I've been putting off A Midsummer Night's Dream for a while. It's one of those classic Shakespeare plays that I don't like quite as much as others. This isn't to say it's not a great play, though.

Let's start with the good stuff. The language of this play is beautiful, with not just poetic and quotable phrases but an almost epic poem quality at times, which is a rarity in a lowbrow comedy. The fairy world especially gets some wonderful dialogue, and on the opposite end of the spectrum the 'rude mechanicals' are hysterical, and the best part of the entire play.

The play works magnificently on stage, and can be arranged and altered in a multitude of ways. Peter Brook's Dream is the most famous, with its trapezes and stark backgrounds, but really, the forest invites interpretation.

Oberon, Titania, and Puck are fantastic characters, as are Bottom and his entire gang. The play within a play is one of the comedic highlights of all of Shakespeare.

And then there's the Athenians, aka the giant weak link in the play. I've mentioned before how Shakespeare's romantic leads could occasionally be faceless at times, but it goes to ridiculous extremes in Dream, where it becomes impossible to tell the four young lovers apart. I may get angered by the ending of Two Gentlemen of Verona, but at least I can differentiate Julia and Silvia, which is more than I can say for Hermia and Helena. The names suggest he might have even done this deliberately, but if it was an experiment it failed.

Speaking of experiments, you have to wonder how 'happy ending' Shakespeare meant the play to be, and if he expected us to be uncomfortable. The whole love potion plot is sort of uncomfortable as it is, and to resolve the love quadrangle by its use seems even worse. And, let's face it, Theseus is a giant prick. You have to feel sorry for Hippolyta, especially as it's never really clear if she's married to him out of love. He bluntly notes he won her by military conquest. (Really, if you're looking for feminism in Shakespeare, there are better examples; the play is hideously patriarchal.)

One can argue, of course, that once again Shakespeare is having fun with ambiguity and trying to have the play's multiple viewpoints all visible at the same time. This works a hell of a lot better on stage than it does in a printed book, which is another reason this is one of his most-performed comedies. Its language and worldscape are top-notch (though I'd say the forest in As You Like It is better), and the acting troupe always steals the show, especially Bottom. For this, I'll forgive Shakespeare the dull and disquieting romantic leads.
I've mentioned difficult Shakespeare comedies here before. Much Ado, for example, and we'll be getting to Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice soon. But those are all, at least, comedies. They are meant to amuse and be romantic, even if they date so badly that the task is nearly impossible these days. They aren't, strictly speaking, problem plays. There's only 3 *real* problem plays, plays that defy genre so hard that you know Shakespeare was aware of it.

One, Troilus and Cressida, I've already discussed. Another, All's Well That Ends Well, we'll get to later (and boy howdy, that title is in the dictionary under ironic.) But today's play is Measure for Measure. In terms of writing, characterization, and even plotting it's the best of the three. But you leave the theater either depressed, angry, or just plain unsatisfied. And it's fairly obvious Shakespeare wrote it that way.

This is, of course, if you see it as Shakespeare wrote it. As ever, directors love to edit the ambiguity right out of the work, or make cuts that support their own positions. Now, I'm not being entirely scornful hear. MfM is a hard play to perform, especially that last act. Much like Two Gentlemen of Verona, there are places where no one speaks where it is obvious they should. Isabella's reaction to her brother's not being dead; Angelo's reaction to not being executed; and most importantly, Isabella's reaction to the Duke's proposal. All are completely unmentioned in the text, and have to be left up to the actors and director.

That last is especially troubling, as it's the one bit modern audiences have most trouble with. One of the main plot points of the play has been Angelo trying to force himself on Isabella, a novice nun. Now, just as the Duke swoops in and resolves everything, he casually proposes to Isabella that she marry *him*. Her reaction? Dunno, which version did you see? She doesn't have another line in the play, and there are no stage directions. Most pre-modern productions had her smile and acquiesce gracefully, most modern productions have her silence be a sign of rejection. One production had the Duke staep back to reveal a huge bed, driving the point home even more.

Because really, more than any other Shakespeare play, Measure for Measure is about sex. It's not at all erotic - one scholar noted that it can be taught easily in school as it's a very unsexy play about sex - but the idea of controlling sex, as well as sex as a commodity, is what drives everything that happens. You have the nerdy guy who gains power and discovers its aphrodisiac qualities, you have the prostitute and pimp who run their bawdy house without shame, and of course you have Claudio and Juliet, who are threatened with execution because he knocked her up before they were married. Yes, they're engaged, but that is neither here nor there.

Oh yes, it's not ALL about sex. It's also about law, and again, this is more than any other Shakespeare play - even The Merchant of Venice is not quite as obsessed with laws, how they are applied, the letter and spirit of same, and doling out of judgment. The Duke spends most of the play trying to find a way around the laws that he is responsible for, and is horrified to see what putting them in practice actually means. Or at least we think he's horrified. The Duke is probably the play's most ambiguous character, and especially in Act 5 he can almost seem gleefully cruel. Of course, he's deliberately playing things up for maximum theatrical effect, but it's not a play for anyone else.

Measure for Measure has never been very popular. In Victorian times it was almost impossible to play without heavy cuts and rewrites, losing the bawdies entirely and making everything far more innocent. Nowadays it's popular with directors and actors for its dark qualities, but that doesn't always translate to being loved by the audience. Nevertheless, it has a more satisfying ending than All's Well (which many now think came after Measure), and is a rich read, filled with excellent dialogue and prose.
Antony and Cleopatra is notable in many ways. It's generally considered the last in a long string of impossibly magnificent tragedies (Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and now Antony and Cleopatra); of course, this leaves out the lesser but interesting Troilus and Cressida (written between Hamlet and Othello) and the later but problematic Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.

It's also an unashamed love story, with the two protagonists simply dominating any scene they happen to be in. True, Romeo and Juliet did this as well, but those two were not as confident and beloved as A&C are (at least at first). Moreover, the scope of A&C is much larger, with power politics playing just as large a role. And considering the depth of feeling of the two lovers, that says a lot for Octavius Caesar.

Technically this COULD be called a sequel to Julius Caesar; after all, Antony and Octavius are both in the former play. But really, there's not all that much referring back to the old play here. It's enough to deal with Cleopatra and what she brings to the table. There's also a lot of gender politics here. Rome is explicitly male, Egypt female. This leads to the main conflict, which is that Antony has let Cleopatra 'feminise' him, making him soft and an unworthy leader. I dunno about making him girlier, but the Romans have a bit of a point about his leadership getting worse once he's met Cleopatra. It doesn't help that he tends to overcompensate so hard that he actually undermines himself in both directions.

This is a busy play, and hard to stage in many ways. First of all, there's the two lads. You DO have to allow Antony and Cleopatra to be over the top and histrionic - they're written that way. But the play isn't just about them, and it's hard to find a balance when the balance is meant to teeter to begin with. Cleopatra is also a very difficult role, and has broken many capable actresses. And worst of all, the pageantry. This play can be taken over by victory parades and gorgeous scenery, especially since it has TONS of different locations. This was very popular in Restoration and Victorian performances. It also dragged the play on for far too long. And, as always, when given a choice between Shakespeare's dialogue and spectacle, spectacle won every time.

Antony's also pretty different from the tragic heroes that come before him. Like Coriolanus (which I'm currently reading), Antony is not given to long soliloquies where he ponders his cursed fate. He doesn't think before he speaks at all. And in his attempted suicide, which is so pathetic it almost verges on comedy, the words 'tragic hero' start to make you raise an eyebrow. Not that Macbeth, or Lear, were any more likeable. Hell, even Hamlet could be a horrible SOB when in the right mood.

Still, in the end, the epicness overcomes the problems. Yes, it may be another Shakespeare play better suited for the page than the stage, but it's still pretty damn awesome. And it also has the Shaped Like Itself scene, which is as funny as the best of Shakespeare's comedies:

Lepidus: What manner o' thing is your crocodile?
Antony: It is shap'd, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just as high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
Lepidus: What color is it of?
Antony: Of its own color too.
Lepidus: 'Tis a strange serpent.
Antony: 'Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.
Henry V is probably Shakespeare's most popular history, especially today now that the love of Falstaff has dimmed a bit. The combination of the 1944 Laurence Olivier movie and the 1989 Kenneth Branagh movies make it a play many are likely to have seen, and it's very good at stirring the emotions. In fact, is it a bit too good? As this is also Shakespeare's most controversial and criticized history.

There's lots of reasons for this. First of all, at the time, there was the killing off of Falstaff. Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 were incredibly popular, and the end of Part 2, even though it featured Hal renouncing Falstaff, seemed to indicate that they would be back soon. True, there was The Merry Wives of Windsor about this time as well, but since Hal and Falstaff seemed so intertwined, no one was expecting anything less than "Henry IV Part 3", only with a new king.

But Shakespeare had already given signs that he was a bit sick of the Falstaff gang. (I will go into more details when I get to Part 2 of Henry IV.) What's more, the plot was shaping up in such a way that it would be very difficult to use Falstaff. If he reformed, he'd be dull, but if he didn't, how would be be near the King at all? Pistol took his place for most of the comic scenes in Henry V, along with the Welsh captain Fluellen, who was allowed to have most of the jokes *and* be a competent soldier. Falstaff, meanwhile, died offstage. And by the end of the play, Bardolph and Nym were dead, and Pistol mentioned Mistress Quickly dying of syphilis. Really, this is almost Shakespeare kicking his audience in the teeth.

And then there's Essex. I haven't mentioned the Earl in some time, but it's hard to avoid him here. The epilogue to this play is basically a giant paean to Essex's campaigns, comparing his wars against the Irish to Henry V. Of course, a few months later, Essex would return from Ireland defeated. And then conspire to assassinate the Queen. Shakespeare's plays have had their awkward timely references (Richard II is another good example, and almost as controversial), but even in Henry VIII his patronage wasn't THIS obvious.

In modern times, Henry V has also been rather awkward. One of the bigger reasons is one that we've come across many times before - Shakespeare rarely likes to let his character's motivations be obvious and one-sided, always preferring to draw subtle shades of grey to black and white. Of course, here he's doing so in a play whose plot demands black and white. Is Henry an awesome warrior king, restoring England to her rightful glory? Or is he a hypocrite and chessmaster, using his subjects for his own ends? Well, yeah. Certainly fans of Hal were already irritated with him after his throwing off Falstaff in IV-2, and he does a few things here that raise an eyebrow (the tennis balls are hardly a good reason for war, although you can argue he wanted a random excuse; he also tries to bribe divine vengeance).

Modern productions have occasionally chosen to add darkness to several scenes - Bardolph's execution, for instance - which I think fits in very much with the tendency of Henry IV plays to have serious, melancholy Falstaffs these days. Many are simply uncomfortable with the idea of comedy in the History plays, feeling that it makes light of the wars and death that surround them. (What these people make of Hamlet, which is frequently hilarious, is best left for another time.)

In the end, I think Henry V works best on stage or screen, when you can let yourself get carried away by its fervor. On the page, with only cold words to analyse, Henry is a lot less easy to like.
Henry VI, Part 3 has always had a few basic problems to overcome. It's the third part in a trilogy, so is very rarely performed on its own. It's one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and many scholars suggest that it was co-written. Modern critics tend to focus on the fact that his prose and verse is still in development and ignore the actual plot and characterization. And like all the history plays, it steals shamelessly from other sources.

Sorry, scrap that history in the last sentence. Like all Shakespeare's other PLAYS.

It really has to be said, mostly as everyone does, Shakespeare stole. Constantly, from almost everything. There's not a critical edition that I haven't read that doesn't go on for pages about his 'sources', be they Holinshed's Chronicles, Boccaccio's Decameron, Plutarch's Lives, or what have you. This does not, of course, stop these from being some of the greatest plays in the world. Shakespeare took his varied sources and simply made magic.

Admittedly this isn't among his top plays, but it's still a very good read. Its main problem - again - is the King. Generally critics have been fairly harsh on Henry VI in these three plays. The ones who sympathize most tend to be those who admire his religious views, and his tendency to believe that God will provide and His will is absolute. Unfortunately, to those who want a more active King, this leads them to want to beat him to death with staplers. The country really begins to fall apart in this play, culminating in Henry's murder by Richard of Gloucester, and it's hard these days to take it the way Elizabethans did, as God's revenge for the events of Richard II.

Speaking of Richard, this is pretty much where the future Richard III comes into prominence. In fact, it's not so much character development as character turning on a dime. In Act III, Scene ii, he announces to the audience "Hi, I'm the villain!", and his ability to get his way even as others detest him and asides to the audience are in full force here. The only thing missing is his sense of humor and the sheer FORCE of personality. You never actually like him here, whereas one of the key points of Richard III is that you admire him despite his evil. (As a note, a lot of Richard III performances add the killing of Henry as some sort of flashback, to remind the audience how we got here).

And then there's Margaret, who also has her decline and fall here, although unlike Henry she is still around for Richard III. Basically, all of Shakespeare's future strong female roles, be they heroines or villains, owe a lot to Margaret. She keeps railing at Henry to get a backbone, she leads armies, she gleefully taunts York (and he rails against her, in one of Shakespeare's most famous rants). Just as her rages are powerful, so is her grieving when Prince Edward is stabbed, and she almost becomes an inhuman force of nature by the next play. But we'll leave that for Richard III.

As I said, this gets short shrift, like all the other Henry VIs, and he has written better histories. On the whole, though, this trilogy has proved to be much better than I'd expected, and an excellent example of Shakespeare's genius being evident right at the start of his career.
I've been going on for some time about scholars and critics arguing about which play was Shakespeare's first, for many and varied reasons. Having read all the contenders, I am prepared to side with those who argue that Henry VI, Part 2 was the first play to be primarily written by William Shakespeare (which means I also agree with those saying Part 1 was written last, as a prequel). This is especially odd, given that it's also probably the best of the three Henry VI plays.

There's a lot to like here, provided that you don't go to a play called Henry VI and expect to side with Henry VI. He's a weak king, historically, and the trouble with weak kings is that they tend to make weak characters. Richard II had similar problems, but his speeches, some of the most poetic in all of Shakespeare, helped make up for that. Henry VI doesn't have such luxury. His faith is nice to see, but it's not really enough.

However, we have a ton of other interesting characters. The Duke of York, for one, who gets his rebellion on in full force here. We also meet his two sons, Edward and Richard, who will both become far more important later. (It should be noted that Richard here is basically a young jerkass who happens to be deformed. He really doesn't become the fascinating study of machiavellian evil he would become until about halfway through Henry VI Part 3.)

Queen Margaret also comes into power here, and she is a piece of work, being Shakespeare's first major strong female role. Yes, she's not meant to be a likeable strong female role, but that doesn't stop actresses wanting to play Lady Macbeth either. Actually, it's rather surprising how little actress attention Queen Margaret has gotten, considering the strength of the role throughout both Part 2 and 3 and Richard III. Certainly she makes a nice contrast to Eleanor, who is almost the traditional dumb blonde here.

And then there's Jack Cade. You can't really discuss Part 2 without mentioning Cade, who rules all of Act 4 with the carnival-esque People's Rebellion. Possibly the most historically inaccurate part of a play filled with historical inaccuracies, but that's missing the point. The scenes of him and his men can be terrifying, with the mock trial and executions of fairly sympathetic Lords, and the heads up on pikes thrusting out towards the audience. It's even more interesting when you consider the possibility that this might have been a very early role for Will Kemp, who would go on to become Shakespeare's most popular comedic Fool.

Of course, if you're going to see this play these days, as with almost all historical performances of the trilogy, you're likely going to see an abridged combination of 2 or more of the Henry VI plays. The shows get cut, adapted, switched, rewritten, and otherwise stretched into shape so that the audience doesn't have to sit for 12 hours to see all 3 plays. So most likely you won't see this play on its own unless you actively search it out (You might see it as part of a trilogy done over months, but most people don't want to see a Part 2 by itself.) Still, it's a good 'un, and works much better on stage than it does on the page.
As I've been re-reading Shakespeare, I've enjoyed every play I've read. Some I find more 'interesting' than 'good', but each one has been, all told, well worth the read.

I knew we'd have to break that streak somehow. and it ends today, as I discuss The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a play where the best character in the whole thing is the dog. And no, I'm not exaggerating for comic effect.

Certainly the play has been very popular. Like many of Shakespeare's broad comedies, it tends to work well on stage, provided the players play up the farce of the thing. It's prominent in the movie Shakespeare In Love, as a running gag (noting, as I said, the dog as the best thing in it). It's grown less popular as we've hit modern times and That Ending is less excusable, but that's true of a lot of Shakespeare's other comedies too.

As I've read critical editions of Shakespeare's Comedies, written by various editors, I've seen about 6 or 7 different arguments about the order in which Shakespeare's comedies were written. Critics tend to think Measure for Measure came before All's Well That Ends Well these days, and likewise that The Merry Wives Of Windsor was written after Henry IV and V. And then there's Shrew, Errors, LLL and Two Gentlemen, all of which vie for the title of 'Shakespeare's earliest comedy'.

They vie for that title as whichever play is the earliest gets to have the all-purpose 'he was still learning the craft' excuse, the same one given to Henry VI and Titus Andronicus. Having now read all four of them (I'll get to Shrew and Errors later, I promise), I'd argue that Shrew and Two Gentlemen should be placed as the earliest comedies, with Errors and LLL a few years after the fact. Mostly due to endings.

Errors is very tightly plotted, with an ending that can only be described as 'crafted'. And while LLL has an open, unsatisfying ending, it's very clear that that's deliberate on the part of the playwright. Shrew and Two Gentlemen, however, look to the past more than the future, and thus have characteristics of most of the pre-Shakespeare comedies. In particular, the rampant misogyny.

Those who defend Two Gentlemen tend to note it's very in tune with the Elizabethan idea of male friendship, and the trials and tribulations it goes through when love of another woman comes between it by necessity. Most men of that time held that marriage was nowhere NEAR as strong a bond as that of two male best friends (needless to say two female best friends also didn't measure up). Now to be fair, when many marriages of the time were arranged, this might have a kernel of truth to it. Still, by Jacobean times arranged marriage in Britain was being seen as passe. (Note, btw, this is the same sexism I discussed last week with the Sonnets).

But the main problems with the play are a) the plotting (loose and awkward, a far cry from the comedic farce of Errors); b) the characters (absolutely paper thin, albeit archetypes he would use later on with far more success - Julia is the inspiration for all his other women dressed as men); and c) That Ending.

For those unaware, in the final act of Two Gentlemen, our "hero" Proteus - who has really behaved like a cad throughout the play - has just rescued the girl he's besotted with, Silvia, from bandits in the forest. This is while he is accompanied by his 'page', who is Julia, his first love, who he threw over like a rag when he saw Silvia. Proteus professes his burning passion for Silvia, who is in love with his best friend Valentine. She rejects him. He then grabs her and basically forces her to the ground, saying the quote in the header, which is to say "I am going to rape you." He is then stopped by Valentine, fortuitously showing up at the last second.

So far so mediocre. It's jarring, but no more so than any other Shakespeare "comedy" with Elizabethan values. After Proteus is stopped, Valentine points out what he's doing... and Proteus apologizes instantly. And then... Valentine offers him Silvia (?!?!). Before Proteus can accept, Julia faints, revealing her true identity. Then the Duke and the rest of the cast show up, all is explained, and Proteus realizes that he loves Julia after all (?!?!?!). Happy ending for all! By the way, the amount of lines Silvia has after Proteus threatens her with rape, and while she is offered up by her true love to her attempted rapist? Zero.

Of all the crappy moral endings Shakespeare wrote (Shrew, Much Ado, All's Well, M4M), this one may be the most head-bashingly frustrating. Yes, I get that it's about male bonding, Will, and true, Silvia was not exactly the most forward girl anyway, but... AIGH. And as you'd expect, modern productions have turned this ending into high tragic drama, with ambiguous endings noting everyone's living unhappily after all, usually with implications that Proteus and Valentine are gay.

To be fair, however, the parts with the dog *are* very funny.
Shakespeare's Sonnets, nowadays, are considered some of the most beautiful and romantic verses in history. So I found it very amusing how they originally were published to utter silence, and subsequently were disparaged for hundreds of years.

Why? Well, one reason for the lack of good reception at the time of Shakespeare might be that sonnets were considered passe by the time Shakespeare is thought to have written most of them. He composed a number by 1598, and most of the rest between 1602 and 1609 (well, at least, that's the latest critical thought. Dating the sonnets is even harder than dating the plays). The fad of writing sonnets was more 1580s. Early 1580s. So I imagine when the quarto came out in 1609, most Shakespeare fans went "...sonnets? really? After Venus & Adonis, after The Rape of Lucrece, we get... sonnets?" It would be like putting a doo-wop album out in 1976.

Shakespeare himself mocked sonnets, in fact, throughout his plays. Love's Labours Lost and All's Well That Ends Well, for example, feature characters composing sonnets for their loves, and they are invariably thought of as complete doofuses. However, the answer seems to be that Shakespeare disliked sonnets that came before his, so endeavored to do better. He did. The sonnets as a whole are brilliant, yards ahead of anything others had written at the time.

So... still unpopular? Well, yes. There's the small matter that about 4/5 of the sonnets were written from Will to a young man. In fact, this is likely why critical opinion continued to be mixed in the years to come. And yes, surprise surprise, from the Restoration onwards some of the 'young male' sonnets were rewritten to be to a young woman. Can't have Shakespeare be anything but a MANLY man, of course. The same critics also notes the Sonnets were early in his career, and thus more callow. Again. Anything to avoid saying Shakespeare might have been gay/bi/het/hot for llamas.

Of course, there ARE sonnets in the collection that are to a lady. The Dark Lady. And yeah, some of these are a bit hard to read today. Shakespeare's women in his plays could sometimes be read as proto-feminist, but these sonnets? Not so much. In fact, I'd go so far as to call them a trifle misogynistic. Luckily, appended at the end of the Sonnets is a poem called 'A Lover's Complaint', which does a bit to redress the balance. Just as the Sonnets were a man complaining about the misery women bring (and how awesome men are), A Lover's Complaint is about a woman who is unhappy with the man she obsesses on.

Obsession being the right word. The one thing everyone notices about the Sonnets is how utterly emotionally raw they can be. Shakespeare almost puts TOO much of himself into the verse, and the narrator in the Sonnets, especially when he rails against the fairer sex, seems like he rails a little too much to not be totally obsessed anyway. The same goes for the woman narrating A Lover's Complaint. Her complaint is so torrid and beautifully lyrical that it serves to undercut her point.

Which of course may have been Shakespeare's idea. Never was there a position that the Bard did not hesitate to take both sides on. Or a third, if one was available. It's why we can still argue about him 500 years later.
I have to admit I wasn't looking forward to Henry VIII. It had a bit of a reputation that preceded it, and was one of the few Shakespeare plays I'd never read back in high school and college. It was one of Shakespeare's last plays, co-written with John Fletcher, and was one of the two plays (with Two Noble Kinsmen) that were written after The Tempest, thereby ruining his 'perfect final scene' to retire on. In addition, it was apparently propaganda, being so fawning over the wonderfulness of Henry VIII that it made historians ill. And like every co-written play, it wasn't entirely by Shakespeare, therefore it sucks. See my previous entries regarding Bardolatry.

Well, first of all, EVERY Shakespeare history makes historians ill. Talk to one of them about Henry V or Richard III some day. Second, I found that this was another play (like King John) that was filled with so much pageant and pomp in 18th and 19th century plays that, when the time came for more minimalist modern texts, no one wanted anything to do with it, regardless of its merits. More than most Shakespeare plays, it's very hard to drag away from its context. You can have Richard III in Nazi uniform, or Henry V in World War I, and people will go with it. But Henry VIII is just too famous to mess with much. And as a result directors just don't like the play.

The play, by the way, was likely not originally performed as Henry VIII. Most scholars believe that 'All Is True', the subtitle of the play, was actually its title as first written, with Henry being added by the Folio collators to make the histories more name-centric. Not that this play isn't drenched with Henry - it is. Though naturally it doesn't cover its entire life. It may not be as filled with toadying propaganda as I'd thought, but the play conveniently stops with the birth of Elizabeth from Henry and Anne Bullen (as she is called in the play), and thereby neatly avoids the other 4 wives and Anne's end.

It does have Katherine, though, who is fantastic. For a play that is setting up as one of its major plot points Katherine's fall and Anne's rise, Anne is barely in it, and Katherine is a powerful and dignified figure, someone who knows what's happening and tries to stop it through simply saying it's wrong. It doesn't work, of course, because her husband is Henry VIII, but it's rather surprising Shakespeare let her come off so well.

In fact, for a play dependent on the word 'true', there's a lot of deceit. The play hammers on the word, assuring everyone in the audience that these events are true so often that any rational person will raise an eyebrow and try to look closer to see the flaws. And they are there. I wonder if the reason it's called such harsh propaganda is because Shakespeare was overegging the pudding, so to speak, making it so true it invites falsehood.

It's also a romance. Well, sort of. Henry VIII was written at least 12 years after his last 'history' play, Henry V, and therefore logically has far more in common with the plays he wrote in that period. And the plays he wrote right before this one were Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest - all his romances. This is probably why Katherine's deathbed scene has an incredible vision, with angels and garlands dancing over her head - it fit with the fantastic impossibilities at the time.

And I haven't even mentioned Cardinal Wolsey. :) See quote in header.

In the end, it wasn't one of my favorites, but I did get more out of it than I expected, as is now traditional with my Shakespeare re-read.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is another one of those plays that's more 'interesting' than good. But it is quite interesting. It's now considered to be the first of Shakespeare's 'romances', which is to say plays with elements of tragedy and comedy, as well as a fantastical or fantasy element. It wasn't in the First OR Second Folio, and is generally thought to be co-written with George Wilkins, though how much is a matter of some scholarly debate. Its quarto text is particularly godawful, and even cleaned up sections of the play still read very weirdly. And despite all this, it's been very successful whenever performed.

Oh, and then there's the incest. Most explicit incest in all of Shakespeare, in fact. I don't normally give summaries of the plays, but really, this one's too good not to.

The premise of Act I is that a king has a lovely daughter, and many are asking for her hand. The King, who is actually screwing the daughter himself, decides they can win her if they solve a riddle. If they lose, they die. Pericles arrives, finding no one's solved it yet, and finds the daughter pretty attractive. Then he gets the World's Most Obvious Riddle, the answer to which is 'I'm having sex with my father'. Realizing that to solve the riddle also means death, he asks for time to think and takes off. I swear I'm not making this up. (I'll be saying that a lot for Pericles, bear with me.)

Shaking off a rather pathetic assassin, he ends up in another kingdom, and this time actually manages to woo and win the daughter of a king. They marry, she gets pregnant, and they head back to Tyre, his kingdom. Sadly, she dies giving birth to their daughter. Offstage, of course, this is Elizabethan England. Pericles finds out about his wife's death by a sailor coming in, handing him his newborn daughter, and saying "Take in your arms this piece of your dead Queen" I swear I'm not making this up.

SO - it's bad luck to have a corpse on board a boat, so they put the dead wife in a coffin and throw her overboard. She washes up on shore, where she's promptly found by one of the few witch doctors who apparently DO have magic powers, as he notes she's not as dead as we might have thought, and resurrects her. She thinks that her husband and everyone else are lost at sea, and so goes to become a priestess to the goddess Diana.

Back to Pericles. He leaves his infant daughter with King Milquetoast and Queen Evilena I'm Evil III, knowing they will treat her as one of their own (he'd saved their kingdom from starvation (parents were eating their children it was so bad) earlier. He then, presumably, goes to Tyre and actually, y'know, rules and stuff.

16 years pass. The daughter, Marina, has grown up to be gorgeous. Far more gorgeous, in fact, than the king and queen's own daughter. So the Queen decides to have Marina killed. But, just as she's taken off to be killed, she is kidnapped by pirates.

Again, not making this up. As written by Shakespeare. And yes, these bits are thought to be the Shakespeare bits, Wilkins was more the incest part at the start.

NOW - the pirates sell Marina to a brothel, where she is told to start her life as a whore. She insists she will not give up her chastity. Instead, each man that sees her in the brothel is talked out of sexing her up because of her sheer goodness, and most vow to live good lives from now on. Including the young governor of the city, who falls in love with her. I *swear* I'm not making this up.

Now, remember Pericles? After 16 years of ignoring his daughter, he decides NOW is the best time to go visit her. Well, by now Evil Queen Evil has put out word she died, and even put up a tomb for her. He goes mad with grief and starts wandering around the area on a boat, despairing and not speaking. Guess where he ends up? RIGHT! At the city where is daughter is. They bring Marina to him, since she's good at teaching men to be nice. She realizes he's her father, and after a long cross-examination (he belts her at one point, grief driving him mad), they reunite.

THEN - the Goddess Diana appears in a vision and says hey, get over to this place Ephesus where I'll give you a big surprise! They all pile over there and find hey, the Priestess of Diana is his wife! Not dead after all! They reunite, and the daughter marries the governor who fell in love with her (and presumably finally surrenders her virginity). Oh, and the incest father and daughter are killed by an Act of God(s).

This may sound all MST3K, but it actually works very well on stage. The drama is played up, so it's not really a comedy. The resurrection of the dead wife is something Shakespeare would reuse - in an even sillier way - in The Winter's Tale. And seeing a mad, insane father reunite with his not dead after all daughter must have seemed like a relief for an audience that had only seen King Lear a couple of years previously.
For all that Henry IV was supposed to be about both the King and his prodigal son, and indeed modern productions do make it about them, for years and years Henry IV was about Falstaff. He was the star, he was beloved, he got the best actors and the choicest comedy. It therefore makes sense that Shakespeare would write another play, this one a true comedy, featuring the fat knight. The Merry Wives of Windsor was the result.

Now, the popular rumor (which I believed as well) is that Elizabeth I had asked Shakespeare to write a play about Falstaff in love, and he was then forced to write this up in two weeks. There are reasons to doubt this is true, mostly as the timing is weird, but it is a rumor that has led to this play being dismissed as a weaker comedy. Clearly written in a rush, Shakespeare didn't want to write it, etc.

(Yes, you'll note another in our returning themes, which is judging a play based on its external history rather than the play itself. Shakespeare scholars LOVE to do this.)

It's not his best comedy, but I think that the view does the play a disservice, as Merry Wives has a lot to recommend it. Foremost of which is Falstaff. Falstaff here is very much the lecherous yet lovable knight that many remember him being, lacking the sour taste we get in Henry IV of his sending innocents off to die. He gets his comeuppance here, but it's of the point and laugh variety, not the 'I know you not, old man' that eventually would kill his spirits (and him) in the later Henries.

This is also, believe it or not, the only Shakespearean comedy set in Elizabethan England. Yup, though Shakespeare loved to set things in places like France, Italy, and Greece, this is the only time he comes home, so to speak. And he clearly revels in it, with some hilarious types here - idiot husbands, malaproping housekeepers, thick suitors, hyperactive Welshmen. The only two people intelligent enough to actually plan anything and emerge victorious are the titular wives.

Oh yes, people who read this play will no doubt be frustrated again, like Othello, with Shakespeare taking all sense of time and crumpling it into a little ball. Morning, evening, 2nd or 3rd days, all of these are totally mixed up. You don't notice it in the theatre, but close study makes it almost laughable on the page. I don't really regard it as a fault, as I think Shakespeare reasoned that it made the pacing funnier.

This play deals very much with the theme of the cuckold, which was pretty much the #1 gag among common Elizabethan men. Hey, see Charlie over there? His wife is sleeping with someone else behind his back! Bwa ha ha ha! Cue the 'horns' gesture, another common theme in this play.

Considering its mediocre critical reputation, the play is suprisingly popular on stage, with many adaptions over the years. There's even been several operas, which usually combine elements of this and the two Henry IVs. Naturally, they all tend to be renamed Falstaff.
seangaffney: (toukophex twin)
( Sep. 1st, 2009 06:08 pm)
I am several books ahead of my reviews (should have The Merry Wives of Windsor for Friday), and have just finished Antony and Cleopatra. This means I am caught up with Arden's 3rd edition Critical Editions. Richard III is out at the end of the month, but it's only the beginning of the month!

Now, all is not lost. Arden is doing some non-Shakespeare critical editions. The Duchess of Malfi, out this month, is the first, and should be very interesting.

Also, there are... OTHER critical editions! Yes, there's Oxford and the New Cambridge series. So I will keep reading, using those two as I see fit, and base my thoughts off of them. I can always pick up the Ardens when they come out later.

So, a tentative schedule post-Arden:

Measure for Measure
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Romeo & Juliet
King John
The Comedy of Errors
The Taming of the Shrew
The Merchant of Venice
TBA
Even among Shakespeare's comedies, Love's Labour's Lost is an odd duck. For one thing, it doesn't have an obvious source, meaning it's one of the few plays Shakespeare didn't blatantly steal.

It's a very intellectual play, with more puns and wordplay than any other Shakespeare play. Most assume that it was originally written for Elizabeth's court, rather than for the regular theatregoing audience. Likely it was written mid-1590s, about the same time as The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet, but definitely after Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.

The guys in this play, it has to be said, are idiots. Even Berowne, who is given the role of the one who realizes what's going on, still gets to be a complete imbecile when it comes to love. Which is much the point, of course. When men fall in love, they get stupid. Doesn't matter if it's the King of Navarre or the dolt Costard. By contrast, the women are quite together and assured of themselves (though they have much smaller roles). The guys are supposed to be abstaining from women to devote their life to intellectual study. The moment the Princess and her court ladies arrive, this goes out the window.

The play takes a very odd turn in the final act, where much of it is given over to a play-within-a-play, as the 'low' comic characters perform the Nine Worthies (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Worthies) for the nobility. It's almost a proto-MST3K, as the performance is meant to be a bit of a mish-mash, and the nobles are constantly mocking it from their seats.

And then... a messenger comes in to tell the Princess her father, the King of France, has just died. Yes, it's meant to be as jarring as it sounds. The play grinds to a half, and the women prepare to head back to mourn. The men point out the obvious problem that they're all still in love with the ladies. To their credit, the ladies don't really believe this, and make the men promise to do good works for a year and a day, and then they'll return and marry them if they still feel the same.

It's a bizarre, open ending, the likes of which Shakespeare would never try again. The audience, expecting the traditional rash of marriages you get at the end of an Elizabethan comedy, is left feeling somewhat dejected.

Now, Shakespeare has two plays that are thought to have existed but now are lost. One is Cardenio, a pastiche on Don Quixote, which I'll get to in a few months when the Arden edition of Double Falsehood comes out. The other we only know the title of, which helps to make it more intriguing: Love's Labour's Won. Was it a sequel to this play, showing what happened when the ladies returned? Was it an unrelated play, but tied together by basic themes? Was it merely one of his existing comedies accidentally given another title? We'll likely never know, though Doctor Who certainly played with it.
Of the history plays, arguably the forgotten ones are the 3 parts that make up Henry VI. They were the earliest, and in fact most scholars consider them Shakespeare's earliest works. That is, when they aren't arguing that Shakespeare could not possibly have written such inferior works as these (see: bardolatry), or arguing that he rewrote someone else's earlier plays, or arguing that someone else rewrote HIS earlier plays.

And then there's the play I'm discussing today, Henry VI, Part 1 (herein referred to as 1H6). You'd think the 'Part 1' might make this difficult, but of course it's not as if they were named Parts 1-3 when they originally appeared in the 1590s. And so most scholars today have agreed that 1H6 is a prequel to its two successors, written when popularity demanded another work fitting into the continuity. Likely he wrote it while the theatres closed for plague in 1593, premiering it (along with Titus Andronicus) when they reopened the following year.

As for the play itself, it's OK. Most of Henry VI suffers from not being as mature as the later tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV 1 + 2 and Henry V), and while Richard Duke of Gloucester *is* a major force in Part 3, he's still most remembered for his own play Richard III (written after the 3 6's).

So what does 1H6 have to recommend it? Well, it has Talbot! John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and the only sane character in this entire trilogy. He's a noble fighter for the English, treating the French with respect, and the scene where he and his son realize that they are doomed (mostly because the Houses of Lancaster and York are infighting) is excellent.

I should note, by the way, that as with all the History plays, Shakespeare took actual known historical fact and killed it until it died, then killed it some more. Chronology is butchered, with much of the first part of the play taking place when Henry VI was a baby in reality, and with Joan Puzel's death taking place about 22 years before Talbot's. Also, as you would expect, the play does not like the French.

Oh, MAN, does the play not like the French. Let's talk Joan Puzel. You likely know her better as Joan La Pucelle, or Joan of Arc. Since he's a French national hero, a canon saint of Catholicism, and generally thought to be one of the paragons of female heroines, it can be a bit of a wrench for people watching 1H6 to suddenly see this woman who is pretty much a witch and a whore. This is probably the most controversial part of the play, notably the scene where Joan is to be burned and declares how she is an innocent virgin, then in her very next speech notes she is pregnant.

The Henry VI plays aren't classics, but are generally underrated in modern times. If you want to see how Shakespeare handled history, both good and bad, this play is an excellent example.
Shakespeare had an incredible run of tragedies from 1599 to 1607. Completely unequaled in every way, he wrote Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus all in a row (yes, yes, I know one of those isn't like the other; we'll discuss it when I get to Coriolanus).

And then comes Timon of Athens. I don't think we can blame it entirely on Thomas Middleton, who most scholars now consider to have co-written the play with Shakespeare. No, Shakespeare was headed in this direction anyway. Plays like All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida were comedies designed to make the audience squirm, and this was just the first time Shakespeare had ever tried that with a tragedy. It's the bitterest Shakespeare tragedy ever.

Some people aren't even sure the play was ever performed in Shakespeare's time. It was added to the First Folio at the last minute when they thought they wouldn't be able to include Troilus and Cressida. And it's rarely been performed since, mostly as people don't have a really good idea of how to handle it. It does not lend itself well to the stage.

Timon himself, of course, is an idiot. We've had noble idiots as tragic heroes before, of course (hi, Othello!), but most of the tragedies have their heroes undone not only by their foolishness but by the Machivellian schemes of others, such as Cassius or Iago. Timon is very much the architect of his own demise, mostly as he's a sappy idealist who thinks everyone will do unto him as he did unto them.

Timon is a very modern play in many ways (you're all likely tired of my saying how incredibly ahead of his time Shakespeare was). The message is that people are self-centered jerks, and if you lose sight of that they will rob you blind. Money is everywhere in this play, from Timon giving away everything to his friends in the early acts to the hilarious scene of him finding buried gold in the forest when he's reduced to hermitage.

You try to like Timon, but it's hard. We live in a very cynical age these days, and it's hard to see his wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky idealism as anything other than pure idiocy. And then he loses everything, and ends up out in the forest, and it's like... do you remember the Monty Python skip with the architect played by John Cleese, who tries to sell a slaughterhouse? Picture his ending screaming rant against freemasons. Now picture that for two whole acts, only about 100 times more vicious and nasty. Timon loathes all humanity, and the fall from naive idealism to raging nihilism is why this is so hard to perform.

There are other characters in the play, but they're harder to get a handle on. Apemantus is almost a Greek chorus character, a cynical philosopher who tells Timon he's being an idiot in Act I, and then goes to the forest to tell him he's being a totally different kind of idiot in Act IV. The soldier Alcibiades seems to have wandered in from a different play. And everyone else is a grifter and con man, out for Timon's money and proud of it. Only Timon's sympathetic servant escapes unscathed.

I hate to break out the old 'interesting rather than good' description again, but frankly, it fits a lot of Shakespeare in this period. I'm glad I re-read the play, and it's a fascinating study of human greed, but I wouldn't want to spend much time around Timon and his rabid foaming hatred.
This was a special one for me: I'd never actually read The Two Noble Kinsmen before. In college, it wasn't assigned in my Shakespeare course, and the Complete Works I had was borrowed from my mom, and was circa approximately 1956; TNK wasn't part of the 'official' Shakespeare canon then and was omitted.

It's an odd duck, even among Shakespeare plays. It's the very last play to be credited as partly by Shakespeare; he and John Fletcher, his successor at the Globe, wrote it (scholars believe) in 1614. As such, it tends to be disliked intensely by 'bardolators'. Which is to say, people who believe that every word Shakespeare put down was utterly perfect. And, more to the point, if it ISN'T perfect, then it's not by Shakespeare. This tends to boil down to 'I don't like it, so it's not in my personal canon'.

Now, I totally sympathize with this, as a Willow/Tara and Harry/Luna fan. :) And yes, it would be cool if Shakespeare wrote his grand 'retirement' speech for Prospero at the end of The Tempest and then retired, never to write another word. But we just have too much evidence that didn't happen. He co-wrote Henry VIII. He co-wrote Cardenio, a play now sadly lost. And he wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen, a very funny tragedy. No wait, it's actually a rather depressing comedy. Or...

Well, look. Most people, when they think of the word 'tragicomedy', tend to imagine a blend of the two genres. Something similar to Shakespeare's romances, only without the supernatural deus ex machinas. But The Two Noble Kinsmen is a tragicomedy in that first it's a tragedy. Then, it's totally a wacky romantic comedy. Then, it's rather nasty drawing room tragedy. Then, it's somewhat dark comedy! It careens you from mood to mood, till you're unsure what's going on.

It also has the Jailer's Daughter. Another minor character who tends to steal the play, we're not sure if she's Fletcher's parody of Ophelia or Shakespeare's own deconstruction of her. In fact, the daughter (never named in the play) seems to have a deeper role than Ophelia, and her spurned love turning to utter madness can be quite touching, especially unnerving since it's also the cause of much of the humor. The play ends with the poor sod who loves her pretending to be one of the heroes, and her father urging the man to deflower her. Small wonder that a lot of directors choose to add a scene at the end of the play showing she's not all better.

And then there's our heroes. They start out, in Act 1, locked up and convinced they're about to die (not a bad supposition, considering the depressing beginning to the play). They are very much a bromance couple, and modern productions of this do not hesitate to play up the gay (Shakespeare and Fletcher give them a lot to work with, frankly). But then, they see... the other woman. And suddenly, they're ready to condemn the other to die. As I said, this play tends to throw you for a loop with its mood swings.

In the end, there's a duel. And one guy wins. But then just as the other guy (trust me, they're fairly interchangeable) is about to be executed (long story), a messenger! The first guy has been killed by rampaging horses! Now the other guy has to live, cause really, otherwise it would be too depressing. He'll marry the heroine, but after a 2-day period of mourning, cause, really, death sucks like that. (If you think I sound glib, wait till you read the actual passage).

Two Noble Kinsmen is too recent to the Shakespeare 'canon' to be an official problem play. But boy, it fits every definition. And like another problem play, Troilus and Cressida, I find the play more interesting than good. But it is very interesting. If you're one of the many who never read it, give it a shot.
Writing plays is all very well and good if you're a typical Elizabethan writer with talent and drive. They get you kudos with the masses. But it's not for the truly erudite, upper class readers. It's not the sort of thing to get you books printed or young rich Lords giving you patronage. No, for that, you need poetry. And since the theaters were closed for all of 1593 due to another plague scare, that's exactly what Shakespeare did.

(FYI, I'm talking here about his epic narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape Of Lucrece. I'll get into the Sonnets in another post.)

It's notable that these two are thought to be the only things printed that Shakespeare actually approved of. Most of the early Quartos of his plays were done without his permission, and the Folio, of course, was after his death. These poems, though, were his legacy.

Venus and Adonis is very much the lighter and sweeter of the two plays. Sweet meaning sugary and mellifluous, the way it was used back in Shakespeare's day. It does, after all, end with Adonis' death, so cannot really be considered fluffy happy poetry. It does have a couple of changes from the commonly known ancient myth, however; notably, Venus never actually gets any. This is perhaps because Shakespeare portrays Adonis as very young (it's explicitly mentioned a few times that he's barely hit puberty), but more likely due to his Venus.

Shakespeare's portrayal of Venus is the reason to read the poem. Talk about being all things to all people. It's a very erotic poem (for the time, it was almost softcore porn), and Venus is utterly determined to get her end away, never even noticing that, unlike the adult Adonis of Ovid's myth, this is a kid. We notice, though; Adonis' immaturity is seen throughout, which only makes Venus' desperation more sad and comical. She almost becomes sympathetic after his death, but no, her sheer over-the-top melodrama combined with flightiness drag her down.

By contrast (oh boy, what contrast!), we have The Rape of Lucrece. It is, in my opinion, the better of the two narrative poems, and far more serious. No one would dare call Lucrece's rape erotic. Which may have been part of the point, as Elizabethan writers had a tendency to be fairly misogynist about this sort of thing. Shakespeare wasn't far ahead of his time, but he was a little bit ahead of it (see: Merchant of Venice, where Shylock is still anti-semitic but written far more sympathetically than contemporaries).

Lucrece is a noble heroine, hideously wronged. Once she is raped, it's pretty much made clear that there is nothing else for her, and her very public suicide is still pretty shocking today. As is the reaction it provokes, with the banishment not only of the man who raped her, but of his entire family - who were, notably, the rulers of Rome. Rome goes from Kings to Consuls after this. Again, notice how Shakespeare works political concerns into almost everything he does, although this is probably not quite as 'gosh, is a monarchy really a good idea?' as Julius Caesar will be 5 years later.

Also notably, when a Jacobean playwright dramatized Shakespeare's Lucrece, a lot of the subtleties were lost (a constant problem with Shakespeare adaptations). Particularly, Lucrece's husband was made to feel as if the situation were his fault, for making a bet on his wife's virtue, and then for basically letting the rapist into his home unwittingly. Shakespeare left the fault of the husband to the reader; the play added several diatribes against him. (Shakespeare later used a very similar situation in his play Cymbeline.)

The two poems are not very well known in modern times; Shakespeare is now known as a playwright first and foremost, and when you think of his poetry, you tend to think of the very quotable sonnets. Feminists are beginning to take notice of Lucrece, though (and to a lesser extent Venus), and I doubt they will ever simply be forgotten.
seangaffney: (kyon)
( Jul. 27th, 2009 07:04 pm)
Sorry for the lack of Shakespeare lately. Things have been busy personally, and I haven't found the energy to write something up. Plus I'm dealing with the Poems, so am a bit out of my element.

I do note that the Amazon listing for Taming of the Shrew Arden 3rd series has an actual cover now, and does say it's available in '1-3 weeks'. I'll believe it when I see it. Betcha 2 to 1 they ship me the 2nd edition.

And it appears that A Midsummer Night's Dream may be the last on my list of plays, as Arden apparently fired its editor, about 6 months before it was supposed to come out, for no given reason. The scholars are up in arms. And as these editions take 10-15 years to edit, if they have to start over, it'll be a while. A long while.

At least there's Pericles, the Shakespeare I'm reading now. For those unaware of the plot, this is a very amusing summary: http://www.yarnivore.com/francis/archives/000405.html I like the play a lot more than he does, though.
That stage direction alone should tell you what I'm talking about today. Yes, it's Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus.

I wasn't looking forward to this one. It's despised by critics, who regard it as beneath Shakespeare to write such gory trash. Many in the past have tried to indicate that either a) it was the first thing he ever wrote, and thus immature (likely untrue), or b) that he never wrote it. As always, if critics (especially Victorian critics) didn't like a Shakespeare play, they tried to prove it wasn't his, as Shakespeare must be PERFECT.

And yet? The play was a HUGE hit in Shakespeare's time, right from the start. Audiences adored it, and it was staged again and again after its debut. And indeed, whenever people in the twentieth century have tried to stage it, they've found a very appreciative audience, ready to come in and watch the madness.

When I started to read it, I assumed that the reason for the popularity was simply because of the violence and bloodshed. No play of Shakespeare's is gorier than this one, not even the histories with all their battles come close. The daughter of the main character is raped, then has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off. And yet? She continues to be a major character even after this.

As you can imagine, this is sometimes difficult to perform. There comes a time, usually about when Lavinia takes stick in mouth to write out the names of her attackers, that you risk the audience laughing at the sheer OTT-ness. One scene in particular, which features the stage direction I have in my header, has Titus suddenly start to laugh. It's even written out, "Ha, ha, ha!" A short bark of a laugh. And yet, its tragedy is that it signifies that Titus has finally slipped from grief into insane revenge.

This is, by the way, the play that features our tragic hero as master chef, serving up his daughter's rapists to their mother in pies. Eat your heart out was never so literal. And then come the deaths, and the other deaths, and still more deaths. It's rather odd that one of the most well-rounded subtle characters is the main villain, Aaron.

Who, by the way, is black. Something that proved very interesting to many who rewrote this play for Restoration and Victorian times. Naturally, the violence and rapes had to go. So they were left to insert other things. And black actors of the time (and there were a few) rewrote Aaron to be the tragic equal of Titus, almost an Othello character. In the original, Aaron's son is murdered and Aaron himself is buried up to his neck in the ground to die of thirst and starvation. Yeah, bit of a difference between that and the rewrite.

This is not a great play. It is, as you have no doubt noticed, about as subtle as a truck. But it's a fascinating play, and one of Shakespeare's most theatrical. In addition, its themes of big-R REVENGE would be re-examined in his greatest tragedy, Hamlet.
Julius Caesar is one of those Shakespeare plays I will always associate with school more than with the stage. It's a very popular high school play, being a tragedy that also straddles the bounds of history. It's absolutely filled with familiar quotes, so students can go into it knowing that Friends, Romans, Countrymen is coming. And it's also very good.

No, scratch that, it's excellent. This was only Shakespeare's third tragedy. His first, Titus Andronicus, I'll get to soon, but suffice to say it's nowhere near as well-written as this. And Romeo and Juliet was very good, but has a totally different non-historical feel. Caesar is especially good considering how unconventional it is. For a tragedy called Julius Caesar, the audience must have been startled when the title character was killed with half a play still to go. Brutus is the tragic hero here.

Speaking of which, yet again we have another Shakespeare play that can be difficult to perform, in that you need to find the right balance between Caesar and Brutus. During the 17th-19th century, most of the great actors took on Brutus, and played up the evil tyrantness of Caesar (everyone hates Shakespeare's ambiguity, and tries to write it out). But around the turn of the 20th century, Caesar emerged in prominence once more, and became more sympathetic, leading to Brutus looking less tragic hero and more tragic jerk.

Shakespeare does love making these characters likeable, even as they're discussing killing Caesar. (Oh yes, remember the double time I talked about in Othello? It's here too, as the plotting and murder of Caesar takes place over a few weeks and over one or two nights at the same time.) And the scene in Act 4 with Brutus and Cassius getting angry with each other, then making up is an actor's dream (plus has the very odd mention of Portia's death, offscreen).

And then there's Marc Antony, who barely shows up until after Caesar's death, but once he does, hoo boy. Shakespeare has never written a better example of why mob politics are reprehensible than Antony's famous speech, where he turns the mob into dogs hungering for the conspirator's blood in just a few short minutes. (Note that, in an 1864 production where Brutus was Edwin Booth, his brother played Antony. That'd be John Wilkes Booth. Later famous for other things.)

Julius Caesar makes people think about the basic question: did Caesar have to die? Was his rule tyrannic? Was he a despot? Were Brutus, Cassius and the others merely trying to save the state they loved? Shakespeare presents both sides equally (likely to the annoyance of Queen Elizabeth, who was not fond of plays about overthrowing the current ruler, especially through violent murder). 1599 again, a very busy year for Shakespeare.

As for what happens after, well, I'll be getting to Antony and Cleopatra down the road. But for now, just enjoy Julius Caesar, a highly underrated tragedy that prepared everyone for his fourth and most famous one in the following year, Hamlet. Hamlet asks many of the same questions, with Hamlet taking the role of Brutus and Claudius of Caesar. And again, we're never quite sure if there *is* a correct answer.
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