BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es

Shakespeare's Comedies: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in

 

I picked up this guide because I recently finished reading through a superset of Shakespearean comedies. By a superset I mean all the plays that are unambiguously classed as comedies (e.g. “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merry Wives of Winsor,” etc.,) but also the ones called “problem plays” (i.e. “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”) and some late plays that are sometimes called “romances” (e.g. “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”) Having read 18 plays [in some cases] called Shakespeare’s comedies, I had questions that I hoped the book would help to answer.

The first such question is “what’s a comedy?” I was somewhat familiar with various literary definitions, but still plays like “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and even [in ways] “The Merchant of Venice” seem a bit dark – regardless of how things worked out for the lead character in the end. I was pleased to learn that I’m not the only one befuddled by this question. It turns out there is a great deal of debate among scholars on the topic. This topic is discussed in the introduction, in an epilogue, and at various points in between. The epilogue looks at one variation on the question, which is “When did Shakespeare stop writing comedies?” The reason is that his latter plays that are classed as comedies (on folios, playbills, and by scholars) tend be much more mixtures of tragedy and comedy.

The book is organized into five chapters, each of which takes on a different characteristic of the plays. I liked this arrangement as it allowed the author to compare and contrast Shakespeare’s work with his contemporaries on crucial aspects of a play. A recurring theme throughout the book is to consider what the norm was for comedies during that period and then to look at how Shakespeare followed, bent, or blew up the rules.

Though I liked the organization, I found some of the chapters more intriguing than others. The first, entitled “World,” explores setting. One major distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and those of his peers is discussed in depth. While it was common to set comedies in urban environs, Shakespeare wrote a lot of forest scenes, and while he employed even more urban settings, van Es argues that the urban settings are forest-like in terms of expansiveness.

Chapter two examines wit in the works of Shakespeare. In doing so, it differentiates humor and wit and suggests the latter was more Shakespeare’s forte. The author also considers where Shakespeare’s wit is most clever and where it is ham-handed or even out-done by his contemporaries. One thing that I wish there was more of would have been elucidation of peculiarities of humor and wit of the day. There is some of this, and I did learn some new things. Still, when one is reading Shakespeare, no matter how much one is engaged by the story, there are references that one doesn’t know what to make of because while they must have made perfect sense in the lexicon of the time, they are meaningless (or divergently meaning) in today’s language. Some of these can readily be Googled, but not all. I have seen books that systematically explain such terms and phrases, but this one only offers a few examples.

Chapter three is about the theme of love. There is a lot that seems strange to modern sensibilities in Shakespeare’s work as pertains to love and relationships. Take “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena can have anything she wants from the King of France (who she cured of a fistula) but she insists on marrying Bertram — a man who despises her, resents her for what he views as having tricked her, thinks he is vastly better than her, and (worst of all) is not. How tricking a disgruntled jerk – Count or no – into moving back to live with one is considered a happy ending is hard to fathom. This was another area in which I was reassured to find that I’m not the only one who found some of the relationship matters bizarre.

Chapter four is about the element of time. During Shakespeare’s era it was normal for a comedy to take place over the course of a day – i.e. a short period. A couple of Shakespeare’s early comedies comply with this norm, but that is less and less the case as his works progress. “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” both see infants grow into marriageable age (granted that was like 12 in back in those days, but still) over the course of a play. [Granted, not everyone would class those works as comedies.]

Chapter five was by far the most interesting to me. It discusses the idea of characters, and it does so largely by employing E.M. Forester’s conception of flat versus round characters. Comedies of the day relied heavily – if not exclusively – on flat characters. Characters that were like caricatures, having simple motivations and little of the depth that might make them relatable or sympathetic. The author argues that Shakespeare increasingly wrote characters that were – to a person — round. Shakespeare was often able to gain comedic effect by making characters seem flat at times for which it was called. However, it’s also considered that this need for roundness might explain why Shakespeare’s late “comedic” plays are far less clearly comedic than one might expect.

The book has graphics, references, and a further reading section.

Chapter five and the epilogue really improved my view of this guide. I was not displeased with it prior to that point, but didn’t think it offered any great value-added to my understanding of the topic. However, in the end I found the book highly informative and useful. If you’re looking for a concise, no-nonsense guide to Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s worth having a look.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare

The Two Noble Kinsmen (Folger Shakespeare Library)The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

King Creon of Thebes is a jerk. The play opens with three Queens petitioning the Duke of Athens, Theseus, to avenge the kingly husbands that Creon had executed. Theseus ultimately agrees. We know that Creon is really a jerk [and not that the Queens are being spoilsports (or duplicitous)] because Creon’s own nephews – Palamon and Arcite, the titular two noble kinsmen – are about to high-tail it out of Thebes to get away from Creon’s reign when they learn Theseus has attacked. These two aren’t the kind to shy away from a fight, and so – instead of leaving – they fight for Thebes, despite its jackwagon of a King. The two fight with valor, but are no match for Theseus’s forces and are captured, becoming prisoners of Athens.

Palamon and Arcite are paragons of manliness, the kind of men who other men want to be and that ladies want to be with. They are handsome, virtuous, athletic, and likeable. The two share a bond that one might think unbreakable, until the beautiful Emilia enters the picture. Through the window of the jail, Palamon spots Emilia in the garden and is stricken by love at first sight. When Arcite says he, too, has the hots for Emilia (who they both only know by sight and from a distance,) Palamon is suddenly ready to kill his kinsman and brother in arms. Palamon is over-the-top in his anger, especially as it seems unlikely at that moment that either of them is likely to meet Emilia. [I suspect Arcite really likes Emilia, too, but one can’t eliminate the possibility that the elaborate antics to follow are all for the principle of the matter because Palamon is so insistent that Arcite has no right to pursue Emilia. As if Palamon had called “shotgun” and Arcite had tried to jump up front.]

However, soon Arcite is summoned to the palace, and he ends up being banished from Athens. He’s told that he doesn’t have to go home, but he can’t stay in Athens. Arcite starts to head back to Thebes, but then he finds out that Athens is having a field day (by that I mean a day of sports and competition, not in the colloquial sense of the word) he decides to disguise himself and compete in the hopes of winning Emilia’s heart (and / or getting Palamon’s goat.) (Winning Emilia is no small feat given Emilia’s high standards and – given her adoring talk of her relationship with a friend named Flavina – a likely lesbian inclination.) But we’ve established that Arcite is a man among men, and he trounces the competition, and – in doing so — does get to meet Emilia.

Meanwhile, back in the jail, Palamon is no slouch himself. By way of a combination of charisma and machismo, the jailer’s daughter has fallen as fast and stupid for him as he did for Emilia. The daughter ends up breaking Palamon out of jail. Shortly after that, the she goes coo-coo for coco puffs insane when she realizes: a.) being a commoner, Palamon could never fall for her, and b.) in all probability her father will be hanged when Theseus realizes Palamon is no longer in the prison, and her father’s blood will be on her hands.

Palamon and Arcite meet. Palamon has not cooled down, and is more ready than ever to kill his kinsman — but in a duel, because he’s a gentleman, not a heathen. Arcite provides food and medicine, and tells Palamon he’ll back in a week with two swords and two suits of armor so they can hold their deathmatch in a style befitting gentlemen. I don’t know how much it was intended, but the absurdist humor of these two men alternatingly assisting and threatening to gut one another is hilarious. One could build a Monty Python sketch on it with some tweaking and exaggeration.

Palamon is good to his word, and (after helping each other on with the other’s armor) the two commence their duel, but are interrupted by a deus ex machina hunting trip featuring Theseus, Hippolyta (his wife), Emilia, and Pirithous (a gentleman friend of Theseus’s.) Theseus is angry and is ready to have the two men hauled off for execution. The kinsmen genteelly request that they be allowed to finish out the duel so that one of them will die a little ahead of the other by the other’s hand. Theseus denies this request, but everyone loves these dudes (even Pirithous seems to have a bro-crush on them) and they all intercede.

Theseus has a change of heart. He offers Emilia the option of picking which one she’ll marry, and the other will be executed. Emilia says thanks for the offer of god-like powers, but that she’ll pass. She says she’ll marry whichever one comes out alive, but she’s not going to be judge, jury, and executioner. Then Theseus tells the two kinsmen to leave for one month, during which time they are to be civil to each other. When they come back, they’ll bring three knights with them. (BTW, bad deal for the knights who also die if their boy doesn’t win the competition, but they are all knightly stoic about it.) Then they’ll have a competition in which whichever man can force the other man to touch a pillar will win Emilia’s hand and the other one will be executed.

I’ll leave the reader to read how it plays out. I believe I read that this play was called a comedy on its playbill, but its one of the plays that there is no consensus in categorizing. Unlike “Macbeth,” which is always called a tragedy, or “Taming of the Shrew” which is uniformly labeled comedy, there is significant difference of opinion on this one.

All the while the two noble kinsmen’s stories are playing out, a subplot is afoot in which the jailer’s daughter has gone mad, and efforts are being made to snap her out of it. It turns out that her father, the jailer, was not in danger because Palamon didn’t rat her out, and probably because Theseus assumed Palamon burned through the locks with a smoldering look.

This is a straightforward and entertaining tale. Yes, it has its share of deus ex machina happenings (the fortuitous fox hunt is neither the first nor last), but that’s the nature of theater. Furthermore, I found parts of it hilarious, particularly when the kinsmen are getting armored up for their duel.

This was amongst Shakespeare’s final plays, and it’s said that he had a co-author on it. So, it’s got a little bit different feel. It’s not categorized as a problem play, but as I mentioned some call it a comedy and others a tragedy. Either way, you should definitely read it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

The Winter's TaleThe Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

The moral of this story is that great power combined with human frailties like jealousy, vanity, and pettiness is a recipe for misery – even [perhaps, especially,] for the all-powerful individual. Stated another way, all humans get a little crazy from time to time, but if one has power over life and death the craziness isn’t just a passing fancy.

Leontes, the Sicilian King, has enjoyed an extended visit from his old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. As Polixenes intends to leave the next day, Leontes is politely trying to talk his friend into staying longer. Leontes then asks his Queen, Hermoine, to take on the task of nagging Polixenes while Leontes steps out to take care of some business. When Leontes returns, he finds the Queen has succeeded in talking Polixenes into staying. At this point, Leontes is driven into a jealous madness, assuming his wife must be sleeping with Polixenes because she was able to talk the Bohemian King into something Leontes couldn’t. Leontes immediately becomes certain of this infidelity, despite the fact that he has no evidence for it and – it will turn out – no one believes the Queen has been unfaithful. While Leontes keeps his rage to himself, he orders one of his trusted Lords, Camillo, to murder Polixenes.

While neither Camillo nor Paulina (the Queen’s closest friend) would be considered marquee characters, they are the MVP’s of the play. Both characters take actions that put themselves at great risk when confronted with the dilemma of whether to do the right thing or to comply with the dictates of the King. Camillo first does this by refusing the assassinate Polixenes and then fleeing to Bohemia (which is necessary given Leontes’s madness.) [In an intriguing turn, Camillo will again have to do the right thing, this time, in the face of Polixenes’s wishes – i.e. when Polixenes wants to punish his son for sneaking out to apparently court a commoner. This incident with the — previously reasonable — monarch reinforces the aforementioned story moral, and perhaps establishes a few hundred years before Baron Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”] Paulina is vocally (and, later, in other ways) supportive of the Queen, even when it is clear she is raising the hackles of King Leontes.

The madness of Leontes is fascinating. He not only concludes with certainty that the Queen cheated on him, he also makes the leap that his current son, Florizel, and the child that Queen is due with when she is arrested were both sired by Polixenes. The fact that all his Lords and Paulina (wife of a Lord) politely suggest to him he is in error does not sway him. As an attempted concession toward reason, he consults an Oracle. Even when the Oracle’s sealed response comes back telling him that he is wrong, that his wife and Camillo are both right, and he is going to end up without an heir unless he can find the child that he sent away (the infant delivered in the gaol) he is unswayed – until moments later when he learns his once beloved son, Florizel, is dead. Despite the fact that he’d concluded Florizel was a bastard, he is moved by the death of the boy – at least in combination with the swooning of the Queen — which appears to be her death as well.

The rest of the story plays out the fate of the child that was sent away by the King. The child was taken by Antigonus (another of Leontes’s Lords and husband to Paulina) who doesn’t survive the trip but does leave the child where a shepherd ends up finding her.

This is an intense take on the jealousy and insanity. The story is gripping throughout. There are plenty of intriguing twists and turns. It’s fascinating how many ways Shakespeare can play the simple plot of unfounded jealousy. Needless to say, this play is highly recommended reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Pericles by William Shakespeare [at least in part, maybe]

PericlesPericles by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Summary [Spoiler-laden]: Prince Pericles of Tyre visits King Antiochus to check out prospects for wedding the King’s daughter. Pericles confirms that the daughter of Antiochus is as beautiful as she is renowned to be, but perhaps too beautiful for her own good. In preliminaries to a courting process, Pericles learns that the King has been incestuously dipping his wick in said gorgeous daughter. Pericles says thanks-but-no-thanks, and goes on his way. However, Pericles – rightly – gets the impression that King Antiochus is a bit mafia in his approach, and isn’t the kind to rest well with his secret out in the open. Pericles narrowly escapes Tyre before the assassin of Antiochus arrives, and the Prince goes traveling, hoping Antiochus will calm down and (providing Pericles keeps his mouth shut) rescind the kill order. [Which is more or less what happens; the assassin questions one of Pericles’ Lords and it becomes apparent that his King’s secret is not in danger.]

Pericles first stops at Tarsus, and, bearing gifts, builds good relations with the governor, Cleon. However, his next stop is more tragic when a storm wrecks his ship and he is washed ashore at Pentapolis. While he has no gifts because they all sank, the King of Pentapolis, Simonides, recognizes Pericles royal virtue and offers the hand of his daughter, Thaisa, in matrimony. The happy couple marry, consecrate the marriage, and all is going along when Pericles finds out that his people (quite reasonably) think he’s dead and they’ve been pressuring Pericles’s right-hand-man, Helicanus, to lead. Helicanus is an upright fellow and not eager to usurp the throne, but he does recognize the need for a king. He tells everybody to wait one year, and if Pericles hasn’t shown himself, he’ll take the job. This puts a clock on things for Pericles and forces him to head home to Tyre with his pregnant wife. Pericles gets caught in yet another terrible storm, but – to make matters worse – his wife delivers the child. The delivery is successful, but Thaisa does not survive it, or so it seems. The sailors tell Pericles that, while they appreciate his sorrow, it’s bad luck to haul a body through a storm, and so they pressure him to make a burial at sea. Pericles seals a note and some jewels in the coffin so that if it should wash ashore the finders will be justly compensated for giving Thaisa a proper burial rather than kicking her coffin back into the water. Pericles recognizes that storm-ridden waters are no place for a baby, and so he drops his infant daughter, Marina (so named for her birth on the high seas) and Marina’s nurse at Tarsus with Governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza.

Pericles gets back to Tyre in time to reclaim his throne, and apparently there is a backlog of Kingly duties because he doesn’t head back to pick up his daughter until she’s in her tween or junior teen years. (I guess a nicer interpretation is that Pericles is scared to take a young child through waters that have proven storm-prone.) At any rate, before he can get back to Tarsus, the governor’s wife, Dionyza, asks a servant to murder Marina. Marina’s nurse recently died, so the girl has no protector, and it turns out the governor and first lady have a daughter about Marina’s age who is inferior to Marina in every way. Dionyza thinks her daughter will get more of Cleon’s attention (and perhaps have more luck with suitors) if the daughter doesn’t have a smarter, prettier, and more competent competitor hanging around. However, before the butler-turned-assassin can kill Marina, some pirates abscond with her, and sell her in the style of “Taken” (the Liam Neeson film) into the sex trade. However, unlike the brutality of “Taken” Marina thwarts the exuberance of all bidders by basically saying [wildly paraphrasing] ‘You know, raping a virgin isn’t a very Christian thing to do, and God is watching you.’ Among those she scares straight is Lysimachus, governor or Mytilene.

Pericles gets to Tarsus, and is shown Marina’s grave (which, of course, doesn’t contain Marina, but Pericles doesn’t know that.) Having lost his wife and child, all due to a decision to rush back to a title, Pericles becomes a broken man. Deep in grief, on the way back to Tyre, Pericles is oblivious when they stop in Mytilene to escape more foul weather. (It’s possible there is a divine hand in this particular fortuitous happening.) Lysimachus goes to see Pericles, but the grief-stricken man can’t even speak let alone hold a conversation. Lysimachus believes that if anyone can snap Pericles out of it, it’s the lovely Marina. (Not because he knows she is Pericles daughter, but rather because he finds her sweet and likeable – like handing Pericles a puppy – Lysimachus is sure Marina will improve King Pericles’ mood.) Marina does, in fact, get Pericles to speak, and from there they realize quite quickly that they share a common story. (Though, Pericles briefly thinks he’s lost his mind and is hallucinating Marina because he so trusted Cleon spoke the truth.)

Before Pericles can go rip Cleon a new one, the goddess Diana pops up and tells him that: By the way, your wife – who was revived by a bystander — is hanging out a shrine to me, and is ready for pickup. And, so, the family is reunited.

Analysis: If this play seems a bit unusual for Shakespeare in tone and story devices, you’re not alone. There is a prominent theory that this play had a co-author and that the first couple acts were not written by the same hand as the balance of the play. While this isn’t formally considered among Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (i.e. “Measure for Measure,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,”) neither is straight-forward comedy or tragedy. As you can tell, it’s quite dark, though all does work out in the end.

I enjoyed this play, whether despite or because of its darkness, I’m not sure. It certainly does have a lot of intrigue to keep one guessing about how and whether it will be resolved. Diana’s deus ex machina appearance is forgiven as that is in character for Greek mythology / literature. (As is the fact that medieval English terms and descriptions seep in that are incongruous with the world of Ancient Greece. The work had to make sense to the audience who would be viewing it, only a fraction of whom would have been versed in Homer, Sappho, etc.) The bigger deus ex machina moment is when the pirates abscond with / rescue Marina, but it’s good drama and advances the plot.

Read it. It’s definitely worth your time.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Measure for MeasureMeasure for Measure by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Measure for Measure” was originally grouped as one of Shakespeare’s comedies (back when there were just three categories: tragedy, comedy, and history,) but more recently it’s been reclassified as one of the three “problem plays” of Shakespeare. Problem plays are neither clearly comedy nor clearly tragedy, but mix elements of both.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is taking a mysterious trip, and he’s left his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is a stickler for the law (or, at least, appears to be at first) and one of his first official acts is to sign a death sentence on Claudio. Claudio is a young man who knocked up his girlfriend. While the law calls for death, everyone advises Angelo that the details of the case don’t merit such a sentence. Those details being that the young woman, Juliet, is in love with Claudio, consensually partook of sexual intercourse, and both she and he are eager to marry so that the child will not be born out of wedlock. Angelo is unmoved by petitions from just about everyone to let Claudio live as long as he weds Juliet. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who heard the news in the convent where she is a postulant [in training to be a nun, but not yet one,] comes before Angelo seeking leniency for her brother, Angelo’s tune slowly changes, and he betrays himself as the worst form of hypocrite. If Juliet will “consent” [used loosely] to Angelo taking her virginity, he’ll let Claudio go. Obviously, Juliet isn’t at all keen on this arrangement, being a nun wanna-be and having the strict moral values one might expect of one who’s chosen such a life. She goes off preparing to tell her brother that he must die because the only way out is for her to sex up Angelo. Isabella fully expects Claudio will accept this, but Claudio has a moment of weakness in which he shares his terror of death and requests Juliet do the deed with Angelo. However, she won’t do it.

At this point, things look grim for Claudio, but we find out that the Duke is pulling a Henry V, and (far from visiting foreign lands to unknown purpose) is making his way in disguise through Vienna, learning what happens in his absence. The Duke [pretending to be a friar] has various meetings with Isabella, Claudio, the Provost (a warden), and others. The Duke-turned-friar hatches a plot that hinges on a piece of inside information that he holds.

It turns out that the sight of lovely Isabella wasn’t the first cause of Angelo being a jerk, there was a previous incident. Angelo was once betrothed to a woman, but before they could wed the woman’s fortunes changed when a storm sank the boat carrying wealth that included her dowry. Lacking a dowry, Angelo kicked the woman to the curb where she ended up turning tricks in a Viennese brothel because for fortune had sunk — literally.

The Duke / friar’s plan is that Isabella go to Angelo and say that she agrees to his despicable propositions, and that she will do the vile deed on the condition that it be someplace pitch dark so that her lady bits can remain unseen and so she won’t throw up in the lousy face of her rapist. She also insists she be able to bring a servant to the place in question. The plan revolves around getting the wronged ex-fiancé turned prostitute to agree to pull a switch-a-roo, with her engaging in intercourse in the dark with Angelo instead of the virgin Isabella doing so. Angelo having committed the same offense as the man he signed a death warrant for will have to either change his order regarding Claudio or submit himself to the same punishment.

One can see why this play is not easily classified. It contains a lot of dark subject matter. However, it does have numerous lighthearted moments of humor, including Lucio badmouthing the Duke (to the Duke’s friar-disguised face) and the servant of a local brothel’s Madame, Pompey, becoming an assistant to the executioner. As in comedies, everything works out more or less happily for all parties.

I was gripped by this play. It’s among my favorites of the Shakespearean comedies. It has an intense storyline and some fascinating moral conundrums. The Duke works his plot such that more than one character must confront a moral dilemma and choose whether to be a better version of him-, or herself. This is definitely worth reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles

The Oedipus TrilogyThe Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

One needn’t be educated in the Greek classics to know that somewhere in this trilogy there is a man who gets intimate with his mom. However, the common conception of Oedipus —as in the Oedipal Complex—probably has more to do with Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis than it does with this story.

The three plays of this trilogy are “Oedipus the King” [a.k.a. “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”], “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” [pronounced “an-tig-o-nee” rather than “anti-gone.”] Of the three plays, the first is the most well-known.

In “Oedipus the King,” the titular character is facing a crisis in his kingdom. When the oracles are consulted about how the calamity might be brought to an end, Oedipus is told that he must banish the killer of his predecessor, i.e. the previous king of Thebes. Oedipus consults his own oracle to find out who the ne’er-do-well is who murdered the last king, and the fortune-teller tells Oedipus that he’ll never say who committed the killing —but acknowledges that he does know who it was. Oedipus mocks and threatens the oracle until the fortune-teller gets fed up and tells the king that it was he, Oedipus, who killed his predecessor. Oedipus doesn’t believe it at first, thinking it’s an attempt to facilitate a coup. Far ickier than the accusation of murder is the fact that —if true— it means that Oedipus has been getting busy with his own mother and has even sired children with her. Oedipus calls for an investigation. When a peasant who saw everything is called to testify, his story strikes Oedipus as disturbingly familiar. It turns out that Oedipus’s blood father (the previous king) had been told by his own oracle that his son would kill him and steal his wife, and so he had baby Oedipus sent away to die. Oedipus (who had been rescued from being staked up on a mountain) was coming through Thebes, not knowing it was his homeland, when he had a skirmish on the road with the man that he didn’t realize was both the king and his father. Later, Oedipus marries the queen (apparently there were no busts or portrait paintings of the last king anywhere) and becomes the king without knowing that the man he’d killed in self-defense was the last king / his father. When the truth revealed, everything goes south. The queen kills herself, and Oedipus’s response is almost as severe. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and goes into exile. Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, says she will be the ex-king’s guide, and because the old man is blind and not familiar with where he’s going, he doesn’t have much choice but to accept.

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Oedipus and Antigone arrive at neighborhood on the fringes of Athens, i.e. Colonus, and are planning to take up residency. The locals are welcoming until they find out the blind man is Oedipus. The story of the ex-king who killed his father and got it on with his mother has spread far and wide. The townspeople agree to call in their king, Theseus, and let him decide. Theseus decides to shelter the Thebean ex-king, being moved by his story of how Oedipus was unwittingly ruined and how the former king accepted his punishment when his offenses were brought to light. Theseus’s support becomes more complicated when Creon, a royal from Thebes, shows up and says they need Oedipus back because an oracle now says that the location of his burial will determine the outcome of a future conflict. Oedipus says no way, and Creon has Antigone and her sister (who joined them at Colonus to warn Oedipus) kidnapped. Theseus faces a serious challenge because now his actions might bring the city-state to war, let alone offending the gods. However, he sticks to his guns and rescues the daughters and agrees to personally oversee Oedipus’s burial (so that no one can grave-rob and move Oedipus’s body to a position that would create a more pleasing forecast from the oracles.)

“Antigone” takes place after the death of Oedipus. The dutiful Antigone is now back in Thebes. When her brother Polyneices is killed and Creon orders that the prince not be buried, Antigone refuses to accept the decree. She steals the body and gives it a proper burial. Antigone was engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon, but Creon decrees that the woman will be imprisoned in a cave for disobedience of the king’s order. Haemon asks his father to be reasonable, but Creon will have none of it. Eventually, the words of an oracle convince Creon to change his mind, but he finds himself too late. Like Oedipus, various ruin then befalls Creon.

While the details of the story may strain credulity in places, these works are powerful morality tales. The recurring theme is that one can’t make an end-run around fate by way of vice and neither can one otherwise manhandle events to achieve a desirable outcome. Oedipus’s father sends his son to be killed, but the outcome remains the same. Creon can’t plant Oedipus’s corpse where he pleases and neither can he deny a man proper burial. It’s almost a karmic tale. Perhaps, the path to pleasing the gods is through virtue, and not through finagling one’s way to compliance with forecasts.

I find it fascinating how crucial a role is played by oracles throughout the three plays—and what that says about human nature. The fortune tellers are always right and are always heeded. In a sense, this story tells one about humanity’s fear of uncertainty, what people are willing to do to allay that fear, and how the world is ultimately too complex for those attempts to work out. The law of unintended consequences remains ever-present.

I enjoyed these plays. They are brief, stirring, readable, and thought-provoking. I would recommend them for any reader—particularly those interested in the classics.

View all my reviews

Cash Cow Disease: or, I Hope The Americans Don’t Get Lost

AmericansTVIn political economy, “Dutch disease” is a term used to describe a situation in which a nation’s windfall successes in one sector lead to everything else going to crap.

Dutch disease reminds me of a phenomenon rife in television today. A series pilot is shown. It’s wildly successful. The writers came in with a clear overall narrative arc, but now the show is a cash cow and they have to extend it out indefinitely. This is a script-writing nightmare. Writers have to give the viewer a new puzzle piece each episode but they’ve got to end the episode with a cliffhanger and they’ve got to be able to tie up all their loose ends at some undefined point when the series becomes a train wreck.

I was aware of this phenomena, let’s call it “Cash Cow disease,” when Lost came on the air. I’d been through it with the X-files.  But damned if I didn’t go and get myself engrossed in Lost. Lost started out with such promise. It seduced me, and even when it became clear that the writers and director might not know where the ship was headed, they kept feeding me tasty bread crumbs.  Then the network said, “Get us off this crazy train, quickly.” So  it was that the show that began with an atomic bang ended with the whimper of one of the worst endings ever.

Having been hurt twice thusly, I’d given up on watching television serial dramas. Then I made the fatal blunder of watching the pilot of The Americans. Why did I do this? Ironically, I probably watched it because I assumed it would be bad. It was, after all, a Cold War show in a post-911 world. Oh, the thwarted expectations. Now, I’m hooked.

The Americans is about a man and wife who are Soviet sleeper spies during the early 1980’s. The couple lives in the suburbs of Washington DC with their oblivious kids, and appear to operate a travel agency (for young readers, there used to be people who booked one’s flights and hotel before the days of Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity.)  In reality, however, the couple are deep cover spies who are attempting to get information about America’s ballistic missile shield, Reagan’s “Star Wars”, and other strategic concerns. The show depicts the cat-and-mouse game of Cold War espionage with great tension.

In an act of coincidence that strains credulity (but which is no stranger than things that actually happened) an FBI counter-intelligence agent moves in right across the street from the couple. The KGB couple and the FBI man are working at cross  purposes without the FBI agent (played by Noah Emmerich) being the wiser. (Emmerich’s character has early suspicions that he dismisses as paranoia after a close call for the KGB couple.) The male lead KGB sleeper spy (played by Matthew Rhys) plays racket-ball with the FBI agent.  This apparent friendship is to the chagrin of the female lead (played by Keri Russell) because she’s not quite sure if her husband is working the FBI man (as he says), or whether he’s facilitating changing sides. Part of the tension of the series stems from the fact that Keri Russell’s character is a dyed-in-the-wool patriot of Mother Russia, but her husband is having second thoughts–he sees himself as a family man first and a patriot second and America is growing on him. This tension is made all the more complicated by the fact that she seems to be just starting to fall in love with him, though he seems to have loved her from the early days of their planned, forced, and in some sense fake relationship.

The signature trait of The Americans is that characters on both sides are sympathetic  but complicated. This is part of a “shades of gray” motif that informs the show. Emmerich’s character, the FBI agent, is a loyal patriot and family man trying to do his best under the pressures of a hectic and tense job. However, we see him torment and rob a suspected Soviet information trafficker. Rhys character, the KGB sleeper, is also quite likable and sympathetic. At one point we see Rhys’s character beat up a pedophile (what’s more likable than that.) Russell’s character is not so likable, but that’s good for the tension. She’s a cold, fanatical Communist, but we can see the outlines of humanity in her character. For example, despite her jingoistic nature, she refuses to report her husband’s second thoughts.   On the FBI side, the most unlikable character is the boss (played by Richard Thomas, aka John Boy.) He’s a rash hot-head who,  in last night’s episode, wrecked an operation through his knee-jerk reaction (or maybe he’ll turn out to be a mole.)

I can already imagine how the wheels may roll off. There’s a supporting character, a mole in the Soviet Embassy (played by Annet Mahendru), that I imagine they intended to kill off to add to the angst of the Emmerich character (the FBI agent cultivated her through “soft-blackmail” and acts as her handler.) However, she’s really an endearing character. In a field of patriots that sometimes approach zealotry on both the US and Soviet sides, she seems to just want to have a peaceful life, but she’s trapped. Despite being manipulated, she’s a strong character. I can imagine her becoming a more central role–not that that’s an inherently bad thing.

I’d like to recommend this show, but I face a dilemma. If fewer people watch, I think it’s more likely to end well.