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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BOOK REVIEW: Hamlet by William Shakespeare

HamletHamlet by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is probably Shakespeare’s most popular work. If it’s not, it has to be in the top three. One reason for its popularity relates to language. There’s probably a higher density of widely-quoted lines, and phrases that are part of common speech, in this play than in any other work of literature. From Polonius’s warnings to his son (e.g. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”), to Hamlet’s soliloquized attempts to think through a course of action (“To be, or not to be: That is the question:”), to Hamlet’s wisdom in moments of lucidity (”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” or “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”) to the many other quotes from various characters that appear across pop culture and everyday speech. “Methinks she doth protest too much,” “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and “Sweets to the sweet” [or variations thereof] all derive from this play.

But quotability isn’t the sole basis for the play’s popularity. While it’s certainly not the most action-packed of Shakespeare’s plays, that is actually part of what makes it unique and makes its lead character relatable. Shakespeare’s works are full of tragedy resulting from rash conclusions that – in turn — result in ill-considered actions. How many times have we seen the case of a man who is too quick to believe his wife or girlfriend has been unfaithful, and – after the cataclysmic fallout – he then discovers that it was never true in the first place. Hamlet turns the convention on its head, showing us what can go wrong with a character who – in true scholarly fashion – is prone to paralysis by analysis. Hamlet is prone to drawn out contemplation that results in missed opportunities – not to mention, tragic neglect of his love interest, Ophelia. [Such over-analysis is exemplified by the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy as Hamlet considers suicide.] It might seem like inaction would make for a boring play, but the tragedy unfolds never-the-less. [And in the instances in which there is fast-action, it proves flawed as when Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius.]

Another element of the play’s success hinges on a technique for which Shakespeare was a pioneer and an early master, strategic ambiguity. We don’t know the degree to which Hamlet is insane versus pretending, regardless of hints in the form of moments of lucidity. At least until the final act, we don’t know the degree to which Hamlet’s mother is in on Claudius’s plotting. We also don’t know if Ophelia is a lunatic when she is handing out flowers, or if she’s cunningly delivering a masterful series of passive-aggressive bitch-slaps. Shakespeare is careful with his reveals, and sometimes chooses to not offer any at all.

As most people are at least vaguely acquainted with the story, I’ll offer only a brief description. [But if you don’t want the story spoiled any more than it has been, call it quits here.] Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home from college. He’s bummed because, not only did his father recently die, but his mother has remarried his uncle. Hamlet might be able to cope with this apparent disrespect [arguably to him as well as his father because young Hamlet was next in line of succession], but then his father’s ghost appears to Hamlet. The ghost tells him that he (Hamlet’s father) was murdered by Claudius, and the ghost insists upon revenge. Hamlet doesn’t want to be punked by a malevolent spirit, so he has a group of actors modify their play so that it depicts the assassination as the ghost described it. When Claudius is shaken up by the scene and leaves the theater, Hamlet feels certain that the ghost spoke true. When Hamlet goes to visit his mother, he believes that Claudius [or a real rat] is spying on him and stabs out at a rustling curtain, but he actually kills Polonius (father to Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, and a guy who doesn’t deserve to die – despite being a bit of an irritating know-it-all.) Polonius’s killing triggers a sequence of events that ultimately results in Hamlet being sent to England, Ophelia committing suicide, and her brother, Laertes, coming home intent on getting revenge for Polonius’s murder.

Hamlet discovers that Claudius sent him off with a “Please kill this man” note, but Hamlet manages to replace the King’s order and escape. He returns to Denmark in time to happen upon Ophelia’s funeral. He’s distraught about Ophelia’s death, despite having been a complete jerk to the girl whenever he wasn’t completely ignoring her. Laertes is angry at Hamlet for killing Polonius and giving his sister a lethal case of heartbreak, and there is a tussle. This is broken up and an agreement is made to have a gentleman’s duel later. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, this is part of a plot engineered by Claudius and Laertes. [To be fair, Laertes doesn’t know what a treacherous villain Claudius is, and how much the King’s previous plot – killing Hamlet’s father – is the cause all the play’s unfortunate events – as opposed to them resulting from Hamlet being part crazy and part jackass.] Claudius and Laertes poison the tip of Laertes’ rapier, and Claudius doubles down by pouring some more poison into Hamlet’s cup [which Hamlet’s mother ultimately drinks, followed by forced consumption by Claudius at the hands of Hamlet.] In true tragic form, the end is an orgy of death.

This is a must read (or see) for everyone – both for the language and the complex and interesting characters.

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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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