I have mentioned in reviews of modern adaptations of Medea that she is one of my favorite mythological characters. Her story in the hands of various a...moreI have mentioned in reviews of modern adaptations of Medea that she is one of my favorite mythological characters. Her story in the hands of various authors is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s a tale that touches on themes of love and hate, obsession, faith and loyalty, and in its most profound reading reflects human beings in their most complex nature. Up to now, my favorite translation has been Frederic Prokosch’s, written in 1947 and which I have in a collection of Greek plays edited by Dudley Fitts. When I read it, I thought it read easily, with an energy I had found lacking in others. With Robin Robertson’s Medea, I have a new favorite, though I would still recommend Prokosch’s. Robertson’s interpretation is even crisper, more energetic and more lyrical than Prokosch’s, and made me appreciate Euripides’ subtlety more than ever before. (view spoiler)[(Note: I’ve yet to read Carl Müller’s version. I liked his versions of Prometheus Bound and Herakles. He tends to be more prosy than poetic so I have a feeling it’ll read more like Prokosch than Robertson.) (hide spoiler)] Below is a brief example of the differences I’m getting at. It’s the tutor’s observation to the nurse about Jason’s actions and human nature. The first is Robertson’s take, then Prokosch’s, then the Loeb Classical Library’s version:
What mortal man is not guilty? A new woman in the bed leaves no room for anyone else. He has forgotten everything, including his boys. Has it dawned on you that we’re each of us human: we put ourselves above all others.
And which of us has not done the same? Haven’t you learned long ago, my dear, how each man loves himself far more than his neighbor? Some, perhaps, from honest motives; some for private gain. So you see how Jason deserts his children for the pleasure of his new bride.
As what mortal is not? Because of his new bride, the father does not love these boys: are you only now learning that each man loves himself more than others, some justly, others for the sake of gain?
As I wrote, Robertson has made me appreciate Euripides’ complexity more, and upon reflecting in the course of writing this, I’ve come to see Medea and Jason as two sides of the human coin. On one side is Medea, who is close to the Homeric heroic ideal; on the obverse is Jason, who is a “modern” man. Neither image is particularly flattering but both carry conviction because both ring (all too) true.
What follows are simply some of my favorite passages. Lines that – for whatever reason – struck me. The more I find myself reading Euripides, the more I find myself liking him, so I definitely recommend him. Ideally, we’d read him in the original Greek but as most of us have let our Ancient Greek get a bit rusty, seek him out in your native tongue at the very least.
NURSE: I’ll try, of course, but I doubt I’ll persuade her. When any of us approach you can see her hackles rise – like a lioness when you get between her and her cubs. If only we could charm her with music; but those old composers were such fools: they wrote melodies only for the happy times – festivals, grand banquets, celebrations. None of them thought to make a music for real life, music that would salve our wounds and soothe our bitter griefs. Didn’t they see these wounds and griefs destroy us, and a music that healed such sorrow would be precious? What is the point of music and song at a feast? People are happy when they’re full. We need a tune when there’s no food there to eat.
MEDEA: My reputation, yet again! It goes before me like a curse. My father should never have allowed me an education, never raised me to be intelligent. Those who are out of the ordinary attract jealously and bitterness. If you try to bring new wisdom to fools, the fools are furious; if your mind matches the minds of the city’s intellectuals then they’re threatened.
MEDEA: There are no names for something as foul and spineless as you. A man who is no man at all. How dare you come to us here, where you are most despised. Is this your idea of courage or heroism, to wrong your family and then visit them? Loathesome, shameless, evil man.
CHORUS: On the matter of children: many times we’ve argued, many times we’ve lost. Men’s skill in rhetoric is more subtle, more practiced than our own. But women have a Muse, too, who gives us wisdom, and this is our opinion: those men and women who have never brought up children are, by nature, blessed. They never suffer those extremes.
Look at the parents, worn down by love and worry. Are their little ones sick? Are they hungry? Will they grow up well, or badly? And worst of all, after years of this, the fear all parents know: that they’ll outlive their children. That Death will come, with his casual, careless hand, and knock them off the world.
Yet we persist – in search of love, or heirs, or some brief brilliant proof that we exist – and the fruit of all this anxious love is grief.
MEDEA: Hate on! I am so sick of your pathetic voice. [This last line, taken out of context, may not make much sense. It comes at the end of a brilliant, bitter back and forth between Medea and Jason at the end of the play, and I shudder to imagine the loathing and contempt with which a good actor would deliver it.]
As my ancient Greek has rusted almost beyond use, I am fortunate in this case for having an excellent translation by Carl Mueller, who quotes Dryden in illustrating his approach to the plays – “The translator that would write with any force or spirit of an original must never dwell on the words of the author.” (p. 117)
This volume contains four of the seven complete plays from Aeschylus’ work (somewhere between 70 and 90 plays, of which only fragments have survived the ages): Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, and Prometheus Bound.
Persians: None of these plays are “plays” in what most people expect from that word. There’s little action or plot, and much recitation between chorus and actor. Persians is unique in a couple of ways. It’s the only first-hand account of the battle of Salamis (the playwright was there) that has survived, and for a play presented to an audience of Athenians it presents the enemy in a surprisingly sympathetic light (remarkably so, considering that Salamis was only about a decade in the past when first performed and many in the audience would have been veterans of the war). It is – above all – a cautionary tale about the perils of hubris. In attempting to invade Hellas, Xerxes has overstepped the bounds of what is permitted to humans and he and all of Persia must pay the price – defeat, humiliation, ruin.
Even at this early period in the evolution of theater, Aeschylus shows a mastery of dramatic technique (pp. 26ff), and a genius for vivid imagery. Compare the images of the flower of Persia’s youth marching to war and the lament when they are slaughtered by the Athenians:
From Susa they went, / from Agbatana, / from Kissia’s ancient, towering ramparts, / by horse, by ship, by foot, / in close-ranked columns of war. / Men like Amistres and Artaphrenes, / Megabates and Astaspes, / each of them kings, / Persian commanders, / but each of them also the Great King’s servants, / marshals of Persia’s massive forces, / surging, surging, / seething for battle, / archers, horsemen, / a sight to see, / fearful in the fight, / stern in the harsh resolve of their spirit.
Artembares, high in his chariot, / and Masistres, / and noble Imaios, / strong of arm with his archer’s bow, / unyielding Imaios, / and Pharandakes, / and Sosthenes, driver of stallions. / And others, still others / great Nile sent forth, / teeming Nile’s fertile flow: / Sousiskanes, / and Egypt-born, sun-dark Pegastagon, / and towering Arsames, / lord of temple-rich Memphis, and / Ariomardos, governor of age-old Thebes, / and marsh-dwelling oarsmen terrible in number… (pp. 122-23)
And from the Persian Chorus:
King! / My King! / I lament for your army, / your noble army, / for the greatness of Persia, / and her glorious men, / cut down now, / cut down, whom / god has destroyed!
The land, / the land cries, / cries aloud, / cries, / for her youth whom / Xerxes has / slain, / whom Xerxes had crammed into dismal / Hades, / Persia’s / youth from Agbatana, / great Persia’s flower, / many, many, / thousands, / ten thousands, / archers, / masters of the bow, / a forest of men, / gone, / destroyed, / no more!
Weep for them, / weep, / our noble defense! / All Asia brought to her / knees in / shame! (pp. 167-68)
Seven Against Thebes: Before I learned the actual story behind the title, this play always brought to my mind a Greek version of “The Seven Samurai” (or at least “The Magnificent Seven”). The reality, for me, wasn’t quite as inspiring.
Eteokles and Polyneikes are the brother-sons of Oedipus. The original plan was for the brothers to alternate in the kingship of Thebes but after Eteokles’ first year, he refused to give up the throne and exiled his brother. Polyneikes goes to Argos, where he convinces King Adrastos to help him take the city. Adrastos recruits five other champions and they lead an army against Thebes. Everyone but Adrastos is fated to die in this war, the brothers as part of a curse on Oedipus’ house, as well as a fulfillment of the father-brother’s curse on them for mistreatment.
In its “raw” form, there’s really no side to prefer but in Aeschylus’ hands, you’re urged to root for Eteokles, who is presented here as the epitome of (martial) arête and good kingship – not only does he fulfill the demands of honor but he truly cares for the fate of Thebes and dies knowing that his defense of the city will save it from the horrors of a sack.
As with Persians, there’s some memorable poetry:
O god-hated house of Oedipus, / house cursed by the gods, / house maddened by the gods, / house of tears, / now the curse of Oedipus is fulfilled!
But no time for tears or wailing now, / giving birth to even worse suffering!
As for him, / Polyneikes, / so well-named, / strife-bringer, we will / see if his sign is fulfilled; whether golden / letters on a shield will do what they say; / or are they the babble of a demented mind?
If Justice, virgin daughter of / Zeus, had ever been with him in / thought or deed, his boasting might have come true.
But never, never once, never – not when he / fled the dark cavern of his mother’s / womb, not in childhood or adolescence, not when the hair of manhood grew on his chin, / did Justice ever, even once, / turn her eye on him or ever acknowledge him! / Nor does she now, / now as he rapes his city, his parent / land, in this violent, criminal assault! / For is she did, / if Justice looked / kindly on him, she would be justly misnamed / for championing one who brings death on his city! pp. (215-16)
Suppliants: This play is the least satisfying from a self-contained-story point of view. It sets up a confrontation between the fifty daughters of Danaos, who do not want to marry against their will, and the demands of Greek culture, which says a girl must wed.
It must be remembered that all of these plays were part of dramatic trilogies and a satyr play (a comedy). Suppliants is the first in an arc that explored the myth of the Danaids. It’s as if we only had a copy of “The Empire Strikes Back” and maybe a frame or two of the other movies. We could comment favorably on the movies’ technical mastery and script but we wouldn’t know much about the characters or why Vader’s admission of paternity is so pivotal.
Prometheus Bound:Prometheus Bound is the most play-like of these plays. The characters are strongly delineated (Hephaistos, Prometheus, Oceanus, the First Daughter, Io and Hermes) and, while no action takes place on stage, the monologues are harrowing enough in the tales they recount, and the finale when the Titan is hurled down into Tartarus is as violent as any an action-film lover could wish.
The story should be familiar to most readers: There is a war in heaven between Zeus’ faction and that of his father, Kronos. Prometheus & his mother Themis, though Titans and initially Kronos’ allies, defect to Zeus and allow his side to prevail. But Zeus, in this play, is a tyrant who can brook no competition. When Prometheus gives to Man not alone fire but all the arts of civilization, Zeus condemns him to perpetual torment, chained to a cliff in the Caucasus.
The play is a deconstruction of tyranny and the proper response of a free man. Hephaistos and Oceanus are the men who go along to get along (courtiers and sycophants), Io is a living victim of tyranny (raped by Zeus and driven mad by Hera’s jealousy), and Hermes is Zeus’ Gestapo (spying on the sky god’s subjects so that no rival can arise).(less)
I hadn’t planned on reading ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore when I saw Elizabeth’s review, though I enjoyed the resulting thread. In fact, at first I thought...moreI hadn’t planned on reading ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore when I saw Elizabeth’s review, though I enjoyed the resulting thread. In fact, at first I thought it was about a new book by thisJohn Ford. The title certainly sounded like something he would write. But Fate had other plans when she revealed an Italian film version of it while I was browsing on Netflix. I figured I hadn’t much to lose in devoting a couple of hours to reading the play and watching the movie.
Though this isn’t “Roger & Ebert,” I’ll dispense with the film first: Don’t bother. It cuts all of the characters and scenes that make the play so much fun to read and we’re left with a passionless, sterile and cold(1) movie that looks good but has no soul.
As to the play, I liked it. It’s a lot of fun to read. If I had to compare it to a modern equivalent, I’d say it’s like a decent action film helmed by a competent director. There are a lot of explosions and a ridiculously over-the-top plot but the dialog crackles and the action is nonstop; it’s fun while you’re sitting there munching popcorn.
(1) And I mean “cold” in a very literal sense: The entire movie is set in a cold, north Italian winter. But also “cold” in the figurative sense: There’s only one scene where Annabella and Giovanni are in a “passionate” embrace. The rest of the time, the characters stand apart reciting their lines. (less)
For me All’s Well That Ends Well is an ironic title. At its conclusion, events appear to have concluded successfully but you can’t help but wonder how...moreFor me All’s Well That Ends Well is an ironic title. At its conclusion, events appear to have concluded successfully but you can’t help but wonder how long anyone’s happiness is going to last. This is especially true in the case of Helena and Bertram. How likely is it that after five acts of boorish, callow and mendacious behavior Bertram will love Helena “dearly, ever, ever dearly” (Act 5, scene 3)? (I can only hope that, having grown up with him, Helena can see something worthwhile in Bertram that readers/audiences cannot.)
But that aside, Helena – the daughter of a poor, but brilliant and now dead physician and the just-as-good-as-adopted child of Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Roussillon – is one of the strongest female characters in the canon, and she doesn’t even have to dress up as a man to accomplish her plan. For whatever reason (and we’ll accept that she has a good one), Helena loves Bertram but realizes that she can never marry because their social positions are too far apart:
“O, were that all! I think not on my father; And these great tears grace his remembrance more Than those I shed for him. What was he like? I have forgot him: my imagination Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s. I am undone: there is no living, none, If Bertram be away. ‘Twere all one That I should love a bright particular star And think to wed it, he is so above me: In his bright radiance and collateral light Must I be comforted, not in his sphere. The ambition in my love thus plagues itself: The hind that would be mated by the lion Must die for love. ‘Twas pretty, though plague, To see him every hour; to sit and draw His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls, Of every line and trick of his sweet favor: But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy Must sanctify his reliques.” (Act 1, scene 1)
Events conspire, however, to aid her: Bertram becomes a ward of the King of France, who lies mortally ill. Helena goes to the court armed with her father’s wisdom and cures the king. In his gratitude, he grants her wish to choose a husband from among his wards, and she chooses Bertram.
Which sits not well with the man:
“KING: Thou know’st she has raised me from my sickly bed.
BERTRAM: But follows it, my lord, to bring me down Must answer for your raising? I know her well: She had her breeding at my father’s charge. A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain Rather corrupt me ever!” (Act 2, scene 3)
He vows that he will never bed her, and will only acknowledge her his wife when she can take a ring from his finger while abed and conceives a child by him.
The marriage sits so ill with Bertram that he flees the country to the war in Tuscany. There, Bertram falls in lust with a widow’s daughter, Diana, whose mother just happens to be the host of Helena, who has come to Florence disguised as a pilgrim. Helena conceives of a plot to trick Bertram into her bed using Diana as the lure.
The plot succeeds brilliantly and Bertram’s perfidy is exposed before the king and his mother, and Helena gets her desire – becoming the wife in all senses of the word of Bertram.
I haven’t even mentioned the second plot involving Bertram’s man, Paroles, or the trenchant comments of the Clown, Lavache, or the king’s speeches on age and growing old. But there were two things (out of all the themes and meanings one might perceive) that struck me most in this first reading of the play. The first was the wealth of strong women (none of whom had to dress like men): Helena (as mentioned), the Countess and Diana. The second thing that struck me was the idea that the ends justified any means, most clearly expressed by Helena in Act 4, scene 4: “All’s well that ends well: still the fine’s the crown; / Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.”
I read this play in conjunction with Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, after reading Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare, Sex, & Love, and am glad I did. All the sexual themes Wells raised in his book are there, of course, but they’re also examples of Shakespeare’s extraordinary breadth since they deal with themes of age, politics, friendship and loyalty, justice and mercy, among others that I’m sure are there but that I’m not in the correct frame of mind to perceive.
I like ambiguity, and one of the things Shakespeare excels at (and why I like him) is that he raises questions about what it means to be human but never makes the mistake of answering them. Each reader or member of the audience must wrestle with how they would respond in like circumstances and acknowledge the grey areas in any situation.(less)
Troilus and Cressida is a half-baked play. By that I mean that it reads like the conflation of two distinct plots tied together by the common characte...moreTroilus and Cressida is a half-baked play. By that I mean that it reads like the conflation of two distinct plots tied together by the common character of Troilus. This is not to say it isn’t a rather good play but it’s not a successful one. I've read it twice now and watched the BBC adaptation, and it grows on you. There are several powerful monologues and scenes where the dialog crackles but in the final analysis it remains "clunky" and its parts difficult to reconcile. As to the reasons why, I'm letting myself be more and more convinced by David Seltzer's argument in the Introduction to my Signet Classic edition of the play:
“In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare tried for the first time to combine in dramatic terms a story of love with a story of public affairs. It is worth noting that in the major tragedies that follow, the personal fate of the hero is inextricably bound up in the world of the state, and that in Troilus Shakespeare made his first real study of the relationship between the pressures of the public world and the survival of love. (p. xxxiii)
As Troilus is not one of the Bard’s better known works, let me briefly summarize: Like The Iliad, the play opens toward the end of the Trojan War. Troilus, a son of Priam, has fallen desperately in love with Cressida, the daughter of Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks and lives among them. Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, has contrived to bring the two together. Unfortunately, after their one night of passion, they awake to learn that Cressida has been traded to the Greeks for the warrior Antenor. Cressida arrives at the Greek camp, where she succumbs to the advances of Diomedes, a Greek general. Troilus, visiting the camp under a flag of truce, secretly witnesses Cressida’s betrayal and is heartbroken.
Meanwhile, the Trojans are trying to decide if Helen is worth all the trouble. On one side is Hector, who counsels that they should give her back to the Greeks and be done with the whole affair. On the other is Troilus, who despises Helen but argues that honor can only be satisfied by defending her. In the Greek camp, the primary goal is to get Achilles to rejoin the battle. He has absented himself from the field because he made a promise to Polyxena, the daughter of Hecuba and sister to Hector and Troilus, not to fight her brothers. The other Greeks, not knowing this, blame the effeminizing influence of Achilles’ male lover Patroclus. Unfortunately, without Achilles, the Greeks are demoralized and unable to overcome Troy. Ulysses comes up with a plan to shame Achilles into returning to the battle, taking advantage of a challenge Hector has made to fight a champion in single combat. They nominate the dull-witted Ajax, and he fights an inconclusive duel with Hector. Achilles remains unmoved. It’s only with Patroclus’ death that he forswears his oath. In the battle that ends the play, Achilles treacherously ambushes an unarmed Hector and has his Myrmidon’s slaughter him.
As I wrote above, we have two stories taking place here: First there is the love affair of Troilus and Cressida. In many ways it parallels that of Romeo and Juliet, particularly in Troilus’ case. Here he is describing Cressida in the opening scene of Act 1:
“O, Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus, - When I do tell thee, there my hopes lie drown’d. Reply not in how many fathoms deep They lie indrench’d. I tell thee I am mad In Cressid’s love: thou answer’st `she is fair;’ Pour’st in the open ulcer of my heart Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice, Handlest in thy discourse, O, that her hand, In whose comparison all whites are ink, Writing their own reproach, to whose soft seizure The cygnet’s down is harsh and spirit of sense Hard as the palm of ploughman: this thou tell’st me, As true thou tell’st me, when I say I love her; But, saying thus, instead of oil and balm, Thou lay’st in every gash that love hath given me The knife that made it.”
Or here in his giddy expectations upon seeing her in Act 3, scene 1:
“I am giddy; expectation whirls me round. The imaginary relish is so sweet That it enchants my sense: what will it be, When that the watery palate tastes indeed Love’s thrice repured nectar? Death, I fear me, Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, For the capacity of my ruder powers: I fear it much; and I do fear besides, That I shall lose distinction in my joys; As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps The enemy flying.”
Unlike Juliet, Cressida is not an untried chit but an intelligent woman capable of holding her own in any conversation:
“PANDARUS: Asses, fools, dolts! Chaff and bran, chaff and bran! Porridge after meat! I could live and die i’ the eyes of Troilus. Ne’er look, ne’er look: the eagles are gone: crows and daws, crows and daws! I had rather be such a man as Troilus than Agamemnon and all Greece.
CRESSIDA: There is among the Greeks Achilles, a better man than Troilus.
P: Achilles! A drayman, a porter, a very camel.
C: Well, well.
P: `Well, well!’ Why, have you any discretion? Have you any eyes? Do you know what a man is? Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that seasons a man?
C: Ay, a minced man: and then to be baked with no date in the pie, for then the man’s date’s out.
P: You are such a woman! One knows not at what ward you lie.
C: Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you, to defend all these: and at all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.
P: Say one of your watches.
C: Nay, I’ll watch you for that; and that’s one of the chiefest of them too: if I cannot ward what I would not have hit, I can watch you for telling how I took the blow; unless it swell past hiding, and then it’s past watching.
P: You are such another!” (Act 1, scene 2)
And yet she still professes her love for Troilus as volubly as he:
“Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart. Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day for many weary months….
Hard to seem won: but I was won, my lord, With the first glance that ever – pardon me – If I confess much, you will play the tyrant. I love you now; but not, till now, so much But I might master it: in faith, I lie; My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown Too headstrong for their mother. See, we fools! Why have I blabb’d? who shall be true to us, When we are so unsecret to ourselves? But, though I love you well, I woo’d you not; And yet, good faith, I wish’d myself a man, Or that we women had men’s privilege Of speaking first. Sweet, bid me hold my tongue, For in this rapture I shall surely speak The thing I shall repent. See, see, your silence, Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness draws My very soul of counsel! Stop my mouth.” (Act 3, scene 2)
Their love ends almost but not quite as tragically as Romeo and Juliet’s but the consequences of Cressida’s betrayal remain unresolved. She disappears from the play after Act 5, scene 2; Troilus gives an impassioned speech denying that the Cressida he sees in Diomedes’ arms is his; and then he goes off to join the battle.
In Shakespeare’s day there was little sympathy for Cressida. According to the wildly popular story upon which the play is based, Diomedes spurns her, she ends up a leper, and Troilus dies. Not being a product of the Elizabethan Age, I feel a bit more empathy toward the woman, and see her as a person with low self-esteem. Thinking little of herself, when Troilus offers such unconditional love, she’s swept away. But when she’s torn from his arms and forced back into an environment where she’s nothing more than a chattel to be traded, she falls back into her old defense of pragmatism and gives in to Diomedes’ advances. Troilus, not being extraordinarily perceptive, can only see a whore (where before he had only seen the saint erected in his mind), which drives Cressida further away, further confirming her self-opinion.
The public side of the play roughly mirrors the private side, and again the touchstone is Troilus, whose romanticized notions of war will founder on the same realities as his love for Cressida:
“I take to-day a wife, and my election is led on in the conduct of my will; My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears, Two traded pilots ‘twixt the dangerous shores Of will and judgment: how may I avoid, Although my will distaste what it elected, The wife I chose? There can be no evasion To blench from this and to stand firm by honor: We turn not back the silks upon the merchant, When we have soil’d them, nor the remainder viands We do not throw in unrespective sieve, Because now we are full. It was thought meet Paris should do some vengeance on the Greeks: Your breath of full consent bellied his sails; The seas and winds, old wranglers, took a truce And did him service: he touch’d the ports desired, And for an old aunt whom the Greeks held captive, He brought a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness Wrinkles Apollo’s, and makes stale the morning. Why keep we her? The Grecians keep our aunt: Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl, Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships, And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants. If you’ll avouch ‘twas wisdom Paris went – As you must needs, for you all cried `Go, go,’ – If you’ll confess he brought home noble prize – As you must needs, for you all clapp’d your hands And cried `Inestimable!’ – why do you now The issue of your proper wisdoms rate, And do a deed that fortune never did, Beggar the estimation which you prized Richer than sea and land? O, theft most base, That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep! But, thieves, unworthy of a thing so stol’n, That in their country did them that disgrace, We fear to warrant in our native place!” Act 2, scene 2)
There is also a betrayer, Achilles, ostensibly the greatest warrior on either side (his mere presence in the field makes the Trojans wet their breaches). He cravenly orders his Myrmidons to murder the defenseless Hector and then claims the credit:
“ACHILLES: Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set; How ugly night comes breathing at his heels: Even with the vail and darking of the sun, To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.
HECTOR: I am unarm’d; forego this vantage, Greek.
A: Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek. So, Ilion, fall thou next! Now, Troy, sink down! Here lies they heart, thy sinews, and thy bone. On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, `Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’” Act 5, scene 8
I have ignored in these ramblings, Pandarus, Ulysses and the acerbic Thersites, all of whom play important roles in the unfolding of events but I can hope that this brief review will inspire you to take a look (or another one) at the play. There’s more to it than apparent at first glance. You can see where Shakespeare begins to wrestle with the great, humanistic themes of plays to come like Othello, King Lear and The Tempest, and where he continues to struggle with issues raised in past works like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet.(less)
I suspect that if I were to read this play today I'd lean more toward 2 stars - "it's OK" - but in HS, this was the first play where I had a major rol...moreI suspect that if I were to read this play today I'd lean more toward 2 stars - "it's OK" - but in HS, this was the first play where I had a major role (Doc Gibbs), and I hold it in fond memory for that.(less)
I was reminded of this play today because I wore the jersey my high school drama club created to promote our production of it in - I think - my junior...moreI was reminded of this play today because I wore the jersey my high school drama club created to promote our production of it in - I think - my junior year. (Yes, I am something of a clothes horse - I have items of apparel that are 20+ years old.)
I played Hannibal.
What made this play particularly special for my troupe was that our drama teacher (Mrs. Warren) usually stuck with large-ensemble, family-type stuff like "I Remember Mama" or "Our Town" because she wanted to include as many willing students as possible in the cast. Not a bad sentiment but it limited what we could do. This was a bit of a departure, and all the more memorable for that.(less)
Make no mistake, Henry VIII is not a "bad" play. It rates 2 stars only because it doesn't hold up against the 3- and 4-star ratings I've given other S...moreMake no mistake, Henry VIII is not a "bad" play. It rates 2 stars only because it doesn't hold up against the 3- and 4-star ratings I've given other Shakespeare plays here on my shelves.
The biggest problem Henry VIII has is a lack of focus and/or a central character.
In terms of focus, we go from Katherine's divorce to Wolsey's downfall to Cranmer's rise to Elizabeth's baptism. All in five acts. There's too much here to adequately develop in the scope of a single play; even in the hands of a master like the Bard.
In terms of characters, there a several good potentials here, Katherine and Wolsey standing out above all others. Both get some good scenes and some good monologues like their confrontation in Act 3, scene 1: Katherine protests that she is a "mere woman" and Wolsey pretends to be her friend with only her best interests at heart:
Wolsey: Noble lady,/ I am sorry my integrity should breed,/ and service to his majesty and you,/ so deep suspicion, where all faith was meant./ We come not by the way of accusation,/ to taint that honour every good tongue blesses,/ nor to betray you any way to sorrow - / you have too much, good lady - / but to know/ how you stand minded in the weighty difference/ between the king and you, and to deliver,/ like free and honest men, our just opinions/ and comforts to your cause....
Katherine: (aside) To betray me. - / My lords, I thank you both for your good wills;/ ye speak like honest men: pray God, ye prove so!/ But how to make ye suddenly an answer,/ in such a point of weight, so near mine honour,/ more near my life, I fear, with my weak wit,/ and to such men of gravity and learning,/ in truth, I know not..../ Alas, I am a woman, friendless, hopeless!
And there's Wolsey's leave-taking of Cromwell in scene 2 of that act.
The overall effect of the play, though, is diluted and weak even if there are good parts to be found.(less)
What follows are the collective observations of the entire trilogy:
1 Henry VI -- 2.5 to 3 stars 2 Henry VI -- 3+ stars 3 Henry VI -- 4 stars
I don't have...moreWhat follows are the collective observations of the entire trilogy:
1 Henry VI -- 2.5 to 3 stars 2 Henry VI -- 3+ stars 3 Henry VI -- 4 stars
I don't have much to say about part 1 of Shakespeare's Henry VI. It's not a bad play; it's just not the Bard at his best. It has its moments but the impression I carry away from it is that Shakespeare either didn't care all that much about the project or he never found the time to polish it. (Interestingly, it was written several years after parts 2 and 3.)
Parts 2 and 3 are more interesting because here we witness the accelerating collapse of the English kingdom so laboriously erected by Henry IV and V. The causes are the usual, of course: overweening ambition/pride and the weakness of men (& women). The first is represented in the characters of Richard, Duke of York; his son & namesake, the future Richard III; and Queen Margaret, Henry VI's wife. The latter is represented in Henry VI, Henry V's son, crowned king at 9 months of age.
As a one-time actor, I would love to play either Richard (in the spirit of the original milieu, I'd even want to take on Margaret). Particularly Richard III, the original Raskolnikov or Nietszchean Superman - a man unbound by normal constraint. As he says:
"I have no brother, I am like no brother; And this word 'love,' which greybeards call divine, Be resident in men like one another And not in me: I am myself alone." (3 Henry VI, Act 5, sc. 6)
The father reflects a more conflicted man: Where Richard's son is wholly for himself, York does exhibit some concern for England, exemplified in his willingness to allow Henry to reign as king while naming York and his sons heirs in order to spare the kingdom further bloodshed. Alas, this concern is buried under his sons' blandishments, esp. Richard's:
"How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown, Within whose circuit is Elysium, And all that poets feign of bliss and joy." (3 Henry VI, Act 1, sc. 1)
Compare this with Henry IV's lament: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." (2 Henry IV, Act 3, sc. 1) or Henry VI's frequent complaints about royal responsibilities like:
"Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade To shepherds, looking on their silly sheep, Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy To kings, that fear their subjects' treachery." (3 Henry VI, Act 2, sc. 5)
Henry VI is an interesting character, too. Historically, the real Henry, in addition to a weak personality, was also subject to fits of insanity that helped make his reign a disaster. Shakespeare's Henry is always in command of his faculties but retains the weakness of character. Not that he's venal or a coward (though both his supporters and foes would accuse him of the latter). He's quite a good man, striving to be just and ensure peace, much like his grandfather. Unlike that previous Henry, ours lacks judgment and the will to create conditions for a lasting peace. He has great insight into the tragedies afflicting his realm but sink into self-pity and the sanctuary of piety to avoid acting. Which is the tragedy of the play - it's not that ambitions rule most men; it's that England's shepherd was unable to herd them. (In Shakespeare's day, a telling comment upon the succeeding "golden age" of the Tudor's who followed Henry and Richard but till relevant as our own day continues to struggle with these very issues.)
Or you could just read it because it's a great story.(less)
Rereading this for one of my Shakespeare groups here at GR.
Definitely not one of the Bard's best efforts. It has its moments - Talbot's...moreRereading this for one of my Shakespeare groups here at GR.
Definitely not one of the Bard's best efforts. It has its moments - Talbot's and his son's scene before they both die in battle or the back and forth in the garden between York and Somerset - but there's not much here (certainly not compared to other plays).
As a lead in to 2 and 3 Henry VI and the masterpiece Richard III, 1 Henry VI is a good introduction.(less)
The Life and Death of King John is a very good play. It's similar to my recently reviewed Richard II in that there are no outright heroes or villains;...moreThe Life and Death of King John is a very good play. It's similar to my recently reviewed Richard II in that there are no outright heroes or villains; it is instead a play about fallible men attempting to control events that are beyond their capacity.
The central character is King John. Not unintelligent but not a good king. He's unable to command the respect of his nobles, and even his villainies are small-minded and weak. Compare his treatment of Arthur with Richard III's treatment of his nephews. Both kings order their deaths, yet John rues his order when his barons protest and recants. And then the coward blames his henchman Hubert for the "misunderstanding." (It's pointless in the end as Arthur throws himself from the battlements of the castle where he's incarcerated.)
The most interesting part is that of Richard Plantagenet, the bastard son of Richard I (a wholly fictitious character). He's brave, resourceful, intelligent, pragmatic and an English patriot. Clearly the only thing keeping him from the throne is the fact that he was born on the wrong side of the sheets. What prevents him from being a shining hero like Henry V is his pragmatism. While his bravery and wisdom are unquestioned, he has a hard-headed streak of cynicism that makes it difficult to believe he has the introspection to make the soul-searching soliloquy about the burdens of kingship that Henry does in Henry V Act IV, scene ii. Despite that, Richard does get the final word in a patriotic speech the equal of Gaunt's in Richard II and Henry's St. Crispin's Day lines:
O, let us pay the time but needful woe, / Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs. / This England never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, / But when it first did help to wound itself. / Now these her princes are come home again, / Come the three corners of the world in arms, / And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, / If England to itself do rest but true.
The real villain of the play is the papal legate, Cardinal Pandulf, whose first appearance in Act III shatters the fragile, new-minted peace between France and England. Later he encourages the dauphin Louis to pursue his claim to the English throne (through his marriage to Blanche of Castile) when Arthur is captured, only to abandon him when the Pope gets what he wants - John's submission to papal suzerainty.
An undeservedly neglected play, I would recommend King John strongly.(less)
Listening to Richard II, I've swung between awarding 2, 3 or 4 stars to it. Initially, the play didn't impress, and the soliloquies seemed overwrought...moreListening to Richard II, I've swung between awarding 2, 3 or 4 stars to it. Initially, the play didn't impress, and the soliloquies seemed overwrought and overlong. However, the persevering soul will find some amazing, four-star-worthy passages, the most famous perhaps being Gaunt's paean to England in Act II, scene i. Another one is found in Act III, scene iv, where a gardener laments the sorry state of the "garden" of England since its caretaker has so neglected it.
It may not be as "accessible" as Shakespeare's more popular plays. There're no grand villains like Iago or Richard III, nor are there any great heroes like Henry V. There're not even any angst-ridden Danes, though there's plenty of soul-searching and questions of identity and legitimacy. Richard II is the unhappy story of two essentially decent men who find themselves opposed, the weakness of the king precipitating a confrontation that results in his destruction. Richard's fundamental weakness is made manifest in the first scene of the first act. Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and the Duke of Norfolk quarrel and Richard attempts to intervene:
We were not born to sue, but to command; Which since we cannot do to make you friends, Be ready as your lives shall answer it...
Despite his flaws, Richard rules as best he can but is handicapped by an inability to inspire love, trust or cooperation; and is utterly incompetent as a politician, driving Henry (whom he banishes and disinherits) into rebellion. Whether he wills it or no, Bolingbroke must depose Richard, who rules by divine right, and justify his usurpation. I don't think Shakespeare ever resolves the problem throughout the entire cycle of history plays (which include Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), and certainly not in this play. But it is interesting to see the struggle proceed.
A word about the audio: While the production values were quite good, one of the drawbacks of solely listening to the play is that it can be difficult to tell who's saying what, particularly in the beginning. A minor caveat. A prospective listener might want to read (or reread) the play before donning the headphones. Or watch a production (I've already added two filmed versions to my Netflix queue).(less)
Measure for Measure, as the title suggests, is all about weighing out appropriate portions – of love, of mercy, of justice. The plot is simple enough....moreMeasure for Measure, as the title suggests, is all about weighing out appropriate portions – of love, of mercy, of justice. The plot is simple enough. The Duke of Vienna, concerned that his people have thrown off restraint and have sunk too far into liberty, leaves the city in the hands of Angelo, a man notorious for his strictness and inhuman discipline. As Lucio observes in two instances (once to Isabella and again to the Duke):
“…Upon his place, Governs Lord Angelo; a man whose blood Is very snow-broth; one who never feels The wanton stings and motions of the sense, But doth rebate and blunt his natural edges With profits of the mind, study, and fast.”
“Some report a sea-maid spawned him; some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true: and he is a motion generative; that’s infallible.” (Act 1, scene 4; Act 3, scene 2, respectively)
In the meantime, the Duke disguises himself as a humble friar to observe what transpires.
Angelo, true to form, imprisons and condemns Claudio for lechery – he has got with child his fiancée Julietta. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a woman who plans to enter a nunnery, importunes Angelo for mercy. Angelo refuses unless she sleeps with him (and even then he plans to kill Claudio; as Angelo says: “He should have lived, / Save that his riotous youth, with dangerous sense, / Might in times to come have ta’en revenge, / By so receiving a dishonor’d life / With ransom of such shame”).
At this point, the Duke (in his guise as friar) steps in and devises a plan whereby Isabella will appear to submit, but in her stead will step Mariana, Angelo’s spurned fiancée, who still loves him (for some reason; you’re reminded of Helena’s inexplicable love for Bertram from All’s Well That Ends Well). The bed-trick succeeds and Angelo is hoist on his own petard. The Duke pardons him and Claudio, and both men marry their women. Lucio (in a subplot) is forced to marry a prostitute whom he got pregnant (in punishment for lese majesté), and the Duke proposes to Isabella:
“… Dear Isabel, I have a motion which imports your good; Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.” (Act 5, scene 1)
Isabella’s reply (wholly nonverbal) depends upon how the play is staged: Does she accept? Does she decline? Is she left standing in confusion, as some productions have played?
And, again paralleling All’s Well, it’s an open question as to what the future holds for these couples as only one is a mutual love match (maybe two, if you accept Isabella falling for the Duke).
Though he gets away with rape and sexual harassment, I think Angelo is the most interesting character in the play. His unswerving commitment to the abstract ideal of justice comes face to face with the reality of his own, human nature and he finds that it’s not so easy to be a paragon of the law:
“From thee, even from they virtue! What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most? Ha! Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I That, lying by the violet in the sun, Do as the carrion does, not as the flower, Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be That modesty may more betray our sense Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough, Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary And pitch our evils there? O, let her brother live! Thieves for their robbery have authority When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her, That I desire to hear her speak again, And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on? O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous Is that temptation that doth goad us on To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet, With all her double vigor, art and nature, Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid Subdues me quite. Ever till now, When men were fond, I smiled and wonder’d how.” (Act 2, scene 3)