BOOK REVIEW: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

King Henry VIIIKing Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play takes place over a period of time, for want of a better measure, straddling the first two [of six] marriages of Henry VIII. It doesn’t reach the ill-fated end of Anne Boleyn, but rather finishes with the baptism of the girl child she birthed [Elizabeth, who will later be Queen.] [Of course, the failure to produce a male child was the downfall of Katherine of Aragon’s Queenship, so the birth of Elizabeth doesn’t bode well.]

In as much as a history has a theme, this one would be the conflict between the aristocracy and the clergy. This is first, and most extensively, seen through the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, who wins the favor of the King in the Cardinal’s conflict with the Duke of Buckingham, but later Wolsey gets ousted after an aristocratic cabal diverts the Cardinal’s mail to the King. Henry discovers that Wolsey has recommended denial of an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, despite the fact that Wolsey was telling the King to his face that the marriage’s end had his endorsement. Later, we find aristocrats (the King’s Council) taking on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, but Henry sides with the Archbishop as he once had with Wolsey.

The play’s major events are the execution of Buckingham, the divorce from Katherine, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the birth of Elizabeth.

This isn’t the most compelling of the Shakespearean histories, but it does have its intrigues. No doubt it would be a bolder play in the absence of the authoritarian nature of monarchy, but it’s still worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Richard III by William Shakespeare

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

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Like Macbeth, this is the story of one man’s unchecked ambition bringing about his ruin. Richard wants to be king. The problem is that his eldest brother (Edward) is already king. The good news for Richard is that Edward is sick. The bad news is that Edward has two sons (and a daughter,) and there’s another elder brother (i.e. Clarence.) While Richard is willing to let nature take its course with Edward, he’ll have to get rid of everyone else between himself and the Crown.

Richard is different from Macbeth in that Richard’s psychopathy is more like that of Iago from “Othello.” Macbeth is conflicted and, though he keeps digging himself deeper, the burden of guilt leads to a descent into madness. Richard is anxious, but it’s not clear that he feels bad about what he’s done (i.e. having his brother’s boys killed, as well as his own brother, his wife, and a number of aristocrats.) When his own mother tells him she wishes she’d strangled him to death with his umbilical cord it rolls off him with the cool detachment one expects of a psychopath. That said, in the last act, he is visited by a series of ghosts. These visitations and his subsequent monologue might give indication that he’s realized how awful he is, but one could also argue that he’s just worried about the precarious state of his kingship.

The hammer drops when Richmond, a nephew of Henry VI, leads forces against Richard. In part, the aforementioned ghosts (which could be interpreted as bad dreams) psychologically do in Richard. (Though the ghosts also visit Richmond with the opposite message, a positive one.) But also, Richmond has proven his leadership skill by forging alliances with the French and the Scots, and turning Lord Stanley (despite Stanley having a son held hostage by Richard.)

While this play not only lacks the character nuance of Macbeth as well as The Scottish Play’s brilliant poetic language, it does have more great lines than the other “War of the Roses” plays (i.e. Henry VI, Pt. I – III.) [e.g. It opens with “Now is the winter of our discontent” and, of course, there’s “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”]

This conclusion to the War of the Roses story is well worth reading.

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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: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5)The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A legend tells of a monstrous hell-hound who haunts the moors of Devonshire and who long ago killed the head of the Baskerville estate, a wealthy family and linchpin within the community. When the present head of the Baskerville fortune, Charles, dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances – i.e. outdoors at night and in the presence of huge paw prints — many neighbors conclude the legendary hound has returned to fulfil the curse of the Baskervilles. The doctor, neighbor, and friend of Charles, Dr. Mortimer, doesn’t know what to think, as a man of science he might dismiss the legend, but he’s the one who found the hound prints. Above all, Mortimer knows that if the new heir to the Baskerville estate is driven away, it would be devastating for the neighborhood. Mortimer thus seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon (fyi – it’s #5.) One interesting feature is that Holmes, himself, is not present through the middle of the story. As in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson who provides perspective and narration, but throughout the second act we see Watson doing the investigating as well. Sherlock is present for the beginning of the story when Mortimer comes to call and the Baskerville heir, Henry, arrives in London, and then he’s there to spring a plot to conclude the case, but in between we learn of only Watson’s activities in Devonshire.

This is an intriguing tale from beginning to end, and it is remarkable how many strange and seemingly disparate strings the story ties up cleverly. It’s a fascinating look at superstition and how it creates converts under the right circumstances. This quick and thrilling read is worthy of your time.


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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: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2)The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is the second of the books in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It begins with a client (Miss Morstan) coming to see Holmes to acquire his advice as to whether she should make a rendezvous to which she has been summoned by mysterious means, Morstan being a beautiful young lady who is weary of showing up to a random public location, having been told to not involve the police. We learn some intriguing facts from the conversation, such as that she began receiving a pearl from an anonymous source each year and that her father (Capt. Morstan) has passed away.

With Sherlock and Watson in tow, Miss Morstan does attend the rendezvous, and we learn that the meeting is with the son (Thaddeus Sholto) of a man with whom her father served in the military at Port Blair in the Andaman Isles (Maj. Sholto.) The mystery of the pearls is cleared up as we discover that Maj. Sholto cheated Capt. Morstan out of his share of a treasure that the Major came into possession of while stationed in India, and his two sons (particularly Thaddeus) feel the need to make amends to Capt. Morstan’s heir, but would like to do so without dragging the family name through the muck or creating legal hassles.

It seems everything is wrapped up with a nice bow, when Thaddeus takes Miss Morstan, Holmes, and Watson to see his (more reluctant to be fair to Morstan) brother Bartholomew, who is the one in actual possession of the treasure. However, when they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure gone, the true mystery begins. The balance of the book involves a chase to find the missing treasure, the men who stole it, and to unravel the mysterious circumstances behind the treasure. The final chapter tells the elaborate backstory of the treasure, going back to India and to the titular four men, the four whose names were found at the scene of Bartholomew’s murder and who previously possessed it — one of whom serves as the storyteller. Along the way, a mangy bloodhound, the Baker Street Irregulars (street urchins employed by Holmes,) and – of course – the brilliant reasoning of Sherlock Holmes are used to solve the case.

Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most intriguing fictional characters ever with Holmes. If he were just a brilliant man with supreme skills of observation and reasoning, he’d be no more interesting, and have no greater longevity, than any of the many other characters. But in Sherlock we see that brilliance always has a cost. Holmes is also an addict, is troubled by insomnia, and is – in some ways – socially dysfunctional. (e.g. When Watson develops a relationship with Miss Morstan, Holmes confesses that he can’t grasp the value of marriage / long-term intimate relationships.)

What the author does with character, he also does with setting by bringing into the story (through backstory) locales that are exotic and intriguing – e.g. Port Blair. Even by today’s standards there are always little tidbits of the exotic drawn into the story, even though most of the Holmes’ stories — this one included — don’t venture far from London.

If you enjoy crime and detection fiction, this book is a must. It’s highly readable and offers a compelling story. In terms of the Holmes canon, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly better or worse than others, but I don’t find there is a huge variation in quality among these novels and stories. It is one of the better-known titles (except that some call it “The Sign of Four” and others “The Sign of the Four” – the latter being the original title as far as I can discern.)

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