Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

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”.

Thoughts on “King Lear”

November 30, 2022

This is another play that I happened to study in an English class at some point, probably in high school.  I recalled enjoying it, so it was another play that I was somewhat looking forward to.  And it’s a tragedy, which certainly is a point in its favour.

The basic premise is that King Lear is aging and is probably even entering into his dotage — and is probably a little senile — and so he decides to divide up England among his three daughters.  But before he does so, he asks them how much they love him.  The two older ones — Goneril and Regan — praise him profusely and talk about how great their love for him is, but the youngest — Cordelia — says that she cannot declare that she loves him more than anyone else ever.  This enrages him and he cuts her off from her inheritance over the objections of his closest advisor, and doing so almost scuppers the proposed marriages that he was considering for her, but the King of France maintains his suit in spite of not receiving a dowry and in the face of Lear’s displeasure and marries her, taking her away to France.  Lear also turns his anger on his advisor and exiles him.  Lear is supposed to spend his time staying with his two daughters, but while staying with Goneril he causes her some trouble both with his actions and with his sizeable retinue, which she wants to reduce.  When he refuses, she insists and he attempts to go stay with Regan, but she is on Goneril’s side and they insist that he reduce his retinue and moderate his behaviour to a degree that he considers unacceptable.   Ultimately, they lock him out in a storm, which seems to badly impact his mental state as he slips into insanity.  Meanwhile, his advisor has disguised himself and returned to England, and he supports him.  At the same time, another noble is trying to take his brother’s inheritance and contrives a charge against him that is false, and then wrangles his way into Goneril and Regan’s good graces, which causes them to want to ditch their existing husbands and marry him instead.  Goneril’s husband is reasonable and opposes their general aims and treatment of their father, but Regan’s husband is as cruel as they are.  Cordelia eventually returns with an army from France and they find Lear, but lose the subsequent battle and the other noble orders Cordelia killed while being taken into custody, which is the last straw for Lear’s sanity and he dies as well, while Regan’s husband was killed earlier which causes the two of them to kill each other to try to land the noble, and then of course the noble is executed as well.

For a good tragedy, we should be able to see the tragic events coming but note that the personalities involved will make it so that they can’t avoid those outcomes.  But here that doesn’t seem to be the case.  There was no reason for Cordelia to respond to Lear’s question about how much she loves him the way she did, as she goes over and above simply saying that she wouldn’t flatter him to trying to make rather specious arguments about how she’d have to spare some love for her husband and so on and so forth.  Once she finds out about Lear’s condition, there’s no real reason for her to invade as opposed to simply trying to bring Lear back to France, especially once she finds Lear and can return with him.  The play doesn’t establish that she and her husband — who returned to France and so wasn’t with them to be captured — were really trying to re-establish her legacy or restore Lear’s, and there seemed to be little reason for them to do so.  And yet, that’s the precise event that leads to Cordelia being captured and ultimately killed, which is the real tragic event that we’re supposed to focus on, but it ultimately ends up being nonsensical, which hampers the tragedy.

A big part of this, though, is that we don’t get to know Cordelia very much throughout the play, and so we have a hard time discerning her motives.  She is far too outspoken early on in the play, but we can feel a little happy for her when the King of France wants to marry her anyway, and it would have been nice if she had been able to keep that.  But then we don’t hear much of anything from her for pretty much the entire rest of the play, which leaves her motives in returning with an army unclear.  And as noted above, since that’s what ultimately costs her her happy ending we really need to understand what her motives are.  So we think that she was unfairly treated but could have happiness with the King of France, all of which is tossed away for an invasion that she didn’t need to do and that we are given no reason for.  So it isn’t the case that the tragedy follows from who she and Lear are, because we don’t really know who she is and we have to think that she should have been smart enough to avoid it, which makes it an inferior tragedy.

The tragedy also suffers from portraying the other sisters inconsistently.  They seem to have a point in arguing that Lear’s retinue is too large and too rowdy for them to support, that Lear himself can’t seem to control them, and that Lear in fact can’t even seem to control himself as he acts out against their servants and commits violence upon them.  Since they aren’t his servants, it seems like they’d have a point that he should treat them better and given the slip in his mentality it’s also reasonable to think that he’s doing that unreasonably and so when they didn’t deserve it.  But the play then quickly moves to make them almost cartoonishly villainous, locking him out in a raging storm and then immediately contriving to throw over their husbands for the other noble and contriving to kill their husbands and each other.  The shift from them being flatterers but seemingly committed to looking after their father and only reconsidering because he’s causing so much problems to people who would commit such crimes and care not one whit for their father is way too quick and moves them from being interesting antagonists to boring ones, so it cannot be a tragedy that the entire family dies, but their deaths also aren’t a relief or give us a sense that they received justice or a sense of irony that they ultimately destroyed each other.  Perhaps if the noble was a more compelling character it could be seen as the result of his schemes, but he isn’t and so really the only feeling their deaths instilled in me was relief that at least Goneril’s husband lived.

But I think the big issue here is that there isn’t really enough plot here to fill the number of pages this play has.  “Macbeth” covers 27 pages in my edition, while “King Lear” covers 39.  But “King Lear” certainly does not have a more involved plot than “Macbeth” does, and in fact it’s a pretty simple one at its base:  elderly King hands his property over to his children on the basis of flattery and exiles the one that wouldn’t flatter him, but it turns out that the only one who was truly loyal to and loved him was the one he exiled.  Yes, I outline a lot of things happening in the plot above, but they are mostly disconnected at least in terms of the characters — a theme of family members betraying family members and elderly nobles being fooled by words in lieu of deeds — and so there doesn’t seem to be a lot happening in the plot, and yet it seems to be spending a lot of time doing it.  As such, at times I found myself bored while reading it, which is not something I’m used to having happen in one of Shakespeare’s dramas/tragedies.

And ultimately, at the end of the play, I didn’t have a sense of tragedy like I did in “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet”, but instead felt, well, depressed.  I would really have liked Cordelia to survive and live in France, and felt her death was pointless, along with pretty much all of the other deaths.  It didn’t follow from the characters as written in the play because the play doesn’t really establish their characters in the play, and so it wasn’t a tragedy that they could have avoided but wouldn’t because of who they are, but instead seems more like them making stupid mistakes and unnecessary moves that led to their downfall.  That’s depressing, not tragic.

That being said, Shakespeare does manage to get us to care about Cordelia, which is why the ending was depressing, and his writing is indeed on form here and so the speeches and dialogue still works.  So it’s still a well-written play.  However, that I was ultimately so depressed by it means that it won’t be one of my favourites.  Still, it’s better than most of his comedies and most of his historicals.  It’s just, in my opinion, an inferior tragedy.

Up next is the sequel to “Julius Caesar” in “Antony and Cleopatra”.

Thoughts on “Macbeth”

November 23, 2022

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, being less than 30 pages in the collection I’m reading — most are between 30 and 40 pages — and only taking me about an hour to read.  It’s also a play that I read in high school and wrote a couple of essays on, one that cast Banquo as a mostly noble person and not one wracked by ambition, and another that compared “Macbeth” to Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” series noting that in “Macbeth” people trusted too much and that caused the issues while in the “Amber” series people trusted too little and that caused the issues.  At any rate, this is a play that I’m pretty familiar with and that I probably had a rosier view of than most people do.  So I came in expecting to like it and so there really shouldn’t be any surprises here.

Anyway, the basic plot is that Macbeth and his lieutenant Banquo have just heroically won a major battle against an invasion force supported by some traitors against huge odds.  As they are returning to meet their king, Duncan, they encounter some witches who say that Macbeth will get additional lands and will eventually become king, while Banquo’s sons will be king (interestingly, I’m currently also rewatching “Babylon 5” and the similarities between this prophecy and the prophecy that both Londo and Vir will become Emperor, one becoming Emperor after the other is dead are striking).  When they meet the king, it turns out that he has given Macbeth those lands because of his heroism and because the previous owner was actually the traitor who allowed for the invasion in the first place, thus confirming the prophecy of the witches.  Given this, Macbeth and his wife start to believe that he will become king, but that is hampered by the fact that Duncan soon afterwards elevates his son to the position that would normally spawn the next king.  Macbeth and his wife hatch a plan to kill Duncan and frame Malcolm for the deed, leaving the throne open for Macbeth.  Macbeth is hesitant, but his wife pushes him into doing that, and it succeeds.  But Macbeth starts to worry about potential opposition, first wanting to try to break the prophecy of Banquo’s sons becoming king by killing Banquo and his son.  Lady Macbeth actually demurs at this, but in a shift Macbeth is now more ambitious and active and says that he’ll handle it.  He manages to kill Banquo with hired murderers but they don’t manage to kill his son.  Soon after, Banquo’s ghost starts to appear to Macbeth, and Macbeth’s reaction to that causes Macduff to be suspicious of Macbeth, and he leaves to join up with the exiled Malcolm.  In response, Macbeth kills Macduff’s family.  After being assured that he is invulnerable unless a couple of rather impossible things occur, he ends up setting off to fight the army of Malcolm and Macduff, while Lady Macbeth seems to have been driven insane by her guilt over her role in things.  Circumstances then conspire for those impossible things to happen, and Macduff manages to kill Macbeth and return Malcolm to the throne.

Now, back in high school I was also asked to help someone from a lower grade with her Macbeth essay, and she took the exact opposite tack with Banquo, focusing on him being in it for ambition, which I couldn’t really grasp.  I suspect that one of the reasons that she didn’t ask me to follow up with that — whereas my friend managed to have his charge ask him to follow up later — was because at the time I wasn’t as good at dealing with arguments that opposed mine and likely argued too much for my own opinion instead of simply assessing whether or not her own argument worked (something that philosophy has certainly helped with).  And re-reading it this time, I did manage to see how Banquo could be seen as someone who was primarily ambitious and only not ratting Macbeth out in the hopes of having his sons become king.  The reasons for seeing Banquo as that ambitious is that he is quick to ask the witches if he will gain anything in the future, and after musing that Macbeth has paid most foully for his kingship wonders if the prophecy will thus also come true for him like it did for Macbeth.  The reasons against that is that he does indeed say that Macbeth paid foully for his role and that the others definitely see him as being trustworthy.  Yes, that other characters see him as trustworthy even if they start to suspect Macbeth doesn’t mean much since he could be fooling them, but Shakespeare very much likes to throw in asides and speeches after everyone leaves to highlight this, and we don’t have that for Banquo.  A lot of the interpretation, it seems to me, will come down to how one presents Banquo’s question to the witches early in the play.  If the presentation is one where he seems to asking out of a sense of trying to make sure that he gets what he deserves or with overt curiosity, then that would lean towards him being ambitious, but if the presentation is more him mocking the idea of prophecy and making light of it then that would lean to him not being ambitious at all.  But, yeah, it is more ambiguous than I thought way, way back then.

The other impression that I had of the play is that the witches were more passive than they actually were.  I had remembered them simply making the prophecies, but here the Wyrd Sisters deliberately seek out Macbeth to tell him that, and Hecate is angry that they did that and tells Macbeth about his “invulnerability” to in some way correct the mistake they made.  This has interesting implications for the idea of Destiny wrt the play.  The play presents it as though the prophecies were going to come true, and they both do come true.  But if Hecate needed to “fix” things, then that suggested that what the Wyrd Sisters’ action changed something that Hecate didn’t want changed.  So if their prophecy was going to be correct, Macbeth was going to become king, but something about his becoming king because of the prophecy led to some kind of result that Hecate didn’t like.  So this suggests that maybe the endpoints were fixed — Macbeth would become king and Banquo’s sons would become king — but how that happened could change.  Which suggests that if Macbeth had been more patient, he might have become king in a more stable way and avoided the end that he came to at the end, and that instead of seeing Banquo’s sons as displacing his own perhaps a more stable way for that could have happened as well, with perhaps one of Banquo’s sons marrying a daughter of Macbeth and taking the throne that way.  The tragedy, then, would be that Macbeth’s approach to achieving his ambitions was the one that would lead to the worst possible outcome for him … and if he hadn’t done it he would have achieved them anyway.

Which brings me to what struck me about Macbeth, which is that out of all of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read it’s the one that has the least direct musings on philosophical and thematic points while having as part of it the most philosophical and thematic implications.  In addition to the ones above, we have the nature of ambition itself, the interesting reversal between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth when it comes to directly satisfying their ambitions and the impact attempting to do that has on their sanity, along with issues over trust and the ambiguity of numerous characters.  If I look at plays like “Hamlet”, Hamlet muses a lot about the various issues but they only come up in those musings and it’s not the case that they just fall out from the situations themselves.  Yes, deeper themes are there as well, but it seems to me like you have to go looking for them more than you have to in “Macbeth”, where they are more natural consequences and considerations from what actually happens.

Now, given my experience with the play, I was always going to like “Macbeth”.  And despite the ambiguity over one of my favourite characters, I still like it, and like it even more now that I’ve seen some of the other thematic and philosophical implications of the play.  It’s probably my favourite of the plays so far.

Up next, one that I also read as part of an English class in “King Lear”.

Thoughts on “Othello, The Moor of Venice”

November 16, 2022

I didn’t expect that my comments on “Othello” would be something that any of my audience would be anticipating, but it turns out that this is one of long-time commenter malcolmthecynic’s favourite Shakespeare plays , and since I didn’t care for one of his other favourites — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — it’d be interesting to see if I like “Othello” any better.  I noted in that comment thread that “Othello” had an advantage in being a clear drama, and so far I’ve struggled with the comedies and the historicals but the dramas have more or less worked for me, with some exceptions to all of these categories.  Then again, maybe we just have completely opposite tastes and so I could be expected to dislike “Othello” as well.

The plot is that the noted mercenary general Othello is working for the city of Venice and has won them a great victory, which encourages the ruler of the city to give him control of another city that is likely to be attacked.  However, Othello has also been wooing the daughter of an important noble and has just eloped with her, angering her father.  Part of this is because as a Moor — basically, someone who is black — and as a mercenary Othello isn’t in the right social class, and part of it is because she had been insisting that she had no desire to get married and spent a lot of time lying to her father, so the father basically disowns her.  Meanwhile, Othello sets out for the new city with his companions Iago and Cassio, bringing Desdemona his new wife along and Iago’s wife as her servant.  However, Iago is secretly jealous of both Othello and Cassio, and devises a plan to make Othello believe that his new wife is cheating on him with Cassio, while also stringing along Desdemona’s former suitor for money and to set him up to take at least part of the fall for his plans.  With the sometime aid of his wife, Iago poisons Othello’s mind against Desdemona, sets the suitor and Cassio on each other, and eventually manipulates Othello into killing Desdemona.  At that point, his wife — who had become quite close to Desdemona — reveals Iago’s plotting to the authorities, for which he kills her and is killed himself, while the suitor was killed in a fight with Cassio and Othello kills himself out of grief for what he has done.

This play has something that I haven’t seen in any previous Shakespearean play:  a solid villain who is driving the plot and tragedy.  Sure, Claudius is an antagonist in “Hamlet”, but Hamlet drives the plot and tragedy and Claudius is mostly an opportunist than a proper manipulator.  In “Julius Caesar”, Brutus was the antagonist to Caesar but was arguably the protagonist in the play, and was sympathetic besides.  In “The Merchant of Venice”, again Shylock is an opportunist, not a manipulator, and while he’s a terrible person he might have a point about how badly he is treated.  There was another play whose name I can’t remember at the moment where the villain was a manipulator and whose answer to his internal question about why was “I like to be the villain”, but Iago is a far superior central villain than he was.  His schemes drive the entire plot and pretty much everything that happens comes about through his design.  And he also has understandable if nasty motivations for his actions, being jealous of Othello, feeling that he deserved a higher place that Othello and Cassio were keeping him from, and likely even a bit of racial distaste for Othello.  And he gets his just deserts in the end, because even though his schemes achieve his desired end his machinations are revealed and he doesn’t get to benefit from them.  This is something that works quite well even as it’s quite different from what I’ve seen — and liked — before.

The most interesting thing about that for me is that since I had never read or seen this play before, I only knew anything about it through osmosis from popular culture, and I was surprised that Iago was such a staunch opponent of Othello and the main villain of the piece.  It seemed to me that the popular culture idea of Iago was more as an actual companion of Othello and more like a Horatio or Banquo figure than the antagonist that he ended up being.  So it seems to me that either I or popular culture — or perhaps both — had gotten Iago wrong, which did allow me a new sensation:  being surprised at a major point of a famous Shakespearean play.

The play also does Desdemona quite well.  It’s clear that she loves Othello and would never cheat on him, and that she’s devastated when he pulls away from her due to his growing mistrust.  She also clearly is trying her best to discover what is the matter with Othello and try to fix it, and that through Iago’s manipulations she only ends up making things worse.  And she clearly doesn’t deserve her fate and so her death really brings out the tragedy in the play.  On the other hand, I don’t find Othello himself to be as good a character.  Part of this is because he treats Desdemona really badly and, as already noted, she’s probably the most sympathetic character in the entire play, and part of this is because he seems to come to distrust her far too quickly because of what happens.  This is one case, however, where it would be better if performed than simply by reading it, because if the actor can properly express the anguish that Othello is feeling over not wanting to believe that Desdemona is cheating on him but falling for Iago’s manipulations then we’d feel more sympathy for him than the simple bare words can convey on their own.

Ultimately, though, I liked “Othello”.  Again, the big thing that appeals to me is having a set, solid, manipulative villain with motivations that make sense even as they are despicable who ends up driving the plot towards the tragedy that the villain was trying for and yet for all that the villain doesn’t really “win” either.  I still like “Hamlet” better, so it’s not my favourite, but it’s definitely an above-average drama, and since I like the dramas that makes it, in my opinion, a far above-average Shakespearean play.

Up next is another play that I had read in high school in “Macbeth”.

Thoughts on “Measure for Measure”

November 9, 2022

So, another comedy, and again the comedies have been hit and miss for me (this is a recording) and I’m coming off a comedy that I really disliked.  And “Measure for Measure” commits some of the same sins as “All’s Well that Ends Well”, which is not going to make me pleasantly disposed towards it.  So is this going to be another play that I very much dislike?

The main plot is that the duke of a city leaves it for a while and leaves it in the hands of the person he seems to be mentoring, Angelo.  The duke in some sense seems to want to do this because he wants to tighten up the discipline in the city — especially over sexual matters — but doesn’t want the people to get mad at him over it.  Angelo all unwittingly fulfills his role by sentencing Claudio to death for sex outside of marriage.  Claudio appeals to his sister Isabella to plead for his life, but when she comes to do so Angelo is struck by her and offers to spare Claudio if she will sleep with him.  Meanwhile, the duke returns disguised as a friar to see how things are working out and hears about the plot, and decides to get Isabella to agree to the deal but secretly substitute a woman that Angelo was supposed to marry but whom he completely dropped when her dowry was lost at sea.  Angelo sleeps with this woman thinking that she’s Isabella, but then decides to execute Claudio anyway, which the duke secretly stops.  At the end, all of this is revealed and Angelo has to go off to marry the woman that he wasn’t going to marry, although the duke insists that he should be executed and Angelo seems like he wants to be executed as well, but the woman protests that she really wants to marry Angelo for … some reason and so he is spared.

Angelo’s character is very much like Bertram’s in “All’s Well that Ends Well”, but he doesn’t annoy me as much because he’s not really supposed to be a likeable character.  Interestingly, the play does spend a fair amount of time with his inner thoughts making it clear that he’s more torn over these actions that we might expect, but then doesn’t follow through with that.  Still, he’s clearly more the main antagonist for the real main characters than a main character himself, and the woman he is forced to marry is also not a main character, so with Claudio alive and reunited with his sister we can be happy with how things turned out.  That being said, if they had just followed through with the character that was hinted at at times even this could have been fixed.  Make it clear that the Duke chose him because he was so strict and prudish and so would indeed enforce those laws very strictly.  Then have Angelo be incredibly tempted by Isabella and come up with the idea to trade sex for her brother’s life.  If you want to have him not keep up his end of the bargain, have him justify that by feeling guilty for what he’s done but rationalize it on the basis that if he doesn’t actually trade justice for that sex then he didn’t really sin and it’s all on her.  Yes, that would be hypocritical, but we could understand if not support his actions there.  At the end, then, he could end up in that marriage and accept it while making a rueful point about finally understanding how tempting the pleasures of the flesh can be, justifying the mercy that had typically been shown to people like Claudio — who was in love with and wanted to marry his paramour — and the mercy that Angelo himself receives.

There’s also a subplot with Lucio, Claudio’s friend, who meets the duke while the duke is in disguise and badmouths the duke, only to accuse the duke as friar of doing that, and is revealed to have gotten a woman pregnant that he abandoned, so the duke makes him marry her.  I didn’t care for this subplot because as Claudio’s friend who did make much effort to help him Lucio is somewhat sympathetic, and the rest of it is completely irrelevant to anything else.  So all it does is make a sympathetic character less reputable for no real reason.

Ultimately, though, I’m pretty neutral on the play.  I didn’t find it all that funny but also didn’t hate it.  I managed to get through it in a little less than an hour and a half but neither dislike nor like it.

Now, interestingly, in looking up to make sure that this was a comedy, I came across a comment that this is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it is ambiguous, as it contains elements of his tragedies as well as his comedies.  I have complained about that before in some of his early plays.  That being said, I don’t really see that here.  While the plot involves executions and the like and some character introspection, you can indeed do that in a comedy and I felt that those elements here are there just to move the plot along and set up the stakes rather than as something to be focused on in and of themselves.  If there’s any reason to consider this one ambiguous, it would be because Shakespeare has a tendency to put banter in his dramas and tragedies and so you could ask whether there’s enough banter here to make it a comedy rather than a drama.  Either way, though, that’s probably one reason why I find it rather “blah”, as if it can be considered ambiguous it would be either an inferior drama due to having too many comedic elements or an inferior comedy due to too many dramatic and tragic elements.  Still, I’m personally comfortable treating it as a comedy.

Up next, we return to the dramas with one that I have heard a lot about but never read or watched in “Othello”, which means I can finally start to look forward to reading the next play again.

Thoughts on “All’s Well that Ends Well”

November 2, 2022

This is another of the comedies, and as I’ve noted on a few occasions the comedies are a bit hit and miss for me.  In this one, I realized something about what comedy has to do to work because I don’t feel that it managed to pull that off.

The basic plot is that a young woman named Helena is the daughter of a well-known and skilled doctor who has recently passed away, and the duchess who was his patron has taken Helena in.  However, Helena is in love with the duchess’ son Bertram, but feels that such a marriage could never happen due to her only being a commoner desiring someone of some noble birth.  However, the duchess figures that out and says that she is unconcerned about such things, and so Helena goes off to try to cure the king of a disease using her father’s notes, and in return asks that she be allowed to marry anyone, no matter how noble, she wishes.  Of course she chooses Bertram, but he isn’t pleased with marrying a commoner and refuses to consummate the marriage, and runs off to help an ally of the king.  Once there, he courts another woman, which allows for a “bed trick” where he arranges to sleep with Diana, the other woman, but when he goes to do so Helena steps in instead.  After accomplishing some great deeds there, he returns to the king and ignores Diana, but a ring that the king gave Helena was given to him proving who he really slept with, which means that he is now properly married to Helena.

From reading this and watching “Three’s Company” re-runs at times while doing other things, I’ve come to realize that for a comedy to work we need to have a specific feeling at the end, which is generally a light and happy feeling.  At the end of a good comedy we want all the misunderstandings to be resolved, the main characters back together in at least somewhat friendly relationships, and everyone to be mostly satisfied — if possibly a bit rueful — with how things worked out.  Any bad consequences should happen to the “villains” in the play or are things that the character shouldn’t really want or get anyway (for example, Jack losing a date with an attractive woman in “Three’s Company”, especially if he was lying to her over it).  In a play titled “All’s Well that Ends Well” that has multiple title drops, it seems like that would be all the more important.  Yes, you can subvert expectations and dark comedy works better if the ending is not particularly happy, but a good comedy is supposed to be fun and it’s hard to consider a work fun if the ending is dark or the main issues aren’t resolved.

That, to me, is the sin that this play commits, but in an interesting way.  The issue is that Helena wants Bertram but the play sets him up to be a cad.  Despite his own mother liking the match with Helena, he refuses it for the exact reasons of status that Helena feared.  This in and of itself isn’t an issue, as long as the main plot is about convincing him otherwise.  But because she “wins” him with a “bed trick”, that doesn’t happen.  But on top of that, he starts wooing Diana which would set up an interesting conundrum if he thought she had the right sort of status that Helena lacked … but he abandons her after sleeping with her and doesn’t give her another thought, and immediately on his return to court is wooing someone else.  So, he treats Helena very badly, treats Diana very badly, and is likely to treat the new woman very badly.  What in the world does Helena see in him?  Why wouldn’t she be far better off with someone, anyone else … like all the other nobles who expressed great interest in marrying her when the king trotted them out for her to choose?

We should want the main characters and the characters that we like to get a happy ending, even if it wasn’t the one they originally envisioned.  But if you like Bertram, then the fact that he was tricked into consummating the marriage won’t make you happy unless he himself comes to realize that this is what he really does want regardless of what he thought before.  Now, given how the play treats him there aren’t likely to be that many Bertram fans, but then that works against the character that the play does set up for us to like, which is Helena.  Yes, she gets what she wanted, but it’s hard to be happy for her when it doesn’t seem like he’s someone worth getting and that she would have been better realizing that and just giving up on him.  Given how disreputable the play makes him and the fact that he doesn’t really seem to realize or repent of that, there is no happy ending here.  And if there is no happy ending but we don’t think that the characters deserve each other, then the play ends up not being fun.  Ultimately, then, this choice ruins the entire play for me.

And it would have been so easy to fix!  Simply have him be concerned about status not for his own sake, but for the sake of his mother the duchess.  Have the communications that she writes to him extolling the virtues of the match go astray, so that he thinks he’s protecting his mother’s reputation and status.  Follow up on what was implied and have it so that he runs off to help the ally in the hopes of gaining enough renown to ask the king for an annulment.  Have him meet Diana there and consider her a far better match, and also try to use that as an argument for the annulment.  If you want to keep the bed trick, have him be planning to sleep with her so that he can claim that he never consummated the first marriage but did consummate this one, meaning that honour would demand that he marry Diana.  When the trick is revealed, have him ruefully accept the marriage but be heartened when his mother finally reveals that she wanted the marriage all along.  Done this way, we can see that Bertram is a good person and deserving of Helena while still keeping the main elements of the plot where he doesn’t want to marry her and tries to get out of it until the very end.  Then, we can see at the end that he and Helena are a good match and see that themselves, and we can be happy that Helena, after all her troubles, got the marriage she wanted and deserved.  But since Bertram doesn’t seem to have very many redeeming qualities and Helena is portrayed positively, we don’t really think that she got much of a prize at the end of it all.

There’s also another Falstaff-like character here who has a subplot, but I didn’t find him interesting, and he has the same issue that Falstaff has in that he’s paired with a less than reputable Bertram.  If Bertram was honest and truly noble, the character could work — especially if Bertram lampshades it — but since Bertram isn’t a more sober companion who can comment on Bertram’s foible’s would have worked better and made it clear how Shakespeare wanted us to take him.

At any rate, because of that one element, as I said the entire play is ruined for me, meaning that I strongly dislike it.  There aren’t that many of these plays that I really, really dislike, but this is one of them.  And all of that is simply the result of making Bertram unsympathetic.

Up next is “Measure for Measure”, another comedy.  We’ll see if I like this one better.

Thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida”

October 26, 2022

This play is another historical, and so far the best of those has been “Julius Caesar”.  Given that “Hamlet” is supposedly based on history (as is “Macbeth” that is coming up), it might be a good idea for me to outline here what makes me characterize those as dramas while “Julius Caesar” and this play are ones that I characterize as “historicals”.  The traits of the historicals, to me, are ones that Shakespeare based on stories that much of his audience probably would have heard of.  For the most part, these were famous stories from English history but while I’m not a historian it seems to make sense to me that they would have heard at least some things about “Julius Caesar” and, in this case, the Trojan War, and so the characters themselves would be familiar to the audience.  As such, he tends to give them less development than he gives the characters in his dramas, and he also includes more characters and more threads — especially here — than he does in the dramas.  Another trait is that in the historicals the title character or characters are actually given much less focus than the other characters.  “Julius Caesar” is, in fact, all about Brutus, with Caesar himself playing a very minor role in his own play.  This can be contrasted with “Hamlet” where Hamlet himself is the main character and pretty much every plot and character thread can be traced right back to him.  They also don’t seem to have a true ending and only lead into later events and possibly later plays, while “Hamlet”, for example, pretty much ends with the death of all the main characters.

The one definitely seems to be a historical because it hits all that criteria.  As noted above, the audience probably had some exposure to the Trojan War and Trojan War heroes.  Most of the time in the play is spent focusing on Hector, Achilles, Ajax and the Greek and Trojan high command, and the title characters are mostly a minor complication to those plots.  There are also a lot of individual plots going on that are, again, only tangentially related, and very little character development is done for any of the characters other than people flat-out stating what their personalities and relationships are.  So, given that I prefer the dramas to the historicals, this play was starting off on the wrong foot for me to find it really enjoyable.

The basic plot is, well, the Trojan War, with Achilles sulking in his tent, Ajax taking up the challenge that Hector makes against Achilles, and a lot of consternation over how and why Achilles won’t fight and a bunch of the negotiations and machinations over that, as well as the relationship between Paris and Helen and the like.  The plot that involves the main characters is that they are both Trojans and are in love, although Cressida literally plays hard to get for about a scene or two before she accepts it, just in time for the Greeks to demand her in exchange for a Trojan VIP, at which point she goes over there and seems to fall in love with Diomedes, which enrages Troilus and makes him fight like a demon in the upcoming battle (although it is unclear if he ever killed anyone in the battle), while Hector is killed in the battle, which again leaves the ending hanging.

I wanted to like the couple, but Cressida ends up being a completely unsympathetic character.  First, she plays hard to get with Troilus, and then when sent to the Greeks when she is admonished not to fall in love with any of them after protesting that she would never do that she ends up rather quickly forgetting all of that.  While this makes me sympathize with Troilus’ anger, it makes that entire arc — which is the title arc — rather pointless.  This is where I think giving the title arc more space and leaving out some of the other historical arcs would have worked better, because there would have been room to have Cressida be wooed by Diomedes and to expand on her speech of being torn over that, which would have had a much better dramatic and tragic payoff, as Troilus would have been justified in his anger but her shift would have seemed less callous.

One of the reasons I wanted to like her was because Shakespeare does give her some good dialogue which makes it interesting to listen to her, and his dialogue is generally good throughout.  As such, I didn’t mind the play at all, but the multiple plots make it seem a bit disconnected.  It’s better than some of the other historicals, but then I know more about the Trojan War and so have a similar if not greater connection to that history and that story as Shakespeare’s audience had.  So it does seem to me that the historicals do work given the right audience, and the English ones fail more because we aren’t as connected to that history as his audience would be.  Still, though, I prefer the straight dramas for the reasons given above.  There are indeed some structural issues with the historicals — at least the ones I’ve read so far — that means they struggle to hit the heights that the pure dramas can hit, even as the best ones — “Julius Caesar”, specifically — can be really good plays.

Next up is another comedy in “All’s Well that Ends Well”.

Thoughts on “Hamlet”

October 19, 2022

“Hamlet” was one of the plays that I studied — and so had to read — in high school, and that I remembered liking.  I’ve also encountered it through a recent video game and a recent movie referencing it.  So like “Romeo and Juliet”, this is one that I was looking forward to because I wanted to see if it really held up and how it compared to the other plays that I had read and been less thrilled by.  Would this actually be a case where my memory would mislead me about how good it was, or was it really much better than the ones I’d read before?  More importantly, would I actually enjoy reading it?

And the answer to those questions is that it really is better than the other ones and I did enjoy reading it.

The first thing to note is that while playing “Elsinore” I wondered if Lady Bree was a character in the play or if the game had invented her.  As it turns out, the game invented her, which explains why the character seems awkward and out of place in the game.

Okay, onto the play itself.  The play again plays to Shakepeare’s strengths, which is pithy dialogue and interesting characters.  But the big thing that makes this play good — and characterizes all of his best works — is that it has a solid and interesting plot.  Hamlet’s father has died and his mother marries his uncle in a shockingly short amount of time after the death.  Hamlet idolized his father, so this sits poorly with him.  But the ghost of his father appears and makes it worse by telling him that he was killed by his own brother, the uncle who is now married to his mother and is now the ruler of the realm.  Hamlet tries to determine if the ghost is really his father telling him the truth or some kind of demonic influence trying to entice him to sin.  At the same time, he is courting Ophelia but her father and brother insist that she’s below his station and that he’s playing with her and not at all serious about it, which they are incorrect about.  However, they convince her to distance herself from his advances, which doesn’t do great things for his own mental state.  Hamlet becomes embittered towards people in general and women specifically, and while confronting his mother over marrying the murderer of her husband his father he ends up killing Polonius and is sent into exile.  This, of course, doesn’t do great things for Ophelia’s mental state, and whether she set out to commit suicide by drowning or her muddled mental state just confused her enough to not resist while she drowned she drowns, which enrages Laertes her brother when he returns and he sets out to kill Hamlet, at the encouragement and instigation of the uncle.  The uncle takes no chances and tries to poison him himself, which results in, well, everyone important pretty much dying from poison, while their enemies take over the castle but treat Hamlet with honour, based on his reputation.

Now, the play and its themes have been discussed to death everywhere, but one thing that struck me is that Shakespeare really does make Hamlet come across and become someone who despises humanity and womanhood from this, which drives a lot of his considerations and actions.  He rails at his mother because he is so disillusioned over what he thinks she has done, and she was before that one of the people that he clearly loved and listened do, and so because of that he isn’t amenable to her influence like he would have been before.  And his loss of faith in his mother also informs his reaction to Ophelia’s distancing herself from him, which he only breaks out of after her death, which also causes him to try to patch things up with Laertes, which doesn’t work or, rather, works out too late.  But he considers a number of issues when considering whether to take revenge and the like, including the nature of the afterlife.  It’s a credit to Shakespeare’s writing that Hamlet’s musings seem to be entirely in character rather than something that was put there because the author wanted to talk about it.

Ultimately, “Hamlet” is indeed a superior play.  The plot works, the characters work, and the ending tragedy seems like a tragedy.  It is thus a great example of the class of works that I consider straight dramas/tragedies as opposed to the comedies and the historicals, and it continues in that vein as the dramas tend to be better than either the comedies or the historicals.  So, of course, up next is what I’m going to call a historical in “Trolius and Cressida”.

Thoughts on “Twelfth Night; Or, As You Will”

October 12, 2022

This one is another comedy, and comedies for me have been hit and miss, although I’ve enjoyed the latest ones more.  This one starts off with a potentially serious plot as had been seen before — siblings separated by shipwreck, believing the other dead — but here the twins are male and female and the female twin shows up in town destitute, and ends up disguising herself as a man to work as a servant for a Duke that she had had a crush on as a child.  The Duke, of course, is in love with Olivia who is not interested in him.  The Duke sends the female twin (Viola) to woo Olivia for him, so of course Olivia falls in love with her.  Meanwhile, the male twin (Sebastien) turns out to be alive and heads for that town as well.  This of course leads to the two of them being confused for each other and Sebastien ultimately marrying Olivia and Viola marrying the Duke.  There’s also a servant, Maria, who starts out defending Olivia but ends up playing a prank on the head servant Malviolo in service to the wastrel uncle Sir Toby and his disreputable friend who is another suitor for Olivia.

As usual, the best Shakespearean comedies rely heavily on banter and this one is no exception.  It’s also the case that the best Shakespearean comedies have fun and clever characters adept at wordplay and Viola and Olivia fit the bill here as well.  That being said, I think the “mistaken identity” plots were done better in other works, as it doesn’t really come into play here until the very end and doesn’t seem to do anything all that comedic or important to the plot (and it was clear that the ending was what was going to happen from the beginning).  I also disliked the Malviolo plot, as Maria starts out as being someone clever and sympathetic but the prank she and the others play on him is one that even the play says is using him badly and he’s not the sort of character that I, at least, would immediately dislike.   His biggest sin seems to be being a bit too serious but in general such characters are best discomfited than humiliated, and they really try to humiliate him here.  The other two characters aren’t sympathetic to start with but Maria could have been an interesting character, and as the confidant of Olivia could have played a far better role in things than she did, and given her role in the prank I ended up disliking her at the end despite liking her at the beginning, which is not something I generally like unless the character ends up being a villain.

Still, the play works,  The initial set up could have been overly serious but isn’t, the banter works, and the play is, in general, just lightly entertaining.  I didn’t laugh a lot, but I did chuckle on a couple of occasions, which for the most part is about as good as most comedies in general manage.  Thus, this is another comedy that I somehow managed to like.

Up next is a play that I have read and paid a bit of attention to over the past few years in “Hamlet”.

Thoughts on “As You Like It”

October 5, 2022

Just what we need:  a literate crook.

That line from “Wayne & Shuster” referring to a criminal who quoted “As You Like It” was pretty much my only exposure to the work itself.  As noted, I’ve had my issues with the comedies, but did like “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, and so I was curious to see if I’d like this one as well or if that one was an exception.

I did, in fact, like this play.

Shakespeare has, to my mind, ruined at least a couple of his comedies by using a plot that is too serious to carry the humour.  This plot starts out sounding like it would be one of these.  First, we have the father of Rosalind being banished to a forest — like Robin Hood, as is mentioned in the play if I recall correctly — by a new Duke for treachery but it becomes clear that the new Duke is a pretty nasty person.  Rosalind only avoids being banished because she’s the childhood friend of his daughter Celia, but this doesn’t last the play and the two of them go off into exile as well.  This is after they meet Orlando, whose brother Oliver has a strange hatred for him and so isn’t providing for him as was stipulated in their father’s will, and so he engages in a wrestling match with the new Duke’s favourite wrestler and beats him.  After Celia and Rosalind go away — Rosalind being exiled and Celia preferring exile with her than living without her — the new Duke believes that Orlando had something to do with it and tries to arrest him, but he escapes and so the new Duke sets his brother after him.  Orlando and Rosalind had been interested in each other when they met, but he meets Rosalind in the forest disguised as a man who claims to be able to cure him of his love for Rosalind by having him woo “him” instead.  Soon after, Oliver turns up looking for Orlando and falls in love with Celia, and at the end everything works out, as it appropriate for a romantic comedy.

While the initial premise is pretty serious, why it doesn’t ruin anything is because its only purpose is to get everyone into the forest.  Once there, we can pretty much ignore it and focus on the interactions among the main characters.  Shakespeare’s comedies work best when he focuses on banter, and this play works more with banter than with anything else.  They also work better when we have interesting characters that interact with each other in interesting ways, and the characters here are pretty interesting and work well together, especially Celia and Rosalind.  Overall, then, it works pretty well as a comedy as it plays to Shakespeare’s strengths, which makes it relatively entertaining.

I have one quibble with it, however, which is about Rosalind’s plot to get Orlando to woo her as an attempt to cure his love for, well, her.  This doesn’t make sense.  For one thing, Orlando flat-out says that he doesn’t want to be cured of his love for her, and so has no reason to go to Rosalind-as-Ganymede to cure it.  For another, her suggesting that he woo her — as a man — to be cured of that affliction is certainly odd enough that he should be suspicious of it and so wary about doing it.  While Shakespeare loves his disguise plots that no one can see through, I really think that it would have worked better if Orlando had recognized her and so at least suspected that it was her and so took the opportunity to woo her that she was offering.  It would have explained away the oddities here and made him look intelligent enough to see through it.  Shakespeare in fact adds a scene where Orlando and Rosalind’s father talk about how Ganymede really resembles Rosalind, but then has them talk as if he could be her brother instead of concluding that he really is Rosalind.  Just a hint here that Orlando really thinks that it’s her would have made this work out better.

Still, it works fairly well as a comedy and so was more enjoyable than some of the other comedies that I’ve read so far, giving me some hope that maybe here Shakespeare has really hit his stride in the comedies.  I hope so, at any rate, because up next is “Twelfth Night”, another comedy.