BOOK REVIEW: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The storm (i.e. tempest) in question takes place off a remote, desolate, and magical island upon which lives the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. The reader realizes that the storm’s timing is too great a coincidence when it’s revealed that among those on a ship caught in the tempest is Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. The learned Prospero has developed some magic abilities and gained control over some of the island’s airy spirits — most notably Ariel — as well as the deformed monster / slave named Caliban. Caliban was the son of a witch who was previously in charge of the island, Sycorax. Under Sycorax’s rule, Ariel and the other spirits were imprisoned, so Ariel and the others are now in indentured servitude to Prospero.

The brilliant mind of Prospero has hatched a plot that isn’t all vengeance, but also intends to get his daughter a worthy husband in the form of Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Both father (Alonso) and son (Ferdinand) are washed ashore after the apparent capsize of the ship, but Prospero sees to it that they are separated. The separation not only allows Ferdinand and Miranda to get acquainted, but also allows Alonso to be put through some trials to hasten his willingness to agree to the intended marriage. As Prospero is using Ariel to carry out his plot, under promise that he will free her, Caliban has joined with some drunken sailors and is plotting to kill Prospero so that he can be free of his bookish master. Needless to say, the crude scheme by the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo is easily thwarted by Prospero and his spirit minions.

In the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, there’re lines that say: “meet the old boss / same as the new boss.” This play focuses heavily on ideas of hostile take over, the inevitable mixed effects, and how tensions are created that will play out. Ariel has at least the promise of being better off — when she works off her debt to Prospero, that is. Caliban is worse off because he is no longer in the power lineage. Caliban’s partners in plotting see a chance to go from being minions aboard a ship to kings of a tiny dynasty on the island. There is also the theme of relinquishing power, and the difficulty of doing so.

Some fun facts about “The Tempest.” First, it’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play (although evidence is insufficient for certainty.) Second, while Shakespeare’s plays are typically readily divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories, scholars are a bit divided about which category this play belongs. It’s sometimes categorized as a “tragicomedy” because of its mixed features.

With the storm-washed, rocky island as setting, and the supernatural happenings on the island, this is one of Shakespeare’s eeriest and most mind-bending works.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sonnets of William Shakespeare by Wm. Shakespeare

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (Wisehouse Classics Edition)The Sonnets of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 154 sonnets that were published in a quarto dated 1609. It’s not all of the sonnets written by Shakespeare because there were a few stashed in his plays. It’s also not the entire contents of that 1609 quarto, which also included a long-form narrative poem entitled “The Lover’s Complaint.” However, these are the poems typically included in collections of Shakespearean sonnets.

For those unfamiliar with the sonnet, it’s a 14-line poem that’s metered and rhymed. In English language sonnets (and Shakespeare’s, in particular) that metering is iambic pentameter (five feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.) Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a rhyme scheme that is often named for him: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. (It’s also called English Rhyme, and is differentiated from Petrarchan Rhyme which has an octave of ABBA ABBA and a sestet that can vary, e.g. CDCDCD.) As with all rules of poetry, there is the occasional exceptions taken here and there.

Love, beauty, and death are common recurring themes in the sonnets, but there are occasional forays into tangential topics like lust, infidelity, and immortality through poetry. There are also humorous twists on the expected approach. The most famous Shakespearean sonnet is probably 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, but we see in another popular contender, Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;”), Shakespeare mocking hyperbole. Of course, he’s not just mocking hyperbole; he’s also saying that he can still love his lover despite the fact that she isn’t in all ways more beautiful than the most pleasing elements of nature (and might even have halitosis.)

There’s no division or formal organization of the sonnets. However, scholars do divide them up in various schemes. One simple way that they are divvied up is to put the first 126 in a category in which Shakespeare addresses a young man. The first 17 sonnets are a subgroup in which the poet attempts to convince the young man to be fertile and multiply. Sonnets 127 – 154 are sometimes called the “Dark Lady” (a.k.a. “Black Mistress”) sequence as they frequently refer to a brunette woman (i.e. the woman whose lips are not as red as coral in Sonnet 130.) One can see the difference in tone extremely contrasted in the two poems mentioned in the preceding paragraph – Sonnets 18 and 130.

Besides the aforementioned sonnets, a few others stand out as personal favorites:
– 55 “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”
– 27 “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,”
– 1   “From fairest creatures we desire increase,”
– 65 “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,”

But you should read them and find your own favorites. It’s Shakespeare, of course they are highly recommended.

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BOOK REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost William Shakespeare

Love's Labor's LostLove’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King Ferdinand and three of his attending lords (Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine) make a pact to devote three years to intense study and self-betterment. During this time they are to study arduously while depriving themselves of certain earthly pleasures. Specifically, they will fast one day a week; they will sleep but three hours a night; and— most controversially— they will give up women altogether. Just as military strategists speak of plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, this pact falls apart with the arrival of the Princess of France and her three attending ladies (Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.) The men each develop a fancy for one of the women, and the pact unravels when the men, spying on each other, realize the others are intending to woo and pursue.

As it’s a comedy, there are a number of opportunities for confusion and comedic relief. Such comedic elements include mix ups in the delivery of love letters, and disguise schemes that go awry. For a comedy, the play ends on an interesting note. As is expected, there’s a reconciliation of who loves whom. However, there are no weddings to suture up the conclusion, but instead another agreement is entered into in which the men and women will see each other again in one year’s time. This leaves readers to consider the question of whether they think the men can be more diligent students when love backs this pursuit (but provides a distraction) than when it works against it.

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it’s more original than some. Still, it deals in some common comedic themes about the disruptive force of love and the effects of failed duplicity.

This play is highly recommended.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of VeronaTwo Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play uses some of the same plot devices of other Shakespearean comedies. First, there are two friends who fall for the same girl. Second, there is the father who wants said girl to marry someone other than the man she’s interested in marrying. Third, there is a girl who dresses as a man so that she can travel to chase after her beloved (only to be heart-broken.) [Think about that in the context of the theater of the era. The actor would be a dude playing a chick who’s pretending to be a dude.] The fact that there are some repeated themes doesn’t lessen the value of this work. For one thing, this is thought to be the first—not only the first of comedies but the first of Shakespeare’s plays more generally. Also, some of the most humorous dialogue is with secondary characters like Speed and Launce, the man-servants to Valentine and Proteus, respectively.

In the beginning, there are two gentlemen in Verona, Valentine and Proteus. Also in Verona is Julia, who loves Proteus. Proteus loves Julia back while he’s in Verona. However, after Valentine goes off to Milan for character building, Proteus’s father determines that his son should as well. In Milan, Proteus finds that Valentine has fallen for a girl named Sylvia. Unfortunately, Proteus falls for Sylvia as well and–not being a “bro’s before ho’s” kind of chap nor being the kind who can maintain long distance lovin’—he metaphorically stabs Valentine in the back and loses his mind. He could always shuffle back to Julia using the “what happens in Milan, stays in Milan” credo, except that Julia (posing as a boy) is witness to her lover’s unfaithful acts.

Read it, you’ll like it.

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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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MASTER WORKS: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

The Taming of the ShrewThe Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial works, and debates still rage about whether its misogyny was written tongue-in-cheek, was a product of the times, or was indicative of a dark side of The Bard.

The plot revolves around two sisters, Katharina and Bianca, and their suitors. The younger sister, Bianca, is a catch and has many suitors vying for her affection. However, Katharina is, in the terms of Shakespeare’s day, shrewish. She is out-spoken, strong-willed, and on occasion downright bitchy; characteristics that weren’t particularly marriageable back in the day.

The father of the two girls will not allow Bianca to be wed until Katharina, his elder daughter, is also engaged. However, no man is willing to take that bullet so that one of his buddies can marry the much beloved Bianca. That is until Petruchio enters the scene with his friend Lucentio. Petruchio could use the lucrative dowry and believes himself equal to the task of taming the shrewish Katharina. Petruchio’s decision makes Lucentio (not to mention Gremio and Hortensio, i.e. the other suitors) extremely happy.

Petruchio’s approach to taming is to be hyper-sensitive to Katharina’s complaints. She gets no food to avoid her inevitable gripes about the food’s quality. Since no gown would be good enough, she gets no new clothes. These actions are designed to train Katharina to bide her tongue.

Like all Shakespeare, the language is phenomenal.

Like all Shakespeare, everyone should read this work.

I’m curious about people’s feelings regarding this play.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare

The Comedy of ErrorsThe Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The premise is simple: mistaken identity. Twin boys separated at birth, neither knowing the other is alive, wander about Ephesus inadvertently wreaking confusion by their mere appearances. To add to the confusion (and hilarity), each of these men has a man-servant that is an identical twin of the other man’s servant. Servant and master confuse each other’s doppelgangers. There is a wife thought to be crazy by the man she only thinks is her husband. There is a merchant who is trying to collect from the wrong man.

It’s not the play’s leads, but rather Dromio of Syracuse (one of the identical servants) who I find to be the most clever and compelling character. Some of his witty lines are:

– “Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season?”
– “…she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.”
– “…he must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil.”

If one can accept the strained credulity of the play’s premise, it’s an enjoyable and light-hearted read.

It may not offer the most clever of Shakespeare’s wordsmithing, but Shakespeare at his worst is pretty damn good.

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