Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Final Thoughts on “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”

February 8, 2023

So I’ve finished reading the complete works of Shakespeare.  I started reading it way back in about April of 2022 with “King Henry the Sixth” and so it’s taken me about nine months to get through.  I’ve enjoyed a lot of the classic dramas, was hit and miss on the comedies, and in general didn’t care much for the historicals … with some exceptions.  So, after all of that, a question that was raised a bit earlier turns out to still be relevant here:  why did I bother?

The first reason ties back into the reason why I read the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft before delving into this one:  I had somehow got a hankering to read some of these and found some incredibly nice versions of them from Amazon (I think) … and then never read them.  Seeing those nice volumes in my bookcase knowing that I had never finished Lovecraft and hadn’t even started  reading Shakespeare hit my new “Accomplishments” mindset and made me decide that I wanted to get through them and have those books actually fulfill their original intent and not just be something that looks impressive on that bookshelf that no one ever sees except me anyway.  And thus it was a success, and I’ve finished another accomplishment.

The second reason ties into my reading a lot of other classic works and deciding to comment on them, like “War and Peace”.  There were two reasons for me to start doing that.  The first was that these were classic works in those genres that I have never read and, given that, I figured I should probably try to read them (this is also what got me to watch “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”).  The other was a genuine curiosity of see if I would actually enjoy reading them not as classics to be studied but instead as things to be read simply for enjoyment.  I obviously wasn’t going to have the trouble with language that others might, nor with heavy or long works, and so it seemed like an interesting experiment to consume the works and talk about what I thought worked and didn’t work, even stepping outside of my normal comfort zone with “The Divine Comedy”.  And I think that worked here, as well, given that I can pretty much identify which ones I really liked and which ones I didn’t, although sadly there weren’t really any surprises on that score other than not really liking most of the comedies and actively disliking “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

But there’s a final reason to have done this, and this is what I want to talk about here, which is that over the past number of years there’s been a big push to diversify the works studied in English classes, and one point that is usually made implicitly but is often made explicitly is that the classics like Shakespeare are studied because they are the ones that were spawned from Western culture and so are the ones that we just automatically consider worthy of study, but without that they don’t have anything to offer us or teach us anymore.  We can turn to modern works or works from other areas or other culture or whatever and get just as much from the study of those, and studying those are more inclusive and less problematic than the Western classics that we study today.  A version of this sort of culture clash is what got me to both read all the Hugo Award winners when that kerfuffle was going on and also to read all of the Ben Bova works I owned as well as a number of Robert Sheckley works  to see if the modern works were as good as some were saying and comparing them to the older works to see what the quality difference was.  So this does raise the question:  is Shakespeare still relevant, even uniquely so?  Are there things that we can learn about playcraft, at least, that we can best learn from him?

What I learned while simply reading these works is that Shakespeare is indeed a master of his craft.  While I was only reading them and not watching them being performed I can confirm that for even the plays that I didn’t like the structuring of the events and the dialogue was generally top-notch, even when I found it flawed.  But it would be easy to argue that perhaps other playwrights could rise to that level as well, and I don’t have enough experience with plays to gainsay them.  But there are two other facets where Shakespeare is supreme where I can make a better assessment.  One of them is with banter.  Shakespeare is an absolute master of banter, to a degree that I haven’t seen in any modern work.  The closest I’ve ever seen is from Aaron Allston (mostly from his Star Wars Legends works) and it’s still no comparison.  No one that I’ve read or watched, classic or modern, can even approach him when it comes to banter, which is one of the things that makes his comedies really pop.  If you want to learn how to write good banter, he’s the ur-example of how to do it well.

The other area is in his speeches.  Shakespeare is a master of speeches, which is most strongly evidenced by his soliloquies.  An inspiring speech is one thing, but an inspiring speech where all we have is one character talking out loud about their inner thoughts is quite another.  It would be easy for such speeches to seem self-indulgent or boring and meaningless, but he imbues them with meaning and with emotion so that we don’t mind sitting there watching — or reading — that character just talking about themselves for all that time.  For plays, it becomes an ingenious way for him to get those inner thoughts out in the open so that we can understand them and their dilemmas, to expound on some philosophical points, and to provide needed exposition in a way that’s not overly artificial and not boring.  Again, I have not seen anyone, classic or modern, who does that anywhere near as well.

(And in fact, the worst parts of Shakespeare’s plays are when he mixes the two by using speeches as banter, as he loses the pithy nature of his banter and the meaningfulness of his speeches.)

So, yes, I think we can learn things from Shakespeare yet, and reading everything he had written has simply driven that home for me.

So, that nine month project is now complete.  What am I moving onto next?  Well, observant readers will have noted that these posts always came out on Wednesdays, and something needs to fill that gap.  Something also needs to fill that gap for me of finding something to read while doing laundry.  For the latter, that’s going to be a bunch of King Arthur books, as well as a bunch of philosophy books.  Yes, Shakespeare can only be reasonably replaced by two different genres, not just one (also, I end up needing another hour to do laundry now so there’s room to fit in those two categories that I desperately want to make progress on).  But the philosophy stuff will generally end up on Fridays, and neither of them are things that I’ll get through quickly enough to talk about every week, so those posts will not fill the Wednesday slot.  I’ll slot the King Arthur stuff in on Tuesdays as I get far enough along (generally, when I finish a book).  In the place of the Shakespeare will be … a Comprehensive review of the episodes of the original “The Twilight Zone” show inspired by when I did the same for “Tales from the Darkside”, mostly because I want to examine how much the format itself was responsible for the failings of that series by seeing if “The Twilight Zone” will work out better for me.  Watch for those posts starting next week (yes, I have some disks watched and some posts written already, but I’m trying not to give any hints about what I think of them yet).

I am glad to have finished the Shakespeare and enjoyed reading them, but in line with my normal commentary I cannot see myself ever taking the nine months to read them all again … although some of them I certainly would.

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 “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”.

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”.