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: 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: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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