BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

King Henry VI, Part 3King Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Here we witness a tug-of-war for the British monarchy that plays out to a decisive conclusion (eventually.) It begins with Henry VI as king, but the Duke of York has gained the upper-hand. Henry makes a deal that, upon his death, succession will pass back to the Duke’s line, but not before. The Duke reluctantly agrees, but the deal makes everyone else furious. Margaret (Henry’s Queen) is upset because her son has lost his right to succession. The Duke’s sons are also displeased because they think their father should strike while the iron is hot, rather than risking that Henry’s strength and popularity will rise.

The Queen’s displeasure leads her and Clifford (enemy to the Duke, who killed Clifford’s father) to go on the offensive to reacquire the line of succession. They kill the Duke’s youngest son, a child, and then the Duke, himself. This would strengthen Henry’s position, but fortune doesn’t shine for long on anyone in this play, and soon the Duke’s sons capture Henry and Edward (the Duke’s eldest son) is crowned. But then Edward lusts after the first woman he meets as King, the widow Lady Grey, and being rebuffed in his plan to make Grey his “side piece,” he proposes to her. Unfortunately, Edward has already dispatched the Earl of Warwick to propose to the sister of the French King. This leads to the humiliation of Warwick (not to mention the French King’s sister,) and Warwick (with French troops) goes back and dethrones Edward. This, too, is short-lived. Edward consolidates support, captures Henry, and defeats Warwick. As the play ends it might seem stability has been achieved, but we know Edward’s brother, Richard, has ambitions.

While this one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and it’s constrained by events, it’s worth a read. It has a lot to say about how arrogance, lust, and timidness can all precede a downfall.

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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part 2Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Whereas the previous part of this trilogy was a war story largely set in France, this middle section is much about courtly intrigues and more local threats to the Crown. It does see the “War of the Roses” infighting between York and Somerset come to a head, as well as a successful plot by the new Queen and Suffolk (who might be making the beast with two backs) to get rid of the much beloved Gloucester (the King’s protector / advisor.) And there’s a brief but tumultuous rebellion led by a commoner who thinks himself kingly material, Jack Cade.

Despite the fact that the historical events of this play are among the latter half of those covered in Shakespeare’s histories – chronologically — it is believed that this is one of Shakespeare’s first (and, quite possibly, THE first.) Like other early Shakespearean works (e.g. “Titus Andronicus,”) it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles by way of beautiful language. That said, it’s loaded with tension and has elements one might recognize from latter works, such as the comedically capricious nature of crowds. (Shown when the people yo-yo between Cade’s rebellion and the aristocrats who argue for loyalty to the Crown.)

The possibility that this might be Shakespeare’s first may seem unlikely because it turned out to be “Part II.” However, one piece of supporting evidence is the play’s intense cliff-hanger. [Henry VI, Part 1 is comparatively self-contained, but this this part ends with the King being pursued by York’s forces — who’ve dominated in a skirmish against loyalist forces.]

This may be an early play, and – thus — not one of the Shakespeare’s most mellifluous works, but it’s engaging and definitely worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry VI, Part 1King Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like some of the other histories, this one is not so much about the titular character (Henry VI) as it takes place during his reign, and, in this case, it’s the very beginning of young Henry VI’s rule. In fact, this play begins with Henry V’s funeral. Henry VI does play a role as the naïve, new ruler who has the childlike wisdom of one who can’t see why everybody is getting so upset about what seem like trifling matters (e.g. infighting) when more crucial problems are at hand (e.g. France in revolt.) This is best seen in the young King’s gentle rebuke of the aristocrats for the big deal they are making about the color of rose being worn – which includes Henry’s innocent wearing of a white rose to make a point. (The events leading up to the War of the Roses feature prominently in the story, i.e. the civil war between the House Plantagenet and the House York.)

All that being said, if one were to pick a protagonist for this play it would have to be the great military commander, Talbot (pitted against his French counterpart, Joan of Arc — referred to as Pucelle throughout the play.) Early in the play, Talbot is captured, and this throws the English into a panic because he’s considered the linchpin of their forces in France (and because England is in a fragile state with Henry VI being young and inexperienced.) Talbot’s release is negotiated (the French, perhaps, being dismissive of how crucial the English see Talbot as being.) This dismissiveness is later seen in an episode with the Countess of Auvergne. The Countess, surprised to find Talbot is not a giant – given his reputation, thinks she is about have him arrested. When asked how he obtained such an outsized reputation, Talbot calls for his men, who promptly make an overwhelming show of force, clarifying wherein his power lies and putting to rest the idea that her men can take him. Act IV sees the tragic end of Talbot and his son, who each try to get the other to leave a battlefield dominated by the French, but neither will do so and so they die together.

The reason the great Talbot gets outplayed is two-fold. First, Joan (Pucelle) convinces the Duke of Burgundy to change sides, which significantly changes the balance of forces. Second, the English infighting between Somerset and York plays out in Talbot being denied reinforcements. The tragedy of this being that Talbot is universally-beloved, and it’s through no fault of his own that he can’t get the backup he needs. He is lost due to the pissing contest of lesser men.

Act V shows us how a peace is brokered that hinges on an arranged marriage for the young Henry. This provides us a [kind of] story wrap-up, i.e. a moment of stability. However, it’s no surprise that there are more parts to come, because there is a tremendous amount of divisiveness yet to play out. There is the embryonic War of the Roses, and a related great deal of contention over the deal that was brokered to end the war in France. For one thing, at one point Henry was doubly betrothed, and there was dissention about which fiancé he should pursue. But even if there hadn’t been a second choice, there was still room for conflict over what was seen as a bad deal (no dowry to be paid from the Princess’s side and – in fact – the relinquishment of territories – a reverse dowry if you will.)

A lot of people consider this to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. (The insult is often not against Shakespeare as many also believe he only partially penned this play, as well as some of the other lesser-loved plays.) I must say, as Histories go, I found this one to be quite readable. (Of course, I didn’t despise “Titus Andronicus” either – though it is mega-bloody and perhaps not as nuanced a story as the later tragedies.) I think the Act IV tragedy and the political infighting made for some intense emotional resonance. In general, the histories are constrained by how interesting the events are rather than how creative the playwright can order them (though a number of the tragedies follow events – as they were known — fairly closely.)

Part of the complaint may have to do more with language than story, and from this perspective, I must say there are not a lot lines that leap out at one in the manner typical of Shakespeare.

At any rate, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss this play based on its (relatively) diminished stature, lest one make the same mistake as the Countess.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 2 William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part 2Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This continuation of the story of the reign of Henry IV, like the preceding part, is really the story of Prince Hal, the rapscallion who will be transformed into King Henry V. And transformation is the central theme of the play [as it often is in great stories.] In the previous part, we saw that Hal pulled it together to do what needed to be done while the rebellion raged, but here we see a bit of a relapse at the beginning as he returns to Eastcheap to hang out with friends. The Lord Chief Justice has a stern talking to Falstaff to discourage the incorrigible rascal from leading Hal down a destructive path, a talk that fails, causing a defensive Falstaff to take umbrage at the official’s words. However, by the end of the play we see how the weight of the crown forces Hal into what feels like a more permanent changing of ways. To borrow and misapply a Biblical quote: When he became a king, he put the ways of debauchery behind himself.

Prince Hal isn’t the only one who’s changing, Falstaff is also experiencing a transformation, but not so much one of growing up or growing more virtuous, but rather one of getting old. This is seen most vividly when Hal and his past conspirator, Poins, spy on Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, a tavern girl. Hal breaks the espionage off, realizing there is no adventure to be had in the endeavor.

While Henry IV’s forces (including, prominently, Hal) won the day in the previous play, a peace settlement hasn’t been reached. With Hal out gallivanting and Henry IV having fallen ill, the task of concluding a peace agreement falls to Hal’s brother, Prince John. No-nonsense John receives the rebels’ grievances and says he will see to it that they are all rectified, and then (when their guard has fallen,) he tells them that there is still the matter of the rebellion for which they will have to be put to death. Which they are.

The play climaxes with Henry IV on his deathbed. Hal goes in to visit him, and mistakes the King’s feeble vital signs for death. Overwhelmed not only with grief, but also with an anger at the very crown for subjecting his father to more stress than the old man could bear, Hal takes the crown and walks off in dread contemplation. When the King revives and sees the crown is gone, he questions his men as to where it’s gone, and they say Hal must have it as he was sitting with Henry IV the last any of them knew. Henry IV is outraged that his son should care so much for the crown and so little for father that he’s not willing to wait until the old man’s death to abscond with the crown. When Hal is summoned, Henry IV tells his son as much via more extensive and eloquent comments. When the King completes his rebuke of Hal, Hal responds by saying that it’s not the case at all. Hal refutes that he is eager to be the King, and instead sees the crown as a kind of enemy that he is nonetheless fated to confront. The King is happy with Hal’s articulate explanation, and father and son are on good terms when Henry IV dies – this time for real.

The play reaches resolution when Henry V’s state of mind is revealed. This can be seen vis-à-vis two characters. First, the Lord Chief Justice is afraid Henry V may have an axe to grind about the senior official’s attempts, on behalf of Henry IV, to rein in Hal (including pressuring Falstaff.) Second, Falstaff takes it as a given that his position will be vastly elevated by his old drinking buddy’s rise to King. It turns out that both men are wrong in their assumptions. The newly matured Henry V is gracious to the Lord Chief Justice, and makes a show of turning Falstaff away.

This play is sometimes considered the penultimate of what has been called the Henriad, and so the story bleeds into the next, “Henry V.” It’s definitely a work that should be read by those interested in Shakespeare’s histories.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry IV, Part 1King Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While it may be Henry the IV’s reign that is threatened during the course of this play, it’s the King’s son, Prince Hal, who plays the lead role. “Hal” goes by that name because the cast features an abundance of Henrys. Besides the King and Hal, Hal’s principal rival is also a Henry (though that one, Henry Percy, goes by “Hotspur” in the interest of avoiding Henry-based confusion. [Additionally, Hotspur’s dad is a Henry, as well.])

While one might expect that the play’s principal conflict derives from intense competition for use of the name “Henry,” readers of Richard II will note that King Richard II handed over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. Henry IV) under contentious conditions. The fact that Henry Bolingbroke wasn’t the next in line of succession and that he forced his predecessor out doesn’t bode well for an undisputed claim to the throne, and Henry IV’s rule is faced with everything from passive aggressive opposition to outright armed rebellion. At the start of the play, we see an indication of this conflict in Hotspur’s unwillingness to hand over a number of prisoners that his forces had taken in battle. Hotspur’s family were allies to Henry against Richard II, and the King’s unwillingness either to meet some of the Percy family demands or to recognize their role in his current kingship has made them hostile towards Henry IV.

In the first half of the play, Prince Hal is shown to be a rascal who enjoys hanging out in the pub with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. (You may know the pudgy, cowardly, and fib-prone Falstaff from his role in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) While Hal tends to be the voice of reason among his pub-crawling friends, Falstaff provides a low bar against which to compare one’s virtue. One event offers us great insight into Hal’s character early in the play – not to mention great amusement. When Falstaff convinces a few friends to engage in a bit of banditry, robbing a courier to get some money for mead (or ale, or whatever they drank) Hal says he has a conflict. However, Hal and his friend Poins don their own highwaymen attire and rob Falstaff’s robbers. Later, Hal and Poins are greatly amused by hearing Falstaff tell the tale of how he and his three compatriots barely got out alive against fifty enemy bandits — the Prince knowing full well that it was just two men (Poins and he) who robbed the four, and with no violence, whatsoever. Hal gives the money back, showing he is not of the same ilk as Falstaff, but it’s telling that the Prince goes to all the trouble (and risk) of a counter-robbery just as a prank.

The second half of the play centers on a rebellion that is being carried out against the King, led by Hotspur and his father. As this is going on, Hal realizes he needs to step up his game and give up his mischievous ways. When a reconciled King Henry IV and Prince Hal approach for the Battle of Shrewsbury, both the King and the Prince make offers to the enemy that are intended to prevent the carnage of all-out war. Prince Hal’s offer is that he and Hotspur (who is not present at the time) engage in single combat (a duel) to avoid the tragedy of a battle of armies. In this offer, he speaks of Hotspur very graciously, while acknowledging his own faults. Neither offer is passed on to Hotspur by his elder, though he does learn of Hal’s proposition before the two come into combat in the melee of war (a fight that Hal wins – an important victory, given that Hal is a major character in the next two Shakespearean Histories, i.e. Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V [Prince Hal will become Henry V.]) Hotspur’s father (i.e. the Earl of Northumberland and the one who met with Henry IV and Hal) didn’t pass on the offers because he was concerned that Hotspur might take the Prince up on his offer, and that the outcome would be devastating for the Percy family. This is an informative bit of duplicity that highlights Hotspur’s apparent virtue and the duplicity of his elders (i.e. the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester.)

Because Shakespeare’s Histories follow the flow of real-world events, some are more evocative as stories than others (because some of the Kings’ stories were more engaging than others.) There’s a general consensus that Henry IV, Part 1 is among the better historical plays. The arc of the story demonstrates clear character growth in Hal. In its comedic moments, the play is quite funny, but that doesn’t diminish the tension and tragedy of the story overall. It’s definitely worth a read. Even if you only plan to read a few of the historical plays, this should probably be among them.


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BOOK REVIEW: King Edward III by William Shakespeare

King Edward IIIKing Edward III by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play, one of the histories attributed to Shakespeare, is among those that have only in recent decades come to be included in The Bard’s canon. While the current consensus among Shakespeare experts seems to be that this play was authored or co-authored by Shakespeare, it remains possible that it wasn’t or that it was only partially written by him. [Fun fact: Shakespeare was known to collaborate, even though only experts know anything about any of his collaborators — and even then it largely seems to be educated guesswork.]

This is not among the most narratively satisfying of Shakespeare’s plays, but histories inherently face the issue of following the events as they happened – at least in some degree. Even kings don’t necessarily live drama-shaped lives. The play addresses two major events in Edward’s life. The first is his unsuccessful wooing of a beautiful Countess after the King’s forces drive back a Scottish attack on the Earl of Salisbury’s castle. This part follows the common dramatic theme of the mere presence of a beautiful woman draining men of both virtue and smarts. For a time, the Countess simply rebuffs Edward’s advances, but when that doesn’t work, she tells him that the only way they can be together is if each one murders their current spouse. The Countess only says this to snap Edward out of it, but when he agrees to take her up on the bargain, she changes tack. She tells Edward that if he doesn’t quit his pursuit of her, she will end her own life. This does snap Edward out of his horn-dog induced insanity.

The second story line involves King Edward’s fight to claim the crown in France. While many will find this the more gripping part of the play, it’s not King Edward III, but rather his son Prince Edward, who is really the hero of this fight. It’s Prince Edward who is engaged in the most savage fighting and who narrowly ekes out a victory.

While this may not be as engaging and gripping as Shakespeare’s tragedies or comedies, it is an interesting way to glimpse history. I have little knowledge of British history, and can’t really say how accurate the depiction of events is, but Shakespeare generally follows the basic contours of events as accurately as was probably known at the time. I highly recommend all of Shakespeare’s works, but if you don’t have time for them all, this is probably one you’ll set aside for the time being.

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BOOK REVIEW: King John by William Shakespeare

King John (Folger Shakespeare Library)King John by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories (if not his first,) but is not among his better-known plays. That said, it mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that is engaging and interesting. There were points at which it felt Monty Python-esque and other points at which it was heartbreakingly tragic. In short, one shouldn’t conclude because this play isn’t so well-known that it isn’t an intriguing read.

King John turns heavily on the theme of legitimacy, and the nature of rights to rule and hold title. For the bulk of the play the question of right to rule focuses on the titular character, John, who faces competition in the form of a young boy, Arthur, who many believe has a stronger claim to the crown. But when the play opens, the question of legitimacy is about Philip Faulconbridge, who is an elder son but is being cut out of the family lands as a bastard. But, apparently, Philip’s baby-daddy was King Richard I, and so King John convinces the Philip to give up his claim to Faulconbridge lands and instead be knighted under the name of Richard. Richard [Plantagenet] is a major character in the play and an important supporter of King John.

[Warning: The plot will be discussed in some detail, so those wishing to avoid spoilers should look away now.] The real excitement begins when both King John and King Philip of France show up for a parley at the town of Angers — a fort city in present-day north-west France that was an English-controlled land at the time. The citizens of Angers won’t let either King’s party come inside because there is a dispute about who the actual king is [King John or the boy, Arthur.] As loyal subjects of the King of England, the Angerians will gladly admit the King (and whomever he deems fit) as soon as it’s determined who, exactly, is the king. [This is where the aforementioned Monty Python-like exchanges begin.] The two stupefied Kings eventually agree that their armies will fight and, in that way, determine who the true king is. The armies form up in an open field not far from the city walls. After a series of scuffles, no clear winner is established. However, [Monty Python, round 2] heralds from each side show up within minutes of each other — both heralds claiming that their King won [and, thus, should be granted access.] To which the citizens of Angers essentially say, ‘We can see you.’ [I paraphrase.]

Showing his worth and cleverness, Richard the Bastard, comes up with a new strategy. He convinces both Kings to put aside their differences for a just a few moments to jointly defeat Angers. Once they’ve destroyed the obstinate town, the Kings can go back to being hostiles and can conduct their parley. Both Kings are agreeable to this, but – of course – the citizenry of Angers are not so keen about it. The people of Angers, also being clever, come up with their own alternative plan. They tell the two kings that they can’t help but notice that King Philip has a son and King John has a niece who would seem to make a lovely couple. If the two were to wed, then it would solidify the relationship between the two kings and the town would then gladly host them (because they could do so with no fear of a ruckus breaking out.)

The marriage takes place and everybody, except Arthur’s mother [who feels badly betrayed,] is elated, but only for about two minutes until the Pope’s emissary shows up. The Pope’s man, Cardinal Pandolf, claims that King John is out of favor with the Holy See and insists the King yield to the Pope’s wishes. King John refused to be emasculated by the Pope, and this creates an awkward rift in the newly bonded families. Pandolf tells King Philip that he’d better defeat King John or he, too, will be on the Pope’s shit-list. France decides that going to war with the new in-laws is better than being on the Pope’s bad side.

In the ensuing battle, the most crucial outcome is that little Arthur is captured by King John’s forces, and control of Angers is solidified by John’s men. John orders one of his followers, a citizen of Angers, to kill Arthur – to firm up his position, especially since the bonding by marriage had such an ephemeral effect. Hubert can’t bring himself to kill the precocious boy, and, instead, hides him.

King John comes to regret the killing of Arthur (which he continues to believe took place) in part because some English noblemen are clamoring for the boy’s release, and (probably) in part because he’s ashamed of the morally reprehensible act. After King John sternly rebukes Hubert for actually following his orders, Hubert tells him that it’s no problem, for the regicidal murder did not actually take place. Again, it momentarily looks like all will be well (to King John and Hubert at least. Readers learn that Arthur, having narrowly talked his way out of being murdered, decides to make a jump from the castle either to safety or death, but it does not go well for the boy – i.e. he dies on impact. FYI – This tactic of revealing information to the audience that characters are kept in the dark about is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s great contributions to the art of story. It might seem like it’s “giving things away,” but it actually creates a visceral effect in which the audience member knows that the bottom is about to drop out on a temporarily pleased character.)

When the truth shakes out, King John contacts Pandolf and makes up with the Pope in exchange for having the French attack-dog called off (especially since a number of the King’s nobles have switched sides.) At first this doesn’t go well. Philip, having already once been treated as the Pope’s lapdog, refuses to make peace because to do so would make him look like nothing more than the Pope’s personal hand-puppet. King John is poisoned by a monk, and, after a touch-and-go period, eventually succumbs. Philip’s son, Louis, does ultimately agree to make peace – not that it does John any good.

I enjoyed this play tremendously. The swift changes of fortune keep one guessing about whether the story will ultimately play out as tragedy or comedy. It’s definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

CoriolanusCoriolanus by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a brilliant General, and when war is afoot, he’s beloved by his Roman countrymen. However, in times of peace, he’s kind of cantankerous, thinking that people who don’t bleed for their nation should shut their pie-holes and thank their lucky stars for whatever they get in life. This latter fact puts him in conflict with both Rome’s political elite and its commoners. The play opens on this very conflict as rioting citizens are complaining about how the State’s grain silos are full while the rank-and-file are suffering. One gentleman (a friend of Coriolanus,) Menenius, tries to calm the rabble by listening and offering reasoned discussion on the issue. Coriolanus, alternatively, throws fuel on the fire by (and I paraphrase and oversimplify here) telling folks that if they want to get paid, they should join the army.

Soon, Coriolanus is off to war with his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius — who is also a great General, but for for the competing state of Volsci. Coriolanus is successful in battle, and uses the merit gained him to successfully be elected Consul. Of course, adversaries tire of being shut down because they aren’t all war heroes, and so conflict escalates. Eventually, the Romans run Coriolanus off, sending him into exile. Except for Coriolanus’s closest friends and his family, all of Rome is pleased to see him go.

But then Coriolanus shows up in Volsci and goes to see Tullus Aufidius. He tells his former enemy that one option would be for the Volscian General to kill his old foe where he stands, but alternatively, if they partnered together, they could easily sack Rome. Aufidius and the Volscians go along with this deal, and soon these great Generals have fought their way up to Rome’s gates. Rome sends three waves of envoys to talk Coriolanus out of burning down Rome. The first two envoys, the Consul Cominius and his old friend Senator Menenius, fail completely. The third wave is Coriolanus’s family and his dear mother, with an eloquent speech, succeeds where the others failed.

And now the Romans are happy, but the Volscians… not so much. In particular, Aufidius is seething because he feels he’s been betrayed. Coriolanus tries to tell the Volscian leaders that, “Look, I got you this far, now you can write a treaty on favorable terms, and Rome is no longer going to look down on you.” But Aufidius still feels that he’s been used and cast aside cheaply. So, he stabs Coriolanus.

This is one of Shakespeare’s last, if not his very last, tragedy. It’s fascinating to consider how his slate of tragedies unfolded. “Titus Andronicus” is generally not regarded as highly as the others because of its savagery – which at the time (and even today) was considered a bit over the top. I will say that I enjoyed the visceral intensity of “Titus Andronicus,” but won’t deny it was a bit bonkers in terms of its brutality. Toward the middle of his career, one has Shakespeare’s best-known and most warmly-regarded tragedies, e.g. “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” etc. that are not as harsh as “Titus Andronicus” but are tragedies for more than the main character. The last few tragedies are much more personal in nature: (i.e. “Timon of Athens,” “Antony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.”) Obviously, a lot of people die off stage as Coriolanus works out his revenge plot on the way to Rome, but as far as on-stage / speaking characters, Coriolanus is the sole victim. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with a lesson in “less can be more” or if it’s just how the dice fell in Shakespeare’s writing, but it does make one wonder. (Like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this one is based on recorded history, and so that certainly is a factor in the number of deaths. However, it also raises the secondary question of why various projects held interest to the Bard when they did.) I will say these last plays aren’t as gripping the one’s in the middle, but they are never-the-less sound stories.

Like all Shakespeare, this is a must read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Antony and CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is Shakespeare’s telling of the tragic love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Mark Antony was one-third of a triumvirate (along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus) ruling Roman territories. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt. The couple carries out an intense love affair despite the fact that Antony is legally wed to two other women over the course of the play. Early in the play we learn that his first wife, Fulvia, has died and that she was part of a rebellion against Octavius. Hanging out in Egypt, playing kissy-face with Cleopatra, Antony is largely oblivious to events in Rome. Fulvia’s death would be a boon to the love affair, but shortly later [when Antony makes a trip to Rome to deal with Roman affairs, including the campaign against Sextus Pompey,] he ends up marrying Octavia – Octavius’s sister. This marriage is explicitly made to re-cement a growing rift in the triumvirate [and it’s probably also hoped that it might keep Antony from living in Egypt in his own little world.]

While Antony has been accused of being out of touch, he does become irate when Octavius unilaterally decides to renege on a peace treaty with Sextus Pompey. In conjunction with the removal of Lepidus from the triumvirate, being left out of the decision to fight Pompey triggers Antony to take his portion of the Roman lands [the Eastern portion] and jointly rule them with Cleopatra in conjunction with her Egyptian lands. Of course, this brings Antony head-to-head with Octavius. The Battle of Actium, which was fought at sea [though Antony is strongly advised he would be much better off strategically to fight on land,] is a major event in the story. The battle is a disaster for Antony and Cleopatra. The latter prematurely withdraws her fleet, Antony follows, letting his naval forces collapse and the battle is decisively handed to Octavius.

Antony is enraged both by Cleopatra’s apparent betrayal and by self-loathing over his own decision not to fight to the bitter end. Still, his love is so intense that he quickly makes up with Cleopatra even though it appears that he caught her in the act of seriously mulling over Octavius’s offer [delivered via messenger] for a deal whereby she would give up Antony and be spared.

Antony is again enraged when he loses the battle on land, believing he’s been betrayed by Cleopatra once more. Still, he can’t help but be moved when he is told that Cleopatra has died. In fact, she is alive at that point. It turns out that Antony being told that Cleopatra is dead was an ill-considered scheme by Cleopatra to win back Antony’s affections.

This brings us to the most frequently discussed feature of this play, the character of Cleopatra. She is often referred to as Shakespeare’s most well-rounded and intriguing female character. This is saying a lot because Shakespeare has some clever and courageous women among his characters. [True, he also has a number of female characters that serve only as victims, love interests, or some combination thereof.] Probably part of this admiration can be chalked up to the fact that the Egyptian queen is the only female character who has true agency – independent of a father, a husband, a brother, a king, or a fiancé. However, it’s also got to do with the fact that Cleopatra manages to combine the ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ vanity and petulance of a shallow teenage girl with the ‘Ready my battle fleet!’ authority of a commander. She is both in one package, and people [apparently] find her convincingly so. Mark Antony is also a mish-mash of the loyal and virtuous leader we knew from Julius Caesar but dulled by being smitten and lovelorn. [One event that stands out as showing Antony’s character is when he has the wealth of a traitorous man, Enobarbus, forwarded home to him. It can’t fully be determined whether this is an act of pure virtue or a clever screw-you. If the latter, it worked splendidly as Enobarbus is crippled with regret for shifting sides to join Octavius.]

At any rate, Cleopatra’s plot to endear herself to Antony by making him feel her loss fails utterly. Having been definitively routed by Octavius by sea and by land, and now believing his true love is dead, Antony mortally wounds himself in an attempted suicide. [After failing to get a subordinate to do it for him – one of whom commits suicide himself to be freed of the obligation of killing Antony.] The play ends with Cleopatra’s own dramatic suicide by asp. It should be noted that she kills herself not so much because her poorly conceived plan contributed to Antony’s death, but more because she can’t take the idea of being paraded through the streets of Rome and being subjected to the imagined barbs of Octavia –Antony’s legal wife. [At least there is a great deal of explicit discussion of this fear of humiliation, and not so much of regret.]

This was one of Shakespeare’s last tragedies. For many it is one of his most beloved [though I’d put it more in the middle of the pack.] Still, it’s a great read, and I particularly enjoyed the latter acts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

Timon of AthensTimon of Athens by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a tragic take on a premise similar to that of “The Merchant of Venice.” That is, there is a gentleman who is generous to a fault — and much beloved because of it — who ends up suffering for it. [It’s also a bit like the “Oedipus” trilogy except that, instead of the discovery of unintended incest that sets the lead character walking the wilderness, it’s Timon’s discovery that he isn’t as rich in friendship as he’d thought.] In “Timon of Athens,” the lead character (Timon) is going about business as usual (i.e. being a patron to artists, lending to those in need, and holding banquets) when debt collectors begin to gather at his gate.

At first, Timon is unconcerned. Surely, his friends will help him get through this rough patch, just as he has helped so many of them over the years. However, when he sends his servant out to borrow what he needs to get back in the black, he faces rejection after rejection. Eventually, it hits Timon like a hammer that the only reason he ever got any love was because he was always supporting, feeding, and purchasing the products of Athenians. This realization hastens a sea change in Timon’s attitude. Timon decides to hold one more “banquet” to which he invites those he’s been good to and who’ve not offered the slightest reciprocity. At the banquet, the dishes are uncovered to reveal stones in water. Timon then gives the assembled crowd a piece of his mind. Then, Timon takes off to live in a cave in the woods – shunning contact with humanity.

One intriguing character is Apemantus, who is a Cynic philosopher. [Cynicism was a school of philosophy that was largely ascetic, nature-oriented, and which rejected many of humanity’s norms and values (e.g. valuing comfort and wealth) as anathema to a good life.] Apemantus features in the first part of the story, insulting both Timon and his guests, but also serving as a harbinger of what’s to come when he explains that these sycophants only associate with Timon because of what he does for them. In the second half, Apemantus visits Timon in the latter’s cave and – among other insults – accuses Timon of being a copycat by adopting Apemantus’s way of life.

Living in the woods, Timon stumbles onto a cave of gold. While he could take this money and return to his previous life, that path holds no allure to him. He has no interest in the money. When news of this discovery circulates, people come to the woods to seek Timon’s good favor only to be rebuffed. Alcibiades, a military man who was also wronged by Athens and who now promises to destroy the city, is given gold. Also, Timon gives some money to a couple of prostitutes so that they can go spread venereal disease among the Athenian population. The painter, the poet, and the senators who come to Timon are cursed and sent away. Even Timon’s servant, Flavius, is told to go away, although he is tolerated when it becomes clear that he is – in fact – an honest man who never sought anything more than his just recompense for virtuous service.

It’s generally believed that this play wasn’t a completed work, but rather a work in progress. The pacing at the end does become a bit abrupt, but it’s hard to know for certain. It’s also the case that some points could use fleshing out – notably the discovered gold which gives the latter bit of the play some drama but which also strains credulity. As Shakespeare’s tragedies go, this one is at the other end of the spectrum from “Titus Andronicus” in terms of bloodiness, which is to say it isn’t at all violent. We don’t see Timon’s death but only hear about the discovered grave, and otherwise the soldier who Alcibiades tries to save is the only other fatality of note. There are some critics who don’t even classify this work as a tragedy, but rather as a problem play.

It’s a simple story, but is potent in that it shows such a clear and definite character change. While it’s not one of Shakespeare’s more popular works, it’s definitely worth a read.

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