Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Thoughts on “The Poems”

February 1, 2023

So the last forty pages or so of my complete collection of Shakespeare are the poems that he’d written, including his sonnets and two of his more epic — at least in length — poems.  Now, coming into this I knew that this would be a bit of a slog for me, which is why I made it a goal to finish it in one shot.  The first reason is that I’m not a fan of poetry at all, so just on that basis it was unlikely to impress me.  The second reason is that I’m also not a fan of romantic works — in the sense of primarily focusing on romantic liaisons — and obviously the Sonnets fit into that category … but so do the poems, for the most part.  So, yeah, I probably wasn’t going to be that fond of the poems and was definitely going to be unlikely to return to them again and again in the future to experience them.

One big thing that stood out to me here, though, works as a general comment on Shakespeare:  he can be a little … wordy is perhaps the best way to put it.  He will quite often say things in a much longer way than necessary, and often will repeat the same points again in slightly different ways.  The reason that this works for Shakespeare, however, is that he’s very good with those words and so even when he repeats points or lingers a bit too long we can enjoy the creative way he expresses those points.  Ultimately, we can get lost in his use of language which helps us forget that he isn’t saying anything new and is expressing what he wanted to get across using far more words than he needed to.

This really comes across here in the poems, especially in the two longer poems “Venus and Adonis” and “Lucrece”.  For the plays, he is limited in how much he can indulge in this by needing to do far more in a play and having less room than he would in a longer poem because of that.  The sonnets often repeat on a theme, but they benefit from the fact that you were probably never intended to read them all as a completely cohesive whole and so can be forgiven for circling back to previous themes.  But it is clear in the longer poems that he’s repeating his ideas and simply expressing them in different ways and so taking a lot longer to get through the story than he needed to.  And yet, I can easily imagine that if you were invested in the story or were a fan of romances that his expressing these things differently would simply add to the emotional heft of the story and help to build the atmosphere and emotion that that sort of reader would be looking for.  I wasn’t invested in the stories and didn’t care for romance, so I was more hoping for the poem to advance instead of doing that, which meant that I preferred the two shorter poems to those epics … despite the fact that epic ballads are about the only sort of poetry I actually enjoy.

Ultimately, I came in expecting to not care for the poetry and that’s pretty much what happened, but that’s not a criticism of Shakespeare’s abilities as a poet and more a reflection of the fact that if you don’t care for the stories or genres or poetry itself Shakespeare’s abilities with language will not save them for you … and, in fact, will only hurt as his style drags the poems out even more forcing you to experience that which you don’t care for even longer.  Shakespeare is clever with language and if you are engaged with his poetry that will carry you through, but if you aren’t then it won’t and will only drag it out.

The last post on this collection will talk about the collection as a whole.

Thoughts on “King Henry the Eighth”

January 25, 2023

So this is the last of the plays in my collection, which means that it’s the last of the official plays and is arguably the last one written.  Of course, it’s a historical, and aside from “Julius Caesar” I haven’t cared that much for the historicals.  At least part of that is because the historicals really are a dramatic rendition of the historical events, and as such there’s not really any kind of direct plot.  The plot is really a bare bones outline of the events, and so these plays move from event to event as we follow through the history, but the plays tend to end hinting at events to come and there’s no real overall theme to these plays.  This means that unless you know and care about the history is can be easy to get lost and even easier to not feel any emotional connection to the events or the characters and so have nothing to grasp onto to make us want to see what happens next (or how those events are portrayed).

The play focuses on Henry the Eighth as he ends up concerned about not having a son as heir and so divorces his first wife Katherine and marries Anne Boleyn.  It also includes a number of machinations from an ambitious bishop and then later a challenge against the new Archbishop of Canterbury at the end that is preempted by the king himself, and it ends with the birth of Elizabeth.  So as you might guess, there isn’t really much of a plot joining these events together, other than history itself.  So I’m not going to be able to use the plot to form a connection to the play.

However, the play works because it does a really good job of connecting use to the characters.  “Julius Caesar” escaped the bubble of being an uninteresting historical because it focused on and developed the character of Brutus, but here the play gives pretty much all the characters the same treatment.  As is par for the course for the historicals, Henry and even Anne get less of this that we see for other characters, but they are prominent enough and we are privy to enough of their internal thoughts that we can understand why they do what they do.  Henry’s first wife gets quite a bit of characterization, enough that we feel sad at her being put aside and sad at her death.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is given enough characterization that we can feel happy at the end when he is exonerated but it is ambiguous enough that we can wonder if he is as ambitious and is playing the games that he’s accused of.  And more importantly, this ambiguity carries over to the main antagonist, which is the bishop.  We can see that he is manipulating things and doing so unfairly, but he protests that it isn’t him doing which, obviously, seems hollow, but when his schemes are foiled and he is sent away from court he claims to have reformed and one of Katherine’s servants comments on his good points so that she — and thus we, since she is sympathetic and was one of his strongest opponents — can see that he is a more ambiguous character than he might have seemed.

With all of this, we have an oddity:  a historical that I actually enjoyed.  It doesn’t rise to the level of the great tragedies or even comedies, and I don’t think it is as good as “Julius Caesar”, but the connection it forms to the characters finally hits what a historical should be focusing on and creates a play that actually can indeed stand the test of time.  You don’t need to know these events in detail or have an emotional connection to them to feel for the characters and so be interested in how it all works out, which is rare for the historicals.  Henry also plays a bigger role in the play that is titled with his name which happened in “Antony and Cleopatra”, but the difference there is that the title characters aren’t sympathetic while Henry is more so and so far less annoying.  So the last play is, for me, a surprisingly interesting and enjoyable play, even more so because it is in a category that I haven’t enjoyed throughout this process.

Which leads into the last set of things to read:  the poetry.  I am not a fan of poetry, but I will read all the poems and talk about what I thought of them next time.

Thoughts on “The Tempest”

January 18, 2023

As I’ve commented on before, I reinvented the wheel in discovering that there are three broad categories of Shakespearean plays — comedy, drama and historical — and that some plays don’t seem to fit into those categories all that neatly and so are considered “problematic”.  So as I’ve gone along I’ve been following that classification scheme — as since I tend to like the dramas, find the comedies hit and miss, and dislike the historicals it’s a useful and interesting categorization to make — and have myself noted that while each category did seem to have certain traits some of the plays seem to mix traits from various categories.  I’ve been avoiding looking at what the “experts” say because I’ve wanted to just come up with it on my own and wasn’t all that interested in checking myself against them except in cases where I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t missing something (usually with the comedies since it having what I thought was a more dramatic theme or my not finding it all that funny doesn’t mean that it wasn’t meant to be a comedy).

“The Tempest” hit the “problematic” category for me.  For the most part, it seems to be a fairly standard drama about the former advisor of a city, Prospero, who has learned magic and creates a storm when the people who exiled him are sailing by to get his revenge on them, while also arranging for a husband for his daughter.  For the most part, the play seems to play this all straight.  However, there are a number of scenes, especially between a couple of the advisors, that fit the structure of Shakespeare’s comedies, mostly by having the characters engage in banter and in commenting on things that are going on.  When I went to look it up, it turns out that this is indeed one of the problematic plays precisely because of that mix, and experts have invented a category of “romances” for these sorts of plays, but I personally don’t think that fits because the romance is actually a minor part of the play, and so it would work, for me, as a general drama.

At least part of the reason for that is that those scenes are, for me, the worst parts of the play.  The characters aren’t particularly interesting and their plots aren’t that interesting either.  There is an interesting thing to come out of those plots which is a plot against the ruler that Prospero wants revenge on, but other than foiling that the plot doesn’t really have much of an impact on anything else.  So because the banter is neither all that funny in and of itself and doesn’t tie into the rest of the play all that well, it almost seems like comic relief that comes at a time when we didn’t need comic relief, and so it seems a bit pointless.

The main plot is better, mostly because the characters are more interesting.  While there are hints that Prospero might be a sinister character — Caliban accuses him of being a tough master and the spirit Prospero uses for most of his schemes asks him to keep his promise but there are hints that Prospero might not — we quickly learn from the asides that he is, himself, fairly honourable and even though he is seeking revenge he treats everyone else well, and notes that for Caliban he was the son of an evil witch who enslaved everyone and after defeating the witch he kept Caliban with them until Caliban attacked his daughter Miranda.  Thus, he’s a sympathetic character, and even though he treats the son of the ruler harshly he explicitly comments that he’s doing that to make the son earn his relationship with Miranda because if someone has to earn something they appreciate it more.  Ultimately, at the end he keeps his promises and frees everyone from the island, but this isn’t a twist in the story but something that we can see, given his character, that he would indeed do.  Also, Miranda and the ruler’s son are both sympathetic and nice and so we are happy to see them get together at the end and so for Prospero’s plans to succeed.  He does have to give up using a spell on the son and, as noted, his revenge, but we can see that this fits in with his character.

For me, this isn’t going to be one of the classic plays, and I did find the banter to not be very interesting, but overall the play was entertaining and worked relatively well.  It’s a breath of fresh air from the last few plays that I didn’t find to be all that good, even as it doesn’t have the character of the earlier and classic plays.

The last play in my collection is “King Henry the Eighth”, which is … a historical.  Which is a category that I haven’t cared much for.  So I’m not holding out much hope that the collection will end on a high note.

Thoughts on “The Winter’s Tale”

January 11, 2023

This one definitely seems to be a drama, which should give it a leg up in terms of my enjoying it.  However, as I proceed towards the end of the plays I’m finding that the crafting of the plays is as good as if not better than any of his most classic plays, but the plot and characters are significantly weaker.

The basic idea here is that the king of Sicilia has invited the king of Bohemia to visit for an extended time, since they were raised together and were fast friends.  When it comes time for the king of Bohemia to leave, the king of Sicilia prevails upon him to stay, but he refuses … until the queen of Sicilia convinces him to stay longer.  For some reason that might involve his son not looking enough like him, the king of Sicila then suspects that his wife and the king of Sicilia have been having a long affair, and that not only his existing son but his unborn daughter are really the children of the king of Bohemia, and ends up trying to convince one of the queen’s servants to poison the king of Bohemia.  The servant instead tells the king of Bohemia, which causes him to immediately leave, which only makes the king of Sicilia more suspicious, so he imprisons his wife and sends to the Oracle of Delphi to prove to his lords that his suspicions are correct.  The queen gives birth to a daughter, which the wife of one of the lords brings to the king in the hopes that it will soften his stance, but it only hardens it and he orders the daughter and his wife executed, but the lords convince him not to, and one lord in particular is then ordered to abandon the infant in the desert.  The men he sent to the Oracle then return and the message from the Oracle exonerates the queen and says that the king will have no heir until his daughter is found.  The son, who was sick earlier, dies, which causes the queen to faint and die, leaving the king alone.  Meanwhile, the lord sees a vision from the queen saying to leave the child near Bohemia, where a shepherd finds it.  The play then fast forwards fifteen years, and the daughter who was raised as the shepherd’s daughter is being courted by the king of Bohemia’s son, and ultimately the king of Bohemia disapproves of that idea and so the two of them run away to Sicilia.  Eventually, everyone comes together and she is revealed as the daughter of the king of Sicilia, which makes the match acceptable, and the queen comes back to life somehow, and the play ends.

The characters in general really don’t work here.  The king of Sicilia suspects his wife for no good reason, and does that very strongly in a way that’s required to lead to the rest of the plot, but this makes him entirely unsympathetic.  The king of Bohemia is more sympathetic but then throws that all away with his over-the-top reaction to the prince’s courtship of the daughter.  The daughter is talked about as being great, but doesn’t get the character development necessary for us to really like her, and the same applies to the prince.  We definitely might want the two of them to get together, but that would be because it’s romantic and not because we really like those characters.  The shepherd and his friend the clown — literally — are too often idiotic and capricious for us to care about them, and they don’t play any real role in the final outcome other than revealing where the prince and the daughter went.  The lord who wanted to save the child and his wife would be interesting characters if he hadn’t fallen out of the story due to the Oracle’s prophecy and if she wasn’t really just there to lecture the king and reveal the miracle of the queen’s survival at the end, and so they don’t really play enough of a role to focus on, and they don’t really get a happy ending.  There’s also a rogue cahracter added who is a thief and swindler who wants to return to service with the prince, but he’s not a very interesting character and adds nothing to the play itself.

The plot itself doesn’t really work either. As noted above, there’s no real reason given for the king of Sicilia to suspect that his wife and the king of Bohemia are having an affair and he jumps far too quickly to just killing off his long-time friend, which spawns the rest of the plot, but the two of them seemingly at least somewhat reconcile far too quickly to have that sort of event between them.  By taking the lord out of the picture, it leaves him with no real way to reveal who the daughter really is, so it again moves very quickly based mostly on how she looks, it seems, but given how bad the judgement of the king was earlier we have no reason to trust his opinion.  If they had kept the lord alive and he had even, perhaps, disguised himself as the clown to keep an eye on the daughter and so could reveal himself at the end and confirm it, things would have worked out a lot better and there really was no reason for him to never return home.  And, of course, the queen’s sudden revival makes no sense at all.

Similarly to “Timon of Athens”, this play has a similar plot to the previous play “Pericles” but is lacking when compared to it, especially in terms of plot and characters.  And Pericles wasn’t one of the classic Shakespeare plays to begin with.  So as I head towards the end it really is the case that the plot and the characters are not at all impressing me.  I’ll see if Shakespeare can finish strong with the last two plays:  “The Tempest” and “King Henry the Eighth”.

Some More Quick Thoughts

January 10, 2023

One thing that I discovered over my December vacation is, well, more of a confirmation of the fact that I can watch pretty much any competition show if I have someone to cheer for.  I recently added the Canadian Food Network channel to my cable package as part of another package and at various times spent some time watching the competitions on it.  However, I ended up spending pretty much an entire day watching the “Kids Baking Championship” marathon.  I had flipped to it but didn’t care much for it because at first the stuff the kids were doing seemed basic, but after flipping back to it again at one point I found that there were a few of the kids that seemed to have interesting personalities and approaches, and they also did manage to do some fairly advanced techniques, so I kept watching it until the end.  It was also interesting because at least pretty much once an episode one of the kids broke down crying (and the one who went home ended up doing the same) and while it could have really annoyed me I found that it didn’t bother me as much as I would have thought because, well, they’re kids.  They’re definitely going to be upset at times, and it was also nice to see Valerie Bertinelli — who was one of the hosts — come over to calm them down and give them a hug, which was kinda sweet.

I also realized that while I used to say that for anything like this I could watch it if I had someone to cheer for or cheer against, I think that doesn’t work for me anymore.  There has to be someone for me to cheer for, because if there’s just someone that I find annoying and so want to lose there I find that, well, they start to annoy me, and then the show starts to annoy me, and then I stop watching the show.  While one of the more colourful personalities annoyed me with this show, there were some personalities that I liked better which carried me through the episodes.  If that kid had made it all the way to the end and only had neutral personalities for me to cheer for, I think I would indeed have just moved on.

How I ended up with that channel is itself a bit interesting.  As the channel that sometimes shows movies went into Christmas movies that bored me, and the game show channels were showing shows that I didn’t care for, I started pondering reshuffling channels again to get something to watch when I’m working from home (I still do that at least one day a week, and whenever it snows).  And then I went to the dentist, and they have TVs overhead to distract the patients while they’re working on them, and it was showing “Love it or List it Vancouver”, which I was surprisingly interested in.  The show features an interior designer facing off against a realtor to fix the issues a family or couple is having with their house by renovating it and trying to find them a new one, and at the end the family has to decide whether to keep the renovated house or sell it to take the house the realtor found for them.  I liked the show because, as one of the wives commented, the interior designer is “cute and perky”, there’s just enough drama to keep me interested when I’m watching it but I don’t care enough about that drama that it distracts me when I’m doing something else (a marathon of those episodes is running right now while I’m writing this, in fact).  It took me a while to find that channel, but I finally did and it was in a package with Food Network and a few others, so I decided to give it a shot.  It works pretty well, although it is nice to catch at the end who won and when I used it to look up at while playing TOR I ended up having no idea who won which means that I didn’t remember anything about the episode.

I was reading some Bill Fawcett history books — he had written “How to Lose a Battle” — that I picked up in my last Amazon shopping spree before the holidays, and obviously when you talk about monumental battles and the like a lot of those will be from WWII, which reminded me of that and spurred me to rewatch … “Space Above and Beyond”, which fit into the time between my having finished off “Babylon 5” and starting the new stuff.  The show is more gritty and realistic than, well, most shows you’d see on TV that aren’t documentaries but it can be a bit gritty and dramatic at times — exceeding the rebooted “Battlestar Galatica” at times — and a lot of the times the marine characters end up disobeying orders more than they really should be able to get away with.  Yes, they’re in a space war with aliens and had the first real success in that war, but the military tends to demand more discipline than that.  So it got a little grating at times with that and the drama, but it’s still a fairly good show, especially since James Morrison plays T.C. McQueen, their commanding officer, quite well, and it’s one of the few roles that I’ve seen that Tucker Smallwood nails the acting on.

I also had planned on playing some of the PC games that I found and installed a while ago, and finally found some time to play Risk II.  I played with the Same Time option — all moves are executed at the same time — and with the Mission option, and played a couple of games with eight players that are all me.  I noticed that some of the missions seemed to be quite a bit easier than the others.  For example, the mission of “Eliminate Player X who owned the territory of Y” seems relatively easy, especially if you take and hold that territory early on so you know who to focus on, and indeed the first game was won by the player with that mission.  What makes it easier than the similar mission to simply eliminate a specific random player is that if someone else eliminates that player you still complete the mission, whereas when you’re given a specific random player if someone else eliminates them you have to take them on, which is bad because it’s likely that they are a fairly powerful player at that point.  The other missions that I’ve seen are based on holding a continent and other things as well.  You can hold a continent of your choice and then have a presence in each of the other continents, or hold a specific continent and then specific territories or a chain of connected territories.  The specific territories one seems to me to be the most difficult because you definitely have to conquer a lot of extra territory just to get to those specific territories, while the presence one is similar but what specifically you take is more open.  The chain of connected territories is probably the easiest, if you have the right initial continent.  At any rate, the game is fun and a lot faster than the other two to get through, so it may well turn into a good “I have an hour or two to kill” game which I have up until now been completely lacking.

So, those are more quick thoughts from the time I spent on vacation.

Thoughts on “Cymbeline”

January 4, 2023

As I proceeded with reading the complete works of Shakespeare, I roughly divided his plays into ones that I called “historicals”, and then into the comedies and the dramas/tragedies.  This, as it turns out, is pretty much how the experts divide Shakespeare’s plays as well.  It’s possible that at some point in time someone mentioned these distinctions to me, but I didn’t remember them when I started reading the plays and so to my mind I definitely ended up “reinventing” them, with my own takes on what properties each of those categories contained.  Some of them, of course, didn’t seem to neatly fit into those categories … but then the experts also have a selection of “problem plays” that, well, don’t neatly fit into each category.

The categories actually take on some extra importance for me, because as it turns out I tend to like or dislike the plays in certain categories.  The comedies, as I suppose most comedies end up being, are a bit hit-and-miss for me.  I tend to like the dramas/tragedies, although some don’t really seem to pass muster.  But the historicals are plays that I generally dislike, with only “Julius Caesar” being one that I actually really enjoyed.  The others get to the level of “tolerable” at best.

“Cymbeline” has the properties that I’ve come to associate with the historicals.  The title character is not at all the focus character and barely appears in the work, although his actions are what instigates the other plots.  There are also a number of plots that are barely interrelated but that seem to follow in some sense from the historical events.  It also seems to not really end, with lots of openings for a sequel, and while there’s drama and sometimes even tragedy the plays don’t seem to focus on them in any real way, and usually don’t resolve them.

The plot here is that Cymbeline the king is upset with his daughter because he wanted to marry her to the son of his new queen — so her stepbrother — but she, instead, went ahead and married someone of noble birth but with no money who had been raised in the king’s home.  So the king exiles the beau and imprisons his daughter until she comes to her senses.  The stepbrother is a braggart and a thoroughly disreputable person — Shakespeare in a couple of places makes hay with this with a lord mocking him behind his back over things like this — and the queen is two-faced and working against the wishes of the daughter and the king.  The beau ends up meeting another person who takes offense to the beau’s bragging about how wonderful the daughter is and bets that he can bed the daughter, offering the wealth that the beau would need to impress the king against a diamond ring that the daughter gave him.  Of course, when that person arrives he discovers that the virtue of the daughter is indeed impregnable, so he steals a bracelet and pretends that he was successful, which enrages the beau enough that he tells his servant to kill the daughter for her unfaithfulness, but the servant ends up faking her death because he can’t go through with it.  At the same time, a legate from Rome has come to collect what he claims is tribute owed to him from Julius Caesar’s time, but Cymbeline won’t pay it which will trigger hostilities.  The servant tries to arrange for the daughter to enter into his service, but she goes astray and ends up at a cave with an outlaw from Cymbeline’s time and, as it turns out, her own brothers who were abducted by that outlaw in revenge for being banished from court and have been raised from children by him.  She then takes a drug that the servant got from the queen which sends her into a stupor that looks like death, and the stepbrother shows up in the beau’s clothes and is killed by one of her brothers for, basically, being a hot-headed boor, and they lay the two bodies together so that when the daughter wakes up she thinks that her beau has died.  She does end up in the retinue of the Roman official, who ends up attacking her father, but he is saved by the beau returned to find her out of regret for what he had ordered done, the outlaw, and her two brothers.  This leads to a big final scene where everything is revealed — including the queen’s perfidy — and everything ends up being resolved, even the matter of the tribute.

It seems to me that the last few plays in the collection have the same traits, as they show Shakespeare’s ability to craft plays but don’t have engaging plots or characters.  As you can see from the above summary, the play is overstuffed with content which means that we don’t really get enough of a sense of each characters to really care about them.  About the only character that is consistently sympathetic is the daughter, and that’s only because she has to be a complete paragon of virtue for the plot to come off at all.  The stepbrother is more an ass than any kind of threat, and so is only fun at all when he’s being made fun of and is just annoying at any other time, and the queen and the purported seducer don’t get enough development to make for good antagonists, and the Roman official isn’t an antagonist in any way.  The dialogue works and the play flows, but the plot and characters just aren’t interesting enough to make it a classic work.  I’d sit through a performance of it, probably, and didn’t mind reading it, but it wasn’t going to be memorable.  Then again, for a professional playwright that might have been more the goal than creating works that truly stood the test of time, so perhaps that’s only to be expected.

Next up is “The Winter’s Tale”.

Thoughts on “Pericles”

December 28, 2022

This play also seems to be more of a drama than a historical, although it is clearly not a tragedy.  The basic idea is that King Pericles has come to a city to appeal for the hand of that king’s beautiful daughter, and would have to solve a riddle before he could do so, and it is implied that if he doesn’t solve the riddle something bad happens to him, which is likely death.  He does, but the key is that the riddle reveals that the king and his daughter are in an incestuous relationship, which Pericles doesn’t approve of.  The king then decides that he cannot be left alive knowing and disapproving of that, and so sends out an assassin to kill him.  Pericles flees to Tarsus and then tries to move on but a shipwreck causes him to land in another land, where that king has another lovely daughter and another competition for her hand.  They are incestuous, though, and Pericles wins the competition and ends up marrying her.  At that time, the person he left behind to run his own country has been convinced to take over the city if Pericles cannot be found, so he is found and he and his wife and their soon-to-be-born daughter return to his city by sea.  Another storm during childbirth causes his wife to die and be tossed overboard, and Pericles in his grief leaves his daughter with the king and queen of Tarsus to be raised.  As it turns out, his wife wasn’t really dead and is revived by some kind of healer.  After this, the queen becomes jealous of the daughter — and especially with her constantly outshining her own daughter — and arranges for someone to kill the daughter, but pirates intervene and sell her to a brothel, but she won’t allow anyone to take her virginity — yes, that’s a very major part of the play — and so eventually convinces the brother owner to sell her for a noble servant.  Meanwhile, the queen lies to Pericles about his daughter’s death which sends him into despondency, which causes the nearby city to send for his daughter to help him, even though neither of them know about their relationship at the time.  When it comes out, they are overjoyed to be reunited, and the daughter is set to get married to a noble, and when they head to the temple of Diana for the wedding his wife is also there and the whole family is reunited.

I’m towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, and it’s clear that he’s polished his playwright skills.  This play, like the previous ones, is written quite well and the dialogue works, and he returns to having a narrator and to acting out some of the actions, which works a lot better than his previous attempts.  However, it is starting to look like he’s kinda running out of plot and characterizations to work with.  The plot is full of contrivances to both separate and reunite the family, which makes the drama weak, and we don’t really find out much about any of the characters to hang our hat on how they approach things.  The incestuous king and his daughter are killed horribly just to get them out of the way, the play at the end says that the king and queen of Tarsus will be punished despite the fact that the king didn’t seem to want to kill Pericles’ daughter and only kept it a secret to save his wife, given that they all believed she was dead, and finally the entire scene with the brothel is pointless and unnecessary.  The assassin himself could have shipped her off as a servant and we would have skipped an entire contrived situation where we have to believe that a brothel owner who was talking about raping the daughter pretty much when he bought her would let her go for months talking customers out of having sex with her without doing so when he seemed convinced that doing so would end that behaviour.

Ultimately, the plot is full of contrivances that make the reunification of the family at the end a bit hollow, but there’s no other plot than those contrivances and nothing else to provide drama.  Shakespeare can still right plays, but compared to his greater works the plot and characterization is quite weak here.

Up next is “Cymbeline”.

Thoughts on “Timon of Athens”

December 21, 2022

This one doesn’t seem to be a historical and isn’t a comedy, which would make it a general drama/tragedy.  Since I’ve tended to prefer the dramas/tragedies, that should be a good sign for how much I like it.  But let’s see how it all shakes out.

The basic idea is that Timon of Athens is a wealthy man who likes to treat friends, enemies, annoyances and, well, pretty much everyone generously, throwing large banquets for them and giving them expensive gifts, which pretty much everyone happily accepts although the cynical Apemantus mocks, well, pretty much everyone over it, which Timon takes relatively well.  Of course, Timon overspends his wealth and ends up with a number of debts that even his extensive estate cannot cover.  It turns out that some of his debts seem to be owned by some of the men that he has been treating, and he appeals to them for loans himself to cover his debts for at least a while.  However, they all plead poverty and refuse to help him.  At the same time, a captain in the army, Alcibiades, appeals for the life of a friend who has committed a crime but is denied, which he considers a huge injustice.  Alcibiades goes off to raise an army to perhaps save his friend or at least avenge him, while Timon wanders out into the wilderness in a storm to live out his life, which he expects to be short.  Alcibiades and Apemantus both appeal to him to accept a loan and return to some sort of civilization, but he refuses.  Ultimately, Timon dies and is entombed where he said he’d be, and Alcibiades manages to force Athens to submit to him.

The play reminds me a lot of “King Lear”, with the old and wealthy lead surrounded by flatterers who won’t actually do anything for him when he needs them to, who rejects them all and descends to a sort of madness until his death.  The issue I had with that play was that there wasn’t enough plot to cover its length.  “Timon of Athens” is shorter, but has even less plot than “King Lear” did.  All we really have is that a man who spent well on those who he thought were his friends loses all his money doing that and has all his friends abandon him, with a mostly irrelevant subplot around Alcibiades.  Given that, we don’t really learn enough about Timon to really find what happened to him tragic.  As in “King Lear”, the tragedy doesn’t follow from what we know of his nature, because we don’t really learn that much about his nature.  It’s unjust what happens to him, but not unexpected and he himself could easily have at least gone with Alcibiades after he lost everything, so the tragedy falls a bit flat.  It could have been avoided and there’s no reason for Timon to not take the options that would avoid the tragic ending of this death.

Ultimately, if there is a theme at all here, it’s probably a condemnation of Athens, or at least of any city/society that would act that way and allow such things to happen.  That’s the only thing that connects Timon’s tragedy to Alcibiades’ quest for justice, and the only thing that would justify the ending with Athens submitting to Alcibiades.  That’s also the only way any of Timon’s false friends get any payback for what they did.  However, we also don’t find out enough about Athens itself to justify it, and the event that triggers Alcibiades’ crusade seems a relatively minor one.  Athens pays the price in the end for the events of the play, but there’s no real reason why it should.

That being said, Shakespeare still retains his playwright abilities, and so the play itself does move and the dialogue works well.  It’s just a shame that neither the plot nor the characters are as memorable as the ones in some of Shakespeare’s other works.  As I noted, it’s very similar to the so-so “King Lear” and yet doesn’t even rise to its level.

Up next is “Pericles”.

Thoughts on “Coriolanus”

December 14, 2022

This one is, I think, another historical, given that it shares a number of traits of the historicals, including the fact that the title character, although prominent throughout the play this time, is actually in terms of character placed at least on equal ground if not sidelined a bit by the other characters.  Since the historicals — aside from “Julius Caesar” — have been the plays that I’ve liked the least, that’s also not a good sign.

The basic plot is that there is a war between Rome and another city, and Caius Marcius, soon to be Coriolanus (named for the city he fights) manages to defeat that city and return to a hero’s welcome.  He tries to use that to become Consul, but he needs the support of prominent citizens who dislike him because during a famine he was opposed to opening up the storehouses to give food to them.  He is in general a prickly and intemperate person who shows some arrogance and a disdain for the common person.  After the citizens give him their support, two other prominent citizens who were opposed to him from the start conspire to have it removed, which ultimately results in violence, which then means that they want to charge him with treason.  Implored to show more humility, he does that for a brief period of time but then loses it again, but at least ends up exiled instead of executed.  He then goes to his former foes and in fact to his nemesis and offers to side with them against Rome.  He is successful, but before the final battle a number of people appeal to him to relent, whom he rejects rather rudely, including his former mentor and best friend.  Finally, his mother and wife appeal to him to relent, and he does and accepts a treaty over it.  His nemesis, then, mostly out of jealousy, gets him charged with treason for accepting the treaty and finally manages to beat him in a fight, killing him.

Why I say that the main character isn’t the focus is not because the plot doesn’t focus on him and what he does, because it does, but instead because for much of the plot we see things from the perspective of others and not from him.  He shows up to rant a bit but then gets sidelined while the others react to that.  He’s also not very sympathetic, because it doesn’t seem to be the case that he’s really a man of principles no matter how much he protests that he is.  In some sense, his hard-headedness is the issue for him, but it doesn’t really seem like a tragedy because it really does seem like he could have done otherwise.  We don’t want to see him succeed and don’t really see the outcome as simply following from who he is.  These traits make me consider this a historical than a drama or tragedy.

Another thing that makes me think that is that the historicals tend to me more descriptive in their plots than narrative.  Shakespeare tends to have the historicals outline what is happening rather than building that, likely because it is expected that the audience will already know things about the characters and the plot, but that can make things drag a bit.  As an example, there’s a lot of time spent on the initial battle, but it ultimately just describes what happened.  For everything that is important about the battle, it could have been done in a speech as the main character is trying to convince the people to support him and so we didn’t need that at all.  We can compare this to the battles in Macbeth which are both more relevant to the plot and yet are described in far less detail and take up far less space.  Also, in the historicals versus the tragedies the historicals tend to simply have the characters act as expected without having anyone — or even the characters themselves — comment on it as being indicative of them or as being a problem.  Yes, people implore the main character to put aside his pride, but not in a way that really casts judgement on it.  Compare that to what people said about Macbeth or about what Hamlet says about himself and we can see that these flaws are used far more there to develop the character while here they are just used to describe what is happening to move us through the plot.  So, again, more descriptive than narrative.

That being said, Shakespeare is indeed a talented playwright and so even though I’m not as fond of the historicals they quite often still work out to be at least moderately entertaining.  Here, while I didn’t care for the main character and found the plot mostly descriptive, I also wasn’t bored going through it either.  Thus, I’m not going to consider it a classic and am not going to say that it was a play that I really enjoyed, I don’t actively dislike it either.  The most I can say about it is that it’s an average historical:  written well, but with the traits that I don’t care for.

Up next is “Timon of Athens”.

Thoughts on “Antony and Cleopatra”

December 7, 2022

This is another historical, and is a sequel to the best historical I’ve read up until this point in “Julius Caesar”.  This also is an oddity for a historical, where the main focus is on the title characters and we follow their story through the play.  In “Julius Caesar”, the focus was not on Caesar but was on Brutus, and Caesar himself dies early on in the play, but here this actually is the story of Antony and Cleopatra as they head towards their tragic ends.

The basic story is recounting the story of the second triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus.  Lepidus is portrayed as a member of the triumvirate who at least talked as if he was equally impressed by Octavius and Antony, but is really a minor character here.  Antony is spending his time with Cleopatra in Egypt, and when she advances her claims that her son Caesarion is Caesar’s that and Antony’s staying there Octavius starts to suspect that this will cause a rebellion so that the two of them can seize power, and so he calls Antony back to Rome to soothe his suspicions.  Antony agrees to marry Octavius’ sister, but immediately decides that he will return to Cleopatra anyway.  Meanwhile, Cleopatra is enraged at the news that Antony married Octavius’ sister.  They soon reconcile, but this causes the very split that the marriage was supposed to prevent and Octavius and Antony and Rome and Egypt go to war.  Antony takes the incautious tack of attacking at sea rather than at land and loses a huge battle, that is somewhat retrieved with a land battle the next day, but eventually he is defeated and he commits suicide.  At the time, Octavius was not willing to treat with Antony for a peace treaty but was willing to be quite lenient towards Cleopatra, but she suspects that Octavius’ sister is going to have it in for her and that she will be humiliated, and so she commits suicide as well.

The big problem with this play is that while is does focus on Antony and Cleopatra, neither of them are very interesting protagonists, and neither of them actually act all that nice throughout the play, but their problems are not ones that can properly carry drama or tragedy.  Antony is inconsistent throughout the entire play, first accepting the marriage to Octavius’ sister and then immediately repudiating it to return to Cleopatra.  If it had been presented as him knowing that he needed to do it but then being tempted by Cleopatra or even the memory of her, it would have made him more sympathetic.  It doesn’t help that his ill-fated attack is one that pretty much all of his officers tell him is a move that he shouldn’t make, so he looks less tragic and more stupid, and since that is what ultimately results in his suicide we really want it to be more tragic.

For her part, Cleopatra has a running gag where she assumes the worst about someone coming to tell her news and keeps going on about it and speculating about it and what it means so that the person coming to tell her the news can’t get it out over her objections.  This is mildly amusing, but also presents her as a bit scattered and overly emotional.  This wouldn’t be a problem, but she is also saddled with scenes where she berates and torments the messenger for bringing her bad news, threatening even greater punishments and beating him for not lying to her, which makes her unsympathetic.  Again, the only dramatic and tragic elements revolve around the two of them, and her death ends the play, so we really need her to be a sympathetic character so that we feel the right feelings there, and we don’t.  In fact, we don’t feel that her assessment that the Romans are going to humiliate her is accurate, and are more inclined to think that Octavius really wanted to show her mercy given that her assessments of such things throughout the play are almost always wrong.  So she too comes across as more stupid than tragic.

I came into this play and “Julius Caesar” knowing things about the main characters from history and other works, and feeling sympathetic towards them because of it.  That is what carried me through this play, because there is no time taken to develop those characters and make us feel for them in the play itself, which is a hallmark of the historicals.  However, by the end I ended up disliking Antony and Cleopatra despite coming in liking them, and given the structure of the play that isn’t what was intended.  Given that, I didn’t care much for this play, which leaves “Julius Caesar” as the best historical so far, and I’d dare say the only one so far that was unequivocally good.

Up next is what I think is another historical in “Coriolanus”.