Thursday, March 27, 2008

Comedy poll results

Remember, people could vote for multiple plays, so if you add up the percentages of votes for each play, the total will be higher than 100%.

1. A Midsummer Night's Dream (6 votes, 54%)
2 (tie). The Comedy of Errors; The Tempest; Twelfth Night (4 votes, 36%)
5 (tie). Much Ado About Nothing; The Taming of the Shrew (3 votes, 27%)
7 (tie). As You Like It; Cymbeline; Measure for Measure (2 votes, 18%)
10 (tie). The Merchant of Venice; Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1 vote, 9%)

These are more or less the results I expected, though I would've guessed a stronger showing for As You Like It.

Thanks to everyone who voted!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers

By far the best line of the play.

So I enjoyed 2 Henry VI. At first I wasn't liking it quite as much as its first part. While it seemed to be more tightly constructed, I just wasn't quite as gripped by the story. However, things really picked up at the end, especially with Cade's Rebellion, and a lot of the power plays from the middle of the play to the end, culminating in York's open treachery, were very interesting.

However, I keep getting the feeling that this story doesn't need to be three parts long. This might be the fact that this is one of the earliest (if not THE earliest) plays that Shakespeare wrote, and he hadn't gotten as good at self-editing yet, but none of his later histories were in three parts, even when he was covering arguably more interesting kings.

Cade's rebellion was interesting not just because it was a nice bit of humor in an otherwise serious play (note the line which I named the post for), but also because it led me to wonder whether that part of the play is viewed in the same way by modern audiences as by those of Shakespeare's own time. While he is obviously both wacko and dangerous, Cade makes what appear to be some legitimate complaints about Henry's government. I wonder whether those complaints would have been historically seen as legitimate, though, and therefore giving Cade and by extension York some degree of justification for their treachery, or whether this is projecting our values as a democratic and populist-leaning society anachronistically.

As for Henry himself, he is simply incompetent. His heart seems to be in the right place, though he has a bit of a Messiah complex (he actually said "they know not what they do"!), but he always defers to his lords, which leads to squabbling and infighting and in the end makes York's rebellion possible. But Henry doesn't realize any of this. When York proclaims himself king in Henry's presence, Henry says nothing, presumably so shocked and horrified by this treachery that he can't respond adequately. Was this simply more of his naivety? Or does this go back to his basic incompetence as King, namely, that he CAN'T think of a good plan in light of this new information? Recall that he doesn't come to the sensible conclusion of fleeing in light of failure on the battlefield until Margaret tells him to.

Up next, 3 Henry VI, and more of this period of English history with Richard III.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

La la la

I'm going to be out of town and without access to a computer for the next couple of days, so I won't be updating with my thoughts on 2 Henry VI quite yet. But I have given it a start, and I must say that thus far it is a more focused play than its first part (though it inherits its ridiculously huge cast.) I'll be posting about it sometime this weekend, and maybe I'll even be able to do a mini-marathon of Bard reading as well. No promises though.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Is Shakespeare literature?

My answer: Yes and no.

Okay, so most of the time I'll respond to comments by commenting on the same post myself. However, in this case there's something I want to post, because my answer will sort of explain what mindset I'm approaching the plays with.

Grace wrote this a while ago as a comment to one of my Titus posts:

Titus is really one of those plays you have to see. or do. much like all of shakespeare. Definitely continue reading - just always keep in mind it's not a piece of literature, it's a work of living moving art. (... "art" being a loose term, in the case of Titus.)

Well, what's a play? Is a play literature? Obviously Shakespeare meant for his works to be performed on stage, and not to be read. Having said that, his works were published as words on a page within his lifetime, and if I can sit alone and read it, for me that's literature. What other definition of literature is there, other than a story which one reads?

According to Wikipedia (which as we all know is an incredibly reliable source...), Richard Monette once said that plays on the shelf are literature, whereas plays on the stage are theatre. I don't know what was the context in which he said that, but if he means what I think he means, that plays are both literature AND theatre (though not at the same time), then I entirely agree. I guess I just don't see how they can't be both.

I'm all for this sort of kumbaya come-together approach because while a good deal of my early exposure to Shakespeare was as literature (in the form of a book group which morphed into a Shakespeare group). Also, I come from a clan of English professors, so I sort of have that mindset built into me. However, I've always loved the theatre as well, and have acted in five of Shakespeare's plays. So the bottom line is, I love reading Shakespeare, I love watching Shakespeare, and I love acting in Shakespeare, and on a certain level I don't want to say that any one of those things is more valid than another, though I'd say that my enjoyment of a play slightly increases if I get to see it and greatly increases if I get to act in it (which is why you'll never hear me speak a bad word about Comedy of Errors, whatever its faults).

A play can be great theatre without being great literature, and it can be great literature without being great theatre. Shakespeare's plays happen to be both. But for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to mostly be forced to talk about Shakespeare as literature, since unfortunately all of Shakespeare's plays aren't running simultaneously in my corner of the universe. The little play inside my head which runs whenever I read a script will have to suffice. Though I might use this blog to praise/brutally-tear-to-pieces various Shakespeare film adaptations I see.

To make a long story short... I was too tired to read 2 Henry VI today so I decided to ramble philosophically instead. :-)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Favorite tragedy poll results; new comedy poll

(taking into account that one of the Hamlet votes was by mistake, and that I know the one "something else" vote was for R&J)

1. Hamlet (8 votes)
2. King Lear (4 votes)
3. Macbeth (3 votes)
4. Romeo and Juliet (1 vote)

Thanks to everyone who voted!

I am now putting up a similar comedy poll, however, working on the suggestion of a couple of my readers, I am going to include all of the comedies as options on the poll rather than just some of them. You may also select multiple plays, if you can't decide on just one (though please, only vote once per play). Finally, I'm using the broad definition of "comedy" which also includes what many people call the "romances".

All right, now please go out and vote!

God save King Henry, of that name the Sixth

Thus finisheth I part one of King Henry VI.

First of all, can I say that I am immensely entertained by the fact that the play ended on a cliffhanger? In the film version of the play running in my head I could see the "To Be Continued".

The way this cliffhanger is accomplished is by introducing a new plot strand right near the end of the play, namely that of Suffolk trying to wed Henry and Margaret. Shakespeare normally doesn't introduce new storylines like that so late in a play, but since this is only the first part in the trilogy, I suppose that's to be expected.

The highlight of the play, for me, was the death of the Talbots at the end of Act IV. In a play with the sheer number of characters that 1 Henry VI has, it can be hard to really care about any of them, but I was moved by that scene. I agree with the introduction in the Arden Complete Works which says that Talbot and Joan are the most compelling characters in the play; interestingly enough, King Henry himself is a rather minor character until the end.

Joan of Arc's depiction was simply bizarre for someone like myself who has been raised in a culture which considers her to be a hero. Obviously, Shakespeare was English, as were the heroes of the play, so it's no surprise really that Joan of Arc didn't get a positive portrayal. It's still jarring to my modern sensibilities. One wishes that Shakespeare could have written a version of the story of Joan in which she was actually the main character and wasn't simply being called "witch" by the English all the time. Having said that, she is still one of the most interesting characters in the play, more so than the other French, who all sort of blended together for me (I could keep Charles distinct because he was the Dauphin, but the others...)

There seemed to be an anti-Catholic strand running throughout the play, interesting since presumably all of the characters in the play are Catholic, and presumably Shakespeare was not (though there is dispute about this). The primary reason why I suspect this anti-Catholic undercurrent is the importance placed upon Joan's religion in her first scene, and since Joan is not a character we are supposed to identify with, I don't think it's an accident that her religion is thus emphasized. I could be off-base about this, though.

Finally, I want to talk about King Henry VI himself. Still just a child, he constantly tries to bring peace to various warring factions, not only those within England but also on a grander scale England and France. Is this desire to avoid conflict childlike or childish? In this first part it seems like Henry's goals are noble, and his problem is not his motivations, but rather that his naivety allows him to be manipulated by those around him. I guess I'll have to get onto reading part 2 and 3 to see if my analysis is correct. (Tangent: I don't know/remember the actual history very well, so I can say that I have only a vague notion about what will happen. I've been looking up some things about the actual King Henry VI as I've been reading, though. That's a cool thing about reading Shakespearean histories: it leads me to seek out the real histories, and then I learn cool stuff. End tangent.)

All right, next up in my reading is Henry VI, part two! See you there!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Darn you, life!

So various Real Life stuff has been getting in the way of my actually reading 1 Henry VI (namely, midterms last week, Othello tech this week, etc., etc.). However, since I have this blog, I'm gonna make regular postings on it even if I don't have all that much progress to report. So yes. I am enjoying 1 Henry VI thus far. Considering that Henry VI seems to be the least remembered of the Henries (is that the plural? somehow I doubt it...), things are pretty interesting, though the titular king has not shown up yet, probably cause he's still in swaddling clothes.

I'm going to try as hard as I can to finish the play this afternoon, which means I should be able to give my full thoughts either today or tomorrow morning. I wouldn't bet too much money on it, though. Luckily spring break begins for me tomorrow, so that should free up my schedule a bit. I'll try to do as much Shakespeare reading as I can during these two weeks. Anyone have a goal which I should set for myself? Don't say the whole canon, or I'll disown you.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Hello friends,

I've gotten a very small start on 1 Henry VI. My schedule's been pretty hectic as of late, but I'll try to find some time this weekend to really plow into the play.

You may notice that I've changed the layout a bit. I think it looks slicker this way (though if you disagree, let me know!) In addition to a general new "look", I also have a little poll on the side for kicks and, more usefully, a list of Shakespeare's plays/poems in the chronological order in Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. For a completely arbitrary reason, I'm going to use that list to direct my reading. Of course, that would mean I read Comedy of Errors and Titus out of order, but I say pshaw to that!

BTW, Grace posted a comment on my last Titus post which you should definitely read if you (like me) didn't really "get" Titus. One thing which COMPLETELY went over my head which she points out is that Aaron, who I sort of wrote off as a one-dimensional villain, is the only person who actually loves and protects his family, unlike everyone else in the play. That's certainly interesting. I'm going to post a more detailed response to her as a comment on that post when I've got a bit more time.

Everyone, vote in the poll. And vote for Hamlet. :-)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Titus Andronicus thoughts


I don't really know what to say about Titus Andronicus. It's a tragedy which isn't even remotely tragic. In fact, it's quite funny, but I can't always tell if it is intentionally so. The villain, Aaron, strikes me as being Iago without everything which makes Iago a great character. The "hero", Titus, is such a reprehensible human being from Page 1 that I have absolutely no reason to care when he is finally killed. None of the other major characters are sympathetic in the slightest, either, which means that their deaths are ultimately entirely unemotional.

It is nothing like the other two tragedies of the same time, Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet, both of which are much more similar to Shakespeare's later great plays. Titus is more of Shakespeare's thinking "I'm going to write a tragedy as if by Tarantino." What he forgot was that Pulp Fiction was actually on a certain level a COMEDY. I suppose one could read Titus as a sort of black comedy, and in fact it works on that plane much better than it does as a strict tragedy. In many ways, Titus is like Pulp Fiction, but without the heart. And if you are going to reply, "but Pulp Fiction didn't have heart!", then I say to you that it DID; not much, but it was there, and it made it into a great movie rather than a meaningless one.

And that's the thing. I'm sure Titus means something. I just still am not quite sure what it is. Someone today told me that she thought it was about the ultimate meaninglessness of violence. That's certainly plausible, but the only problem I have is that Titus veers into what I'd call "slasher film" territory too often. To explain what I mean, I'm going to quote a passage from Orson Scott Card's wonderful book Characters and Viewpoint:
"The hideous murders in [slasher films] were originally devised to jack up the audience's emotions, higher and higher with each death. Rather sooner than they expected, however, many of the audience stopped being horrified and began to laugh. This is not really a sign of the audience's moral decay or inability to empathize; it's simply that an audience reaches a point where fictional pain is too difficult to bear. When pain or grief become unbearable in real life, human beings often develop fictions to cope with it--we call it insanity. When pain or grief become unbearable in fiction, readers simply disengage from the story and either abandon the tale or laugh at it."

Therein lies the problem, for me. Taking all of the events of Titus Andronicus at face value would make it a simply horrifying play, beyond the likes of even a play like Macbeth. So we don't take it at face value. I found a lot of the play, therefore, to be very funny. But that undermines, for me, any serious message which the play may have been trying to make about violence, or revenge.

Now, I will say that I did enjoy reading the play, and upon reflection I really don't agree with those critics who say that it is simply a bad play, given that there's a lot to think about in it. However, compared to the other works of Shakespeare I've read, I'm sorry to say that Titus Andronicus falls flat. I know that this may simply be that I didn't understand it well; I welcome any comments which might help me shed some light on it.

Next up, I'm going to try to go by the chronological order given by Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and I'm going to read the Henry VI plays, which are considered Shakespeare's earliest.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

starting Titus Andronicus

I started Titus Andronicus.

It's... interesting.

Thoughts later once I've finished it.