Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not
After each Shakespeare experience, I realize how much I have y...more
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not
After each Shakespeare experience, I realize how much I have yet to learn The Bard we love so much. If the man wrote average works merely for the sake of his professional livelihood, one might count Measure For Measure among them even if only for its lack of notoriety. I did. Yet Shakespeare must have enjoyed envious blessing in his ability to transform mediocre intent into golden wonder.
I had no idea what to expect as I picked up Measure For Measure. I hadn't the slightest familiarity with its characters, plot, themes, etc. I did, however, expect an "easy" play. On the contrary, Measure For Measure expounds on ethical conundrums in the oximoronic term "state justice" and the manipulated intent of civil and religious law when it serves to enforce morality.
Surely, Man created Law to protect freedom, not restrain it. Consider Angelo's analogy of the scarecrow,
We must not make a scarecrow of the law, Setting it up to fear the birds of prey, And let it keep one shape till custom make it Their perch, and not their terror (Act II, Scene I)
However, though I concede Angelo's point, I have to ask: does the scarecrow exist only to scare crows or to protect the crop? Understandably, the two intentions intertwine yet if we untangle them, we must ask whether the crow, or the crop, represents the public. The Duke describes the public as a caged lion denied the use of its nature. He fears the public may no longer fear the cane once used to control it. The cage now angers them more than the pain of the cane frightens them. So they will endure that pain for the sake of exploding from the cage. Of course, after they explode from the cage, the cane may seem all the more necessary as the public indulges itself on every allowance once denied them. Claudio ponders,
From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty As surfeit is the father of much fast, So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, - Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, - A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. (Act I, Scene III)
The public turns to a government to restrain their freedoms when they should rather enjoy the freedom to deny themselves as much as indulge themselves. They would see value, not in the lack of denial, but in the lack of a hand denying them. The problem is not denial itself, but who denies. That power ought to lie in each man. Freedom is power over oneself, not the lack of power at all which leads to irresponsible indulgence - not the ability to do anything, bu the power to choose for our own good. Perhaps Claudio speaks sarcastically, but I can't argue with him.
Escalus, when pitying Claudio's circumstances, laments, "Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; / Pardon is still the nurse of second woe:" (Act II, Scene I). Imagine if the Bishop of Digne had sent Jean Valjean back to prison for stealing his silver. Mercy and pardon always and steadfastly exist as Good and Right and fertilize seeds which grow green among crispy brown stalks. We simply cannot see the future or trust nature and mankind to unfold its story like Hugo's - to raise the green stalks. Therefore, we believe that we need to snuff mercy and take power away from Fate and the evolution of nature to ensure justice.
Let he who has no sin cast the first stone - yet somehow we convince ourselves that government stands immune to this philosophy. We plead for justice from a civil authority like Angelo. As Angelo solicites Isabel, after her petition for mercy on behalf of her brother, I see a hypocrite but also a trickster. With leading logic, like a seven-figure lawyer, he manipulates her thinking to serve both his pious judgement and crude, base hypocrisy. He nearly resembles a satanic figure preying on a Godly sheep, "my false o'erweighs your true" (Act II, Scene IV). However, one can argue that Angelo labored logically not only to convince Isabel, but himself. If his prisoner's sister, and a woman of the cloth no less, can defend his judgement than how can anyone else, or he, accuse him of injustice?
Their intellectual battle between civil law and religious reason exposes another concept. By pursuing infallible purity through reasoned or spiritual labor, Man unavoidably faces a crossroads of his reasoned and explained Right versus real, autonomous, unchangeable Right - a Right perhaps beyond analysis but surely constant, unaffected by his ability to grasp it, existing outside of his influence and content to carry on independently of his acceptance. Neither Angelo nor Isabel can flawlessly defend Claudio by means of reason, law or religion (at least within the realms of their understanding). Yet the audience knows Claudio suffers unjustly despite these characters' inability to explain it. Angelo manages to portray Isabel's sacrificial willingness as a sin. She follows and agrees, unable to show any conviction in sinning for the sake of saving her brother. Therefore, the audience remains unsatisfied and continue to wait for Shakespeare to present some wise perspective, to show a true Right that makes legally arguable sense among civil and religious law when neither rule has done so yet.
Speaking for myself, as a member of that audience, I sympathize with Claudio not only because he suffers for a behavioral slip which in this day bares minimal legal reciprocity, if any, but because Angelo, a statesman, holds sway over his very life as if he has a right to it. To Angelo, a human life signifies only its part in the machine of the public, of society. If that part breaks, or causes the machine to sputter, Angelo would simply dispose of it. Not only does this bother me, but the idea that Angelo, or any statesman with this power, can decide a man's fate, or even a machine part's fate, based on the machine's performance when he determines the quality or intent of that machine's function! To another, that machine might appear to do exactly what it ought to do but if Angelo disagrees, the part enters the hearth regardless of if the machine does, in fact, perform as it should according to a constant, autonomous assessment.
I found the Duke terribly interesting. He somehow stands apart from the other judges in this play. He leaves his seat and powers to Angelo, much like God may have done with Satan in the story of Job, and disguises himself as a friar. In contrast to Angelo and Isabel's opposition, the Duke embraces both agents within himself. I also find it ironic that Venice's highest judge would orchestrate justice away from his seat of power. I admit I had trouble believing in the Duke since he executes much of his more benign justice under a false guise and by tricking and employing falsehoods in the name of good. Yet he contrasts Angelo by employing "wrong" to accomplish good while Angelo and Escalus believe they do "good" by employing wrong. While Isabel and Angelo argue about the logic of sinning to save, the Duke encourages religiously indictable tricks in the pursuit of justice. Law does not motivate the Duke nor do any metaphysical or philosophical doctrines on justice. To use a cliche, the Duke follows the Golden Rule and feels that someone who has sinned should by no means cast any kind of stone. But if the head of government believes this, how can any man hold sway over another's life? Lucio even distracts us into wondering, at least, if the Duke himself ought to cast any stones.
Finally, the Duke levies sentences against those who the audience might lead to the gallows themselves. And yet even here justice does not quit. We have yet more to glean about true justice and real Right. Isabel gets her chance to petition again for a life, though this time the life means quite the opposite to her from what Claudio's means to her. But if she wants to remain true to her spiritual nature, she must pass the test or somehow, without ever anticipating it, find herself likened to her enemy and branded as a hypocrite. Claudio finds his justice, as does Angelo and Lucio. In the end, justice finds satisfaction in rectifying wrongs rather than punishing them.
All do not live happily ever after. But each wrong measure found its righteous and equal countermeasure. And time moves on for more wrongs and more rights and more mercy and more justice to find their places in our lives.(less)
Why, Sir John, do you think, though we would have thrust virtue out of our hearts by the head and shoulders, and have given ourselves without scruple to hell, that ever the devil could have made you our delight?
Has Sir John Falstaff learned the humour of the age? to suffer tactics similar to his own, turning him into a pathetic minstrel unwittingly singing praises of his own demise? Perhaps his humour, as Nym would overly use the word, permeates the age across gender and social barriers. Mistresses Page and Ford do not count themselves above such deceptive tactics to profit in humour. Nor does Master Fenton.
I gladly meet Falstaff again in this Merry Wives of Windsor. Not only did I miss him after finishing the Henry IVs, but I feel that I know a little more about him in terms of his literary merit. On one level, Shakespeare could have intended to use him as a symbol of the haughty hypocrisy and base normality of English nobility, soldiers and knighthood. Yet when comparing this "Merry" John Falstaff to the Falstaff at young Prince Henry V's side, we see more of a transition than static statement. Falstaff himself represents the turning of the age in England to one of national conscience and meaning, a state in which he has trouble placing himself. These comic characters of Windsor care little about laws, state regulations or anyone other than themselves for that matter. They do not mind humiliating, propositioning married women, venting their anger and insecurities upon innocents, supporting others against each other for profit or neglecting their vocations for, well...silliness. With the coronation of Henry V, this petty rabbling dissolves away.
Of course, it's just a play and one which assuredly entertained the masses at the Globe, or wherever Shakespeare staged it. On might think that he abandoned some intellectual integrity in order to coax a laugh or two. Alas, should we forget that we speak of Shakespeare? Of his familiar comedies, I think this one had the most complex plot though simplest adhesive. As in other comedies, deception fuels the humour. Yet the audience sees every deceptive move at every level. They also usually see the perpetrator and victim quite clearly and thusly knowing full well with whom they ought to sympathize. Yet with these Windsor folk, they all suffer as the perpetrator and the victim. So how ought the audience react? Who should they laugh at, pity, sympathize with or scorn?
Due to this complexity, I found the play rather flat in terms of meaning. After they bow, nothing changes either within the minds of the patrons or in the hearts of society. We witnessed one big trick over-cooked by several tiny versions of itself. Life moves on as it had.
I do not seek to quench your love's hot fire, But qualify the fire's extreme rage, Lest it should burn above the bounds of reason. Lucetta, Act II, Scene VII
I imagine Abbot and Costello performing dramatic devices from The Merchant of Venice for an idea which wouldn't fully mature until Romeo & Juliet.
Shakespeare's tale of romantic love may seem like shallow entertainment. However, as in most Shakespeare pieces, he weaves fundamental and universal elements of the human condition into this humorous rendering of a story experienced by all people.
Love - that meaning of life, that shared bond mastered by none but claimed by all, that passion in life to which we find ourselves chemically dependent though it ironically serves us best when focused on others. Shakespeare boldly claims ignorance to the true nature of love by exploring its crevices and peeks, transforming it from a drunken obsession into a raging demand and ultimately into a sort of mirror to our naked character.
As a comedy, Shakespeare playfully manipulates the essence of his art, planting word-plays and terse dialogue to which only live studio audiences or laugh tracks can provide justice. He arguably constructs a less than believable ending to serve his audience and theater's bottom line.
Yet within the comedy we see two inseparable friends fated by love toward blissful and desperate ends. Love plays the trickster, the maniacal devil of mischief, twisting the relationships and lives of those gathered around its fire. Once revered as a brilliant display, it betrays the friends and lovers with its scorching touch but then ultimately shines its light on the integrity or inconstancy of its pagan idolaters. But we bear the responsibility of indulging the entertainment while seeing the activity in the dark areas over-shadowed by the light which exposes that entertainment. Though motivated by love, one gentlemen becomes the villain who fatefully suffers the forgiveness of one who arguably allows love to transform him. Yet will this villainous friend find happiness in the same way as his forgiver enjoys the fruits of his loving disposition? Even if all ends well, can he call his life free of the envy and animosity which love inspires, that same passion which leads another man to a very different life experience.
Within the text, one may notice the soliloquies jammed between the terse dialogue. During these inner monologues, our characters consider how love will either force them to betray or indulge themselves and how that choice will dictate their lives. Though these characters make different choices regarding self-indulgence or love's self-betrayal, they seem to respect that the shared inspiration of love drives them, albeit to different experiences. Alas, perhaps this only helps me swallow Shakespeare's ending - likely scripted in order to glue a certain smile on every patron's face as they leave the theater only to live what they just witnessed on the stage. (less)
Never has Shakespeare entertained me so much. He has confounded me, interrogated me and mirrored me but never has he handed me a summer Hollywood...more
Never has Shakespeare entertained me so much. He has confounded me, interrogated me and mirrored me but never has he handed me a summer Hollywood blockbuster - a chilling and thrilling script of violent tragedy stoking societal passions from all sides.
Despite the gripping plot, I tried to focus on Caius Marcius' character. As in all of Shakespeare's plays, the characteristics of a hero or villain shape the play and bend our sympathies - not the action or twisting storylines. Through this reading I discovered the deep tragedy of Coriolanus' life and, again, found myself sympathizing for a man with whom I shared little in terms of personality, characteristics or moral conviction.
Ironically, Coriolanus does not fit anywhere, despite his nurturing which would seek to make him great everywhere. Burdened with his military prowess, all states would willingly use him but then shun him when he exhibits any personal, rather than professional, opinions and choices. Neither Roman nor Volscian societies leave room for the man, only for the great soldier. He must suffer the fate of a product - manufactured and used according to others' needs then discarded when dysfunctional. The tribunes know they share the same function but also know how to remain relevant by manipulating their manufacturer and refraining from exhibiting any personal character. They don't even claim to have their own voice but rather the voice of the people.
In contrast, Shakespeare describes a staunch man in Coriolanus, embittered toward the citizens of Rome. He fully embraces the fact that their support shifts like the winds and how they sooner praise a hero as condemn him. He forces many of democracy's faithful to evaluate its practical application - rulers elected to power by the mob while manipulating that same mob in order to maintain that power which does not technically belong to them but rather to the people. Coriolanus sees the farce and scorns how the people willfully embrace this illusion and how the nobility pander to it. Rather than behave as a tamed agent of that system, like the tribunes, he uncontrollably voices his opinions. He cannot shroud his sensibilities though he would want to, and promises to, several times.
His mother's guidance sets him on a path to standardize warlike honor and to the pinnacle of a soldier's glory. He respects and listens to his mother above all other people and shifts his thinking at the twisting of her tongue. While witnessing their interactions, one sees a man's nature repressed for the sake of a profitable nurturing - a nurturing which would ultimately spurn him. He bows to her advice and represses his natural inclinations. His mother manipulates him in the same way as the tribunes manipulate the people! He speaks of power when his mother cultivates the root of it.
Can one compare Coriolanus to the very people he would see weakened and disavowed of their "power"? the mighty, god-like soldier compared to a group which outnumbers any army or government? the man who sways in his allegiances? someone who willfully succumbs to the illusion of his power when others in government determine his fate? the proudly disrespectful man calmed by the words and manipulations of a loved benefactor?
Why would he resent an entity which resembles him so much? Perhaps Coriolanus' and the people share a similar nature, manipulated and contorted by the nurturing of those in real power. During certain episodes, it seems that Coriolanus opposes the people as if, like his mother, he would oppose himself, his natural self - the weak little boy within who pines after his mother's attention in hopes of feeling accepted for his nature, the society that loves its illusions only because they don't want to feel insignificant.
Consider, also, Coriolanus' relationship with Aufidius. As bitter enemies, they share many similar characteristics - national pride, violent propensities, a deep investment and love for honor and nobility, etc. Yet, as many have said before, two people so alike rarely get along - like two hurricanes colliding with equal force. We witness the demise of Coriolanus at the hands of his mirror image, a representation of Coriolanus' nurturing demolishing the boy of Coriolanus' nature. But even though their nurturing set them at odds, I wonder if they, too, shared natural characteristics and might have shared a friendly bond in appreciation of the magnetic pull that brings the two hurricanes to collision. Perhaps they could have been one hurricane.
Alas, we call this a tragedy because Shakespeare presents Coriolanus as a victim to his inescapable nurturing. Perhaps the boy wanted peace, companionship, acceptance and a family life. But the world denies him as a result of his experience, his nurturing by the will of manipulation. Will the world, then, also deny the people as a result of their experience in the grip of manipulation?(less)
I imagine Shakespeare sitting as his writing table giggling to himself. In this play, we have carefree nobility, a Dionysus in Don John, a count in lo...moreI imagine Shakespeare sitting as his writing table giggling to himself. In this play, we have carefree nobility, a Dionysus in Don John, a count in love and a convicted bachelor with his female counterpart. What would happen if all characters - good, bad, honest or deceitful - shared a similar affinity for cunning and trickery? What would happen if they all felt empowered to steer the course of their destinies according to their whims? To one who finds this illusion humorous, they might sound a bit like our good friend Dogberry!
Trickery litters every circumstantial turn in the play. Ironically, while I think of these characters trying to take control of every twist with cunning and whimsical delight, I imagine Shakespeare resigning authorship to the dictation of trickery, allowing it to determine how things would progress through the play. While the characters plot and entertain an illusion of control, Shakespeare releases control of the plot to their illusion.
While many of the characters seem only like devices to move a plot of trickery, I found Benedick and Beatrice fascinating. Why do they abhor marriage so much? Is this a natural spite or a façade to protect their delicate egos? Do they really yearn for love and companionship but lack the confidence to pursue it? Throughout the first half of the play, they cringe at the shackles of marriage and refute the possibility of any man or woman rising to the task. However, while blissfully happy in the betrothal of Claudio and Hero, the other characters decide to impose their happiness on these steadfast singles and Benedick and Beatrice drop their convictions and succumb to love for one another. For me, this only indicates Benedick’s deep longing for love and how he would only relent to it when he knew the possibility of it falling to him. Beatrice, however, has a deeper tale to tell.
During the climactic trick, when things begin to spin a bit out of their control, Beatrice exhibits a singular reaction to Hero’s demise. One might employ a feminist reading at this point in order to learn more about Beatrice and about the nature of gender roles and marriage. While Hero’s father shamefully disowns Hero and prefers her death to his “shame”, the blot on her perfectly white image which incites familiar masculine chauvinism, Beatrice juxtaposes by asking Benedick to avenge the slander imposed on Hero’s honor on Claudio, his best friend. Beatrice exclaims:
Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly count-confect; a sweet gallant, surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valliant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. – I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I shall die a woman with grieving. - Act IV, Scene I
It seems that Beatrice extracts the traditionally masculine characteristics ascribed to men and beholds them as universally moral and honorable qualities which men have abandoned. She respects these qualities more than other men but finds herself restrained by her gender from enacting these qualities herself. She deconstructs the traditional gender roles, glorifies these qualities after relinquishing men of their ownership and wails at her inability to enforce them herself. Accordingly, perhaps Beatrice genuinely laments the social expectation of her gender to marry when men do not embrace these moral qualities and women remain restricted to embody them.
Of course, the play resolves as a Shakespearean comedy should – with joy wrought from illusion. Shakespeare might expect us to despise Don John but he matters to me no more than he matters to Benedick. Every character in this play stands guilty of cunning trickery and the events resolve according to their characteristics rather than to their whims. We forgive the other characters because their cunning does not impede love and joy while Don John’s cunning would undo it. Nevertheless, we have a happy ending between Claudio and Hero, her father and the prince, and for Benedick and Beatrice - one who tricks himself among the tricksters and the other who perhaps best avoids the trickery in hopes of remaining true to her heart. (less)
All that glisters is not gold, - ... You that choose not by the view, Chance as fair and choose as true! Since this fortune falls to you, Be content and seek no new.
Shakespeare opens the play with a morose protagonist, a melancholy merchant uninspired by his wealth, unimpressed with his reputation and lacks the arrogant contentment usually common amongst those with numerous friends. The world and her materials cannot fill Antonio's apparent void. I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano - A stage, where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one. Perhaps the impending pound of flesh represents the hole in Antonio's life, a natural home for happiness and a sense of meaning now vacant. It would seem that the law would enforce his unhappiness but love from others fills him again by demonstrably breathing new life into the law. Of course, one might see the conquest of law under the power of love, especially because of Shylock's religious heritage and the dominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western culture. Yet a more diverse audience may understand these concepts through different terms and embrace a broader spiritual endeavor. Considering Shakespeare's immediate development of Antonio's sadness, he may consider Christian themes as terms by which to describe a more universal longing for happiness, fulfillment and meaning. If we associate legalities with the material and temporal processes of the world, we can then interpret how these processes fail to foster happiness and meaning and, moreover, perpetuate the continual squalor of mankind. Yet the love exemplified by Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Nerissa, also of this world, fails to relieve this squalor as well.
Consider also how Portia begins the second scene by bemoaning her plight. Like Antonio, she has money and people who care for her...and suitors. Her father's edict, preventing her the right of free will in choosing her husband, propels her to reason her way to love or despair when imagining her life with any given suitor. Because she must marry, she employs reason to map a path to a happy union. She judges every characteristic of every suitor according to what she thinks will make her happy. The impossible mix between inevitable destiny and free will renders Portia stunted in melancholy. However, the play will show that destiny, unmolested by free will, brings Portia happiness. I imagine that her father understood the kind of destiny naturally paved before his daughter and the kind of man who would suit her. His game of caskets ensures that this natural progression of destiny to happiness move unhindered by anyone's choice, even his.
Shylock - never have I sympathized with an antagonist to this degree. This sympathy lays the foundation for any further insights I may have gleaned from this play. These Christians, secure in their self-righteousness and blinded by their bigotry, cannot fathom Shylock as a human but only as a hateful, immoral and inferior cur on society. Of course, such detestable qualities cannot but render him beneath those of brotherly love and moral virtue. While Gratiano and friends praise Antonio for his virtue in hating and spiting Shylock, they slander Shylock for his frugality, miserliness and natural reactions toward Antonio's, and others', slander. I do commend Antonio for his speed to sacrifice in friendship. But what difficulty can Antonio find in practicing Christian charity and virtue for friends and loved ones? And what sort of men judge another for the similarities they share with him? They accuse Shylock for openly and maliciously seeking to murder a man with passionate prostrations to the Duke for Shylock's death! These hypocrisies litter the play, not the least of which bulges from the page in the pity over Antonio's pound of flesh while they steal away Shylock's flesh and blood - Jessica, with nary a hesitation or considerate thought! If they wanted to steal a daughter from any one of their peers they would not feel nearly so noble about it, or take the action with such disregard for the father.
During the trial, Shakespeare, not only the poet, flashes his uncanny story-telling powers with a massive twist, displacing the conqueror with the conquered. During an apparent representation of Christ's passion, with Antonio ready to sacrifice his life for a friend and the Jew demanding his death before the Duke, we witness a different result. When they pronounced the verdict and sentence, I did not feel happy for Antonio and his friends, nor did I feel relief or the same pleasure in antagonizing Shylock. The final ruling only seems to feed their already ungratifying bigotry. As the law once fueled Shylock's revenge, it now shifts its alliance and fuels Antonio's perverted sense of mercy. Surely Antonio feels merciful in demanding Shylock's conversion (his soul) and that Shylock bequeath his estate to his lost flesh and blood (Jessica) when he gets to keep his own. But Antonio's misguided notion of mercy serves him, just as Shylock's revenge would have served him.
Perhaps Shakespeare does not intend to justify our sympathetic, self-sacrificing hero by relieving him, but rather to equate him and his peers with Shylock, to expose them as hypocrites, blurring the lines of absolute justice, the natures of protagonist and antagonist.
Consider also how Portia and Nerissa conjure a reason to test their husbands' resolve, chastise them when they fail and then expose themselves and their plot. Even in the end, in the paradise of love's embrace, we have Antonio, still melancholy for the debt he owes them, and Bassanio and Gratiano indebted to Portia and Nerissa for their actions. When will Portia and Nerissa ask for their bond - demanding perfect love from these men or else they should incur their wives' displeasure?
Shakespeare exposes two kinds of debt: that from wrong-doing and from love. Yet real love abolishes debt and cultivates true happiness in people and meaning in life. Debt, not love, binds our heroes and heroines, as it bound Antonio and Shylock, but does not unite them as one flesh or reconcile them in life.
The law cannot provide happiness or reconciliation, nor calm hatred or sooth sadness. It merely propels the pendulum back and forth between people, divided by their vices and injustices, their self-righteousness and revenge.
Love, a doctrine preached so liberally by some claiming Christians who cannot practice it in deed any more than they can infuse it in their natural perspective, has the power to eliminate the pendulum all together, something neither Christian nor Jew wanted to happen in this story. I hoped love would save the day. And it looks as though it did. But this is not Christian love nor Jewish hate. These are people, still yearning for happiness.(less)
As I finish the second tetralogy's finale, King Henry V, I contemplate Shakespeare's effect on the presentation of history. He devotes nearly half of...moreAs I finish the second tetralogy's finale, King Henry V, I contemplate Shakespeare's effect on the presentation of history. He devotes nearly half of his theatrical contributions to stories plotted in reality rather than born of his imagination. I have argued before that Shakespeare, blessed with a genius' perspective, sees art not only in the creative arena but in reality. The presentation of the human condition happens among humans and not within the faculties of one's mind. Yet in order to present these conditions to his audience, he carefully embellishes, contrasts and juxtaposes the characters and circumstances that best display them. If we want to know the events and scenarios in which these kings lived and acted, we can read school text books. If we want to know the people, the conditions of their lives, the reasons for their choices, we must turn to Shakespeare and decide if his character interpretations best suit history. Perhaps while in school as a boy in Stratford Upon Avon, he studied his textbooks and imagined the joys, sorrows, regrets, ambitions and malicious conceits in each of these kings which best helped him understand and learn the history of his native land.
In King Henry V, we see the clergy, sparked to cunning by a present bill which would strip much of their wealth, manipulate a king into a conquest of France in order to protect their assets. The king would depend on their funding and would never dream of undermining his own enterprise by passing a bill which would rob his benefactors. Yet Henry V transforms the bitterness of such purposes, born of deceipt and cunning, into a resulting eden of unity and equality, love and justice. If John Falstaff truly ascended to Arthur's bosom, he must feel right at home, as if in Prince Henry's good graces again.
Outside the royal court, Shakespeare presents microchosmic examples of this unity. Almost immediately after the nobles resolve for France, Bardolph mediates between Pistol and Nym and begs of their friendship with his sword. And, most apparently, he devotes Act V to the wooing of Princess Katharine, an effort equalled to that of conquering France on the battlefield. Yet the union of England and France comes with their marriage rather than with Henry's sword. Such a union signifies love and peace rather than dictatorship and enslavement. A marriage of love and justice constitutes a unity and differs from a marriage of dominion enforced by a heavy hand - only the former resounds with true unity as both parties maintain a semblance of themselves whereas the marriage of the heavy hand leaves only one party truly alive. How can one unite with nothing?
Alas, with master craftsmanship, King Henry V guides the circumstances under which he administers his justice and promotes equality. He manipultes Cambridge, Scroop and Grey to pronounce the severity of their own sentence rather than condemn them as one higher and of more import. He allows justice to decide the matter and in so doing thinks himself below justice and equal in human value to the defendant. Consider also how he and Williams, under false pretense, exchange gloves to don in their caps as a mark of their violent bet. Then compare this to the feud between Bardolph and Fluellen over the cultural mark of the leek in Fluellen's cap. Both scenarios pit two men, of social, economic and cultural differences, against each other only to resolve in a sense of equality. Whereas the king's disguise, possibly more appropriate for his character, allows Williams to see him as a social equal, the king again allows mercy and justice to waylay the promised violence rather than crush him as a man with more power. And in this action, Williams feels worthy and of equal import himself. Then Fluellen, a Welshman like the king, not only revels in this common ground, but displays his cultural heritage proudly and feels empowered to squabble with Pistol who would rebuke it.
The king not only preaches lofty poetics to inspire his soldiers to war, but acts equally valiant and just which inspires his soldiers to a level of respect and brotherhood. By disgarding signs of distinction and leaving only their common bonds as men, they find their unity amongst themselves and their equality. On the eve of battle, Henry, once again, wallows among the likes of Bardolph, Poins and Falstaff. Even now the pomp of majesty has failed to intoxicate his spirit. He calls ceremony a pitiable reward for the strains of kingly duty when compared to the simple happiness enjoyed by peasants. He does not abandon that strain and revel in ceremony as Richard II had. He carries the soldier's lives on his shoulders and his father's guilt for Richard's fall on his brow. And all the while he finds a way to disrobe himself of all such pomp and unite himself with his countrymen under common banners of honor, bloodshed and English spirit - inspiring in them a feeling of worth and in him a share in the peasant's simple happiness.
We can call this war an imperial conquest, and surely the history books describe it thus. But like a parent reading a storybook aloud to their children, enacting the voices and characters from the page, Shakespeare resurrects a character, the man behind the historical events, and therefore lends meaning and empathy to those long dead. King Henry V may have inspired a renewed sense of worth in us and revived our sense of humanity within the monarchs.
I miss Falstaff. But in closing my reading of the second tetralogy, I credit him for this king. Their times together cultivated a benign monarch who never forgot his naturally common bonds with his base countrymen.(less)
King Henry IV Part Two ends in transition, both for the English political atmosphere and for the central characters. Part of this transition takes pl...moreKing Henry IV Part Two ends in transition, both for the English political atmosphere and for the central characters. Part of this transition takes place in the audiences' perspective. We witness the rise of a young prince and the deterioration of an illegitimate king amidst the fog of civil war. And yet Shakespeare twists the end. The truly naive patron cannot predict precisely how these events will resolve. I did not imagine King Henry IV repenting the means of his ascension, nor did I imagine King Henry V severing his friends, nor did I imagine John Falstaff capable of so much sorrow. However, despite these twists, the resolution holds firm to the true nature of each character and one might argue that any other resolution would seem forced.
Through the first three acts, I labored through what seemed a time-abiding story. The rebellion continues with Northumberland and the Archbishop of York. As the story follows the same plot outlined in the first part, with leaders of the rebellion meeting under a banner of peace with the king's spokesmen, the first twist pricked my ear. The rebels accept the same offer made previously to Percy from their royal opponent only to suffer a stab in the back as Prince John arrests them and sentences them to death for high treason. As opposed to Hotspur, York maintains a reasonable disposition and wisely condemns these rebellious actions as results of the time, not necessarily of Henry IV's malice. It seems that York views these events through a transcendent mind, as a clergyman and not a soldier, and willfully plays his part in the cascading political revolution. As Shakespeare would instruct us through these two plays, Bolingbroke's ascension revolutionized England's political landscape and reformed the minds of nobility and royalty alike by presenting fallibility and cracking the invincibility of the throne. Henry IV's party quells the rebels, not with honorable arms or merciful heart, but with trickery and by manipulating the integrity of an honest clergyman.
The play moves into the king's counsel and finally his chamber where we meet him for the last time. And what a time! The audience witnesses both the sickening effect of paranoia within a king and the resurrection of a man, desperate for love and a connection with his boy as father and son rather than king and prince. As the king and Prince Henry counter over the crown, we hear the king repent the road which brought him to it, but also warn of its overwhelming power. The crown displaced his virtue with fear - fear of losing it despite its debilitating quality, like his "Precious". The crown consumed his spirit and left him empty, caring only for its safety, like a vessel to an alien symbiont. Yet Prince Henry proves wise enough to respect the crown's agency:
Thus, my most royal leige, Accusing it, I put it on my head, To try with it, as with an enemy That had before my face murder'd my father, - The quarrel of a true inheritor. But if it did infect my blood with joy, Or swell my thoughts to any strain of pride; If any rebel or vain spirit of mine Did with the least affection of a welcome Give entertainment to the might of it, Let God for ever keep it from my head, And make me as a vassal is, That doth with awe and terror kneel to it!
The prince, aware of the crown's poisonous power, but unavoidably destined to wear it, may yet prove a worthy and just king, by understanding the true nature of it and prizing humanity above power.
When John Falstaff hears of Prince Henry's coronation, he leaps from his chair, promises high positions to his friends and thanks God for presenting him with a winning lottery ticket! How like Falstaff - eeking through these plays as a rusting anchor on honor, nobility, integrity and all other virtues which righteous upbringing instills in us. But love. Falstaff never cheated love nor shamed loyalty. When King Henry V banishes him, I hear his spirit seep from his often lively mouth and envision all his putrid breath of charm flow from his nostrils. I feel the heat of his tears boiling in his eyes and his blood pause within his heart. Falstaff does not care for his lost position nor do I imagine he laments the suddenly collapsing thrill of his imagined future. But to lose Harry - to the crown - to him King Henry V's royal procession appears as a funeral march.
But we cannot abhor the new king for this! On the contrary, we would likely do so if he abused his position and turned the court into a lavish party with Poins helping him roast Falstaff and Doll bouncing from one sack to the next. The new king enjoys the ability and privilege of washing away his past and renewing himself as a dedicated king while Falstaff must suffer alone the bed he has made for himself. As York said, these things result from the times, from the conditions of our lives and the longings of our vanity, our virtue and our hearts. All must play their role and suffer their fate.
You wave to his administrative assistant from within the elevator. The doors slide shut. You stand motionless for a time before finally pressing the button which will bring you to the lobby. When the bell rings and the doors open, you step out and the boy before you leaps out of your path just before you collide. The flicker of downtown bustle shimmers on the window panes. You tell yourself, with a grin no one can see, "Shakespeare made me sympathize with a fool before kings."(less)
You stiffly force the turn of the revolving door flanked by glass panels flashing the buzz of the downtown street. You traverse the shimmering lobby f...moreYou stiffly force the turn of the revolving door flanked by glass panels flashing the buzz of the downtown street. You traverse the shimmering lobby floor and sway with your shifting weight as you await the arrival of the elevator. When it arrives, you leap from the doors as a rush of people flood from the car. Then you enter, alone, light the button for the wrong floor, then the correct floor, and dance your hyper finger on the "Door Close" button. You relax, stare at the glowing numbers count closer to your goal. The doors open. Close. You shouldn't have pushed that wrong button.
After subduing the receptionist with your charms and forged press badge, you enter his office and find him lying on a sofa tossing a ball in the air to himself. Papers laze about his desk like beastly cats on a hot day in the Savanah and you look for his absent computer, then quickly to the point at hand. He looks to you, your lips quiver and you hold out the bottle of wine which dried up your last paycheck.
You just want to ask one question. You will have no other opportunity to question Shakespeare. He bends his brow, sits up impatiently...What will you ask him?
"Why John Falstaff?"
Amidst more civil strife, spawned by an uncomfortable seat which provides only the opportunity to fight for its keeping, we witness two sides of a politically epic tale. One side, starring Henry Bolingbroke as King Henry IV, portrays the warring factions of Lords Northumberland, Worcester and Percy, the very men who aided Bolingbroke's apprehension of King Richard II's throne, against the new King, their one-time friend. Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur for his reckless and cavalier temprament, counters a paranoid King obsessed with protecting, washing and wringing his hands, as Jon Finch plays him, in order to parley the guilt of King Richard II's deposition and murder. If only Richard could witness the accuracy of his prophecy when he said to Northumberland,
The love of wicked friends converts to fear; That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both To worthy danger and deserved death.
True to his form, Shakespeare urges sympathy to both sides of this historical conflict, since all angles bear the kink of humanity. I sympathize with Percy's faction because the new King returns the courtesy of their previous aid with scorn and mistrust. Although, to a small degree, I blame Percy's reckless thirst for action which likely exaggerates his intentions against the King. But I do not find his complaint against Bolingbroke without merit. In this, the new king learns how he opened the gate for equality amongst nobility and royalty by usurping a throne designed for the security of perfect succession. How can he assert his dominance when he owes so much to others? How can he expect others to live submissively when he whom they serve sits on the throne by their actions? Humanity has now tainted the divine sanctity of the English monarchy and bears conflict with her.
Shakespeare might have better entitled King Henry IV - The First Part as The Rise of Prince Henry. Beyond the perilous drought of political conflict, we meet Henry, Prince of Wales, who galavants through inns and taverns with baseborn commoners and insignificant, cowardly villains. Presumabely, he abandons the royal court for the court of paupers where he still maintains his title but enjoys a life a bit outside of the law, like a youth above it. But Shakespeare begs his audience to remember the prince's own words:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyok'd humour of your idleness: Yet herein will I imitate the sun, Who doth permit the base contagious clouds To smother up his beauty from the world, That, when he please again to be himself, Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at By breaking through the foul and ugly mists Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work; But when they seldom come, they wish'd-for come, And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents, So, when this loose behaviour I throw off, And pay the debt I never promised, By how much better than my word I am, By so much shall I falsify men's hopes; And, like bright metal on a sullen ground, My reformation, glittering o'er my fault, Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes Than that which hath no foil to set it off. I'll so offend to make offence a skill; Reckoning time when men think least I will.
He plays this part so successfully that the King, his father, preaches to him about his holiday behaviour, comparing it to that of King Richard II, and beckons him to behave as he did, humbly presenting himself to gain favour and support as king. Perhaps I prematurely sympathized with Bolingbroke during King Richard II's time, imagining he only wanted his birthright from Richard. But it would seem, according to his advice, he had his eye on the throne all along, deposing Richard when his birthright would have done. Now in this conflict with Percy he knows his enemies have just grievance against him. So this meeting between father and son, King and Prince, full of advice, with a hint of regret and nostalgia in comparing the prince to King Richard II, and both indicative of the prince's successful ploy and the King's apparaent guilt, marks the prince's return to the royal fold after a very different upbringing than Bolingbroke. After all, Bolingbroke came from Gaunt and nobility while Prince Henry, though of the same blood, wallowed with commoners and miscriants. He has a deeper potential for character and may avoid the shallowness of envy and animalistic paranoia of possession. I wonder if the prince's humble actions with the likes of John Falstaff, conspiring to rob robber friends, mirrors the pompous political circumstances of the state. The king, then, shares this reunion with a purified and strengthened son who can better lead England.
After the battle, the prince describes the nobility of his heart with mournful praises of fallen Percy and mercy for Douglas in return for his valor. But his true grace lies in his love for men like John Falstaff, jolly cowards who provide good company and unshakeable loyalty despite distastes for war, rebukes of honor and shameful behavior.
Yet who is John Falstaff? Like many other characters in your plays, he beckons so many different interpretations. Why did you write him? What purpose does he serve? You spend so much time on this obvious fiction juxtaposed to the historical plot...why? What sort of past does Falstaff carry with him? Who is he?
While away from court, perhaps the prince embraced Falstaff as a kind of father figure. Falstaff brought him up in all his vulgar practices and they enjoyed an intimate familiarity of loving speech and knee-buckling slurs. Falstaff outweighs the prince in years and pounds and they even perform the part of father and son opposite one another, taking turns imitating the prince and the king. Perhaps Falstaff willingly accepts the prince's projections of feelings for his father, perhaps he foreshadows the prince's fate should he choose to hide himself behind the base contagious clouds too long. If Falstaff does serve as a father figure, it would indicate a dual parentage for the prince which serves to strengthen his character for the commons and the nobility - and needless to say, in love, for I do not doubt that Falstaff loves the prince. And all these things combine to create a character that Vernon described:
He made a blushing cital of himself; And chid his truant youth with such a grace, As if he master'd there a double spirit, Of teaching and of learning instantly. There did he pause: but let me tell the world, - If he outlive the envy of this day, England did never owe so sweet a hope, So much misconstru'd in his wantonness.
Thus play I, in one person, many people, And none contented: sometimes am I king; Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar, And so I am: then crushing penury Persuades me I was better when a king; Then am I king'd again: and by and by Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke, And straight am nothing: - but whate'er I am, Nor I, nor any man that but man is, With nothing shall be pleas'd till he be eas'd With being nothing.
I read an act, then watched the act performed by the company supporting Derek Jacobi as King Richard II. I saw the words. Then I heard them. I imagined the words. Then I lived them. Shakespeare wrote The Life and Death of King Richard II completely in verse. He only gifted one other play with such diligent artistry. Because of this rare decision, I must imagine that Shakespeare saw something in Richard's story which wanted poetry's aesthetic purity, its demand for perfect word choices and allowance for multidimensional meaning. Using this form, Shakespeare both plays with language and gracefully crafts it into the clearest and most prodigious form of expression. He masters every angle of a word, frolicking with puns and ruthlessly wringing the word wet towel for every meaning and application to an idea, a feeling. He displays a simple duality, stripped naked and vulnerable, of compared and contrasted characters and situations, opposing viewpoints flipped at the turn of circumstance, which construct the very personage of this English king!
The play seems to divide itself in two. Before he embarks for Ireland, King Richard II plays the dunce with the carefree zest of an adolescent child unchecked by the guidance of responsibility or ethics' urgency. His counselors offer their opinions freely in his presence and those on trial rebuke his entreaties to abandon their griefs at their honor's cost or soul's compromise. Yet he does not rage, or flash his merciless power. He listens but to no consequence. Not because he fears them, but because, like an ornery child facing the chastisement of his elders, he does not care. He cares about his will, the coffers, and the luxuries of power. John of Gaunt eloquently argues against Richard's lease on England and York bitterly pleads against his seizure of Bolingbroke's inheritance. Yet when he returns from Ireland, he endures a harsh reckoning with the world and the pain of invincibility vanished. He must now pay for these stolen eyes with his own.
I wholly embraced this new Richard, this deposed and woeful Richard, who finds himself within the belly of nothingness after the long fall of the blessed. He contemplates his own dual nature as man and rightful king. When facing the insecurity of his position, Richard's convictions swing like a manic pendulum. He wrestles internally with a king's mortally uncomfortable burden and the high spiritual calling and civil duty of his office, owned by him as anointed to the task. Suddenly, Richard, once an immature cliche of a carefree, flattered and corrupt king, transforms into a person contemplating his newly divided nature, a nameless identity. And while Richard splits, so does the world. Men must now speed familiarity with a world newly starred with common royalty, "base glory", enslaved sovereignty, and kingly vulnerability - a world in which fathers prosecute sons and ill-succeeded kings open gates to civil strife as the delicate vale between subject and king weakens and faith in the king's incontestable grace shatters. As Richard must understand his new identity, so must humanity, like newborn babes, understand a world reshaped.
Richard, who embodies this split, this duality of humanity's longing and the dogmatic infliction of position - while we contemplate new worlds pioneered as if into uncharted wildernesses never before seen - reaches out to the patron and begs them to project their own struggle onto the himself. Let him wail for you! Let him contemplate himself for you! Let him grow into a sympathetically tragic martyr on your behalf as he calls his counselors Judas', washing their hands with Pilate, and himself Christ led to his crucifixion. Let him ascend the steps of consciousness and unity between self and identity, leading into the depths of death and social deposition. And listen to the master playwright's language represent the beautiful complexity of our birthright, our guaranteed struggle, our condition.(less)
As a play, The Life and Death of Richard III shocks audiences with Richard's abhorrent and frightening exhibition of evil. As a conclusion to the firs...moreAs a play, The Life and Death of Richard III shocks audiences with Richard's abhorrent and frightening exhibition of evil. As a conclusion to the first tetralogy, it dazzles the mind.
Richard III kills without remorse, his plots cunningly slither through the royal community and construct a political and psychological power around the feeble hunchback. But most importantly, he strikes fear in others because he forges his path by his own rules. He embodies the very antithesis to Henry VI's guiding piety and idealism. Richard consults no ideals other than the image of himself on the throne. No honor or nobility shapes his mind in order to provide peace for those who must trust him. He chooses to live as a rogue unto humanity, embracing his physical form as the shape of his character, and isolates himself in the process.
This isolation and ignoble defiance of virtue cultivates the base fear of dictatorship and tyranny. Shakespeare uses Richard to ellaborate on the cause of that fear and the characteristics of those who instill it. His hunchback does not frighten us, most of the characters disrespected it, even his ambition does not frighten us - at least not as much as the ambition of others. His lack of roots, his failure to believe in anything other than himself, fosters a true fear in people because they cannot trust him or predict his actions. Richard has no nature, no character, other than shameless and pitiless greed and ambition.
I noticed the women, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret. As they dwelled outside of the action, offering curses and contemptuous words rivaling any passionate disdain offered by sorrowful women, they exhibit a certian unity because of Richard's actions. These women unite under the banner of like suffering from Richard. Queen Margaret curses the house of York, and it seemed that Richard personified that curse, while Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York endured all loss and the most primal and fundamental heartache. Because of this, they found common ground with one another.
Furthermore, as Richard plagues the country with his brutality he isolates himself from friend and foe alike. The two feuding houses now have a common enemy because Richard attacks them both. In his speech in Act IV, he contemplates this isolation and argues internally over how he can condemn himself, run from himself or expect love or support from others. Richard presents himself as an enemy to all and therefore all houses find cause to unite against him.
As Shakespeare guides his audience down into the most repulsive degradations of political evil, he unexpectedly shapes it as a light bleeding into the cave. When divisions begin with Henry VI Part 1, we witness a steady decline toward embittered civil strife which naturally climaxes into the form of one man who undertakes every evil unto himself only to present the people the way to peace and unity. Richard seats himself at the furthest extreme of the pendulum's arc and lets the weight swing back away from him.
I must admit I did not like the ending very much. For Shakespeare to literally present the ghosts of Richard's victims seems tasteless and to finish the play with Richmond's Diney-esque speech about unity strikes me as overly romantic. But though the presentation did not suit me, the idea stands the test of criticism. In the spirit of tasteless romance, I will end with a growing cliche: The night is darkest before the dawn. (less)
Full well hath Clifford play'd the orator, Inferring arguments of mighty force. But, Clifford, tell me, didst though never hear That things ill got had ever bad success? And happy always was it for that son Whose father for his hoarding went to hell? I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind; And would my father had left me no more! For all the rest is held at such a rate As brings a thousand-fold more care to keep Than in possession any jot of pleasure.
With these words, Henry defies those who accuse him of cowardice, including myself. As I conclude this story of King Henry VI, I find myself concerned solely with his character. I understand that with a broad enough scope, discontent and sedition prove cyclical without an end point where justice stands victorious over her enemies and all wronged parties contendtedly relieve themselves. After all, as it may always sway with politics, the powerful alone define the truth of justice.
Yet Henry VI introduces me to an unfamiliar type of king, one who remains so much in the background of the civil warring in his kingdom yet still symbolizes the boon of one side of the fight. It seems Shakespeare inverts the story arch with my emotional reactions to Henry's behavior. Where a story begins by setting the scene, then introduces the rising conflict, the climax and finally the falling resolution, I held Henry in a high regard, then he fell when the story rises and climaxes, then he rose again, for me, during the falling resolution. I esteemed his wisdom and sense of priority regarding the kingdom above himself in Part 1, began to question his conviction and will to defend his moral integrity in Part 2, then let him fall entirely in my regard as he agreed to York's succession. But then I embraced him again, more fully than any other time during the trilogy, as a righteous philosopher who understands more of a man's contentment and the false promise of happiness included with the purchase of a crown.
As the next generation enters the stage, after the tumultous revolting of Henry's younger years, I wondered if Henry might have his own son's true interests at heart when he gives up Prince Edward's right to the crown. Of course, Queen Margaret, a beautifully bold feminine image of power and conviction in a man's political world, violently defends their son's right to the crown. But where they hold in common purpose for Prince Edward's happiness, they differ in their methods. She thinks raising him to the highest office in England means providing his joy. Henry fundamentally disagrees as he comes to understand the true nature of this game and life.
In Act II, Scene V, Shakespeare illustrates a wonderous portrait of civil strife. First, Henry delivers a moving soliloquy on his perspective, one which he may have always had but finally puts in words and owns as his stance, then the image of fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers. The language would crush the heart of any horse-blinded warrior but I appreciated its simplicity most - an image of a corpse, colored in white by his pale cheeks and red by his blood, embodying both the red and white roses of this civil conflict. Such strife serves only to pay tribute unto death, nothing more. The victor dies as much as the vanquished as both share the same body politic.
We now look forward to the exploits of Richard III. I loved his confrontation with Henry VI when he decides to forfeit the effort to keep the nature of his soul and intellect differentiated from his body - a difference the public had ignored and considered his parts one and the same in monstrosity. With develish words Richard surrenders the battle to keep apart the magnetized aspects of his being and allows his spirit to reflect his physical form as so many in ignorant bigotry had marked him. What a tragedy, but no more tragic than the end of a life which wanted nothing more than to know God, serve his realm justly and live happily.(less)
What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted! Thrice is he arm'd that hath his quarrel just, And he but naked, though lock'd up in steel, Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.
In this second part of Henry VI's story, we see the bricks of the English realm begin to fall and crumble into wasted building blocks.
It seems that any bold citizen would dip their hands into the bloody cauldron filled with the jewels of English power. From lowly laborer to noble duke, conspiracy and revolt surround Henry VI. Every character played a role in this seditious plot by either promoting it or by aligning themselves with the honorable and noble few who would suffer only an untainted heart as consolation.
I enjoyed Shakespeare's loud and sometimes bombastic language in this second part. I imagined villainous players bellowing their words in passionate dynamics and dramatic conviction. It contrasted the tone of Henry VI who, I admit, frustrates me a bit. Despite the tumult and revolt happening all around him, he does not take control of the situation or exhibit any ability to bring down an iron fist. It seems he stands only as a flat symbol of his position while the other characters portray personality, ambition, honor, malice and other aspects of humanity. Henry VI might have made a better priest than king and York and others see this as an opportunity to overthrow such a king.
I also appreciated Shakespeare's presentation of justice in this second part. It would seem that justice does not save the blameless but it assuredly avenges them. Henry VI and Gloucester, and even Lord Say, have faith that the law will protect their untainted hearts, that no man can attack the righteous because of their blameless character. Of course, this proves far from a reality. Are we to lose our own faith in justice - the virtuous falling to the discontented? Why would anyone, then, adopt virtue?
Yet while the loyal fall, the villains suffer the resulting justice - not directly by the hand of Henry VI but seemingly by natural course. While the honorable remain so remembered in the annals of history, the villains lose life and name as well. Perhaps justice acts as an avenger rather than a protector. And if this theme carries into the third part, I anticipate Henry VI's demise and an even more horrible fate for his opponent.(less)
I recently learned about what the scholars have called Shakespeare's two tetralogies. The first quartet includes Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3 and Richard...moreI recently learned about what the scholars have called Shakespeare's two tetralogies. The first quartet includes Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III and the second includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2 and Henry V. When I discovered these organizations, my eyes bulged and I may have vacuumed all oxygen from the room. I love order. As an example of my quirk, I found a collection of Hardy Boys books tucked away in the storage crevices of my parent's basement and, after seeing numeric labels on their spines, I instinctively yeared for #1. Also, when I decide to tackle an author, I like to begin with their first work. When journeying through literature, with its monumental scope and canonical subjectivity, order helps the traveller gauge their progress while that gentle stretching feeling of a broadening perspective helps them endure the painful acknowledgment of the minimal mileage they've wandered. It also reminds them of the value in those few steps.
I had trouble deciding how I would read these two tetralogies. Should I read them in the order that Shakespeare wrote them, starting with Henry VI Part 1? Or should I follow history and begin with Richard II and the second tetralogy? Well, everyone loves a prequel.
In My Time of Shakespeare, I look forward to reading all of his histories. While reading this play, I suddenly basked in the idea that Shakespeare triumphed in the writer's arena because he saw art in the real world. All the world's a stage! Perhaps he does not advise us like a parent, but laughs in uncontrollabel joy at seeing art in life. It might mean that we have parts to play, destinies to fulfill in the writer's plot, but it can also mean that art, beauty and truth can be gleaned from the very circumstances of reality in the same way as we see it in a staged story. The writer, or any artist, need not fully create their truth and beauty but simply replicate what they see in the real world. Therefore, these histories excite me!
Shakespeare ripens Henry VI Part 1 with suffocating division on all fronts of the world - Henry versus Charles, Richard Plantagenet versus Somerset, Gloster versus Winchester, etc. The play begins with the mourning of Henry V and the end of a unified time when all England rose behind their king in one cause. I imagine the audience must immediately look for characters with whom to allign themselves but, because of the great rhetoric surrounding Henry V's passing, they must look for those characters who would labor for his legacy. Shakespeare does not hesitate to influence their allegiances either. During occasional lonely soliloquies, he reveals the deceiptful schemes of Winchester and Suffolk which contrast the noble minds of Gloster and others and, with Exeter's words, he chastises those who would bring about the demise of Henry V's England.
One of the main divisions, between Plantagenet and Somerset, the origins of the War of the Roses, carries a theme not uncommon to other Shakespeare plays. Plantagenet, stripped of his noble rights because previous kings convicted his forebears of treason, has something to prove. To those who would insult his family and threaten, what he understands as, his rightful inheritance, he gnashes his teeth quickly and with a hot head. Those opposed to him feel they defend the crown and the order of England but Shakespeare asks us to determine whether a man ought to suffer judgement for his individual merit or his noble blood. Two ideas, one traditional and one revolutionary, fester within the spirit of England. And, until a certain point, we entertain the idea that a noble heart and just merit might endure!
I admit I will continue on to Part 2 with an affection for Henry VI. Despite his age, he shows wisdom and a care for the well-being of his country, moreso than for his own pleasure and glory. Throughout his time in the play he implores his subjects, and finally France, for peace, speaks of the importance of schooling before marriage, cannot reason why two countries professing the same faith fight, and presents himself as a kind of Solomon on the throne of justice. However, with all the division within England, which Exeter prophesies as the root of its coming demise, I began to question the hypocrisy of Henry VI's views on division and unity in his relationship with France. I promptly applauded his demand for peace amongst his English nobility. But knowing that he saw France as his rightful domain like he does English soil, why would he not immediately demand peace between the two countries in the same fasion? After all, in his view, France and England are one kingdom. Later in the play, he presents a peace accord and ultimately stops the fighting but it does not resemble the same moral fortitude which governed his treatment of Gloster and Winchester's feud. I suppose we will forgive him politics.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare romances his audience back and forth between England and France. In France, the idyllic image strikes the audience in gross contrast to that of England. After meeting Joan of Arc, I imagined her as David (and perhaps Shakespeare did as well with her shepherding background) battling Goliath. She brings spirit and prophesy, pours confidence down the throats of the French government and armies. Of course, the English slander her as a witch and I rebuked their sore losing. But her under-dog status beams so brightly that it blinded me to the fact that she does little to help France on the field. She bolsters their spirits but loses cities as soon as she regains them. They suffer setbacks after their first battle. And the eventual outcome of the war looks little like what she promises. But Shakespeare perfectly plotted her role against her Goliath.
Talbot, who spends his time in France battling the French armies and compouding his monolithic legend and reputation, truly embodies the once-loved warring nobility and romantic bloodlust of Henry V. All of France fears him, all of England loves him and both nations revere him. Shakespeare cleverly reveals him as a man of average stature during a meeting with Lady Margaret, but his armies comprise his limbs and his spirit swells with conviction. Perhaps he resembles the real historic possibility of Goliath who Israel may have symbolized as a giant because of the same qualities embodied by Talbot.
Shakespeare pivots the story on Talbot's death and also foreshadows England's coming demise with it. His death may jerk more tears from the audience than any other scene in the play. Shakespeare couples him with his son in battle and they argue in lofty sentiments of a warrior's honor and duty. Yet they would both sacrifice their lives and legacy so the other might live with honor. Ironically, Talbot's warrior sentiments do not keep him on the field. His son does. And with words of simple rhyming poetry, father and son intertwine in speech and fate - all because of the bickering between Plantagenet and Somerset! Talbot's death divides the under-dog sympathies for the noble heart in the earlier parts of the play with the vile stench of foreboding as the deceipt and cunning of noble birth begin to dominate the rest of the play. We see Winchester successfully purchase his position as Cardinal though we know him as a treacherous man lusting after power. We see the King break his word to a French woman because of Suffolk's manipulation. We see the noble heart revealed as a farce as Joan conjures fiends like a witch and goes to her execution with a crumbling integrity. We see Charles cross his fingers while accepting a peace accord which places him as viceroy of France answering only to King Henry VI. Where noble sympathies once ruled, evil trickery amongst noble officials now reigns.
And this is Shakespeare's twist. To tease the audience with victory for the noble heart - the conjurer of Talbot's Goliath-like legend and imagined stature, the holder of the shepherd peasant Joan of Arc's place at the head of the great table of French history, the key to Plantagenet's seat in York - but give the play's reward to sedition and the cunning of birthright.
Oh, how audiences must feel...and impatiently await Part 2!(less)
He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” - I Samuel 8:11-18
The Ides of March, described as the middle day of the month in the Roman calendar, represented a day for settling debts. On this day, Marcus Brutus says that great Caesar paid "ambition's debt" in the most infamous assassination in world history. Like in so many of his other plays, Shakespeare exercises his genius in studying these characters and events from all sides and virtually eliminates our chance to concretely label anyone as wholly good or wholly bad, infallible hero or wasted villain. With passionate dialogue and lines resounding down through the ages, Shakespeare portrays the great and regrettably incurable dilemma of civilization - the corrupting faculty of power and the slippery slope of good intentions.
Shakespeare designs Julius Caesar as an immortal among men, the colossally powerful Roman conqueror whose history has manifested into mythical proportions and credits him with immortal ancestry. His companion, Mark Antony, speaks with the tongue of a serpent and Marcus Brutus, Rome's favorite son, known for his honor and noble heart, bears responsibility for his murder despite the many hands stained with his blood. Shakespeare intends that a fourth entity not go unnoticed. Perhaps the citizens of Rome, the mob, wield the most influence to these events and conduct the course of history like a fiery muse.
Yet as these entities intertwine with one another, Shakespeare carefully gives each one their full dimension while simultaneously developing a schism of sorts within each individual. The opposition between Brutus and Antony illustrate the dichotomy within Caesar himself - man or powerfully ambitious god? Antony seeks vengeance for a wronged man while Brutus seeks balance to Roman political power. In their speeches at Caesar's funeral, we hear Brutus condemn a position, an ambitious dictator, while declaring love for the man. And Antony glorifies a human man unjustly murdered. Also, to hear Caesar speak in the third person throughout his short role in the play, one must either think him crazy or divided, as if he stands outside himself speaking for the man who will act on his behalf. He imparts wise anecdotes and speaks often selflessly but, like the mob, falters between convictions easily at advise from different people. Like an honorable man, he declines the people's offered crown but grimaces like an ambitious godhead denying his right for the sake of his reputation with others in government. His position imprisons the human man who speaks his mind but ultimately must do what Rome expects of him.
Antony, with his brilliantly manipulative tongue and detestable tactics, regarding Lepidus for example, admirably seeks to avenge Caesar's death. Do we respect his moral conviction or abhor his slimy character? If his words with the conspirators after Caesar's murder, pre-sanctioned in truce by his servant with his safety fully dependent on the honorable word of Brutus, embracing them as friends, and his words at the funeral, repeating Brutus' nature as an "honorable man" while slandering him for accusing Caesar for ambition, do not reveal to the audience a two-faced coward, I maintain that Shakespeare did all he could to illustrate the character. Consider Antony's absence during the murder and for most of the play before its occurrence. One might argue that Antony, though not accomplice to the act, desired its occurrence for his own benefit. He did nothing before it happened, spoke carressingly to save himself after it happened and manipulated the mob with words rather than act nobly at Caesar's funeral. But Antony then valiantly unleashes his armies in defense of the fallen Caesar and with all the pomp of political admiration.
Cassius, though like a tempter, would not falter under an interrogation regarding his love of Rome and his belief in the Republic free from a dictator. Though he disrespected Brutus by pestering him, and bears the sin of murder, one might respect his wide breadth of love and service to his country and ideology.
Marcus Brutus - oh, Brutus - the true victim of tragic mischief, lived as the noblest of Romans, protecting a reputation of humble civil service even unto the funeral when he implores the mob to use the murder weapon to kill him should his death serve his country. One could argue that Cassius' desperation in recruiting Brutus to the conspiracy stemmed from Brutus' notoriety in Roman society. Brutus bore the task with a sickened heart after accepting Cassius' reasons for its execution in his mind. He embodies two adverse contagions: the moral heart and the ideological mind. Alas, I sympathize with a murderer! an honorable man who, in his weakness, succumbed to the dramatized logic of ideology! Shall men condemn Brutus the assassin or honor Brutus the heart of Rome?
While Cassius woos Brutus to the conspiracy, Brutus notes; "...for the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things" (Act I Scene II). Shakespeare planted these lines, from the mouth of nobility and integrity, to set the tone for the rest of the play. Each angle - Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and the mob - see reflections of themselves and by these reflections know themselves. During the overnight storm preceding the assassination the next morning, Calphernia, Caesar's wife, hails it as a omen of doom on Caesar's life. Yet is the storm the doom of Caesar or the people of Rome under his dictatorship? Brutus' wife attempts to console him and notes his ailing health during the storm. And to the conspirators, coming and going between homes before the senate session, the storm could signify their intent or perhaps its unforeseen consequences. In many cases, the storm, as an example, represents the reflection which the eye sees of itself - to Brutus, his conflicted conscience and declining health, to Caesar, his demise, to Cassius and the conspirators, their murderous intent. Yet the reflection shows destruction, fear, violence and calamity for each of the players. Caesar's blood stains all.
As war ensues between the two camps of Brutus and Antony, and prototypical Shakespearean misunderstandings spark the demise of certain characters, the audience surely thinks of justice. As one cannot forgive someone on behalf of someone else, Antony cannot revenge himself on Brutus and Cassius on behalf of Caesar - nor does he care. Antony has every intention of claiming power behind Octavius, Caesar's son, and securing his own power in Roman government in the next regime. While Brutus and Cassius fall on their own swords, honorably holding to their ideals, but suffering a sort of true and justified vengeance for killing Caesar. In this end, they suffer death for committing murder but retain their honor on the battlefield, reconciling the internal struggle within their hearts.
But the people! Oh, the fical swaying mob quick to abandon the reasoning of Brutus for the manipulative power of Antony! The audience gazes on these citizens and observes a reflection of itself. Shakespeare, you clever nuisance! One must question their stance in these events. What sort of curses or defenses would you shout to Brutus or Antony? Would you fling the crown over Caesar's brow? Would you raise your dagger to promote the republic? Would you scurry about in search of secure power in the aftermath?
Though some urged Shakespeare to stage his histories as propaganda, specifically playing on sentiments for and against particular figures, Julius Caesar lasts as a work lacking such motivation and pursues an examination of the good and bad within each character while beckoning the audience to question their own ideas and politics. Shakespeare presents men struggling to perfect a civilization which many look back to as the most powerful pinnacle of society in the history of the western world. But these are but men - full of honorable intentions, susceptible to corruption and confused by lofty ideals.(less)
I remember these peppered irritations of tragedy in Shakespeare’s comedies. We laugh at the tragically misunderstood or deceived characters and the se...moreI remember these peppered irritations of tragedy in Shakespeare’s comedies. We laugh at the tragically misunderstood or deceived characters and the seemingly ill-fated events turning against their hopes. Twelfth Night exemplifies Shakespearean comedy in the sense that the audience laughs at the silly misconceptions and ridiculous manipulations perpetrated in the play. Within Twelfth Night we have other common Shakespearean elements such as the fool, gender disguise and complicated love triangles, squares or pentagons!
I enjoyed the play and nothing more. I found it fun.
I will remember this clown when reading other fools and clowns in Shakespeare’s plays. He contrasts King Lear’s fool in wisdom but also in action. Several characters invited the Clown into their circle of mischief and partnered with him as an equal. I imagine this familiarizes the audience more with Maria, Malvolio and the Sirs than the Clown himself. He executes their plans and plays a vital role in their manipulations whereas Lear’s fool simply remains at his side providing him ironically disguised counsel. As a woman character written in the 17th century, Olivia intrigued me. She doesn’t behave the way society might expect women to behave. She declines the Duke’s offers of matrimony and her social circles excuse it with grief over her brother’s death. I commend her for denying him at all and not excusing her feelings with sadness over a departed sibling, even though others say as much. She refused to allow others to control her and yet fate deceives her by the disguise of Olivia as Cesario. Even the strong-willed and perhaps a little self-righteous characters can fall victim to Fate’s clever playing.
Consider this issue of control. How much do these characters actually control their destinies? The play begins with shipwreck upon the Duke Orsino’s island, the characters separate and make decisions based on misinformation while the play results in the union of several characters and all misinformation brought to rights. But the play also resulted in the demise of the sadly manipulated Malvolio and careless disregard toward the actions of Sirs Andrew and Toby. The fates of these characters resulted in large part from coincidence and sheer folly – except for the actions of the so-called ridiculous troop of characters against Malvolio. They proved him easier to play on than a pipe. The characters end up happy but not in the way they imagined themselves happy and the path to this happiness seems very much against their inclinations. Perhaps Shakespeare imagines people toiling after illusory control and crafting haughty manipulations and laughs. What’s the famous cliche again?(less)
Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all
Imagine an elderly man - his mind frail and his body feeble, wrestling...more
Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all
Imagine an elderly man - his mind frail and his body feeble, wrestling with a prevailing desperation inspired by imminent death. His presence resounds like a canon, a great raging beast in word but a decrepit miser in deed, for what can a man bark at nature which would cause her to alter course?
I like thinking of King Lear this way. A powerful monarch with little reason to bother himself with the idea of his mortality yet buckling under the weight of its sudden prominence. If Death ever yearned for a worthy adversary, he found one in Lear, a man who would stand firm through the mighty storm with no hopes of victory. Yet even so, when nearing the end, he wants nothing more than an affirmation of his relevance, a proclamation of love from those whom he so deeply effects. This desire, however, must spawn the plague of his own madness as he falls victim to deception and manipulation. In a way, I sensed a feeling of insecurtiy in Lear's query to his daughters. Why not simply bestow portions of his kingdom on his daughters without the ceremony of declarations? Why does he need to hear speeches of their love? Had he not noticed their actions and dispositions toward him before old age settled in? Why didn't he inquire as to their aptitude in ruling their portions? This insecurity leads him to do something which leaves him open to bitter conspiracy and abuse.
Of all Shakespeare's characters, I found the King the most compelling. Goneril and Regan behaved like so many power hungry characters in stories spanning the centuries and continents. Of course, one must notice how Shakespeare chose to bless Lear with daughters and gave them equal zeal for treachery. Despite the negative affiliation, one ought to recognize the equality the two gender's capabilities. I appreciated Kent for his loyalty and moral guidance. The fool not only infected this play with comedic relief but filled the role of soothesayer as do others throughout Shakespeare's plays. But Lear! What a character! What a bohemeth amongst the emotionally slim and weak youths of of Shakespeare's bibliography! Pit any other King, comedic protagonist or tragic sufferer against the mighty foe of Death and compare their resolve!
But Nature, master even to Death itself, tugs the strings and slackens the cords of this drama wherein Edmund battles as mightily as the King. I loved his first soliloquy and feared for the villainous path he would follow because of it. Nature propped him up in merit just as much as Edgar or any other being of human birth. But custom, an oftentimes antithesis to nature, drives Edmund to conspiracy against his family. Lear must feel a similar anger since Death serves as an antithesis to Life. Because Edmund also conpspires against his father, one might think to contrast Edmund with Goneril and Regan but Edmund's bastardly plight akins him more to Lear, who rages against natures fatal condemnation where Edmund rages against custom's unfair destiny. Neither take their lot lying down. Of course, if one did compare Edmund to these women, they would find similar conspiratorial resolves, yet Edmund's nurturing under his bastard upbringing changes his connection with two legitimate princesses. Perhaps Lear feels as unfairly treated by nature as Edmund feels by custom. Edgar exemplifies filial piety, as does Cordelia, resulting in both of their social woes, yet they both find reconciliation - Edgar with his birthright and Cordelia with her father. Yet most circumstances prove opposite to our understanding of nature and custom or our idea of their unity - the soothesaying fool, the ussurping daughters, the beggared firstborn, the aspiring bastard son, the banished loyalist - and, most frighteningly, the dying Life.
"Howl, howl, howl, howl!" Just imagine the crashing solemnity, the echoing boom of defeat, the sonorous bellow of mortality met and invincibility dreamt now thundering through the earth.
Shakespeare's prologue instantly drew me into the play's fandom. However, I don't think I finished the play as part of that same group.
During the prol...moreShakespeare's prologue instantly drew me into the play's fandom. However, I don't think I finished the play as part of that same group.
During the prologue, I imagine Shakespeare defending the purpose of his historical fiction while simultaneously revolutionizing the medium of stage plays.
How soon this mightiness meets misery: And if you can be merry then I'll say A man may weep upon his wedding-day.
Patrons of such plays expected humour or tragedy. To impress ones political or historical perspectives onto an audience seeking relief from every-day stressors may result in unhappy patronage and the tarnishing of a good reputation - an invaluable necessity for making a decent living in such an industry. Shakespeare sounds like a modern popular music act dictating their own political beliefs to people who paid to sing along to Top 40 songs. Yes, I can appreciate that.
What mightiness does Shakespeare speak of? And what brings about its misery? And, surely, we do not weep for the demise of Goliath or the victory of those under a mighty thumb.
Therefore I began reading Henry VIII expecting that Henry himself would fall. However, with a more accurate understanding of the history upon which Shakespeare based his work, the reader will likely gain a deeper insight into the one theme he choose to develop. Without spoiling the outcome, I will only say that this theme of "how the mighty have fallen" plays a prominent role - one which I relished. This theme provides an element of literary romance which the patron or reader, like myself, guzzles like a tenth glass of wine. It also exemplified the kind of power which Henry enforced. His policies were generally transient and self-serving, leaving anyone in his good graces vulnerable to an impending fall. Of course, Shakespeare jots down numerous stanzas, soliloquoys and characters which illustrate such universal and timeless truths regarding this theme that I prize them among several others of from his works. But this theme illustrates a misery which generally shrouded the reign of this king.
However, towards the end, I honestly found myself wondering if Shakespeare did not rush to complete this play, or promise to alter his themes and messages to powerful political gendarmes. Because suddenly, after abuses of power and the fickle consequences of irresponsible ambition, the question of the self-made man versus the nobility, the play sounded and read much like a homage to the Princess Elizabeth, born of Anne Bullen, and glorified above all children by Archbishop Cranmer and Henry himself, possibly swayed by the archbishop's lofty rhetoric after hearing that his child left his mother's womb without a penis.
And the Epilogue made no reference to anything mighty and fallen, surely nothing which would cause men to weep. On the contrary, it seemed to celebrate the rise of something new.
The play crept from under the rays of humane truths, the inherent quality of men and the tragic lessons of ambition and unchecked power, to a prequel for the great Queen Elizabeth I who happened to bare from Henry VIII. It read beautifully but after comparing the prologue and epilogue, so different in tone, I have to imagine that Shakespeare contrasted his initial theme with its antithesis - its annihilation and a celebration of a better day.(less)
Though Macbeth fell victim to his own ambition, I find his story tragic and feel pity for him. We meet him as an innocent surprised to hear of his add...moreThough Macbeth fell victim to his own ambition, I find his story tragic and feel pity for him. We meet him as an innocent surprised to hear of his additional title as Thane of Cawdor, troubled at he and his wife's plot to kill the king but then defending his power through prophecy no doubt because of guilt.
After his surprise at his appointment to Thane of Cawdor, perhaps implying the innocence or common nature of his ambition, no more corrupt than any other man making a living in the world, he drinks the tempting liquor of the witches who promise his ascension to the throne. Rather than depending on Chance, or Fate, to bring about this prophecy as it did his title in Cawdor, the prophecy itself acts like a catalyst for a deeply-embedded selfish ambition and compels him to ensure the realization of the prophecy by fallible design.
Throughout the play, Macbeth morphs into a corrupt beast insanely defending his power and action with prophecy. I question Macbeth's internal motives. If witches or goblins or angels or sages profess my future, surely I have the right to ignore their instruction or advice. Macbeth, on the contrary, embraced the witches sayings and behaved accordingly - like a harnessed lion pursuing a dangling carcass. If Macbeth would defend himself with prophecy, he only covers his own hellish nature which had unwittingly fallen victim to self-fulfillment. Yet perhaps there lingers a small hint of his former self, deeply devastated at his outcome and desperate to defend it somehow.
Ultimately, any prophetic gesture is more than a prediction of the future, but a mystical view into the depths of a man's soul - his inclinations and his nature. I wonder which witch Shakespeare considered himself to be?(less)