Shakespeare casts his eye on the Trojan War, but even in his usual high form, he treats the whole thing like a bit of a joke. "Troilus and Cressida" fShakespeare casts his eye on the Trojan War, but even in his usual high form, he treats the whole thing like a bit of a joke. "Troilus and Cressida" focuses on a pair of Trojan lovers; Troilus is Priam's youngest son, and Cressida is the daughter of a traitor who's defected to the Greek. After Troilus longs from afar, Cressida's uncle sets them up for a night of passion (because I'm a dummy, I originally though they got married, but that's not the case). Then they're separated as Cressida is traded to the Greeks in a prisoner swap to be reunited with her father.
Shakespeare has some fun twisting the conventions of the Iliad, recasting Achilles as a vain thug, Ajax as a dolt and Hector as literally too noble to live. Troilus and Cressida's union is more lust than love; as soon as they're separated, it's scattered, although that may be less a betrayal by Cressida than a simple recognition of her new reality.
The war itself comes in for the hardest time of it in Shakespeare's telling, wasteful and meaningless. It's an attitude that would have been very much at home in the trenches of World War I. Nearly all the participants realize that Helen isn't worth the price both sides have paid, but for reasons of senseless honor, they proceed with the bloodshed anyway.
As the Greek Diomedes put it before the prisoner exchange:
"For every false drop in her bawdy veins A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple Of her contaminated carrion weight, A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak, She hath not given so many good words breath As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death."
The story itself can get a little lost in Greek councils and Trojan opulence, but even that shows the ridiculousness of their pretensions when man are dying every day for little reason. "Troilus and Cressida" isn't as focused as some of Shakespeare's greatest plays; its tone varies, and none of its characters have a fully satisfying dramatic arc. But it's fascinating nonetheless, highlighting how even one of our greatest epics merely underscores our own foolishness.
Ulysses Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, A great-sized monster of ingratitudes: Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour'd As fast as they are made, forgot as soon As done: perseverance, dear my lord, Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail In monumental mockery.
Troilus (asked whether Cressida had a lover in Troy, not knowing she's found one among the Greeks) O, sir, to such as boasting show their scars A mock is due. Will you walk on, my lord? She was beloved, she loved; she is, and doth: But still sweet love is food for fortune's tooth....more
Shakespeare's gory revenge play, "Titus Andronicus" seems like the Tarantino flick of its day, complete with amputations, cannibalism and every note oShakespeare's gory revenge play, "Titus Andronicus" seems like the Tarantino flick of its day, complete with amputations, cannibalism and every note of human cruelty and resentment.
The titular character is a honor-fixated Roman general who returns from years of warfare to a populace that wants to crown him emperor as tribute. He turns down the role, handing it over to the former emperor's son instead. After the new emperor marries the queen Titus vanquished, however, things go wrong quickly.
Titus murders his own son, sees his daughter raped and mutilated and two other sons framed for the murder of his son-in-law, the emperor's brother. This first spurt of action culminates in a gory scene where he chops off his own hand to win his sons' freedom, only to receive their severed heads instead.
From there, Titus' thoughts understandably turn toward rebellion and revenge, even as his enemies continue plotting evil against him...and anyone within proximity. The villainy, like the rest of the play, is over the top in embracing decadence. Shakespeare goes gonzo, and while there are some pleasures there, it's hard to follow at times, much less believe. Titus accomplishes a pyrrhic victory, but there's no satisfaction there, only grim finality.
This is regarded as one of Shakespeare's worst plays, and it reads like a prodigious talent discovering exactly what it can get away with. I wouldn't be surprised if it were very successful; as the accompanying commentaries state, it's pure melodrama, without much ambiguity or growth to leaven it.
There are definitely highlights: the terror of the woodland scenes as well as "Aaron the Moor's" defiance defending his newborn son, one borne by the empress and not matching the hue of her royal husband. There's a great perspective there, and it's exciting to see Shakespeare mine it, even as he turns Aaron into something of a literal devil at the end.
"Titus Andronicus" probably isn't the place to start if you're looking to become familiar with the Bard. If you've read a bit of Shakespeare, though, it's an opportunity to see a new flavor on the familiar, even if it isn't wholly a successful one.
As for "Timon of Athens," it's a pretty thin tale. It shares the fall of the titular Greek noblemen, who's constantly chasing new extravagance in lavishing his friends with parties and gifts. Unfortunately, this ostentatious generosity soon renders him bankrupt, and his servants go out in vain to borrow money from the very people for whom he's just squandered his fortune.
Friends like these are "feast-won, fast-lost" we're reminded, but that offers Timon little comfort. Embittered, he goes to live in the wilderness, casting his hate onto all men who approach him. Timon travels from the extremes of society to the extremes of solitude pretty easily; as the play makes clear, he's unable to find moderation in either form. He eventually dies, but his scornful epitaph ends up saving the city of Athens from destruction by the rebel Alcibiades, who was cast out at the same time as Timon but finds a happier medium in his relationship with his fellow man.
The play is commonly regarded as unfinished, and it reads that way, more a morality play than the dense, layered narratives we're used to from Shakespeare. The cynical philosopher Apemantus has some nice lines, but Timon is more a parable than a character...and not very fun to spend time with.
Apemantus does get some nice insults in, though:
Timon: How lik'st thou this picture, Apemantus...Wrought he not well that painted it?
Apemantus: He wrought better that made the painter, and yet he's but a filthy piece of work.
With "Timon of Athens," Shakespeare seems to have a point he wanted to make but wasn't able to successfully dramatize to completion. As a result, the play is likely for completists only....more
A sumptuous look at the intricacies of monarchy. It's an inside-the-chambers look at the pomp, processions and power-plays of royaReview for Henry VII
A sumptuous look at the intricacies of monarchy. It's an inside-the-chambers look at the pomp, processions and power-plays of royalty.
Our titular king is Henry VIII, and Shakespeare's play covers the period that finds him moving from wife one, Katharine, to wife two, the unlucky Anne Bullen. As this takes place, the King's advisors jockey for position, setting up one another for beheadings and ruin.
A large part of the story examines how power twists law as Henry gathers learned councils to accomplish his goal of having his marriage annulled. Katharine was first married to his brother, and that's enough to invalidate the match...once enough pressure has been applied. His men--and allies from Rome--call her to take part in the proceedings, but she expresses the only power she has in refusing to lend them legitimacy, although this proves to be a hollow, short-lived victory.
"It seems the marriage with his brother's wife has crept too near his conscience," one character says.
"No, his conscience has crept too near another lady," another famously answers.
The play moves through Anne's coronation, capturing the extravagance of her new position. From there it moves to the seeds of England's Protestant reformation, as the King stands by his Archbishop of Canterbury, heading off the kind of conspiracy that brought down some of his men earlier in the play. It's a sign of the King's new comfort in managing his power.
The play has strong moments, although the language lacks the consistent fluidity of Shakespeare's best work. It's also a bit choppy in its pacing; each act seems to handle a different cast of characters, and there isn't a consistent drive or motivation linking the passages. Henry wants to divorce his wife while she doesn't want to be disgraced, but this dispute seems cool and bloodless, even as the other deadly machinations ultimately prove meaningless from our perspective.
In a way, the play mirrors the playacting of authority, the need to embody firm standards and expectations...or at least to appear to adhere to them until they can be safely discarded. It's interesting through that lens, but it's probably the weakest of Shakespeare's histories.
"O how wretched Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favors! There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to, That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin, More pangs and fears than wars or women have: And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer, Never to hope again."...more
The war of the Roses meets its bloody end as the rebellious cycle of the last few plays ends up giving a murderer a chance to kill his way to the throThe war of the Roses meets its bloody end as the rebellious cycle of the last few plays ends up giving a murderer a chance to kill his way to the throne. It's a close look at unfettered self-interest, one that serves a little humor with its trauma.
Richard makes for a memorable character, as do the "women's chorus" that condemns him. The end may prove unsatisfying for modern readers--it's choppy, and it lionizes the new king, who has done little to earn our interest. But the play as a whole is another succesful chapter in Shakespeare's histories, examining how ambition and duty intersect, for glory or ruin.
ELIZABETH Pity, you ancient stones, these tender babes Whom envy hath immured within your walls, Rough cradle for such little pretty ones. Rude, ragged nurse, old sullen playfellow For tender princes, use my babies well. So foolish sorrows bids your stones farewell....more
Less a play than a propaganda piece trumpeting the virtues of benevolent royalty. Structurally, it skips over large gaps in time, and as a result theLess a play than a propaganda piece trumpeting the virtues of benevolent royalty. Structurally, it skips over large gaps in time, and as a result the individual scenes fail to build any necessary tension.
The characters feel rote as well. They advance the plot, laud the king or pump out some worked-over humor, but few stick in the memory. My least favorite of the histories so far....more
Even people who haven’t read the play can recite lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Et tu, Brute;” “I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him.Even people who haven’t read the play can recite lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Et tu, Brute;” “I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him.” But the well-worn quotations produce a simplified sense of the plot, evoking an atmosphere of tyranny and retribution instead of the quickly shifting political landscape that makes up the drama’s core.
Shakespeare’s presentation of the political backstory is a model of economy, as he skillfully sums up the players, their alliances and their differing motivations. The nobility of Brutus is well-captured, as is the jealousy of Cassius and the fluid adaptability of Mark Antony.
But even as these iconic characters drive the action, they are also driven by the fickleness and easily kindled rage of the Roman mob. Citizens throng the streets, burn buildings and commit murder. Their allegiances flit back and forth on the basis of the latest soliloquy. To Shakespeare’s credit that these shifting loyalties never descend into deus ex machina. Instead, they seem to reflect the bloodsport of Roman politics, where leaders attempt to direct the mob even as they’re surrounded by it.
Shakespeare also adds his trademark psychological torment to the mix. As Brutus plans to strike down Caesar, he reflects:
“Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, or a hideous dream: The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council; and the state of man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.”
The language throughout is choice and fluid, and it’s funny that Shakespeare’s phrasings have come to define our view of Roman culture. (See how many period films have characters speaking in English accents; the HBO miniseries Rome, which we just began watching, is one of them.) Even as Shakespeare evokes the era, he remains faithful to the larger movements of history, making Julius Caesar a fine summation of its time as well as an excellent work of drama. ...more
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a bizarre, ranging comedy. The play jumps so lightly between slapstick and cruelty that it’s unclear whether it’s aShakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a bizarre, ranging comedy. The play jumps so lightly between slapstick and cruelty that it’s unclear whether it’s a dark farce, a bloody satire exposing the dangers of absolute power, or a moldy amalgam of cuckoldry, class, and misogyny.
The premise has a king baselessly charge his queen with infidelity. He believes she’s slept with his brother, who wisely flees a plot to murder him. Suspected adultery is a common hook for Shakespearean comedy, with misunderstanding harmlessly giving way to reconciliation, but this story doesn’t skip to a happy ending. People die—one lord is famously eaten by a bear—and their quick, brutal ends remain unredeemed, the senseless spinoffs of a king’s jealousy.
While the king eventually claims guilt, he keeps his throne and privilege, with no consequences for his actions. It is clear that he lives by his whim, above laws, his station ensuring his status.
Similarly, his brother rages in his own kingdom, threatening murder and torture, in great detail, to peasants who have unwittingly displeased him. Lovers flee, false identities are discovered, and the play pushes itself to a magical ending. By the final scenes, the medium itself has been strained and exposed. The most momentous events take place offstage; the final scene unfolds as an inside joke, poking fun at the staged setting to work the miracle.
What did Shakespeare intend as he wrote The Winter’s Tale? Is the casual cruelty a nod to cynicism as he reached the end of his career? Was it meant to highlight life’s unevenness, the capriciousness of kings? Would the audience have laughed at the king’s jealousy or his brother’s rage? Would the kings have been viewed as “bad” kings, or would their failings have been standard for the lot? Did the play seek to evoke the sword that dangles above a nation of subjects? Or was it just a bundle of jokes, summing up man’s eternal folly?
It’s a strange, mixed bag, but there seems to be some subversiveness in it, along with a great deal of sadness and resignation. Terrible things happen for no good reason, it tells us. Sure, sometimes all ends well. But more often, in the end, you’re just food for the bears....more