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 thro...moreThe 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.(less)
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 the...moreLess 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.(less)
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....moreEven 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. (less)
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 a...moreShakespeare’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.(less)