BOOK REVIEW: Richard III by William Shakespeare

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

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Like Macbeth, this is the story of one man’s unchecked ambition bringing about his ruin. Richard wants to be king. The problem is that his eldest brother (Edward) is already king. The good news for Richard is that Edward is sick. The bad news is that Edward has two sons (and a daughter,) and there’s another elder brother (i.e. Clarence.) While Richard is willing to let nature take its course with Edward, he’ll have to get rid of everyone else between himself and the Crown.

Richard is different from Macbeth in that Richard’s psychopathy is more like that of Iago from “Othello.” Macbeth is conflicted and, though he keeps digging himself deeper, the burden of guilt leads to a descent into madness. Richard is anxious, but it’s not clear that he feels bad about what he’s done (i.e. having his brother’s boys killed, as well as his own brother, his wife, and a number of aristocrats.) When his own mother tells him she wishes she’d strangled him to death with his umbilical cord it rolls off him with the cool detachment one expects of a psychopath. That said, in the last act, he is visited by a series of ghosts. These visitations and his subsequent monologue might give indication that he’s realized how awful he is, but one could also argue that he’s just worried about the precarious state of his kingship.

The hammer drops when Richmond, a nephew of Henry VI, leads forces against Richard. In part, the aforementioned ghosts (which could be interpreted as bad dreams) psychologically do in Richard. (Though the ghosts also visit Richmond with the opposite message, a positive one.) But also, Richmond has proven his leadership skill by forging alliances with the French and the Scots, and turning Lord Stanley (despite Stanley having a son held hostage by Richard.)

While this play not only lacks the character nuance of Macbeth as well as The Scottish Play’s brilliant poetic language, it does have more great lines than the other “War of the Roses” plays (i.e. Henry VI, Pt. I – III.) [e.g. It opens with “Now is the winter of our discontent” and, of course, there’s “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”]

This conclusion to the War of the Roses story is well worth reading.

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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: 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: King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear (Project Gutenberg, #1128)King Lear by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the tale of virtuous children, wronged, who nevertheless do the right thing when the time for filial piety is at hand. This play combines two such tales.

The main story involves King Lear pitting his three daughters against each other in a competition to see which daughter will describe her love for him in the most glowing and grandiose terms. When his eldest two daughters (Goneril and Regan) engage in fawning and over-the-top bootlicking while his youngest daughter (Cordelia) will only say that she loves him like a daughter should love her father, Lear becomes enraged with his youngest. While he’d intended a roughly even three-way split of dowry awards between his daughters, he changes his mind and divides Cordelia’s share between the other two. Even when Kent, a nobleman and the King’s right-hand man, begs the King to reconsider (because Kent can see that the older daughters are all talk and no love,) Lear banishes Kent. Not surprisingly, when Lear is later in need, the two toady daughters are less than helpful – turning him out into a wild storm, in fact. A French prince agrees to marry Cordelia even without the dowry because he, like Kent, can see that she is the cream of the crop as far as Lear’s daughters are concerned. As Queen, Cordelia is later in a position to come to help her father in his hour of need. Kent, like Cordelia, maintains loyalty even after being spurned by the King. Kent takes a disguise to continue his service to the King.

The subplot involves another loyal nobleman, Gloucester, who has two sons – a legitimate one named Edgar and a bastard named Edmund. Edmund, like Iago in “Othello,” cleverly goes about poisoning the relationship between Gloucester and Edgar, resulting in Edgar fleeing and adopting the disguise of a peasant. After Edmund’s ambitious plotting becomes known to Gloucester, the nobleman (now blinded for being loyal to Lear in opposition to Goneril and Regan) meets Edgar on his way to Dover. Because of Edgar’s adoption of a crude and common manner of speech and the fact that Gloucester is blind, the father doesn’t recognize his son. A disguised Edgar agrees to lead Gloucester to the chalky cliffs of Dover where the father can suicide plummet to his death. Edgar, however, doesn’t lead him to his death, and along the way learns that Gloucester is remorseful and wishes good things for Edgar.

This is a cautionary tale about our inability to recognize virtue and vice, and the tendency to read the signs wrong. About valuing pretty words over devoted action. Both Lear and Gloucester wrong a soft-talking child while failing to recognize that ambition, not love, motivates the cheap words of each man’s other child(ren.) Definitely, a must-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: 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: 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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