It's odd that a play so gruesome and disturbing can also prove to be so cotton-candy-weightless - the Shakespearean equivalent of a Zack Snyder film....moreIt's odd that a play so gruesome and disturbing can also prove to be so cotton-candy-weightless - the Shakespearean equivalent of a Zack Snyder film. Arden seems to think the play's weightlessness springs from its parodic humor and is an intentional effect. But I disagree: however intentional it may be, it's more of a defect, and I don't think the humor is a contributing factor. In fact, I like the humor - who doesn't love a baker's dozen of amputee jokes? And in Titus's mouth it proves an interesting character trait - one of Shakespeare's searing psychological observations, that man needs humor to cope with loss just as he needs words to lessen its impact and theater to demystify its tragedy.
But this is Titus's only defining character trait - and he shares the stage with total cyphers: his own family nothing but a chorus of sympathetic howling, while their enemies are moustache-twirling vaudevillian evil-doers whose cleverness extends only so far. When it's time for Tamora's downfall, she becomes absurd - her trust in Titus's madness unwarranted, her Revenge dress-up game completely feeble. Meanwhile Aaron's delight in evil feels more like mocking speechifying than a convincing portrait of amorality. There's an interesting story buried here somewhere, in Aaron betraying Tamora for love of his baby son - but Aaron's insistence on his own vileness makes it difficult to comb through the muck for the kernels of humanity within.
Lavinia's story is horrifying - especially because for all intents and purposes she is, almost from the start, more an object than a character. Whether she's being cuddled by her father; squabbled over by her brothers, Bassianus, and Saturninus; or raped, silenced, mutilated and eventually murdered - she is a deer, a prize, a sorrow, a gushing fountain of blood, but never a person. It's so disturbing: the poetic description of her agonies, the way her doting father nominates himself to be her voice, the way she is fobbed off on whatever man stakes a claim. Ickity ick. I can't say I wasn't affected by this - but yow.
This is an artful play, full of interesting dramatic effects and aesthetic flourishes, but its disjointed structure and sloppy characterizations make it seem more like a failed experiment than a fully-realized work.(less)
Elegiac, frustrating, and moving in just the same way a late installment of serial fiction can be today. For me the tavern scenes, especially Falstaff...moreElegiac, frustrating, and moving in just the same way a late installment of serial fiction can be today. For me the tavern scenes, especially Falstaff's bittersweet tete-a-tete with Doll Tearsheet, were particularly unsettling, as they labor to make the end of the road funny - and often succeed! Falstaff is of course more emphatically a tragic figure here, but he's also more surprisingly a crueler one, his charm now inadequate to conceal his darker - and as always ginormous - underbelly. He tries to embarrass the Chief Justice, who seems the very epitome of decency, and the way he exploits the generosity and woolen-brainedness of Mistress Quickly is really inexcusable, though it also makes me laugh, even if I don't really want to.
But I think that says it all - this play combines humor and tragedy as any fine Shakespeare play is wont to do, but it achieves this effect with more complexity and ambivalence than I have yet encountered in the Bard. I started this play missing Hotspur desperately, and Shakespeare - prescient fellow that he is - manipulates and comments upon this selfish groundling desire of mine so very masterly, bringing in Lady Percy to mourn his loss and Pistol to serve as the inadequate Eastcheap replacement. Shakespeare is really beginning to remind me of a sadistic television showrunner - Joss Whedon in a ruff - evolving beloved characters to both fulfill and challenge his audience's expectations, respecting us and baiting us all at once. You find yourself rooting for Hal's majestic ascension even though you know he will cut off the irregular humorists like so many Falstaffian tons of excess baggage. (less)
I struggled with this one. Mistress Quickly remains as funny as ever but I could take or leave just about everyone else. It reads like a rehash, not j...moreI struggled with this one. Mistress Quickly remains as funny as ever but I could take or leave just about everyone else. It reads like a rehash, not just of the tavern scenes of H4, but of Shakespeare's plebeian comedy in general, poking fun at accents, misappropriations in language, cuckold jokes, the young folks getting one over on the old folks, same old same old, with no attempts to subvert or invent. It sounds like this was something of a last-minute patch job for Shakespeare and alas, it shows.(less)
My review of this play was forestalled by my vacation, so now I'm looking back at this and thinking four stars, really? In retrospect it's probably a...moreMy review of this play was forestalled by my vacation, so now I'm looking back at this and thinking four stars, really? In retrospect it's probably a three, but I'll let my original impression hold. Certainly this play is enjoyable and odd - and enjoyably odd - notable for having many of Shakespeare's comedy tropes present in embryonic form: a young man, resolved to avoid the absurdities of love, immediately falls prey to a woman's charms; a woman disguises herself as a man and serves her love as his page; the woods as a place of banishment and self-discovery. Even the troubling resolution, unnerving in its artificial tidiness, proves reminiscent of the problem plays to come.
I liked how Arden foregrounded Two Gentleman in the male friendship tradition, even if Proteus and Valentine are hardly interesting specimens; their friendship is easily tried and easily resolved. But that to me is this play's mode of expression: sweeping reversals of character and plot, ironical generalizations about love's constancy, oaths' immutability, friendship's importance, all tossed aside at the first opportunity only to be picked up at the playwright's discretion. It is a Protean play, insincerity is its subject matter, to which it commits insincerely. It strikes me as a play very much about the ideas of love, honor, and friendship, and how those ideas create unnatural behavior in the men who uphold them. Valentine's offer of Sylvia to Proteus is the ultimate example of this - forgiveness and friendship are flaunted to the point of seeming absurd, illogical and phony, but meanwhile in relinquishing Sylvia, Valentine also proves that his love is as easily transferable as Proteus's for Julia. The women faint or become mysteriously silent, for at this stage young Shakespeare must know that his female characters are too strong to be so subject to the whims of men - he silences them lest they puncture this play's fanciful bubble with their good sense.
Launce steps in as the character with the clearest vision. He is resolved to love a milkmaid, and while his list of her virtues and vices brings to mind Dromio's monstrous Nell, there is something sweet in Launce's cheerful enumeration of his love's qualities - he mocks, but he also takes delight in his choice, neither idealizing love nor selling it out. But when he thinks he has been ordered to give the love of his life away - Crab, of course - he goes through with it just as Valentine is willing to abandon Sylvia. Even Launce equivocates in this play; he'd go to the stocks to save Crab's life, but if asked, he'll kick him to the curb. (less)
Boy, howdy, what a weird play. If I lived in this Navarre I would either go mad or be forced to wear earmuffs - the constant barrage of word games, it...moreBoy, howdy, what a weird play. If I lived in this Navarre I would either go mad or be forced to wear earmuffs - the constant barrage of word games, it's the most contagious and widespread case of verbal diarrhea I've ever witnessed! I sympathize with Costard, who has a few good sallies of his own but mostly just stands around catching flies as he marvels at the acrobatic rhetoric. We see the dangers of too much cunning in thought and too little, the downfall of the lords who live by all art, no matter. (less)
Not an enormous amount to say about this one. It's slight, it's entertaining, I've seen it in performance and was rolling in the aisles. Reading the p...moreNot an enormous amount to say about this one. It's slight, it's entertaining, I've seen it in performance and was rolling in the aisles. Reading the play means losing most of the sight gags, which makes the experience awfully incomplete. Arden tries to treat this text like a work of literature, pointing out the use of transformation, witchcraft, and the intervention of divine order in the form of the Abbess. These are all valid points but they don't really add much in the way of nuance to the story; to me all three are just superficial elements of plot. Like Richard III, this play feels like a transcript, a live performance's afterimage.
That being said, there were some parts just as delightful to read as to see performed. S. Dromio's description of Nell the kitchen maid is a total work of art, and I love the way Antipholus prompts him, dragging out the metaphor, snowballing the humor by refusing to punchline the joke. Also the play's final beat, the exchange between the two Dromios, has a tenderness and an emotional delicacy that is surprisingly affecting, even while being very funny.
The fantastic Chicago Repertory performance I saw had a framing story about a film production in the '40s - at the time I assumed they had abridged the play to make room for the new material, but now I'm pretty sure they didn't. It's a shortie play, in length and substance, and I think the Chicago Rep dealt with its shortcomings very admirably. (less)
This play's sliding scale, from the personal to the political, the historical to the comic, is so robust and modern, entirely accessible. The vividnes...moreThis play's sliding scale, from the personal to the political, the historical to the comic, is so robust and modern, entirely accessible. The vividness of the story, the characters, the reality of the world they inhabit in its pomp and in its grit, all this makes it honestly hard for me to believe that this play was written 400 years ago. This play can do everything, and that's why it is perhaps the apex of popular literature. It represents Shakespeare's downright eerie ability to capture the vagaries of life, whether from the tavern or the battlefield, and make them sing in harmony and happy discord.
The previous time I read this I was understandably fixated on Hal and Falstaff; I tried to comb through the insults for a fine strand or two of real affection, puzzled over whose motives were more suspect, unpacked Hal's soliloquy word by word to decide whether or not it was an example of cold Machiavellian brilliance or a rascal's flimsy justification for his love of vice. But on this read, I was more interested in Hotspur. He is the most delightful confection and I adore him; his wants are simple, his needs are few, he'll pluck honor from the moon and where's his horse, dammit. This could have been a cartoon - Silvia's first suitor in Two Gentleman of Verona springs to mind - but Shakespeare nimbly avoids this. For one thing, Hotspur's use of language is so perfectly pitched, incredibly nuanced; its halting rhythms and confused imagery emphasize his inability to play at courtly elegance, his inborn frustration at needing to speak before he can act, and above all his indomitable energy. The flashes of affectionate petulance with Kate and his skeptical Scully impression with Glendower are both surprising to the reader in the best possible way; the character retains his simplicity, his essential Hotspurness, while also revealing something delightful and new. He is a wonderful warm-blooded creation, especially refreshing as he co-exists just at the borders of the chilly moral landscape that Hal and Henry occupy. Even lovable Falstaff couldn't quite match up to Hotspur for me on this read; the deliberate flimsiness of Sir John's excuses, his promises to reform even in their cheerful mockery sound a little too much like Hal's, which makes me loath to trust Fat Jack, who may be just as two-faced as his young protege. Give me one-faced Hufflepuff Hotspur any day. (less)
I love Portia. Particularly her dry humor and her ability to gracefully self-efface. The rest of the play is diverting silliness, but Portia really po...moreI love Portia. Particularly her dry humor and her ability to gracefully self-efface. The rest of the play is diverting silliness, but Portia really powers through. Even when she's engaging in the usual comedy antics, depriving Bassanio of his ring in order to feign offense later - a pointless piece of situational comedy, if you ask me - and yet Portia rises above it. It should have seemed pointlessly cruel or catty (or should that be shrewish?) just like the trick the ladies pull in Love's Labour's Lost. But instead Portia's gentle remonstrances come from a place of real affection for her husband. Bassanio isn't a particularly vivid character, but Portia does all the work selling me on the authenticity of their loving relationship.
Shylock? Besides the much-ballyhooed "If you prick us?" speech, I'm not sure I see any nuance on the page. There is something unsettling about his anger, its single-minded intensity, the way it supersedes the loss of his daughter rather than springing directly from it, which in my mind would be the more sympathetic way of providing Shylock with motivation. I don't think there's any quibbling about it - Shylock is meant to be the villain of the piece, straight-up Absolut Villainy. Maybe Shakespeare really has just grown in poetic powers so exponentially that even when he deliberately sets out to create a stereotypical mustache-twirler (ala Richard III) he's now incapable of rendering such a monster without endowing him with his own brand of convincing emotional logic. But there's not enough of that present for me to accept Shylock as a tragic anti-hero, but certainly I admit that there's something there, enough for a talented performer to latch on to and exploit. (less)
This one was a big surprise - I really, really enjoyed it. I saw it performed a long time ago and it was neither what I remembered or was expecting. I...moreThis one was a big surprise - I really, really enjoyed it. I saw it performed a long time ago and it was neither what I remembered or was expecting. I had readied myself to be puffed up in a fury, but instead I was struck by Shakespeare's cleverness and delicacy in handling this subject, by how this play reads neither as a product of our time nor of its own.(less)
Another play with which I have a history. I think it must be the one I've seen performed most frequently - at least three times, and that's not counti...moreAnother play with which I have a history. I think it must be the one I've seen performed most frequently - at least three times, and that's not counting my doubling for Oberon and Theseus in a student production. But it's very different experiencing this play on the page. Unlike Comedy of Errors and Richard III, I didn't feel like I was reading a limp theater transcript, but a piece of writing full of vibrant images and music, even with its words unspoken. Shakespeare in the lyric vein isn't as appealing to me as his meatier psychological and character-driven writing, but there's no denying that he's good at gloss, at beauty rendered so weightlessly that Athens and its woods are almost a zero-gravity zone.
Bottom is marvelous, he leaps off the page and refuses to return in that obstinately sweet way of his, whether he's making suggestions to a director or kicking back with a faerie queen. Despite the ass's head, he is eminently unchangeable - in a play all about transformation!
I also enjoyed Theseus and Hippolyta this time around. I used to just think of them as background dressing, but their subtle, refreshingly adult interplay is a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the zaniness. Her gentle willingness to disagree with Theseus really registered with me, and I like what a good ruler Theseus is, how majestically he takes on the role of peanut gallery for the play-with-the-play (especially when compared to the much rowdier nobles of Love's Labour's Lost, whose mocking bordered on outright cruelty). I was very charmed by his speech about meeting his subjects, how the tongue-tied are most sincere, their stupefaction in the face of fame a form of eloquence. It makes me wonder whether at this point in his career, perhaps Shakespeare had already had some run-ins with adoring groupies - or perhaps was one himself?(less)
The first play in my project with which I'm already pretty familiar. What was different for me this time? Besides a new appreciation for the dazzling...moreThe first play in my project with which I'm already pretty familiar. What was different for me this time? Besides a new appreciation for the dazzling lyricism so strikingly different from everything that has come before, I also found myself delighted by Juliet, the first fully realized, nuanced, funny, incredibly wise heroine in Shakespeare. She's naive, as befits a fourteen-year-old in love, but she is aware of her naivete, and often chides herself for it - this felt real to me, achingly real, spookily real. I realized on this reading how she is much more sensible than Romeo, who, to his credit, has a great capacity for feeling, but with it a total lack of self-awareness. He barrels along like fortune's poor fool, unable to understand his whiplash-inducing mood swings or, for that matter, those of Mercutio. His blind rashness ultimately leads to disaster, first in slaying Tybalt (though I sympathize with him on this count) and then in downing poison mere moments before his beloved awakes. Less easy to sympathize here; Romeo curiously experiences neither denial nor hope, he accepts Juliet's death so instantly one suspects he's always known, been forever in love with the death of love. It appeals too intensely to his romantic sensibility for him to question it. If Romeo had taken a page out of Juliet's book and paused for a moment of true self reflection, the whole disaster might well have been averted.
What also struck me was how much this play read like a reaction to Love's Labour's Lost - I really have to believe Shakespeare wrote R&J directly after it, it just makes too much sense. Velvet poetry, raw feeling, the evocative Italian setting with its sweltering noons and supple moonlight - all act as a tonic to LLL, that claustrophobic sinkhole, with its wall-to-wall rhetoric, words spiraling and spiraling until their meaning gets sucked down a drain. The courtiers of LLL are in love with the power of speech, with the act of wooing - which leaves no room for loving the women. But R&J is about sincere passion, words in service to love and not the other way around. In the balcony scene Juliet begs Romeo's pardon for skipping past the obligatory maiden-modesty/hard-to-get portion of the program; why play games when you can skip straight to joy? In LLL, the games - the labors - are the program and it is an exhausting, ultimately futile exercise. And so R&J moves forward, from courtship to romance to parting to forever parting. But this time love's labor isn't lost; much care is taken in making R&J's death worth the price, not just in its repairing the breach between the Montagues and the Capulets, but also because the lovers themselves are so vivid, the connection between them so intense, that this in and of itself is a triumph.