thus threw his own ambassador under a bus and insulted the French King. When Edward’s brothers point this out to him, his only defense boils down to emphasising that he’s the king and can do what he wants, even if it means creating two powerful enemies due to an arbitrary exercise of power.

The original title called him “Good King Henry the Sixth,” and I suppose he was good. At one point he disguises himself as a monk, but that disguise seems so fitting that he’d have probably been happiest just joining a monastery for real. One of the main advantages of monarchy is that it keeps the jackals away from absolute power, but poor Henry is just too nice to do that.

On a final note, I think 3 Henry VI is the best of this trilogy. The first part felt more hit-and-miss from one scene to another, though I did enjoy it. The second was more focused on Henry, which is good, but I like that the third part gives us Edward as a foil for Henry, which makes it feel more thematically coherent than the other two parts.…

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Henry VI Part Two

It took me a minute to find this one in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works because the editors insist on calling it by the original title, The First Part of the Contention of the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. That title rolls right off the tongue, but I think I’ll keep calling it Henry VI Part Two. Also, I have to appreciate the spoiler right in the title.

Anyway, I wasn’t a fan of 1 Henry VI, but that was just an appetizer for the main course. Maybe it’s because the prequel was written later as a collaboration, or he just wanted to bash out something to cash in on the popularity of the original (possibly making 1 Henry VI the Phantom Menace of the Shakespearean oeuvre [okay, maybe it’s not nearly that bad]). Whatever the deal is, 2 Henry VI is closer to the Shakespeare we all know and love.

In Part One, things fall apart for England in the war in France, but here they fall apart in England as King Henry faces internal conspiracies and attempted usurpation – or rather, he gets swept away by conspiracies. In both parts of this story so far, Henry hasn’t really done much himself, except to act on bad or malicious advice, but that seems to be the point. Henry is a rather mediocre king, crowned as a child on his father’s death and, as a young man, still clearly in over his head. He says in Act 4 Scene 8 “Was never subject longed to be a king / As I do long and wish to be a subject,” but he was ready enough to dismiss Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who had been ruling for him as Lord Protector, and rule in his own right instead.

Speaking of Gloucester, he resembles Lord Talbot from Part One in that he’s the only one in a position to save Henry’s fortunes, but as Talbot was abandoned in a hopeless battle, Gloucester is dismissed after false charges of corruption are brought against him and then, as the spoiler in the original title says, is assassinated. So, instead of having Gloucester to serve as his Metternich, Henry is left to the mercy of the other ambitious, conspiring nobles. I’m guessing that the play is not very historically accurate outside of a basic outline of events, but if Part Three is like the first two one could write a book on leadership by contrasting Henry to the other major characters. Call it, “The Art of Kingship: Don’t Be Like Henry VI.” Gloucester predicts what will happen as soon as he’s dismissed:

Ah, thus King Henry throws away his crutch
Before his legs be firm to bear his body.
Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,
And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.
Ah, that my fear were false; ah, that it were!
For, good King Henry, thy decay I fear.

Gloucester was mostly thinking of the nobility, but there’s also a peasants’ rebellion led by Jack Cade, which Henry attempts to appease and entreat with, then flee from (albeit only after Saye urges him to leave London), until someone else solves the problem for him. In any case, by the time York’s rebellion actually begins, one has the sense that Henry has lost the Mandate of Heaven anyway.

Speaking of Cade, he’s only in a few scenes, but he’s probably my favourite character in the work. He’s obviously a peasant, but brazenly lies about his heritage to try claiming the throne. Here he attempts to introduce himself, with some interruption from one of his followers, a butcher:

CADE: My father was a Mortimer-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): He was an honest man and a good bricklayer.
CADE: My mother a Plantagenet-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): I knew her well, she was a midwife.
CADE: My wife descended from the Lacys-
BUTCHER (to his fellows): She was indeed a pedlar’s daughter and sold many laces.

Shakespeare’s comedy is hit-and-miss with me, but something about this made me laugh. I don’t know if the butcher is intentionally letting his fellow rebels in on Cade’s scam, or if he just doesn’t realise that he’s exposing the lie, or what. The butcher is also the character who delivers the famous line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” Cade does have his comic moments here or in his proud, stubborn philistinism, like when he asks a clerk taken prisoner “Dost thou use [letters] to write thy name? Or hast thou a mark to thyself like an honest plain-dealing man?” However, he’s so brazen in his lies, and bold in everything he does, it’s hard not to give him a little respect. After his followers are convinced to desert him, he spends several days in hiding until forced to scavenge an esquire’s garden for food; the owner finds him and Cade, too famished to fight well, is killed. “For I,” he says, “that never feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valour.”

So, we’re still not quite up to the heights of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but we’re getting there. Stay tuned for Henry VI Part Three, or whatever the Oxford editors decide to call it.…

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The 2016 Shakespeare Project and Henry VI, Part 1

As longtime readers may already know, I majored in Literature but went to a university with only a token arts and humanities department. The professors I had were generally good, but to give an idea of what the school was like, there was no classicist on the faculty, and I managed to graduate without reading much of anything not originally in English or written prior to 1800 or so. The two best instructors were well aware of this, and though neither of them specialised in the period, they did make sure that one of them would offer a class on Shakespeare every semester – inadequate as the school was, it at least wouldn’t be so inadequate that graduates would entirely miss out on Shakespeare.

So, I do have some basic familiarity with the Bard – I’ve read most of his best-known works, and have seen Richard III and a couple of the comedies performed live. However, everyone who takes English literature seriously needs, at some point, to read all of Shakespeare. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and even mentioned it in December 2014 as a goal for 2015, but I’ve decided that this will be the year I do it. This will be a year-long project, rather than something I do all at once, and I may combine multiple plays into one post if I don’t have a lot to say about them, so don’t worry – you’re not going to get thirty-some consecutive weeks of Shakespeare posts.

Now, I started with Henry VI, Part 1, which I haven’t read before. It’s fine, but it’s not going to be a favourite. It’s set just after the coronation of King Henry VI during the Hundred Years War, though Henry himself doesn’t do a lot during the play. Even the resolution feels like it’s just setting up for the Part 2, since not much seems to have been resolved at the end. Like the handful of Shakespeare’s other histories I know, there’s a fairly large cast of characters, which can make it a bit difficult to follow early on as the reader sorts out who’s who, who’s important, and who’s just a side character. A little historical knowledge of the period helps, but isn’t really necessary. 1 Henry VI is relatively action-packed, though reading action scenes in print isn’t exactly thrilling; I suppose I can’t really fault the author for that since, to be fair, this is supposed to be performed, not just read.

1 Henry VI is a bit weak, at least by Shakespearean standards, but I did like the scene just before the climax where Lord Talbot, commander of much of England’s army in France, finds himself in a hopeless battle because his comrades were too busy with infighting to send him support, and he urges his son, John, to flee and save himself. John refuses, saying:

No more can I be sever’d from your side,
Than can yourself yourself in twain divide:
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I;
For live I will not, if my father die.

Interestingly, St. Joan of Arc is a major character here, though since Shakespeare wrote from an English perspective, and long before her canonisation, he portrays her as a villain, and near the end it’s revealed that her visions are a result of sorcery, not divine revelations. This portrayal is only surprising now because she seems near-universally admired today; Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Joan, which I wrote about last year, seems closer to what I’m used to.

In any case, it’s rather mediocre start to the year, but there’s still a long way to go. Up next are the other two parts of Henry VI.…

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Le Misanthrope (75 Books – XV)

I’m afraid I won’t have much to say on this one, for a few reasons:

  1. Wi-fi router problems mean I’m writing on a smartphone right now. Bad times.
  2. I read this largely out of a sense of duty because of Molière’s reputation. The premise isn’t very appealing to me (my edition calls the play a “comedy of manners”).
  3. Plays are meant to be performed, not read. My favourite Shakespeare play is Richard III, and my favourite play overall is Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Not coincidentally, these are two of the only ones I’ve seen performed live.
  4. I read this partly as a way to practice my French. I found that, though I understood most of the words okay, following the sense of everything was difficult. This is a student edition, and I relied more heavily than I’d like on the annotations and summaries. No surprise that 17th century French is more difficult than, say, Chihayafuru, but I’d always thought of vocabulary as my biggest linguistic obstacle; I’ve now run into something new.

So, I’ve found myself in a two-book slump, though in neither case would I blame the author. My next book, besides continuing with Watamote, is a return to history with Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger.…

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