Saturday, November 5, 2011

Portland Shakespeare Events THIS WEEKEND

Last-minute announcement for Shakespeare opportunities in the Portland area Nov 5-6!

Fall Festival of Shakespeare - area High Schools coming together to share their productions.

King John at Northwest Classical Theater Company  - plays next weekend as well.

Richard III from the Portland Actors Ensemble, the folks who bring us free Shakespeare in the Park - only this play is performed inside a building!

Looks like it'll be a fun weekend!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 3 of 3; In Which the Production is Actually Reviewed

(Shakespeare Girl's title)
Trouble in Stratford
Royal Shakespeare Company
Seen Tuesday, July 26, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Directed by Michael Boyd, featuring Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth and Aislin McGuckin as Lady Macbeth
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this fine review, I spend a lot of time complaining about the RSC building. But does any of that stuff really matter? Well, I think so, because if I had loved the production - if it had made me feel the way that truly good Shakespeare performances can make you feel - I would not remember the building's problems at all! Nor would my favorite part of the playgoing experience have been watching the swans on the Avon after the play was over. Frankly, if brainless swans, lovely as they are, seem more interesting than a Shakespeare play, there is a real problem. Unfortunately, the performance seemed a little like a mirror of the building - a little rough, unfinished, with some elements that seemed incomplete and inadequately thought through.
Alas, where to begin? The production seemed to be aiming for a creepy, gruesome interpretation, with plenty of blood, ghosts, and gore. All to the good – elements in any Macbeth that I would be strongly in favor of. I also had few complaints with the set; the Macbeths plot their wickedness in a church ruined by iconoclasts, no doubt a representation of their evil reign of Scotland as a similar desecration of all that is holy and right.
A choice that started (in my mind) to veer a little off from the straight and narrow was an absence of Witches; no bubble, bubble, toil and trouble for us. Instead, three female cellists who sat on a platform above the stage throughout the show provided a sort of three-woman mystical presence-thing through dramatic classical music, while the actual lines the witches say (Hail, Thane of Cawdor! etc.) were taken by three creepy little children. While certainly creative, this choice seemed to me to take away the sense of pure evil that the witches bring to the play; the three female musicians mostly played music that evoked feelings of grief and mourning, making their role as commentators more profound and sympathetic than the malicious witches of the text. And weird children of 8 or 9 years old can seem grotesque and macabre (or just annoying), but simply cannot project the same kind of menace that ADULT weird sisters could bring. This choice served to make the Macbeths seem even more evil without the weight of other wicked characters. It also created strange questions about the time and space continuum within the world of the play– the same three young actors that played the “weird children” later played the MacDuff children IN THE EXACT SAME COSTUMES that they wore as spirits(?) in the forest; they then re-appeared as the GHOSTS of the MacDuffs looking exactly as they did at the beginning….So were they ghosts before they were murdered? What’s the deal?
Witches are scary even when they are not kids
 Starting to get the picture about how this production was jumbled and confusing? But the biggest problem of all was not that the actor who played Ross also stalked around singing Catholic liturgical chant at surprising moments in a remarkable and piercing counter-tenor; nor was it even that the actor portraying Malcolm never diverged – in the whole arc of his development - from a remarkably monotonous tone of slightly deranged despair. This was a big, big problem, as was the depiction of the Porter as a pyromaniac demon of some sort (not kidding). When the director made choices like this, sure, they were weird choices. But the worst affliction of all was that not enough actually happened on stage.
Events and actions moved slower than the viewer’s mind. We looked at the set before the actors even came out and got that message; we picked up a sense of the tone of the production within a few minutes; now give us something else to think about! But no, this didn’t happen, because there was too little action to complement the spoken word. Instead, for the most part the actors seemed to be left to their own devices, perhaps “directed” in this manner: OK actor, at this point I’m going to leave you alone on a bare stage with no props and I just want you to stand there – don’t move around or anything – just stand there talking. It will be really interesting! Note to anyone who ever has or ever will direct a play: this doesn’t work. It’s mean to your actors. Don’t do this.
On the positive side, whenever actual action  - ie planned movement that illuminated the dialogue, meaningful interaction, etc, - did take place on stage, it was often very good (plus the audience would always perk up a bit and act really grateful). The slaughter of the MacDuff family was performed with energy and dispatch, and the Macbeth’s state banquet where Banquo’s ghost returns as a featured guest was also a highlight. That scene was actually directed very cleverly, as it was performed twice: once before the intermission with an actual blood drenched Banquo appearing before Macbeth’s horrified eyes, and again after the interval from the perspective of the banquet guests, with Macbeth gibbering away at something invisible. (Hilariously, the scene involved Banquo stabbing Macbeth with a ghostly sword, causing Macbeth to react as if he were dead. As this took place just before the lights came up for the intermission, a young lady sitting near me, no doubt unfamiliar with the play, took this to mean that the show was over: “What a strange ending!” she exclaimed.)
These were not the only bright spots in an otherwise somewhat dull production; most of the actors (with the exception of the wretched Malcolm) were first-rate, especially Jonathan Slinger as a young, energetic and somewhat insecure Macbeth, and Aislin McGuckin as a beautiful, captivating and ultimately shatteringly fragile Lady Macbeth. This production had so much potential, yet fell short. - In this way, it reminded me of Lady Macbeth's shaming charge to Macbeth:
"Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' the adage?"
Basically, what I (and Lady Macbeth) are getting at here is that if you're going to do Shakespeare - if you're going to create theater - then go for it with all your might! I'd rather see a production go all out and "shoot [its] arrow over the house" than hold back or be careful and do nothing and fail in that way. Macbeth is cool. It can be done better. "Screw your courage to the sticking place!"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fun Shakespeare Timewaster

Ever wondered exactly what percentage of words in your prose match up with the vocabulary used in Shakespeare's plays? Well, fear not - the indispensable Oxford Dictionary people have created a way to help you answer this burning question! Go to this link - - paste your text into the little box - and wait anxiously for your Shakespearean percentage verdict to come up. I'm still not sure exactly how this is relevant to anything in my life or writing, but it's oddly fascinating - plus the program gives you cute little notes of encouragement that liken you to Shakespeare when you get a high percentage. Come on, you know you want to try!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 2 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Takes Her Seat For the Show

(Thrilling story continued from Part 1!)
So, we got tickets to Macbeth (at the last minute, of course – keep your options open, it’s the only way to travel), and ventured in to view the RSC’s brand spankin’ new remodel of their theater.

In theory, the remodel is a nice idea – it replaces a 1930s era proscenium stage with a thrust stage that brings the actors out closer to the audience. I like thrust stages, but I'm also an instinctive conservative who would feel sad if practically anything built anywhere in the whole world were to be demolished. However, I always try to quash these unreasonable feelings, and despite reading about some rumblings of controversy about the remodel, I went to the show prepared to be pleased with everything. My first inkling, however, that there might be some rough edges with this here remodel, that it might need a little fine tuning, came when I visited the ladies' restroom. Now, I’m not going to list every little thing that was wrong (I have some sense of propriety!), but suffice it to say that the design of the room had some things wrong with it. It didn’t have that coherence and attention to detail that well-designed spaces have. And anyone who has ever seen the lines outside the ladies’ restroom at any concert, play or performance knows that the ladies’ restroom is IMPORTANT.
Well, but what about the even more important room – the actual theater? Some signs of trouble there too, I’m afraid, starting with MY SEAT. The ticket seller lady had shown me a fancy book with pictures of the view of the stage from every seat in the theater – but the only reason that this was necessary is because many of the seats are “restricted view” of the stage, ie there’s a great big pillar right in front of your face. Seems like a bit of a problem to me, especially once I actually sat there (in the back row of one of the balconies, I forget which one) and there was not only a pillar, but also a weird roof sloping down very low so that I could not see most of the tall set. AND there were stage lights mounted on the little sloping roof that drooped down even farther so that at times I couldn’t see even the PEOPLE acting on or in front of the tall set. I haven’t mentioned yet that my seat was this rather tall stool that you had to sort of launch yourself up into by a running leap (only a slight exaggeration).
Now, all this did not bother me too much, because as previously mentioned, I had bought my ticket at close to the last minute for not that many pounds; being somewhat impecunious, I humbly accepted that to actually be able to see the stage would be too much to hope for. And as I am young and lissome, minor athletics in the theatre, such as jumping up to perch on a high stool, there to bounce for the duration of the show, are no great burden for me. NOT SO for the couple sitting to my left. Older, British, and somewhat stout, they had no sooner entered the theatre and stared and look'd (like Cortez) upon their seats with a wild surmise, that they began unceasingly to breathe imprecations against the RSC, the theatre designer, and all and sundry who might have had a hand in remodeling the theatre in such a way that they had to clamber up and sit in high chairs in order to watch their beloved Shakespeare shows in Stratford. A snatch of their conversation, overheard and surreptitiously copied down by yours truly:
Older British Fellow (indignantly) “They’ve simply destroyed it! An absolute b----y mess.”
American Student in Next Seat (timidly): “I heard that they’ve only just finished renovating it –“
Old. Brit. Fellow (interrupting): “They haven’t renovated it, they’ve destroyed it. It really used to be a comfortable, beautiful theatre!”
His Wife (plaintively): “ It’s hard for people our age…”
Old. Brit. Fellow: “Well, they just want you to be uncomfortable whilst watching Shakespeare!”
I take no sides as to the truth of this latter statement, dear reader. I simply report what I see and hear.
OK, so perhaps none of this seems as though it has much bearing on the quality of the RSC production of Macbeth…but in a way it really does. Find out in the next and final installment of our series!!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 1 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Decides Not to See the RSC Merchant of Venice

First off – I shall be reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth that I saw while in England. However, no such matter will appear in this post - this will be a three-part series, and everyone will just have to wait until part three for the scoop on Macbeth. Happy day! You won't just get a play review, but a lot of pontificating about the RSC will also be included for no additional charge! But to my tale.

To set the stage. You are in Stratford-upon-Avon, which you find not to be, as travel books have warned, a miserable tourist trap, but a very nice little town, with perhaps its most notable feature being a much higher number of bed-and-breakfasts per capita than is perhaps quite usual. (Note – open a good bed-and-breakfast in Stratford and make your fortune.) There are dozens of gleaming white swans in the river; the half-timbered houses with their gorgeous gardens have the added attraction that Shakespeare himself might have spent time within their walls; and you are looking forward to an evening of Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company theater. The prospect!! Who among the readers of this blog has not heard of the RSC? I myself have done a fair bit of gushing over some of their work! My summer has turned me into a firm fan of the Rick Steves travel books (seriously very good. Don’t travel with anything but these and the Michelin Green Guides), and Rick gravely assures his readers that the RSC puts on the best Shakespeare ANYWHERE in the WORLD! And yet, and yet…
Having followed Emma’s excellent advice in her article about watching live Shakespeare, I had not only looked up WHAT plays the RSC was doing while I was in their neck of the woods, but I had also carefully read several reviews of the productions. I initially was interested in seeing both Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, which latter play was starring the great Patrick Stewart (!!!) as Shylock!!!! Yet, after reading what the critics had to say, I was not thrilled. As my readers will possibly remember, I have extremely strong opinions about Merchant, and I could tell that the vision for this show - a re-imagining of the story as set in the midst of all the most well-known cliches of behavior in Las Vegas - was not really in line with my vision. Fear of what the director might be up to with his or her beloved concept, wreak what havoc it may on the play (cry, havoc! And let slip the dogs of war), has caused me again and again to enter theaters hopeful, yet guarded and somewhat suspicious. No director is going to pull a fast one on ME!

Reluctantly, I realized that not even the chance to be in the same room as Patrick Stewart and listen to that deep voice intone some of my favorite Shakespeare lines could reconcile me to a production where my beloved Portia is portrayed as a Las Vegas showgirl; here’s the Telegraph review that convinced me to give this one a pass (money quote: “poor Patrick Stewart seems to inhabit an entirely different production from the rest of the cast, giving us a sombre and increasingly frail Jew which is intermittently impressive in its own right but seems to have little to do with the gaudy excesses of the rest of the show.”) So, since “Merchant” is one of my favorites, I didn’t want to go see this production only to have to leave muttering (in a confused sort of combined identification with myself, Shakespeare and J. Alfred Prufrock) “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."
I was further bolstered in my resolution not to see the show by a most enlightening conversation that I overheard in the tiny café at the Stratford railway station. Participants: Myself (not really a participant as I was listening not talking, innocently drinking my tea and sneakily trying to charge my laptop whilst waiting for a train); a lady of the lower classes running the shop; a man (later revealed to be an actor); and a most genteel older widow lady, later revealed to be a former professional ballerina (!).
The conversation between the Genteel Lady and the Shop Lady rambled on in desultory fashion about the relative merits and pricing of coach travel around the UK as opposed to trains (watch out trains, you are about to lose the Genteel Lady’s business because the coaches are cheaper), until the entrance of the Actor.
Somehow it came out that the Actor had a very small role in the RSC production of Merchant.
The Genteel Lady, who volunteers in some capacity with the RSC, tried to say something pleasant about the show: “I do try to tell people what it’s like before they go – they’ve had quite a few people STORM OUT! But I really think it’s great fun – just so you know what you’re IN for.”
(Follows more discussion about the show and the Actor’s prospects - he, being an actor, is naturally hoping that his current engagement will lead to bigger and better things. Somehow the conversation turns to the poor uptight creatures who have STORMED OUT, and all join in condemning their poor artistic vision in scorning the production.)
Shop Lady: “It’s all these people who want Shakespeare “Shakespeare” Shakespeare!”
(All nod sagely at this wisdom; after some more pleasantries the Actor slips out, leaving the two Ladies to regard one another in silence.)
Genteel Lady (quietly to Shop Lady): “have you seen it?”
Shop Lady (just as quietly): “No.”
Genteel Lady: “Well, you just have to know what you’re IN for, what with Elvis Presley popping up everywhere & girls in feathers. (pause) I think it’s good fun."
Well, my dear genteel lady, it doesn’t sound like good fun to me, so it’s a jolly good thing I knew what I would have been IN for!
We decided to see Macbeth instead.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shakespeare girl tells all about the newly remodeled Royal Shakespeare Company building! It's more interesting than it sounds!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Your Foreign Correspondent Reporting….

I’m Back!
This is Shakespeare girl, returned from my Shakespeare Fact Finding Mission overseas!
OK, so it wasn’t exactly a Shakespeare business trip and more just a super fun Europe tourist vacation. Aside from our myriad tours of palaces and cathedrals (highly recommended – we like palaces and cathedrals), Emma and I made it a priority to seek Shakespeare where he might be found – to wit, we:
-           saw three Shakespeare productions (yay!)
-          went to Stratford-Upon-Avon
-          Saw the Shakespeare birthplace house
-          Saw Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church
-          Saw Shakespeare First Folios at the British Library and at Trinity College, Cambridge (adding to my previous First Folio sighting at the Folger!)
I gained a new understanding of English geography and regional differences, and thrilled at all the Shakespeare connections everywhere  – Kent and the White Cliffs of Dover? King Lear! Northumbria? The House of Percy from the Henry IVs! We were happy to just miss the re-appearance of forces similar to those of our old friend Jack Cade by cleverly fleeing the British Isles for the Continent before the looting broke out; we then explored the vasty fields of France. And as a non-Francophone, I relied heavily on Emma’s superior French-speaking skills and gained a new appreciation for the dismay of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Richard II when he is banished:
The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up…
I also want to report my excitement upon visiting Warwick Castle, home of our old friend the Earl of Warwick! The castle was very fun, but Emma and I kind of suspected that we were part of a relatively small percentage of tourists that come there solely because of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. (We rejected with scorn an advertised tour purporting that Shakespeare WAS the Earl of Warwick. Or vice versa.) Well, well, Shakespeare has something for everyone, and my case proves that a love of Shakespeare can lead to standing on the battlements of a medieval castle in the heart of England. Hurrah!

On a Tower at Warwick Castle
Coming soon – reviews of Shakespeare performances in England!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Where are Shakespeare girl and Emma?

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...
(Richard II, 2.1.)

As sharp-eyed and observant readers of this page may note, Emma and I have recently been absent from our lonely blog, which has been left to fend for itself. Could it be that Shakespeare girl has tired of reading plays? Has Emma turned her back on her favored pastime of watching Shakespeare films? Can such things be? No! Fear not! Reading and watching has been happening, but writing out all the reams of commentary that I've been longing to share has not, for one very good reason....we're on vacation in England right now! Yes, Shakespeare's very own home country. I've never been before, so I'm quite excited, and intend to do as much Shakespeare-oriented sight-seeing as possible. We've been here less than a week, but before that it seemed like every minute (when I, alas, was not updating my beloved Shakespeare blog) was taken up with frantically reading travel books (I checked out about 40 from the library). Planning a trip is serious bizness, you guyz. It's hard. You may now proceed to feel quite sorry for me.

We'll be in England for the next three and a half weeks, and will spend some time in France after that. Though updates from the road are a possibility, we'll be home the second week of August, and so you can expect to see some more activity on your favorite Shakespeare commentary and quotations blog!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Merchant of Venice - Shylock part 2, Two Shylocks

Shylock. I will have the heart of him...(3.1.1358)

In my previous post about Shylock, I discussed the controversy surrounding the Jewishness of the evil Shylock and that a lot of readers and critics find the play troubling because of this. An idea that concerned me in some of my research about different viewpoints on the play was the sense that some actors and directors were afraid to touch the play - that the subject matter was too hot to handle. I was happily able to see a powerful performance of the play last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was very moved by it - it makes me sad that some people could miss out on the play because of what I see as a distorted focus. I was therefore very happy to find, in the Playing Shakespeare TV series, a robust discussion about Shylock and The Merchant of Venice where the participants agreed with me - that Shylock's status as a very bad Jewish person does not make Shakespeare and the play hateful and unplayable.

Playing Shakespeare is a very, very cool British TV series from the 1980s where some of the actors and directors from the Royal Shakespeare Company got together and talked about ways to approach performing Shakespeare, with actors such as Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart giving short scenes and working on them with directors Trevor Nunn and John Barton. It's great fun for any Shakespeare fan - if the comments section from the Amazon link doesn't convince you, check out this panegyric review of the series. I myself love the show not only for its thoughtful examination of Shakespeare's text in performance, but also, as a child of the '80s, for its retro appeal as a return to a past world of earth tones, chain smokers, and actors who were young but now are old. Presiding benevolently over all is RSC co-founder John Barton, looking like a kindly, rumpled, absent-minded professor in baggy sweater and disheveled tweed tie. It's good stuff.
My favorite episode in the series is all about Shylock - David Suchet, the delightful actor known everywhere to watchers of PBS's Mystery! as Hercule Poirot, and Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame, discuss the part and both perform, with differing interpretation, several scenes from the play. I have to agree with Shakespeare Geek here that I prefer Suchet's interpretation of the role - he's truly scary! - but the insights that both men bring are fascinating, even when I don't completely agree with them. You can - and should - watch the whole episode online here on the Theatre in Video site - it's under an hour. However, here's a little taste of David Suchet's Shylock to get you going:

Though Stewart and Suchet dig deeply into the motivations, characterization and actions of Shylock, one piece that I see as missing from their discussion is a really clear view of how Shylock fits in with the rest of the play. But what is really going on? What is this play all about? I see the play, as I mentioned before, as about money, marriage and murder, all leading up to mercy. In my next post, I hope to get more deeply into the question of law vs. grace and the importance of promises and bonds in the play - and how Shylock fits into these questions.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Merchant of Venice - Shylock part 1

Shylock. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my

bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.


(Shylock by László Mednyánszky)

The Merchant of Venice, for all its wit and charm, is in this day and age a controversial play, because the murderous villain of the piece - Shylock - is a Jew. Not only does Shakespeare have a lot of his characters speak anti-Jewish insults, Shylock also defends his plot to kill the merchant, Antonio, in terms of justifiable revenge for Antonio's bad treatment of him because of his ethnicity and religion. In a way, Jewishness  - identity and defense - can be read as the root of the great evil that Shylock plans, and this emphasis on Shylock's Jewishness as such a major part of the story makes a lot of people uncomfortable - the play perceived by some as bigoted and ought not to be performed. Click here to read an examination of this kind of discomfort on "Blogging Shakespeare."
I strongly disagree with this view, for many reasons that I'll get into later. However, some productions, in an effort to overcome the what they see as the anti-Semitic implications of having a Jewish villain, focus on Shylock's speech that references Jews' shared humanity with Christians:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?....

In a performance that interprets this passage in a sympathetic way, Shylock can come across almost like a noble freedom fighter, struggling for equality in a harsh, cruel world. And this speech is undoubtedly crucially important: Shakespeare puts nothing in by accident, and this speech - which receives no contradiction - refutes any sort of anti-Semetic idea that Jews are somehow a lesser/separate form of humanity, monsters by nature (a very offensive idea! If this were Shakespeare's Shylock, I would agree that the play is anti-Semitic - but as we shall see, that's not what is going on.) However, this speech cannot, in my opinion, be used to make Shylock NOT a villain. It in fact proves that he is one: being exactly equal with the Christians in all his humanity, passions and sensibility, he makes a deliberate choice to embrace violence and vengeance, turning himself INTO a monster:
If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Merchant of Venice

Portia. If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o'er a cold decree....

Oh, how I love this play. Especially after what for me was a rather dreary slog through King John, The Merchant of Venice is a delight - the beautiful writing, lively plot and thoughtful examination of the complicated issues facing the characters felt to me like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. Everyone loves a courtroom drama, and The Merchant of Venice, like any good story of that genre, inexorably moves toward a final showdown where the parties appear in court and the judge gives a verdict. But the play is more than that - the plot centers around money, marriage, and murder (for such is Shylock's plot against Antonio), and in each case there is only one real answer - mercy.

I chose the opening quotation - one of the very first things that we hear Portia, our wise heroine, say - as it seems to me in many ways to sum up a lot of what the play is about. Often we know what is right to do, but can we do it? This failure between thought and aspiration, hope and achievement, is seen in the contrast between Portia's beautiful Belmont and the savagery of the Rialto, the merchant's exchange in Venice: though Venetian law, we are told, is supposed to make everything just and fair, we see it instead being used to further revenge and violence, incited by racial hatred. Law - thought-through restraints that put up walls to protect people against the impulses of every passion - is in many ways the the highest example of aspiration for humanity: a teacher telling us what were good to
It can be twisted, though, and, as Portia points out, when the going gets rough, the hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. When it doesn't feel right, people scramble to try to get away from the law. We see this tension again and again in this play: there are issues with trusting people to hold to their promises, pay their debts, keep their word - with money and with marriage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

King John - Mothers

Phillip the Bastard. But who comes in such haste in riding-robes?
What woman-post is this? hath she no husband
That will take pains to blow a horn before her?
O me! it is my mother. How now, good lady!
What brings you here to court so hastily?

Lady Falconbridge. Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?


Constance. My bed was ever to thy son as true
As thine was to thy husband; and this boy
Liker in feature to his father Geoffrey
Than thou and John in manners; being as like
As rain to water, or devil to his dam.
My boy a bastard! By my soul, I think
His father never was so true begot:
It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.


Um. Well, Happy Mother's Day to you too. Somehow it seems that my reading of Shakespeare is always a little off from whatever major holiday falls on that week. King John, for example, though very much a play about mothers and sons, is not a happy story about good mothers and sons - Queen Eleanor is the power behind John's throne; Constance, her daughter-in-law, fights for her son Arthur's right to that same throne with much more passion than he, poor little boy, ever felt; Phillip the Bastard identifies his mother, Lady Falconbridge, as the only parent he has known and thanks her for committing adultery with King Richard so that he had the good fortune to be born. Unfortunately, he besmirches her reputation by being acknowledged as Richard's son. Oh well, price to be paid! However, Lady Falconbridge is not the only mother to be accused of adultery - as we can see from the quotations above, Constance and Eleanor get some good insults going between them as well. Nice family, right?

Though these passionate, ambitious women seem to want only the best for their sons, tragedy is all that comes of their actions. Phillip the Bastard, seeking his birthright from his mother and true father, accepts the dazzling prospect of a title and a home with his royal relatives rather than the sure security of the estate of his mother's husband, an estate that the law would have given him; this choice leads him to nothing but incessant war and bloodshed. Poor Arthur faces imprisonment and death, and John - used to relying on the bold decisiveness of his indefatigable mother - is stunned and simply deflates when he hears of her death:

Withhold thy speed, dreadful occasion!
O, make a league with me, till I have pleased
My discontented peers! What! mother dead!


Ultimately, the unhealthy relationships demonstrated by these mothers, who pushed the sons into positions of power and didn't let go, lead to sorrow for other mothers and sons:

French Herald
.....the hand of France this day hath made
Much work for tears in many an English mother, 
Whose sons lie scattered on the bleeding ground.....

Monday, May 9, 2011

King John

Philip the Bastard. Ha, majesty! how high thy glory towers,
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry, 'havoc!' kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace: till then, blows, blood and death!


King John (1166-1216)

I find King John rather a curious play. John as a monarch has two major identifiers in the 20th/21st century imagination: as the signer of the Magna Carta, which would rein in the power of despotic rulers and lay the groundwork for truth, justice and the American way; and as the Bad King John of the Robin Hood legend, who skulks around with the Sheriff of Nottingham and spends his time conspiring against his brother, the noble Richard, when not plotting ways to grind the poor underfoot.

Neither of these themes appears at all in Shakespeare's play. Instead, we have a labyrinthine plot where John fights with the French; makes up with the French; fights with the Pope; fights with the French; fights with the nobles; makes up with the Pope; fights with the French even though the Pope tells them not to; makes up with the nobles; and then *spoiler alert* dies. Plus John's badness - his claim to the throne is not 100% solid, and he's willing to kill his little nephew to make it so -  seems kind of like a less exciting retread of Richard III. John has one nephew he wants to get rid of? Well, Richard has two!

Despite the (for me) less than compelling plot, there are some interesting themes and characters in the play, and some beautiful passages - though on the whole, the work is not as poetic as Richard II. One of the examples of interesting imagery is in the passage quoted above, where Philip the Bastard, John's nephew, paints a picture of the French and English armies somehow forming a corporeal expression of Death - their individual actions united allow Death to stalk the land, the swords of the soldiers serving as sharp teeth as he chews his way through his victims. The Bastard speaks of the Kings as amazed and potentially confused by all this bloodshed. In a way, this sense of a loss of control, of confusion, of wandering action leading to disaster yet disconnected from careful thought seems to pervade the whole play, leading to the abrupt and ambiguous ending.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - A Fairy Song

FIRST FAIRY. You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen.

Philomel with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby.
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby.
Never harm
Nor spell nor charm
Come our lovely lady nigh.
So good night, with lullaby.

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence.
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail do no offence.

Philomel with melody, etc.

Here's the fairy song that Titania asks her servants to sing to send her to sleep. Not only is it fun because there's so much in this play that makes it into a kind of multi-arts theater presentation - music! dancing! play-within-a-play! - the poem is also neat in that all its imagery is of little, small creatures: beetles, snails, newts, nightingales, spiders. These small animals - very minor threats to humans like us - become towering figures that must be threatened off by Shakespeare's little fairies.

I looked around for different versions of this song, but I didn't really find anything that I liked. Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for the play (this is where his famous Wedding March comes from), and his version of the song is pretty, but it sounds very ordered and polished - sort of a fairy-like Gilbert and Sullivany kind of sound. You can listen here. I always thought of this song as being wilder though - with a melody maybe something like this, an old Latin carol sung by the wonderful Maddy Prior. Shakespeare's words would fit to that tune, right?

I just can't resist posting another Arthur Rackham picture, this time illustrating this scene - I love the little guy with the double bass. The way this picture looks is the way I want the song to sound!
Come, now a roundel and a fairy song...(2.2.650)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Fairies and Flowers

Puck. How now, spirit! whither wander you?
Fairy. Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone:
Our queen and all our elves come here anon.


With this play, I want to concentrate on some of the gorgeous poetry and nature imagery - like in this passage! The simple rhyme scheme and homely words - like "freckles" - help to establish the character of a servant fairy, setting about a task that is standard for the speaker, but magical to us. I love the image of the dew in flowers as pearls placed there to adorn the blossom. But what is a cowslip? Here it is!
Cowslip (Primula veris)

Look, you can see the freckles, the "rubies, fairy favours," the spots in their "gold coats"! Doesn't seeing the brightness, the liveliness of these flowers make the scene, the poetry, seem more alive?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Art

The fantasy fairy landscape of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been inspiring visual artists for hundreds of years. My favorite Midsummer art that I want to share here is the 1908 collection of illustrations by Arthur Rackham: I was captivated by his delicately ethereal and beautiful, yet complex and dark, vision of Oberon and Titania's woodland fairy world. I'm going to post some of my favorite images here, but check out the whole work here, presented with the text: I especially like the artwork from Act Two.
...the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven...(1.1.10-11)
Fairies, away. We shall chide downright if I longer stay. (2.1.515)

"O Bottom, thou art changed!" (3.1.931)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - May

Lysander. If thou lovest me then,
Steal forth thy father's house to-morrow night;
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.

Theseus. No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May...


Fittingly, we're reading A Midsummer Night's Dream in the first week of May. The Norton Shakespeare notes that "observing the May" or "the rite of May," as both Lysander and Theseus mention, was a tradition where young people went out into the fields and woods to sing and dance in celebration of the coming of Spring - and this wonderfully magical and dazzling play is perfect to read or see on "a morn of May." It just overflows with the feeling of springtime: everyone finds themselves out in the woods, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and everyone's getting married. In fact, there's a ROYAL WEDDING on! (Maybe Hippolyta and Theseus' wedding was sort of like this.)  I personally am delighted and feel like celebrating myself, because, after a very gray and rainy winter, (just like in the play:

Titania. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents...

-  it seems like the spring is finally here! The bulbs I planted last fall are all blooming, and the sun is actually shining!
(Spring tulips! Not actually a picture of my tulips, but they look a lot like this.)

Of course all is not sweetness and light in A Midsummer Night's Dream - the spring, the woodland, and its fairy inhabitants are not uniformly kind - but all works out well in the end. Of course it does, because it's May!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - Stars

Juliet. ...Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Stars, of course, are a huge theme in Romeo and Juliet. It's in the context of stars, and the power they wield in the lives of humans, that we are introduced to the couple for the first time by the Chorus:
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life (1.1.6). But I love the quote opening this post, spoken by Juliet, because it doesn't just touch on the lovers' impending mortality - Juliet also uses stars as an image for the wonderfulness of Romeo. The passage is just so, so lovely, and shows us a new way to see these young lovers - as bright and beautiful, burning like stars. It's also so sad, as we know that Romeo will die - but the ugliness and pain of his self-slaughter by poison does not, for me, match Juliet's hopeful image of a translation after death into dazzling stars in the night sky.

(Juliet looking at the night sky -
"Juliet" by Philip H. Calderon)

 Though I, at any rate, often feel very exasperated throughout the play with R & J, who constantly do dumb stuff (ie threaten to/actually commit suicide),

Friday, April 29, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - Mercutio

Romeo. Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio. No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I
am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o'
both your houses!...

 A plague o' both your houses!
They have made worms' meat of me: I have it,
And soundly too: your houses!

Romeo. This gentleman, the prince's near ally,
My very friend, hath got his mortal hurt
In my behalf....

Mercutio, Romeo's friend, stands outside the families that clash in the Capulet-Montague feud. He, related to the Prince, perhaps represents the rest of Verona; he has connections to both of the fighting families - a friend to Romeo, yet invited to the Capulet's party. However, despite his situation as an outsider to the conflict...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - Requited Love

Romeo. Then plainly know my heart's dear love is set
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet:
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine;
And all combined, save what thou must combine

By holy marriage...

Romeo and Juliet is really very different from most love stories. My own impression of romance/chick flick "formula" is that boy and girl meet and either 1) dislike each other heartily; 2) one likes the other but the beloved does not reciprocate. Either way, the couple has to learn to love each other. Shakespeare himself follows this format himself a lot - where would Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing be without unrequited love and "frenemies"? Romeo and Juliet, however, is different. No doubts or delays for our young lovers - they see each other and zowie! Requited love! Of course, there's the whole problem of their families being deadly enemies...but emotionally, that hurdle is easy to overcome. (Practically, of course, it's another matter - that's where the conflict comes in!)

I think that this eager, easy mutuality of Romeo and Juliet's feelings is highlighted by that awkward character, Rosaline - the girl that Romeo had been swooning over before he met Juliet. Romeo was eager to love someone, and he thought Rosaline was the one. The problem? She didn't like him back! Rosaline is mentioned A LOT in the play, and she doesn't really fit in that well with a reading where Romeo and Juliet are like these amazing, fated, once-in-a-thousand-years type of lovers. Rosaline gives the lie to that: Romeo could have been quite happy with someone else, and if Juliet had given him the cold shoulder, I'm sure he would have kept on looking. The difference between Juliet and Rosaline?
... she whom I love now
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow;
The other did not so.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - Dreams

Romeo. Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk'st of nothing.

Mercutio. True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind....

(Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.596 - 600)

Romeo and Juliet, those legendary lovers, live in a world of signs and tokens, where the influence of the stars shapes destiny and dreams, in some mysterious way, come true. Romeo doesn't want to go to the Capulet's party because of a dream, and his mystical feelings about the evening come true:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Birthday!

...then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.
Much Ado About Nothing, 2.1.710


Friday, April 15, 2011

Richard II - Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

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 poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: 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 fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

(Richard II, 3.2.1565-1580)

Richard, though politically tone-deaf at times in this play...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Richard II - Mirrored Men

High-stomached are they both and full of ire;
In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.
(Richard II, 1.1.18-19)

Richard II

Though Richard II is certainly noteworthy for the lyrical beauty of its language, I also really like...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Richard II - This Other Eden

John of Gaunt. Methinks I am a prophet new inspired

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
(Richard II, 2.1.713-750)

John of Gaunt's speech about his country is justly famous - surely one of the most beautiful patriotic things ever written by anyone, anywhere...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Richard II - Shakespeare Girl's Dad is Correct

When I told my dad that I had read Richard II this week, his face just lit up. "Don't you love it? Don't you just love it?" he exclaimed. And I agree with his reasons for valuing this play - it's so beautifully poetic, so thoughtful. In the rich, detailed text, we see a lot of nature imagery, especially references to gardens and the sea; there's a lot of focus on time, and a constant theme of pilgrimage. The character Richard II also has a fascinating awareness of his own theatricality - himself as being worthy story material. I'm really looking forward to digging deeper in commentary for the blog. I love it, dad!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Love's Labour's Lost - Not Gentle

Holofernes. This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.
Princess. Alas, poor Maccabeus, how hath he been baited!
(Love's Labour's Lost, 5.2.617, 619)

This passage practically leapt off the page at me, and Holofernes' accusation is, I think, probably one of the very most important lines in the whole play. Holofernes, a Latin-quoting schoolmaster, is playing the character of Judas Maccabeus in a sort of pageant of worthy and famous men. This pageant is meant as entertainment for the Princess and her waiting gentle-women, and as such was requested by the King and his men as part of their campaign to win the ladies. However, since that time their plans have been somewhat
impeded by the ladies' tactic of treating the gentlemen as figures of fun, much to their chagrin.

This ridicule seems to have brought out the worst kind of desperate defensiveness in all the men, and they respond by savagely mocking these lower-class fellows who - at their bidding! - are attempting to please them with their acting. They are MEAN. And Holofernes, who has henceforth appeared as rather a foolish fellow, pulls himself together and straight-up rebukes these guys! He tells them the truth about their behavior and leaves with his dignity, at least in my eyes, restored by his bold and clear proclamation. And he gains the Princess' compassion. Perhaps Holofernes' moment of clarity helps the women to decide on a course of action, having seen the men's behavior as what it is - ugly, selfish, not generous, not gentle, not humble.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Love's Labour's Lost - Failure of Wit

Biron. O, never will I trust to speeches penn'd,
Nor to the motion of a schoolboy's tongue,
Nor never come in vizard to my friend,
Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper's song!
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical; these summer-flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation:
I do forswear them; and I here protest, ....
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express'd
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes...

As I mentioned before, I found all the frivolous wit in this play very annoying. Imagine my delight when Biron, one of the main offenders, realizes the error of his ways and promises to be more homely, plain (russet and kersey) and sincere in his use of language. All the elaborate posturing that the men have "put on" order to win the women - wearing masks, disguises, writing flowery sonnets - was not only ineffectual, it was actually counter-productive in a way because it kept the true self hidden. How could a person love someone that was a caricature of a Renaissance lover without knowing the real individual underneath? Though the men were very confident that they would have no problems courting the Princess and her ladies - "Longueville. Shall we resolve to woo these girls of France? King. And win them, too!" - the mocking responses of the women seem to show that it isn't just the twist of fate at the end that makes their love's labour's lost; rather, their showy, by-the-book wooing is not as valuable as simple sincerity. Perhaps all of love's "labour," if expressed as Biron explains in opening quotation, is just a loss and a waste.

Love's Labour's Lost - Oathbreakers!

Biron....Then fools you were these women to forswear,
Or keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.
For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women,
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,

Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfills the law,
And who can sever love from charity?


Biron and the rest of the boys in the King's court have taken a vow not to pursue any woman, in order not to be distracted from study. But when actual women appear on the scene, the students quickly turn into lovers - and like expert rhetoricians, they easily justify breaking their oaths. Surely a stupid vow is better broken than kept? And it's not difficult to convince me that their vow was foolish. However, there's something very jarring about the cavalier way that the men blithely set their vows aside - we've seen this kind of self-justifying argument against keeping your word before, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and it wasn't pretty.

The women seem to sense that something isn't right with this promise-breaking thing. They simply can't trust that the men mean what they say - and they might very well be right. Who's to say that someone who breaks one oath won't break another? And so the gentlemen, who so confidently planned to win their ladies, are confronted with accountability for their words:

Princess. Nor God nor I delight in perjured men...
...virtue's office never breaks men's troth.
(5.2.2266, 2270)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Love's Labour's Lost - A Lack of Common Sense

Biron. What is the end of study? let me know.
King. Why, that to know, which else we should not know.
Biron. Things hid and barr'd, you mean, from common sense?
(Love's Labour's Lost, 1.1.56-58)

This whole week Love's Labour's Lost has been annoying me. I found myself dismayed by how much I disliked it - a rambling comedy about frivolous, unkind, proud, mendacious people. The very set-up is extremely silly - the King of Navarre ropes three of his lords, plus the Spanish dandy Don Adriano, into vowing to dedicate themselves to study and not even look at women for three years. But when the Princess of France and her three waiting women arrive on the scene, who thinks for one minute that the boys will hold to their oath?

Despite all the Renaissance trappings that decorate this play - the masks, the disguises, the sonnets, the elaborate wordplay - I found Shakespeare's general portrait of the King and his lords to be an almost uncannily accurate depiction of young people with pretentions to intellectualism. The opening quotation demonstrates this - while preening themselves on their studiousness, finding out things beyond "common" perception, they don't even pay attention to or value "common sense," thinking themselves above it. Perhaps this is one of the major reasons that I found all the characters in Love's Labour's Lost so irritating - as a college student, I already spend enough time with 20-somethings who think that they are better and smarter than everyone else, disdaining "ordinary" life and relationships, yet managing to get into more than their fair share of romantic tangles. I suppose it's kind of sweet really - one way to read this play, right? - but it does get wearing after a while.

However - spoiler alert! - the title, "Love's Labour's Lost," gives us the clue that this play is perhaps not only what it seems to be on the surface. After heartily disliking the play throughout the first four acts, I felt a lot better after reading the final act. Hooray, I don't have to hate Shakespeare for writing this play anymore!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Angoor - The Comedy of Errors, Bollywood Style

This is William Shakespeare. He was a famous playwright of the 16th century. And is still considered to be the greatest. This story is based on his novel, which he called "Comedy of Errors." Several writers have penned stories revolving around twins, but Shakespeare is the only one to write a story based on 4 twins.
(Subtitles translated from Hindi)

So begins the 1982 Bollywood film "Angoor," which takes Shakespeare's basic story of two sets of twins separated in infancy and re-sets it in contemporary India.

Like the original source play, "Angoor" is highly comedic, with many...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Richard III - Movies

Catching up from our play from a few weeks ago, it's time for a run-down of Richard III movies! Richard seems to be a fairly popular subject for the screen, so I'll be breaking my reviews up into a few different categories, starting with fairly standard adaptations of the play. I'll begin with my favorite:

1. The Tragedy of Richard III (BBC, The Complete Shakespeare, 1983)

This is just the best Richard. The story is told clearly...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Comedy of Errors - Water

Adriana. Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.


Water and the sea play a very important role in The Comedy of Errors. The sea drives the twins apart; Antipholus of Syracuse plots his escape from Ephesus by means of a ship; much of the anxiety about money in the play relates to a need to pay a merchant who wants sail away on the soonest tide. However, water also is used as a metaphor for relationships between people. Adriana likens marriage and the relationship between husband and wife to the inability to separate drops of water; Antipholus of Syracuse speaks of his status as a twin in the same terms: I to the world am like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop.... These speeches are some of the most beautiful in this rather straightforward play, and help us understand why we feel so happy with the reconciliations that end the story: there are some people, some relationships, that should not be separated. When the family comes back together, it heals a hurt that was as unnatural as two drops of water being torn apart.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Comedy of Errors - Money

Antipholus of Syracuse. Upon my life, by some device or other
The villain is o'er-raught of all my money.
They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin:
If it prove so, I will be gone the sooner.
I'll to the Centaur, to go seek this slave:
I greatly fear my money is not safe.

One interesting theme in this play is the constant thread that runs through it of concern about MONEY. The play opens with Aegeon being able to purchase his life only if he is able to raise the money; the Dromios run here and there delivering vast sums of money to the wrong master; Angelo the goldsmith needs to be paid; Antipholus of Ephesus needs money to bail himself out of jail. And as is seen in the opening quotation, Antipholus of Syracuse's priorities seem kind of bonkers: he's just expressed that he's concerned about sorcery that can maim the body and soul - but then runs off to safeguard his money. Hmmm.

Of course, all this talk about money makes for some quotable quotes -

 Tis dinner-time,' quoth I; 'My gold!' quoth he;
'Your meat doth burn,' quoth I; 'My gold!' quoth he:
'Will you come home?' quoth I; 'My gold!' quoth he.

but in a larger sense, the concern about money trivializes things - the tension is lessened, as we know that the Antipholi twins have the money, it's just not always at the right place at the right time.

 I was thinking over the plays we've read this year, and I can't think of any of the other plays so far that put such an emphasis on money. Taming of the Shrew, of course, deals with rich dowries, but the history plays, for example, seem to deal more with life and death than dollars and cents. Of course, at a certain point in The Comedy of Errors, we're getting close to the two questions being one and the same, with Aegeon depending on money for his life and Antipholus of Ephesus being taken as mad for missing his money. However, though in this play it's money, not just moral choices, that allows mercy to be shown (Adriana: ...I sent you money to redeem you...[4.4.1334]), the whole tone of the story is so light that we never remain in suspense as to whether the money or the mercy will come through. This is very different than Shakespeare's other, later "money" play, The Merchant of Venice, where once again money - and mercy - are inseparably intertwined.

The Comedy of Errors - Story Time

Solinus. Well, Syracusian, say in brief the cause
Why thou departed'st from thy native home
And for what cause thou camest to Ephesus.


The Comedy of Errors begins in an interesting way. Rather than dropping the audience right into the thick of the action, as it seems that Shakepeare usually does, instead Shakespeare gives us a little story time: Aegeon, who has been arrested for being an enemy alien in the wrong part of the Greek world, tells the whole story of his life. This, of course, violates the first rule of writing that my little sister mentioned to me the other day -  "show, don't tell," quoth the experts. However, Aegeon's tale would be kind of hard to stage - he travels, his wife gives birth to twins, they are SHIPWRECKED (exciting, exciting), and the twins and the husband and wife are SEPARATED never to meet again!!

This story lets us know a few different things about the play.
1. say in brief = a very long story
2. There are twins - they will inevitably meet. Don't put a gun on stage unless it will be shot.
3. One of the sons is looking for the other. This reveals to us the fact, after we meet him, that Antipholus of Syracuse is a little bit of a well-meaning idiot. He tells us he's looking for his twin -

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


 - but when he's addressed and recognized by people he doesn't know, he fails to put two and two together. Too bad he didn't listen to his father's story at the beginning of the play to remind him of what's going on!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Comedy of Errors - A Comedy! Hooray!

Antipholus of Syracuse. A trusty villain, sir, that very oft,
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
Lightens my humour with his merry jests.

Wow, those poems - V & A somewhat goofy but with a dark side, Lucrece a straight up tragedy - left this happy little blog reeling a little. It's been a little slow around here lately - so THIS is what happens when you have finals at school and try to move at the same time! - but with the delightful, farcical silliness of The Comedy of Errors we're back in the saddle again with something guaranteed to cheer us up. Mistaken identity! Twins! Reunions! Just as Antipholus' trusty servant Dromio "lightens [his master's] humour," Shakespeare's merry jests in this play lighten my spirits too!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rape of Lucrece - Soul and Body, pt. 2

For me, I am the mistress of my fate,
And with my trespass never will dispense,
Till life to death acquit my forced offence.


In my last post on this poem, I looked at the relationship between the soul and the body - are they divided or united? -  in reference to Tarquin. However, there's also quite a bit of discussion about this in the poem surrounding the character of Lucrece.

We hear about both her wondrous beauty (body!) and her nobility and virtue (mind and soul!) - both of which, united, seem to fascinate Tarquin. Yet Lucrece, while acknowledging that her body is separate on some level from her spiritual and intellectual identity, in practice perceives her body and soul as irrevocably intertwined.

'My body or my soul, which was the dearer,
When the one pure, the other made divine?

Whose love of either to myself was nearer,
When both were kept for heaven and Collatine?
Ay me! the bark peel'd from the lofty pine,
His leaves will wither and his sap decay;
So must my soul, her bark being peel'd away.


This unity leads her to a rather terrible logical position: the body being defiled, all - virtuous mind, innocent soul - must go, discarded with her self-slaughtered corpse. Interestingly, this position - that the body is so linked to the mind and soul as to warrent suicide when the body is compromised against the will of the mind - is not shared by Lucrece's husband and the other men of Rome who hear of the case:
With this, they all at once began to say,
Her body's stain her mind untainted clears...

Yet, as is seen by the opening quotation, Lucrece makes an independent decision - she will keep control of the destiny of her body in her death, as she could not in her life. Lucrece's "I am the mistress of my fate" rings somewhat hollow for me, however, as this desperate assertion of control reveals how profoundly her fate has been shaped by an outsider - Tarquin has hijacked Lucrece's destiny so completely that she can only regain some agency by annihilating herself! Controlling your fate by disallowing any fate because you're dead doesn't seem like the perfect solution.

This situation, and the wording of the opening quotation, immediately called to mind for me a poem that I have always disliked, William Ernest Henley's Invictus, which famously ends with the words "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." I don't like this sentiment for the same reason I don't like Lucrece's suicide - sometimes things happen that are out of the "captain's" control. What then? We have Lucrece's answer.