BOOK REVIEW: Spark by Naoki Matayoshi

SparkSpark by Naoki Matayoshi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Spark” tells the story of two manzai comedians. Manzai is a Japanese comedic form that involves a duo that engage in rapid-fire conversational exchanges involving puns, word play, absurdities, and misunderstandings. [Think of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first” sketch, but set to appeal to the Japanese sense of humor.]

The two comedians in question do not form a duo, but rather are members of their own, respective, manzai duos. While their relationship is one of friendship, to understand it fully one has to have a basic grasp of the sempai – kohai interaction. Most Westerners who haven’t practiced judo, aikido, flower arranging, or taiko drumming, or who haven’t done business in Japan are unlikely to be familiar with this very Confucian idea. It’s sort of like the idea of mentor and mentee, but writ much more broadly, basically into all aspects of life. The sempai is the senior, and the kohai is the junior. In this case, our narrator, Tokunaga, is the kohai (junior,) and Kamiya is the sempai (senior.) Kamiya says he will guide Tokunaga, if Tokunaga agrees to write Kamiya’s biography. The book in question could be taken to be the resultant product — although Tokunaga, himself, is the protagonist of the story – with Kamiya being the Obi Wan to Tokunaga’s Luke.

I think readers should know not to expect a book that is laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Because the subject is comedy, one might expect it to be a laugh riot from cover-to-cover. I remember seeing the movie “Punchline” (1988) and being very disappointed because it was about standup comedians, but the standup comedy in the film was mediocre at its best. The movie had major league talent (Tom Hanks and Sally Field) and I might have enjoyed it more if my expectations about the humor were tempered. “Spark” does have its funny moments, but one wouldn’t want base one’s judgement on that. For one thing, overall, the story is bittersweet. It tends to be lighthearted, but it has its moments of angst as well. Furthermore, the humor doesn’t translate well, and I think there are both cultural and linguistic reasons for that. Much of the humor that plays out when the comedians are riffing (usually off-stage) is what I would call absurdist quips, and the more you like that kind of humor the more you’ll like it in the book, but vice-versa is true, too. If your response to puns is deadpan, I wouldn’t expect to find yourself laughing (or even smiling) much. (Not that the humor is pun-based, but it’s about that level of funny.)

Obviously, I thought the book does something right, even if it’s not its hilarity. For one thing, it has at least as many philosophically thought-provoking moments as it does humorous ones. While there is a lot of silliness in the exchanges between Tokunaga and Kamiya, there is also a philosophy and a psychology that are presented for one’s consideration. At its heart, I think this is a book about what art is exactly, and how one rides a line between the creative and the familiar. Tokunaga wants to be like Kamiya because he sees Kamiya is creative to the point of being so far outside the box that he can’t even see the box. However, as the story goes on, Tokunaga ends up having more success because he (and his partner, who is a relatively minor and unseen character) instinctively keep one eye on what will appeal to audiences. While Tokunaga chides himself for lacking the courage and creativity of Kamiya, ultimately, he gets to see the downside of those proclivities.

I enjoyed this book. It clearly leans toward literary fiction, which is to say it’s much more about characters than it is about story and exciting events. This means that it may feel a little slow at times, but it does have a payoff that ties up the story into a satisfying narrative. It’s also a book that is wisely kept short. Because it’s not that long, the coffee shop and bar discussions that make up much of “the action” don’t overextend into tedium. If you are interested in comedy, creativity, or just tales of friendship, this is a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play, like a number of Shakespeare’s works, revolves around erroneous mistrust regarding infidelity. While it’s usual for star-crossed lovers to spend the length of a play trying to be wed — against all odds and opposition — this story turns the tables. At the beginning of “Cymbeline,” the King’s daughter (Imogen) is already married to a gentleman named Posthumus Leonatus. However, Leonatus is being deported from Britain back to Rome because the King, Cymbeline, doesn’t sanction the wedding. So, the young lovers in question (Imogen and Leonatus) are forced into a long-distance relationship. Both Cymbeline and his Queen would prefer Imogen marry Cloten, the Queen’s son. [While that sounds incestuous, the hitch is that Cymbeline is twice married. Imogen is his daughter from his first wife; Cloten is the Queen’s son from her previous marriage. So, the problem with marrying Cloten isn’t incest, but rather that the Prince is a pompous gas-bag who nobody likes — except his treacherous mother. Not to mention, Imogen still considers herself wed to her true love, Leonatus.]

The geopolitical context of the play is that Britain has stopped paying tribute to Rome, and the Romans are sore about it. However, Britain has been on the rise as the Roman empire has apparently been waning — having transitioned from Julius Caesar to Augustus. At any rate, it’s no longer a slam-dunk that Rome would defeat Britain in battle. This broader context is important because it explains why Rome sends diplomats and – eventually — soldiers to Britain.

One of the Romans sent to Cymbeline’s court is Iachimo, who is cast as a “gentleman,” but whom we will learn is anything but. Iachimo, insulted by Leonatus’s pining over his wife when Rome has so many lovely women, tells Leonatus that he should just get on with getting busy, because he can be sure that Imogen has. Leonatus refutes this. Iachimo says that he’s going to visit Cymbeline’s castle as part of a Roman delegation and he bets Leonatus that he can get in the sack with Imogen. Leonatus tells Iachimo it will never happen; Leonatus has iron-clad trust in his wife’s chastity. However, Leonatus goes along with the bet because winning it will be the next best thing to stabbing Iachimo.

During the visit Iachimo is sternly rebuffed by Imogen. But before she can summon the guards to bounce him, Iachimo really gets despicable — cleverly shifting his tack. He plays off his proposition as being a bad joke in bad taste, apologizes, and – behaving in a gentlemanly fashion – he warms her up to him. So much so, that when he asks a small favor, she readily agrees. The favor is to store a trunk of valuables in her room that he doesn’t trust being shipboard. However, he uses the trunk to Trojan horse his way into her sleeping chambers. That night, once she is asleep, Iachimo sneaks out and makes note of the furnishings of the room, a birthmark that he can see given Imogen’s nightie that he wouldn’t be able to see in her daytime attire, and – for good measure – he thieves a bracelet off her wrist. The bracelet and the information he acquired will become the evidence Iachimo uses to convince Leonatus that he made the beast with two backs with Imogen. While Leonatus is dubious at first, he eventually concedes the bet, giving Iachimo his ring and sending an order to his servant, Pisanio (who stayed in Britain to serve Imogen,) to murder Imogen. Pisanio, being near Imogen on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t at all believe she has been unfaithful, and finds himself on the horns of a dreaded dilemma.

The story plays out moving from Cymbeline’s palace to the countryside, and then to a chaotic fifth act in which all is reconciled in the aftermath of a battle between the Romans and the British in which Cymbeline’s forces are victorious. (As you might have realized, despite the play being named for him, Cymbeline is not one of the lead characters. However, his fifth act interrogations are the means by which the resolutions and revelations are made.)

The tension that is maintained throughout this work is visceral. It plays with a number of common plot devices seen in Shakespeare: women disguised as men, a potion that causes a short-lived appearance of death, and unexpectedly reunited family, but still it remains a distinctive story. It may be one of the lesser known works of Shakespeare, but it’s definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends WellAll’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play, like “Measure for Measure,” is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – not consistently light-hearted enough to comfortably be called a comedy, but lacking the body count of a tragedy.

Helena loves Bertram, but he’s a Count and she’s the daughter of a deceased physician (a doctor who, while he was of great renown for his skill, wouldn’t be considered to be in a high-status career in those times.) Despite the fact that Helena is beloved by just about everyone – including Bertram’s mother, who became her guardian upon her father’s death – the relationship could never work… under ordinary circumstances. But those circumstances change when Helena saves the life of a dying King of France using her father’s proprietary medicines and methods. The grateful King removes [almost] all roadblocks to the marriage by allowing the wedding between a commoner and an aristocrat, providing Helena the wealth for a substantial dowry, and putting the squeeze on Bertram by telling the Count that if he loved his King he’d agree to allow the King to preserve his royal honor by rewarding Helena with all she truly wants.

The one roadblock the King can’t remove is Bertram’s feeling that he is too good for Helena because he’s a Count and she’s a nobody. The couple is married, but before the marriage can be consummated, Bertram slinks off to Italy under the pretext of fighting a war. He sends Helena back to his home where he thinks his mother will support him by making life hell for her new daughter in-law, but – joke is on him – his mother thinks that he’s being a jerk and she gives Helena a warm reception. Bertram forwards a note to Helena that unless she can get the ring off his finger and a baby is in her womb sprung from his loins, she shouldn’t really consider them married. Again the joke is on him, because Helena is the smartest person in the play and she develops a clever plot (that in part is similar to the “Measure for Measure” ploy) that is designed to meet the “impossible” requirements of Bertram, as well get the Count back to France where his failure to behave as a husband will be taken as a slap in the face to the King.

Of course “All’s Well That Ends Well” is worth reading. It’s Shakespeare. But I will say that I found “Measure for Measure” to be a better story. The major hurdle in this play is in accepting that Helena remains so stuck on Bertram, despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a jerk. Bertram does conduct himself admirably in war, but the “the heart wants what the heart wants” rationale is all we really get by way of explanation. It’s not clear whether Helena’s plot is playing out from the time she runs away from the Countess’s place, or whether she legitimately runs away to be a nun, but exploits a target of opportunity. Either way, there’s some deus ex machina to that part of the play. Also, her stock drops as we see the elaborate length she’ll go to in order to get her man.

I’d recommend this play, but if you can only do so much Shakespeare and haven’t read “Measure for Measure” yet, I’d recommend that one over this.

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BOOK REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Spoiler-laden summary: To be fair, you’ve had almost 400 years to read it or watch it.] The “nothing” that there is much ado about in this play is the [non-existent] hanky-panky of Hero, daughter of Leonato and the female lead. As it happens, a couple young and studly bachelors (Claudio and Benedick) roll into town after valorous service in the war. This causes some angst in Don John, bastard (Shakespeare’s word, not mine) brother to the Prince of Arragon, because his stock just plummeted. Don John, thus, devises a plot exploiting one of his minions and one of Hero’s attendants to make it look like Hero is flirting about with a strange man. This is a problem because it’s 1623 and Claudio wants his bride to be able to wear white.

When Hero is accused by some credible [but misled] witnesses including her fiancé, Claudio, she passes out from incredulity. Claudio takes off without knowing her condition. A Friar with a devil on his shoulder suggests Leonato tell everyone that Hero’s heart gave out and she died. Friar Francis is one of a handful of steadfast fans of Hero (as well as her cousin and best-friend Beatrice and – by extension – the man courting Beatrice, Benedick – who’s not so much sure of Hero’s virtue as he is sure that Don John is a jerk.) Sad as it is, Hero’s father and her fiancé are ready to relegate her to skanks-town, but her smart-aleck bestie / cousin Beatrice and the priest each have her / his own idea of how things can be set straight. As mentioned, the friar thinks that if Claudio believes Hero died, the better angels of his nature will make him come and atone for his accusations. Beatrice’s approach is to whip Benedick into challenging Claudio to a dual. (Which Benedick is not keen on because he’s war buddies with Claudio, but he plays it strategically by giving Claudio an opportunity to do the right thing while still challenging him.)

This is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and so in the end everything works out after the twists and turns. Unfortunately, things even work out for Don John – for the time being, at least. The bastard (Shakespeare’s word) goes on the lam knowing the jig is up on his plot. His man, Borachio, rolls on him, and with Hero “dead” things are about to get serious. So, if you were expecting the villain to get it Shylock-style, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

Of course, it’s brilliant; it’s William -frickin- Shakespeare.

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BOOK REVIEW: Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

CandyCandy by Terry Southern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist of this story, Candy Christian, is a caricature of a flighty, young beauty with daddy issues. Candy’s personality mixes cringe-worthy naivete with an endearing – if unjustified – optimism about the virtue of men. This, combine with her laudable but exploitable desire to render assistance, leads to a chain of events in which her trusting nature is repeatedly manipulated, usually without her ever becoming aware she’s been duped (or, at least, without it being admitted to the reader.)

This book claims to be a satire on Voltaire’s “Candide.” While readers may find varying degrees of commonality between the books, they do share some common ground. Both start with the protagonist being educated by a philosopher. In Candide’s case, it is Pangloss (i.e. “all talk”) who insists that Candide lives in the best of all possible worlds. In Candy’s case, it’s Dr. Mephesto (i.e. presumably derived from the Germanic demon “Mephestopheles” whose name means something like “scatterer of lies,”) and Candy’s philosophy teacher harps on the point that a person must find meaning in service, and to be willing to demonstrate that service as – of course – an attempt to bed Candy.

The books are also both episodic, jumping from location to location with adventures occurring at each locale. However, this episodic nature starts late in “Candy,” with the first two-thirds or so taking place in her hometown (Racine, WI) and – only then going on the move. Despite the availability of air travel, Candy doesn’t get around as much as Candide, though she does finish her journey at a Tibetan monastery. Both books have also been classified as being of the “education of a youth” (i.e. Bildungsroman) variety. However, they both have also been criticized on the basis that there wasn’t much of value learned by the lead. That said, Candide offers a clear moral to end the story, whereas Candy’s takeaway is in a more ambiguous twist ending.

“Candy” (the book) hinges on more than one absurd turn of events, but given that the genre is humor, I had no problem with that. [Even Shakespeare, in works like “The Comedy of Errors,” asks one to suspend disbelief in exchange for a laugh and some solid entertainment.]

I will point out one last similarity between “Candide” and “Candy,” they have both frequently been banned on the basis of moral arguments. Which brings me to to a couple warnings. If it’s not been made clear to this point, this book is sexually graphic, and individuals troubled by that may want to avoid it. The other class of reader who may be offended by the work are those disturbed by the book’s frequent victory of exploitative characters. In some ways, the book shares as much in common with Marquis de Sade’s “Justine” as it does with “Candide.” While the tone isn’t at all dark like Sade’s book, the story does suggest that world order is such that the weak and naïve will repeatedly be exploited by the strong and amoral.

I found the book to be humorous. The story is intriguing and well-developed, and – if one can suspend one’s disbelief regarding a few of the more absurd events – the reader will find it engaging. It’s not always a comforting read, but if you don’t mind (or enjoy) that condition, then you’ll likely to find it a pleasant read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

The Merry Wives of WindsorThe Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This Shakespearean comedy shows the cheery and chubby womanizer, Sir John Falstaff, getting his comeuppance when he tries to bed a couple of married ladies of Windsor. The wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, play along with Falstaff, allowing him to think he will get lucky in order to put him in dicey and comedic situations. It is, like “Othello,” a cautionary tale about letting one’s jealousy impair one’s judgment. But, unlike “Othello,” there is no tragic outcome. One of the husbands, Ford, is made a minor butt of the story when he grows suspicious and mistrusting of his wife. He is contrasted to the more trusting husband, Page. Though Page doesn’t escape being pranked by the play’s subplot.

Said subplot revolves around competing men vying for the hand of Page’s daughter, Anne Page. While not crucial to the main story line, this subplot does add to the comedic circumstance at the play’s climax when Falstaff’s lecherous pursuits are being revealed. It also includes Page in the buffoonery when the confusing circumstances are used to play a shell game to match his daughter with the man she loves rather than the one that her father favors for her.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this work.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.

The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.

[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.

Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)

[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.

It’s a masterpiece. Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost William Shakespeare

Love's Labor's LostLove’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King Ferdinand and three of his attending lords (Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine) make a pact to devote three years to intense study and self-betterment. During this time they are to study arduously while depriving themselves of certain earthly pleasures. Specifically, they will fast one day a week; they will sleep but three hours a night; and— most controversially— they will give up women altogether. Just as military strategists speak of plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, this pact falls apart with the arrival of the Princess of France and her three attending ladies (Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.) The men each develop a fancy for one of the women, and the pact unravels when the men, spying on each other, realize the others are intending to woo and pursue.

As it’s a comedy, there are a number of opportunities for confusion and comedic relief. Such comedic elements include mix ups in the delivery of love letters, and disguise schemes that go awry. For a comedy, the play ends on an interesting note. As is expected, there’s a reconciliation of who loves whom. However, there are no weddings to suture up the conclusion, but instead another agreement is entered into in which the men and women will see each other again in one year’s time. This leaves readers to consider the question of whether they think the men can be more diligent students when love backs this pursuit (but provides a distraction) than when it works against it.

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it’s more original than some. Still, it deals in some common comedic themes about the disruptive force of love and the effects of failed duplicity.

This play is highly recommended.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of VeronaTwo Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play uses some of the same plot devices of other Shakespearean comedies. First, there are two friends who fall for the same girl. Second, there is the father who wants said girl to marry someone other than the man she’s interested in marrying. Third, there is a girl who dresses as a man so that she can travel to chase after her beloved (only to be heart-broken.) [Think about that in the context of the theater of the era. The actor would be a dude playing a chick who’s pretending to be a dude.] The fact that there are some repeated themes doesn’t lessen the value of this work. For one thing, this is thought to be the first—not only the first of comedies but the first of Shakespeare’s plays more generally. Also, some of the most humorous dialogue is with secondary characters like Speed and Launce, the man-servants to Valentine and Proteus, respectively.

In the beginning, there are two gentlemen in Verona, Valentine and Proteus. Also in Verona is Julia, who loves Proteus. Proteus loves Julia back while he’s in Verona. However, after Valentine goes off to Milan for character building, Proteus’s father determines that his son should as well. In Milan, Proteus finds that Valentine has fallen for a girl named Sylvia. Unfortunately, Proteus falls for Sylvia as well and–not being a “bro’s before ho’s” kind of chap nor being the kind who can maintain long distance lovin’—he metaphorically stabs Valentine in the back and loses his mind. He could always shuffle back to Julia using the “what happens in Milan, stays in Milan” credo, except that Julia (posing as a boy) is witness to her lover’s unfaithful acts.

Read it, you’ll like it.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The backdrop for this story involves two young men (Lysander and Demetrius) and two young women (Hermia and Helena.) Both men have the hots for Hermia, which leaves poor Helena unloved though she loves Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander, which means Demetrius is unloved by the one he loves and has no love for the girl pursuing him. Enter the village elders—notably Hermia’s dad, Egeus, and the Duke of Athens, Theseus—who really muck up the works by insisting that Hermia marry Demetrius (whose family apparently has more cash than does Lysander’s.) This causes Lysander and Hermia to elope into the forest, where things really get freaky. Helena, courting Demetrius’s favor, tells him where the eloping couple went, and Demetrius gives chase while Helena chases Demetrius.

In the woods outside Athens, there lived ferries. Oberon, king of the fairies, has in his possession a Cupid-like potion that will make its victim fall madly in love with the next person he or she sees. Oberon orders this potion deployed in two ways pertinent to the story. Seeing Demetrius quarreling with Helena, he orders his subject, Puck, to deploy it on Demetrius. In a fashion typical of a Shakespearean comedy, the potion is misapplied.

The other use of the potion (a subplot of the story) is on the faerie queen, Titania. Oberon is upset with Titania over an Indian boy of whom they’ve come into parentage. Titania falls for a workman who is in the woods rehearsing a play that may be the worst play ever. Most disconcertingly, she falls in love with this man, called Bottom, as he’s wearing a donkey head for his role in the play. As this is a comedy, the two unholy loves that developed are eventually rectified, but not before some amusing happenings.

At its most basic level, the play is a commentary on the folly of mucking about in love–whether as matchmaking elder or a Cupid-like faerie. On another level, it’s a critique of an unrealistic pursuit of a perfect vision of love. In this way, the message isn’t unlike Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (i.e. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) This is seen in Demetrius’s ultimate recognition that he’s being an idiot by chasing after Hermia, when Helena is so clearly devoted to him. In other words, in love as in life the notion famously attributed to Voltaire that “The perfect is the enemy of the good” applies. As an aside, we also learn what Shakespeare sees as some of the mistakes of playwrights and theater companies as the assembled crowd watches Bottom and his comrades put on a hideous production.

I’d highly recommend reading this work for everyone. It’s Shakespeare; needless to say, the language is beautiful and the story is intriguing.

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