BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Sonnets & Poems by Jonathan F. S. Post

Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan F. S. Post
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Today, Shakespeare is known as a playwright (who performed every other occupation in the theatrical world,) and while it is true that some of his sonnets are quite well-known and anthologized, few read (or even know of) his narrative poems. That was not always the case, and there was a time when it seemed probable that Shakespeare would become as well know for “The Rape of Lucrece” as for any of his plays. There’s a reason for his poetic work that we can very much relate to today, and that’s that when the Plague was in town, the theaters were closed down. Of course, there is no ironclad distinction between these two career tracks – poet and playwright. All of Shakespeare’s plays contain verse, and a couple of the histories are written entirely in verse (i.e. King John and Richard II.) Of course, muddying the waters are doubts about what works attributed to Shakespeare were actually composed by him.

In this “A Very Short Introduction,” Post offers the reader insight into the historical and cultural context in which these poems exist, offering elaborations that will help the reader to better understand these poems. The book also helps one see the poems in the larger context of Shakespeare’s work and of literature, itself. Chapter one provides an overview of Shakespeare’s career as a poet and contrasts it to his work as a playwright.

Chapter two is about the narrative poem entitled “Venus and Adonis.” This poem shows us the lovelorn goddess, Venus, continually trying to woo Adonis who is, as they say, just not that into her. Post explores the linkage between Shakespeare’s poem and the source material (e.g. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,”) comparing and contrasting earlier versions of this Greek myth with the Bard’s telling. He also dives into the psychology a bit, asking us to consider who is the more sympathetic character. As in other chapters, Post highlights stanzas that he believes provide particular insight into the story.

Chapter three is about Shakespeare’s most well-known narrative poem, “The Rape of Lucrece.” This poem is about the defilement of a Roman noblewoman and the sad ending to which her tragedy plays out. Besides relating the poem to source material and to Shakespeare’s broader work, the author also shows how the story was portrayed in paintings, as well as discussing how pertinent parts of the poem relate to the story in Homer’s “Iliad” (the story of the war and besiegement of Troy by a coalition of Greek states.)

Chapters four and five both explore the sonnets. The first (Ch. 4) provides insight into the form of sonnet employed by Shakespeare and relates it to sonnets, generally. A section is devoted to breaking down one particular sonnet (116,) to deconstruct a typical example. Other sonnets are included in the text to emphasize particular points — as opposed to offering a generic overview. Chapter five considers themes and points of emphasis that cut across the collection of 154 sonnets. Here we get an explanation of how the “young man” and “dark lady” poems are distinct, but can be seen as part of an interrelated whole. Still other sonnets are printed in full or in part to elucidate the author’s points.

The final chapter (Ch. 6) investigates two works that are widely (but not universally) attributed to Shakespeare that might be considered the Black Sheep of his poetic family. [There is, of course, a connection between these works being atypical of form and / or content and their authorship being challenged.] The first work is “A Lover’s Complaint,” which like “The Rape of Lucrece” tells the tale of a woman used and abandoned, but – in this case – not an aristocratic woman. Its authorship is less in doubt because it was published together with the sonnets while Shakespeare was still alive, and while the content is a bit different the poem is not wildly outside Shakespeare’s body of work. “The Phoenix and Turtle” is a short, highly lyrical, love story that uses lines with three and a half feet (catalectic trochaic tetrameter.) [A metering which appears in Shakespeare’s other work, but not nearly to the extent as pentameter.]

This book contains graphics that mostly consist of artistic takes on the events of the narrative poems along with a couple title page photos. Like the other books in this series, there is both a “references” section and a “recommended reading” section. This edition also has a brief timeline that puts Shakespeare’s career into broader context of Elizabethan literature, and also shows when the poems came out relative to Shakespeare’s plays.

I found this book to be compelling and educational. I had no idea that — in Shakespeare’s time — it seemed as likely that he would become well-known for his poetry as that he would for his plays. (Apparently, the plays weren’t collectively published until well after the Bard’s death.) It’s easy to lose informational value from Shakespeare’s work when one lacks a background in history and how language has morphed. Among these “A Very Short Introduction” guides from Oxford University Press, I have found volumes that greatly rounded out my readings of Shakespeare’s works. I’d highly recommend this book if you are planning to read Shakespeare’s poems.

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BOOK REVIEW: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

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BOOK REVIEW: King Edward III by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

CoriolanusCoriolanus by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Like all Shakespeare, this is a must read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Macbeth is the tale of how a little nudge can send an ambitious man on a catastrophic and murderous course. Three witches tell Macbeth, a victorious military commander, that he will be king. With this tidbit of information, the seed of ambition in Macbeth sprouts. He begins to think about what he must do to make the witches’ prophecy come true. The sprout is watered and nurtured by Lady Macbeth, his wife, who encourages her husband to take an active approach.

When the king, Duncan, comes to visit to bestow an additional title on Macbeth for service well rendered, the opportunity presents itself. Macbeth kills the king, making it look like Duncan’s own servants did it. From that point on the murder train starts picking up steam — though Macbeth outsources the rest of the dirty work. The murder that most devastates Macbeth is that of Banquo, who was a close friend and confidant, but whom a paranoid Macbeth felt needed to be killed. (Banquo was present when Macbeth met the witches, and thus he knew too much for his own good.) Banquo’s murder triggers a nervous breakdown in Macbeth, who sees his old friend’s ghost at a dinner party. The vilest of the murders that Macbeth is responsible for are those of the wife and children of Macduff. Macduff is competitor for the crown, and, while Macduff isn’t home to be assassinated, all his potential heirs [and the wifely potential to make new ones] are executed.

Macbeth is joined in madness by his wife, who famously can’t seem to get a spot of blood off her hands and — ultimately — commits suicide. Besides Macbeth’s madness-skewed worldview, he becomes foolhardy because the witches present him with another prophesy, that no person born of a woman can defeat Macbeth. This seems pretty iron-clad. Macbeth brandishes this prophecy as a weapon along side his sword. It seems to be working out for him, too, until he tees up for battle with Macduff – the same Macduff whose wife and children Macbeth had murdered, and who – apparently – was delivered by caesarian section.

This is said to be the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I didn’t count lines, but it certainly seems right – the play reads very quickly. Despite being short, it does include its share of great Shakespearean language. It may not be a quotable as (the much longer) “Hamlet,” but it has comparable moments. Most famously in what is called the “To morrow and To morrow and To morrow” soliloquy that gives us these gems about the nature of life:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

I’d highly recommend this play. In fact, it’s probably one of the better entry points into Shakespeare because it’s short, not a complex story – though a rich one, and is one of the more familiar works. [However, chronologically, it is the sixth of Shakespeare’s ten tragedies.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells

Shakespeare's Tragedies: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Once again, we revisit a title in my favorite source for mainlining quality information on niche topics, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. These guides are generally between one-hundred and two-hundred pages in length, and provide essential information on a specific topic or discipline without getting bogged down in minutiae or in attempts to be entertaining.

I’ve been reading (/rereading) the tragedies of Shakespeare, and thought the guide might give some insight into the background of the plays and the more obscure shifts in language and meaning. Which it did. I would say more the former than the latter. But it also brought up subjects that I wouldn’t have necessarily given much thought, such as how the nature of the theater of the day shaped the plays – e.g. what could and couldn’t be done and how it influenced the pacing.

The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, an epilogue, and the usual backmatter (i.e. references, recommended reading, index.) The introduction and first chapter together set the stage by explaining the nature of tragedy in literature and drama. The introduction deals more generally with the question of what is tragedy, while chapter one deals more specifically with theatric tragedies in Shakespeare’s time. The question of which of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, versus the other two genres of the day – comedies and histories, might seem straightforward, but it’s not. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are quite historical (e.g. “Julius Caesar”) and some of his comedies are fairly bleak (e.g. “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida”) and his tragedies generally have comedic elements and language (e.g. see: “Hamlet.”)

Having established differed approaches to defining tragedies, the remaining ten chapters each take on one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in what is believed to be chronological order: “Titus Andronicus,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Anthony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.” For each play, the author discusses things such as how what was going on at the time and where Shakespeare was in his career play into the character of the plays. However, much of the page space is occupied by laying out each story. In that sense, this guide is probably most useful for someone who has minimal experience with these plays. However, one will learn about how the plays were received at the time and subsequently, a little about the modern retellings (i.e. film, mostly,) and a little bit about how these works fit in the context of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those he borrowed from.

Having recently read Bart van Es’s “Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction,” I was thinking about which organizational scheme I preferred, between the two. Instead of organizing chapters by the play, as Wells does, van Es has chapters that are topically arranged — covering subjects like setting, language, characters, the role of time, etc. It should be noted that there is a good reason for this difference in approach. There are more comedies (18, by some — but not all — counts) and some of them are “more comedic” than others, and so the topical arrangement is more sensible for a short book (i.e. it wouldn’t make sense to have 18 or more chapters in a book designed to be concise, and it wouldn’t be the best use of space to have full chapters to cover “problem comedies” or “tragi-comedies.”) Ultimately, I don’t know that I have a preference. Both clearly have advantages, and I thought each approach was sensible for its subject.

A brief epilogue delves into why we are even interested in reading tragedies – Shakespearean or otherwise. As might be expected of an epilogue in such a concise guide, the author doesn’t bother arguing for a decisive answer, but rather presents a few alternatives in basic outline. The book has a few plates of artwork that take their subjects from the works of Shakespeare, notably paintings by the poet / artist William Blake.

I’d recommend this book as an accompanying guide for those reading through Shakespeare’s tragedies. It may prove slightly more beneficial for readers with limited experience of the works. However, even those who’ve read, watched, and reread the plays are likely to learn something new.

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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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