Monday, May 23, 2016

Henry VI Part 1 - Shakespeare

Henry VI, part 1 is much more episodic than the other history plays that I've read.  It features a very young (teenage?) King Henry VI, with many advisers jockeying for position around him.  Humphrey of Gloucester starts in the best position, as his legal protector.  The king has been promised by treaty to be king of France, as well as England but large portions of France are resisting him.  War rages.
The lead English warrior, Talbot, has something of a mythic Greek stature.  Battles are won by his arm.  The French fear him as a personal scourge of their country.  In opposition, a mystic French girl named Joan.  The French are rallying.
Back in England, the fighting in the court is intensifying.  The main fight is between Richard of York and the Duke of Somerset.  While in the garden, the two forces pluck a white and a red rose and they immediately become symbols of their two sides.  (Foreshadowing!)  Also, one of the main counter claimants to the throne, a man named Mortimer, is dying and he tells Richard that he is now the true heir.  Richard vows to pursue this claim.
Back in France, the city of Rouen switches back and forth between the French and English.  Joan (of Arc) persuades one of the English main allies, Burgundy, to back the French instead.  The heroic Talbot is trapped by the French army and petty bickering between English lords means that reinforcements won't arrive in time.  Talbot's son arrives and, though they both try to convince the other to flee, they both stay and die.
Joan is captured by the English and burned at the stake as a witch.  This happens after her character is thoroughly debased.  A fragile peace is made with the French, but the French immediately plan to violate it.  The Earl of Suffolk captures princess Margaret of Anjou.  He falls in love with her, but he is already married.  He instead, gets her to agree to marry king Henry VI, so he can be near her (and control the throne).

This is very early Shakespeare.  In fact, there is some argument over just how much of it is Shakespeare and how much of it is part of a collaboration.  The characters fit much more neatly into the heroic age of chivalry than the more complicated later ones.  Talbot, for instance, would not have existed like that in the later 'Henriad'.  Even Henry V, another heroic figure, is shown to be much more human and less of a cardboard prop.
In the same vein, plays like Richard II had a straight line story throughout them.  You could trace a character arc and feel genuine sympathy for people involved.  Not so much here.  Henry VI part 1 is more like an old comic strip of history. 
It's very disappointing in comparison to the later works, but that may be unfair.  From what I understand, this was in line with the works of the time and then Shakespeare himself moved the idea of what theater could and should be.  Which...doesn't mean that I won't judge it harshly.  But the idea of the time involved is important. 
Overall, it's interesting, but falls far short of greatness.

The treatment of Joan of Arc here is something else.  Shakespeare starts by showing her as receiving holy visions.  She convinces the leaders of the French to follow her and indeed, she is invincible in battle.  This ends when Joan has a falling out with her spirit familiars.  Basically, she has sold her soul to demons and has nothing left to give them. 
She is captured and sentenced to be burned at the stake.  She protests that she is a holy virgin and they still want to burn her.  She tells them that she is pregnant and she doesn't want the unborn baby to be harmed.  When they ask who is the father, she keeps changing the story, which suggests that she 'got around'.  Then she is taken off stage and executed.
This is rather shocking treatment of someone who was a national hero of France.  Maybe not so shocking considering relations between France and England, but still.  It feels like pure propaganda. 

Worth reading for completests, but not the best work in the bunch.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Canterbury Tales - Chaucer

Note: this only deals with a handful of the stories, not the full work.

I think that I read some of the Canterbury Tales while in high school, but that was some time ago.  I'm sure we focused on the Middle English and how close it is to the modern stuff.  (I went with a translation and peeked at the original language from time to time.)  I doubt that we focused on the quality of the story telling.  I don't remember if we talked about the window that Chaucer presented of his times.
Chaucer opens with a prologue in which he introduces all of the party.  They are on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  A holy pilgrimage.  He writes some lines about each, that makes each one a specific person.  They come from different levels of society and with many kinds of jobs (some that are virtually unknown today). 
Their host suggests that they pass the time by telling stories.  They agree and draw lots to see who will go first.  The Knight does and he tells a story of courtly love.  It's a story of two brothers who fall in love with the same woman.  There is conflict and death and a certain beauty to it.
This is followed by the Miller who tells one of the dirtiest stories that I've ever read.  Probably the only thing to challenge it in all of the Great Books is certain parts of Rabelais.  I won't relate it here, but seek it out if you're curious.  I literally laughed out loud.
The other sections I read (Reeve, Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner and Pardoner) were all very good.  Very interesting.  Very earthy.  Chaucer presents very real people, for good or ill.  His 'holy' people are not necessarily holy, for instance.  In fact, it's hard not to think that this caused him some trouble.  Chaucer did not finish the work but he did add an apology at the end of what he did finish.

Years ago, way back in Year One, I hypothesized that one of the strongest strands of Western Philosophy is the willingness to call out the powers that be.  Chaucer does just that.  He must have been unpopular amongst the powerful, especially the church powerful, of his time.  Well, probably publicly unpopular.  I bet that the bishops all had private copies of the Canterbury tales that they would read when they wanted a chuckle...

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Comedies - Shakespeare

Now that I'm completely done with all 13 of Shakespeare's comedies, I thought it would be fun to try and rank them in order of how much I enjoyed them.  This list is completely subjective (of course) but I want to point out that most of these I have read, but not watched.  It's entirely possible that if I saw all 13 of them staged with good directors and casts, I'd move things around.  In reverse order:

13. Troilus and Cressida - This play is simply too unrelentingly dark for me.  Poor Troilus gives his heart away and then has his love taken from him.  Not only is she gone for him, but the poor sap then witnesses her betrayal of him.  It may be unfair to judge this as a comedy.  There has been debate over this for literally centuries and it's usually simply put as a 'problem play'.  But, this is how my sources had it pegged.  So I'm putting it last.

12. All's Well That Ends Well - Another 'problem play'.  The problem here is that I can't respect the love that the heroine has for her husband.  She pursues him and he runs away.  She only catches him by tricking him into her bed.  After that, it's all love and roses.  I can't buy it.  And, unfortunately, none of the rest of the play makes up for the hollow love story at the center. 

11. Taming of the Shrew - My big problem with this is that I simply can't respect how Petruchio treats Kate.  My modern reading just can't get past the 'punish her till she relents' treatment here.  Having said that, I enjoyed the version I watched (Taylor/Burton).  I've read in a few places that a well done performance can smooth the rough (for modern) edges.  That could certainly be the case here.

10. Two Gentleman of Verona - Another play where the fifth act undoes everything I enjoyed about the previous acts.  Here, Proteus has utterly betrayed his friend Valentine over love.  Then a simple apology is uttered and the betrayal is forgotten and Valentine is ready to hand over his love.  It's stupefying.  And right up until that, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

9. Merry Wives of Windsor - I came into this with a negative review from W.H.  Auden on my mind.  I was a bit afraid but I enjoyed it.  Well, not completely.  It has it's problems but it has the bones of a pretty good play.  With some editing and tightening up, it could be as good as (almost) any of the rest.

8. Comedy of Errors - One of Shakespeare's earliest plays and it kind of shows in terms of sophistication.  Any play that centers around two estranged sets of identical twins is going to be at least a bit zany.  But it works.  It's funny and it has heart. 

7. Love's Labor's Lost - I almost ruined this one by watching the awful movie version.  Fortunately, I went back to the text and enjoyed it quite a bit.  The love struck scholars are utterly defeated by the lovely courtly ladies and you can't help but be happy for the ladies. 

6. Merchant of Venice - This is another one where the modern attitude can't help but overshadow the Elizabethan text.  But there is enough nuance here to make it interesting rather than disgusting.  Shylock has an awful edge to him, that is certainly related to the way he has been treated, but does keep at least some sympathy back from him.  Plus, the interplay with the caskets is fascinating. 

5. Measure for Measure - After the other 'problem plays', I was afraid of this one but I really enjoyed it.  The problems are complex and interesting.  The solution is clear but the route to get there isn't.  This may be at the top of my list of plays I'd like to see live.

The top four are so hard to rank.  I'm sure the order would change depending on my mood of the day.

4. Twelfth Night - Another comedy with twins, but only one set so it's easier to work with.  Here the love story is interesting, but the subplot with Sirs Belch and Aguecheek is superb.  The trick played on Malvolio is wonderful and I enjoyed it all immensely. 

3. As You Like It - What a delightful play!  Rosalind is a complete joy and the entire interplay between her and Orlando in the forest is simply wonderful.  This one was new to me and I'll certainly seek it out again.

2. Much Ado About Nothing - An old favorite of mine and I wonder if that didn't color my rankings.  If I'd come at this fresh as the previous two, would I have put it ahead of them?  It doesn't matter.  I love, love it, love it.  Maybe the best duel of wits in the bunch.

1. A Midsummer Night's Dream - I like each of the plots here, and I'll always have a special place in my heart for the role of Puck.  There is a playfulness here that I love, in the whole twisty lovers plot.  However, what sells this for me, is the rude mechanicals and their awful play within the play.  To the delightfully named Bottom, my hats off to you.

Disagree?  Feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Links to the Past

Reading All of Shakespeare's Plays on the Tube link

Reviving the spoken Aeneid link

Heaney's Virgil is our Virgil link

Philosophically Curious George (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Measure for Measure - Shakespeare

This play opens with the Duke of Vienna deciding to go away and leave matters of justice in Vienna to his Deputy, Angelo.  One of the first cases that he oversees is that of a young lord named Claudio and his pregnant girlfriend, Juliet.  The two are in love and jumped the gun a bit on marriage.  Angelo tells them that they have broken the law and sentences Claudio to death.
Claudio's sister is a novice nun named Isabella.  She is tasked with going to Claudio and begging for a lighter sentence and mercy.  Angelo will not give in to this mercy, but he is struck by Isabella's wit and beauty.  He begins to fall for her.  He postpones the execution and tells her to return the next day.  When she comes back, Angelo tells her that he will be merciful to Claudio if she, Isabella, sleeps with him.
She is horrified by this and uncertain what to do.  She goes to the prison and talks with Claudio.  While there, she is overheard by a friar who is actually, the Duke of Vienna in disguise.  He takes her aside and devises a plan.  Angelo was engaged to be married some years prior, but broke off the wedding after his fiancĂ© lost her dowry.  The Duke suggest that they enlist the aid of this young lady, Mariana.  They will trick Angelo into bed with her.  They will then wed and Angelo will release Claudio.  Mariana agrees to the 'bed trick' and they're off.
But the plot runs into trouble.  Angelo has sent word to the prison that Claudio should be executed the next morning, no matter what other message is sent.  He also wants Claudio's head brought to him as proof that he has been killed.  The friar (disguised Duke) convinces the Provost to delay the execution.  They even try to hurry the execution of a different man so they can send his head.  That doesn't work but a pirate dies and his head is used.
The Duke then sends word that he is returning to Vienna and he asks to be met at the gate so that he can hear of any case of injustice.  Isabella, believing he brother to be dead, brings suit and is heard.  Angelo protests his innocence but he simply digs himself in deep.  The injustice is soon known and the Duke's disguise is found out.  He knows everything and metes out justice.  Marriages all around, for virtually everyone.

I liked 'Measure for Measure' quite a bit.  After I found it lumped together as a 'problem play' with 'Troilus and Cressida' and 'All's Well that Ends Well', I feared it a bit.  But I was very pleasantly surprised.  The plot is tricky and I'm not sure I understood everyone's motivations, but the questions raised were interesting. 
For instance, Angelo wants to execute Claudio for sex outside of marriage.  He then quickly offers mercy to him, if Isabella will commit the exact same offense with him.  Angelo then double crosses her and withholds that mercy.  I didn't expect any of that.
The play is also filled with some very interesting passages.  Isabella argues for her brother's salvation with great skill.  This prompts Angelo into a moving speech about how she captivates him. 

I liked it a bunch and I'd really like to see it on stage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

All's Well That Ends Well - Shakespeare

The king of France is sick and no one can find a cure.  There was some hope that a famous doctor could help him, but the doctor has died.  Fortunately, that doctor had a daughter, named Helena.  Helena is a poor girl, but much loved by the Countess of Rossillion, who thinks of her like her own daughter.  The Countess finds out that Helena loves her son, Bertram.
Helena journeys to see the king and offers him a cure of her father's.  She pledges her life if it doesn't work.  In return, the king offers her the hand in marriage of any of the noble men of her choosing.  The cure works and Helena chooses Bertram.  Bertram is less than pleased at this.  He decides to avoid his new wife and go to war instead.
Helena chases after him in disguise.  She finds that Bertram is wooing another woman, Diana.  Diana is fiercely protective of her virginity and refuses all of Bertram's advances.  Helena approaches her and proposes a 'bed trick' in which Diana will seem to accept Bertram into her bed, but it will really be Helena there.  Bertram beds her and then flees, leaving a family ring behind.
The war ends and everyone goes back to find the king visiting the Countess of Rossillion.  Bertram is told that Helena has died of grief.  Diana has followed him to berate him for broken promises.  Bertram denies that he has been with her.  Helena enters with the ring.  And also pregnant.  Bertram is trapped and agrees to be a loving husband to his wife.

In 'All's Well that Ends Well', Shakespeare turns the table on the story from 'Taming of the Shrew'.  Here we have a girl choosing to marry someone who doesn't want to marry her.  This story feels more sympathetic to the rejected party.  I wonder how the audiences of Shakespeare's time felt about that?
This end of the 'war between the sexes' feels very unfunny.  Helena is rejected by an awful man and then she chases after him.  He is tricked into a bed with her and only then agrees to be a good husband.  None of this feels like justice.  None of it feels like a recipe for a happy life after.
In fact, there is another unique end to this comedy.  Both of the young women, Helena and Diana, have mothers (or at least mother figures) who are actively trying to help them.  I don't think this is true in any other of Shakespeare's comedies.

There is also a bit with a braggart named Parolles, who is tricked into showing his bad nature to Bertram.  Maybe it works well on stage, but it didn't work well from the page.  He seems a particularly lackluster 'clown'.  He is tricked while being threatened with death. 
All in all, this is a very dark comedy.  That's not necessarily bad, but it didn't feel like it worked here.  This was new to me, and I didn't really care for it.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Much Ado About Nothing - Shakespeare

A group of young nobles are returning from the wars and chance to stop at the house of one of their friends, Leonato, the governor of Messina.  As soon as they arrive, Leonato's niece, Beatrice, starts a war of wit with one of the nobles, Benedick.  (The two have obviously tangled in the past.)  Another noble, Claudio, professes that he has fallen in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero.  In response to this, Benedick tells everyone that he will never marry.  The leader of the nobles, Prince Don Pedro, tells Claudio that he will win Hero for him.  Another of the nobles is Don Pedro's bastard brother, a villain named Don John, decides to ruin things out of spite.
With some small, easily resolved, difficulty, Don Pedro wins the hand of Hero for Claudio.  The nobles then gather with Leonato and decide to try and make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other.  They do this by allowing Benedick to overhear a conversation in which he 'learns' that Beatrice is in love with him but afraid to say anything because she is sure it will be unrequited.  The women pull the same trick on Beatrice.  Both of them are lodged firmly in the other's brain.
Meanwhile, Don John has figured out a trick to ruin the upcoming marriage between Hero and Claudio.  One of his men makes loud love to Hero's nurse while using Hero's name.  Claudio is made to overhear this and thinks that his Hero has been untrue.  Claudio disgraces Hero at their wedding and storms off.  Leonato is shattered but is soon convinced by the priest that his daughter must have been slandered.  They agree to pretend that Hero has died from the shock of the accusation.  In the aftermath of this, Beatrice and Benedick admit that they love each other.
Don John's man is caught by the village guards, a loveable group of idiots led by constable Dogberry.  He confesses to Leonato and word trickles back to Claudio and Prince Don Pedro.  Claudio asks forgiveness of Leonato and is bid to marry, sight unseen, a previously unmentioned niece.  Claudio agrees to do so.  At the wedding, the new niece is unveiled as Hero and the marriage is held.  Benedick and Beatrice have their love proclaimed publicly.  The villain, Don John is captured, but he will be dealt with later.  All is happy.

I know this play well because of the excellent film adaptation from Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.  I've seen the movie several times but this was my first time reading through everything.  The movie does a good job of sticking to the script and there was nothing I noticed edited out that would have been missed. 
I love the movie but I felt that it was hard for me to imagine the story being played differently.  This isn't the case in the couple of Shakespeare plays that I've actually acted in.  Thus the power of movies, I guess.  (I hope to get a chance to see a live performance next month so that may help get past this.) 
If you haven't seen this film version, find time to do so.

That battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick is truly wonderful.  Both of them are so hardened against love and then they are betrayed and fall for each other.  I find it impossible to not enjoy the two of them.  Maybe more than any other pair of Shakespearian lovers.  From what I've read, this is a popular feeling. 
The love affair between Hero and Claudio, meanwhile, suffers in comparison.  The love is straightforward, even if the path to get there isn't.  The scheme that keeps them apart is also simple and easily pierced.  In fact, it's so simple that the simplest people in the play discover the plot. 

This might be my favorite of the comedies.  When I've reviewed them all, I'll (why not?) try and come up with some kind of ranking.  Then I'll try and compare that to some other ranking system and see how far out of step I am with conventional wisdom.