BOOK REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Othello by William Shakespeare

OthelloOthello by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Othello” is Shakespeare’s tragic take on a plot device he uses in comedies such as “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Cymbeline,” and “The Winter’s Tale.” It’s the story of a jealous husband who falsely accuses his [in fact] virtuous wife of infidelity. Othello is a Moorish military commander, well regarded for his prowess in battle. Unlike Ford from “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Othello isn’t particularly jealous by nature, but he’s masterfully manipulated by one of Shakespeare’s most famously treacherous villains, Iago. In fact, it could be argued that Othello’s virtuous nature blinds him Iago’s duplicity.

[Spoiler warning: I discuss plot details in much greater detail in my Shakespeare reviews than I usually would, because: a.) the plots are generally familiar anyway, b.) many people aren’t comfortable reading Elizabethan language and find it easier to follow if they have a basic idea of what is going on. At any rate, from this point forward plot details are discussed.]

The play opens with a furor that is created when Desdemona’s father (Brabantio) is informed by Iago (and Rodrigo) that Desdemona has been “making the beast with two backs” with Othello (still one of my favorite euphemisms for intercourse.) In the court of the Duke, Othello is accused of defiling Desdemona, but the Moor claims that he and Desdemona are legally wed, having eloped and married. Desdemona is summoned, and she confirms this to be true. Iago’s initial plot peters out here because Brabantio has always respected Othello. As it turns out, Othello is being deployed to a military action by the Duke.

Not one to give up easily, Iago advances his treachery while deployed by getting Othello’s right-hand man (Cassio) drunk. Cassio is on Iago’s blacklist, because Iago thinks the Moor should have granted him a post that was instead given Cassio. Cassio loses favor with Othello when the Moor finds him drunk. This ploy sets up a two-pronged plan by which Iago intends to wreck the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. (Iago’s wife, Emilia, is Desdemona’s attendant and bestie. So, while Othello’s virtuous nature seems to create a blind spot of Iago’s duplicity, the villainous Iago appears to suspect imagined treachery everywhere – including the possibility that Othello is bi-backed beasting Emilia [whether he imagines this being a coupling or a menage-a-trois with Desdamona is unclear.])

The twin prongs of the plot are: first, get Cassio to ask Desdemona to smooth things over with Othello about the drunkenness (which will make it look like Desdemona has a more intense interest in Cassio than she actually does,) and second, subtly start planting the notion in Othello’s mind that he should keep and eye on Cassio.

Like an evil genius, Iago plays it subtle – a reluctant accuser. This keeps Iago’s own motivation from being made clear because it seems like he’s just trying to do the right thing. He plants sees but lets other do the obvious work of tending. However, Iago knows some hard evidence will be necessary because Othello isn’t going to go off the rails without at least some circumstantial evidence. He achieves this by obtaining from Emilia a handkerchief that was gifted from Othello to Desdemona. He nags Emilia to steal it, which she won’t, but when Desdemona mislays it, Emilia figures she can shut her ne’er-do-well husband up. [Emilia doesn’t know it’s for some grand homewrecking design. She is dubious of her husband, but figures it’s just a patch of cloth. How much trouble could be caused by letting her husband borrow it for some juvenile prank?] The handkerchief is planted in Cassio’s room.

It turns out that when Othello sees the handkerchief in the hand of a woman known to associate with Cassio, it’s all the evidence he needs to turn things murderous. He asks Iago to kill Cassio (a job Iago outsources to Rodrigo, suggesting that Rodrigo can finally have a chance with Desdemona if Cassio is killed because Othello will have to stay at home rather than the couple moving on to a foreign posting abroad.) Rodrigo ends up severely wounding Cassio while being mortally wounded himself (Iago making sure his treachery doesn’t come out while Rodrigo can still talk.)

Othello kills Desdemona after accusing her of cheating. [Desdemona, of course, thinks he’s lost his mind.] When Emilia questions Othello’s motives, the Moor cites the handkerchief as evidence of Desdemona’s scandalous behavior. Emilia tells him that Desdemona dropped the handkerchief and that Iago took possession of it. It’s at this point that Othello realizes he’s been scammed. Iago dies. Othello takes his own life.

This play is more than a cautionary tale about jealousy. It also shows how an honest man may be too quick to see honesty in others, while a dishonest man feels the need to preempt all manner of imagined plots. It’s among Shakespeare’s more popular works. It’s a simple story, but features richly developed characters. It’s definitely a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” the titular character isn’t the play’s main character – but is the most “bankable” name. The lead is Brutus, the one member of the cabal of executioners that kill Julius Caesar who does so because he truly believes that Caesar has too much power and that the Roman leader’s ambition will result in yet more power flowing to him at the expense of Romans.

In the first half of the play, the conspirators are assembled and the conspiracy planned — with Cassius leading the charge. Unlike Brutus, Cassius mostly wants Caesar dead because of jealousy over the dictator’s power and popularity. However, even in the opening acts much of the story revolves around Brutus, because Cassius knows Brutus must be on-board because he’s both popular and respected. Brutus’s participation both lends moral authority to the act and will help get others to take part. Early in the play, Caesar returns to Rome and is warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th.) Near the play’s mid-point, the ides arrive, and the soothsayer is proven correct. The play’s second half involves a battle between pro-Caesar forces and the forces of the conspirators. Caesar’s right-hand man, Marcus Antony, and Caesar’s heir, Octavius, purse the conspirators [notably Brutus and Cassius and their men] who’d been forced to leave the city by an angry citizenry after Mark Antony gave a clever speech at Caesar’s funeral. In tragic style, the ensuing battle doesn’t work out well for Brutus, Cassius, or those who are with them.

In broad strokes, Shakespeare follows the flow of events of recorded history. However, in the details he takes dramatic / poetic license. For one thing, he adds a supernatural element with Brutus seeing the ghost of Julius Caesar toward the play’s end. [I suppose this could also be interpreted as stress-induced mental illness / hallucination on the part of Brutus as he not only realizes things are going poorly for him and his family (he was resigned to his own demise when he signed on,) but, moreover, he may recognize that things might get worse for Rome under Caesar’s successors, rather than better. In the debate about whether to eliminate Antony (and about allowing Antony to speak at the funeral,) Brutus comes down firmly on a side favoring Antony. That said, Brutus is presented as a rock – a stoic to the core.] It should be pointed out that the other apparent supernatural element of the story, the soothsayer’s warning, is recorded in some accounts and wasn’t made up by Shakespeare (which is not so say it wasn’t made up by someone.) However, the bard did make up Caesar’s final words, “Et tu, Brute?” [“You, too, Brutus?”]

Lest one think this is irrelevant Elizabethan Era tragedy with little to say about the world today, the crowd dynamics portrayed in the play’s middle act may feel sadly familiar. All it takes for the crowd to go from “Brutus is honorable, forget Caesar” to “Let’s go burn down Brutus’s house!” is a change of speaker from Brutus to Antony. And Antony is only gently riling them up. Mostly, he’s exploiting the fact that the crowd has intensity and passion, but no intelligence. So, they are ready to go out killing and burning without much spurring them on, but they need a leader to point them in a direction (and they don’t seem to care much what the target is.) This mindless, madness of crowds can be seen when Cinna the Poet is captured by the crowd, and they beat him. Even when it’s recognized that it isn’t the same Cinna that participated in the conspiracy, the crowd continues attacking him on the basis that he’s named Cinna.

Where Titus Andronicus aims for the gut and Romeo & Juliet aims for the heart, “Julius Caesar” is more cerebral – a thinking man’s play. What is the virtuous course of action? That’s the question that plays out from beginning to end as events change. This is one of those works everyone should read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, if not the most famous love story in the history of love stories. The central challenge of this couple’s love affair isn’t the usual fare of Shakespeare’s works – e.g. unrequited love, love triangles, or class differences. [There is an issue of unrequited love early in the play between Romeo and Rosaline, but Romeo gets over that girl in a hot minute once he meets Juliet.] The problem is that he meets Juliet by crashing her father’s party while wearing a disguise (a disguise that ultimately doesn’t fool the right people,) and the reason Romeo needs a disguise is because Romeo’s father and Juliet’s father are archenemies. Otherwise, the couple meets all requirements for wooing to commence: they each have feelings for the other, and they are of similar class status. In short, they would be a marriageable couple if their families didn’t hate each other.

[Warning: My Shakespeare reviews are far more spoiler-laden than usual because the stories are well-known to most readers and some find a detailed synopsis useful to make sense of the archaic language.] After an opening that establishes the enmity between the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo and Juliet fall for each other fast and hard, and with lightening speed have wed and consummated the marriage. However, no one other than the priest who married them, Friar Laurence, knows of the wedding. They have to keep the marriage secret because it would get back to the heads of the feuding households immediately.

Soon after the wedding, Tybalt (Juliet’s hot-headed kinsman) goes out looking for Romeo. Tybalt had recognized Romeo at the party, and wanted to fight him then, but Mr. Capulet (Juliet’s father) made him chill out because he didn’t want blood spilled during his party. But the next day Tybalt goes out intent on fighting. Tybalt finds Romeo’s friend (Mercutio) and his kinsman (Benvolio,) and Mercutio ends up crossing blades Tybalt. When Romeo comes on the scene, he steps into the middle of the fray to separate the men, and Tybalt finds an opening to thrust into Mercutio. As Mercutio dies, he famously wishes a “plague on both houses” (meaning Tybalt’s Capulets and Romeo’s Montagues.) Mercutio is but one of many who are completely fed up with the feud between these two families. The Prince of Verona has had it up to his neck with the bickering.

While Romeo is generally more a lover than a fighter, he duels and kills Tybalt immediately after Mercutio’s death. After killing Tybalt, Romeo flees the scene, later to find out he’s been banished from Verona upon threat of death. (Lady Capulet petitions the Prince for Romeo to be executed but the Prince won’t go for it, figuring Tybalt got what was coming to him for picking a fight and stabbing Mercutio. Then Lady Capulet plots to have a hit put out on Romeo, but events outpace her plot.) After meeting with Friar Laurence, Romeo flees to Mantua.

When her family informs Juliet that Tybalt has been slain by Romeo, they think she is broken up about her kinsman’s death. However, she’s really worried about her husband Romeo (who, of course, none of the family knows she’s married to.) When it seems like Juliet’s sadness for Tybalt has gone on long enough, her father sets a post-haste wedding date between Juliet and County Paris (the young man that Capulet favors for his daughter.) This is a problem for Juliet because: a.) she’s already married; and, b.) she deeply loves Romeo and finds Paris sort of Meh! She gets into a tiff with her father who thinks she’s an ungrateful whelp. [In Shakespeare’s day, the debate was whether a girl’s feelings about to whom she should be wed should be empathized with or ignored altogether. The idea that her feelings should be a major consideration was deemed laughable. Her mother comes down on the former side, but Lady Capulet accepts her husband’s conclusion of the alternative.]

Juliet goes to see Friar Laurence, who is a botanical mad scientist on the side. The Friar develops an elaborate scheme. Juliet is to go home, apologize to her father for not jumping on board the marriage train with the boy that her father so dearly loves (but to do so without sarcasm,) and then before going to sleep she will take a potion. This potion, not uncommon in Shakespearean works, will make her appear dead for a time, and then she’ll wake up perfectly fine. The family will take her to their crypt, pending the funeral. Friar Laurence sends a note to Romeo explaining the plan. Romeo is to meet Juliet when she wakes up, and they can then flee to Mantua — their families none the wiser.

Up to this point, this play could be a comedy just as easily as it is a tragedy. Sure, there have been a couple stabbing fatalities, but that’s actually pretty calm stuff compared to some of the comedies. (The dead are secondary characters.) What makes it a tragedy, is that Friar Laurence’s messenger can’t get through to deliver the memo in time because of some Black Death scare. Instead, Romeo’s (the Montague family’s) servant gets there first, and, because he’s not in on the Friar’s plot, tells Romeo the truth as he understands it – i.e. that Juliet is dead. Romeo sneaks back to the Verona cemetery with some poison he got at a shady apothecary on the way. Friar Laurence doesn’t know Romeo didn’t get the priest’s message until Romeo is already rolling up on the crypt, intent on dying with is beloved and so Laurence is late arriving to the scene.

To add to the tragedy, Paris is visiting Juliet’s grave and thinks Romeo is a villain. Romeo and Paris battle it out, and Romeo kills Paris. Romeo – knowing that Paris was betrothed to Juliet but without knowledge of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage – places Paris in the crypt near Juliet. But then he takes up position immediately beside her, and drinks the poison. As soon as Romeo dies, Juliet regains consciousness. She finds Romeo dead, and discovers that there’s not enough of the poison left for her. She tries kissing some poison off him, but when that doesn’t work, she plunges a dagger into her own chest.

After Juliet dies, authorities arrive on the scene having been summoned by a person who heard the duel between Romeo and Paris. The Prince arrives and calls for the heads of the Montague and Capulet households so that they can see what tragedy their feud has caused. The sight of the two dead star-crossed lovers (plus Paris, whom Capulet seemed to love) moves Montague and Capulet to end hostilities.

This is a must read for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Titus AndronicusTitus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Titus Andronicus” is Shakespearean tragedy at its most brutal. The play features forced amputations, rape, cannibalism, an “honor killing,” and a figurative orgy of sword stabbings.

Titus Andronicus, head of the family Andronici and a Roman military commander, has returned to Rome from a campaign in which he handily defeated the Goths. General Andronicus brings with him as prisoners the Goth Queen, Tamora, and her three sons. (The oldest of whom is summarily executed as a tribute.) This leaves two sons, Demetrius and Chiron, as the plays main villains, in cahoots with Tamora and her Moorish lover, Aaron.

Titus arrives in Rome to find the current Emperor, Saturninus, in an irritable state. The reason is that Saturninus knows the people would love to replace him with the victorious General Andronicus. Titus puts Saturninus’s mind at ease by publicly throwing his support to Saturninus. However, Titus does this believing that Saturninus will marry the General’s daughter, Lavinia, making her Queen. And that is the plan, but Saturninus – on a whim — decides to double-cross Titus and the Andronici by taking Tamora for his wife. [Saturninus could be counted among the play’s cast of villains, but he’s more of a doofus. He’s completely oblivious to his Queen shagging Aaron, the Moor, and – worse than that – that she’s biding her time in a plot to strategically takeover of Rome.]

The first scuffle occurs when Saturninus pulls this double-cross. Titus intends to put a beating on the punk Emperor, but his sons intercede. In the process, he stabs and kills one of his four remaining sons. Saturninus’s brother, Bassanius, preserves some of Lavinia’s dignity by marrying her. Everyone but Titus is alright with that as a next best alternative, including near as we can tell, Lavinia (to be truthful, as throughout most of the literature of that time, not a lot of consideration is given to what the woman wants. In this case, more than most. We know almost nothing about Lavinia but that she seems affable, and everyone loves her.)

Demetrius and Chiron are eager to know Lavinia in the biblical sense. This works into the greater plot being orchestrated by Tamora and Aaron. Step one is the murder of Bassanius by Tamora’s sons, and – because Saturninus would no doubt have some curiosity about who killed his brother –they frame two of Titus’s remaining sons for the act. As payment for taking out Bassanius, Tamora tells Demetrius and Chiron that they can rape Lavinia as they please as long as they silence her afterword. The two sons think it would be more fun to lop her hands and tongue off than to murder her, and thus they do that. As the reader might expect, Lavinia is eventually able to communicate the identities of her attackers and the murderer of her husband [briefly,] Bassanius. However, she can’t do it before swift justice leaves two of Titus’s sons headless.

To show how much of a loathsome character Aaron is, the Moor comes to Titus, telling the General that the Emperor will spare his sons if he cuts his own hand off and submits it immediately. Titus does so, giving his hand to Aaron to deliver back to the Emperor, but Aaron only pretends to go to deliver it because he knows the executions have already occurred and no such deal with Saturninus existed. However, Shakespeare does build complexity into his villain. The one bit of humanity we see in Aaron is when the Queen delivers a child who has far too much skin pigmentation to be the child of a Goth Queen and a Greek Emperor, but just the right amount to be the son of a Goth Queen and her Moorish lover. Aaron is the infant’s sole protector. Everyone else favors bashing the baby’s head in and telling the Emperor it was a miscarriage. Needless to say, Aaron’s plot to trade the black child out for white one that can be passed off as son of Saturninus fails in the final act.

The play is resolved by a plot that involves Titus’s oldest son, Lucius, going out to raise an army of Goths to defeat the Emperor’s forces while Titus plays his part by pretending to be even more mad than he actually is. This play of insanity allows Titus to deceive Tamora while she thinks she is deceiving him. Gaming a successful military commander turns out to not be a sound strategy. In true tragic fashion, the outcome doesn’t work out well for anyone, but revenge is served with a side of self-destruction.

This is a visceral read. It’s difficult to read at times. That said, it’s a very taut and gripping (if harrowing) story. It’s the first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and is definitely worth reading – if you can stomach it.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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

PericlesPericles by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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