The main theme of Coriolanus is not a new one. In fact, Shakespeare had portrayed the fickleness and dangers of rule by the majority in plays as early as Henry VI Part 2, and it was an important theme in Julius Caesar. However, Coriolanus is the firs
The main theme of Coriolanus is not a new one. In fact, Shakespeare had portrayed the fickleness and dangers of rule by the majority in plays as early as Henry VI Part 2, and it was an important theme in Julius Caesar. However, Coriolanus is the first play in which Shakespeare made this his central theme.
Never the democrat, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the power of the masses is an unsympathetic one. The play centres on a haughty aristocrat, Caius Marcius. Our hero is a brave soldier who successfully defends Rome from an attack by the Volsces, led by Aufidius, earning him the military honorary name of Coriolanus. Coriolanus expects to be appointed consul by the grateful citizens of Rome. However, his disdain for the ordinary citizen allows the tribunes to stir up popular opinion against him.
The result of this is that instead of being honoured for his military victories, Coriolanus is banished from Rome. The embittered exile chooses to join forces with his mortal enemy, Aufidius and leads the Volsces against Rome. He is deterred from conquering Rome by the news that that the tribunes have fled, and by an appeal from his warlike mother. Unhappily, Aufidius, who still hates Coriolanus as a result of his previous military defeats, uses the opportunity to take his revenge by having Coriolanus killed.
Coriolanus may have been the last of Shakespeare’s tragedies and the last history play that he wrote unassisted. For the modern reader, there are reasons to feel disappointed. In an age of democracy, it is hard to warm to a hero who sets himself against the will of the people, and is apparently endorsed in this by the author.
Shakespeare leaves us little doubt where his sympathies lie. Whilst Coriolanus is intransigent and inflexible, his opinion of the ordinary people seems to be borne out by the actions of the Roman citizens in the play. We see them fleeing in battle until harried by Coriolanus to do the right thing. They are fickle in their sympathies, about to endorse Coriolanus’ consulship at one point before being easily swayed by the tribunes.
I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw who said that it was impossible to adequately portray working class characters except as figures of pathos or as comic characters. Shakespeare too is limited in his portrayal of the common person. They are dangerous and fickle en masse or as individuals they are either loyal servants or lovable rogues.
The tribunes too do not command much sympathy. They appear in the play as devious and spiteful, not worthy individuals to hold public office and lead public opinion. This is in spite of the fact that their opinion about the dangers posed by Coriolanus is likely to be shared by modern audiences. A man who is disdainful of the populace when he needs their favours is indeed likely to be a danger to them when he is given power.
Indeed, Shakespeare does provide some even-handedness in this respect. We could view the citizens changing their minds about appointing Coriolanus as being not down to lack of steadfastness or backbone, but rather due to the difficult choices in front of them. It seems like rank ingratitude to refuse the consulship to a war hero, but it is also against their interests to appoint him. Also Coriolanus’ rants against the citizens do indeed seem ill-natured and repellent to our ears now.
We are clearly supposed to recognise too that Coriolanus is taking an intransigent stance, one that the pragmatic senators and even his own mother opposes. We cannot push this argument too far however. At root, the ruling class in Rome shares Coriolanus’ opinion of the rabble, but chooses to make reluctant concessions to them.
This might be said to be the danger of offering some democracy to the masses in Shakespeare’s eyes – that even the natural rulers of the country are forced to give way to the power of the people, a power which they foolishly gave them in the first place and the lack the strength to take away.
Of course laments against the threat posed by majority rule and complaints about the unsuitable nature of democracy are hardly unique to Shakespeare. Ibsen dealt with these themes in An Enemy of the People, where an individual’s stance against the wishes of the majority similarly puts him in danger. Even in The Simpsons, we occasionally hear a character humorously cry, ‘democracy doesn’t work’ when the majority of people opt for a clearly wrong choice.
Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s brighter heroes and we are not greatly reassured by his apparently redeeming characteristic of being a brave fighter. However, this also has echoes in our modern age, where we still revere military figures and honour the bravery of our soldiers. Even my local barber offers discounts to men in the armed services.
Coriolanus is not someone we are likely to warm to, however. Shakespeare tries his best with an intractable character, ensuring that Coriolanus always has the tacit support, love or at least understanding of all the sympathetic characters – the Senate, Menenius and his family.
However, Coriolanus is a hero who appears to learn nothing or to show any great reflective internal processes when faced with adversity. He is intolerant and rude to his enemies at every turn. By the end of the play, he does indeed become an enemy to the people, turning traitor against his own country and leading an army against it.
With Othello and Macbeth, even at their worst there is some anxious meditation about the wrongness of their actions. There is none of this with Coriolanus. He never once admits that he might be wrong.
In fact, the play is closer, not to the great tragedies, but to the lesser Timon of Athens. It is as if the play has put Alcibiades as the hero, another militarist marching onto the state when he cannot have his own way. However, whereas Alcibiades chooses to grant leniency after his victory, Coriolanus is only deterred because he is a mummy’s boy.
His death is also somewhat unspectacular, the result of assassination by an unworthy and jealous opponent after he turns his back on Rome and naively thinks that he can live in peace with the Volsces whose families he once killed, even after he has sold out their hopes of conquering Rome.
Notably his death is a hasty affair and not accompanied by any noble dying speech – just a hasty remorseful tribute from an enemy who would probably have done the same thing again if Coriolanus came back to life.
This is not Shakespeare’s best play. It is longer than Macbeth, yet seems to have less to say, developing its themes slowly and apparently losing sight of them at the end of the play. However, it is an interesting work and has something to say for our age, as well as its own. ...more
It is with some trepidation that I approach my first review of a book of poetry. While I am no hater of poetry, I admit that my preference has always been for prose. One of the advantages of reading Palgrave’s selection of several centuries of Britis
It is with some trepidation that I approach my first review of a book of poetry. While I am no hater of poetry, I admit that my preference has always been for prose. One of the advantages of reading Palgrave’s selection of several centuries of British poetry is that it affords me the chance to confront my own prejudices about the nature of poetry.
One of my complaints about poetry has always been that critics refer to it as a more ‘personal’ form of writing. This view is not without some merit. While prose can be used to write a range of less personal books, covering everything from cookery to advanced calculus, poetry is always a collection of the writer’s personal impressions about love, life and self.
However, there is a sense in which poetry is not personal. It is a literary exercise, often observing (as do all the poems in this volume) rules of metre, rhythm, rhyme and other rules. By contrast, prose is closer to the personal style in which we think and express ourselves.
However, is this criticism fair when we are discussing literature? It could be argued that poetry and prose in art form are both equally artificial. The prose of the good artistic novel is not that of everyday speech, and everyday speech may be prose, but it is not necessarily good writing. For example, this review is in prose and gives a close view of my personal impressions, but it will not be winning any literary prizes.
Viewed in this way, both mediums, when used in a literary manner, owe more to artifice than to naturalism. They may still express something personal, but this is couched in a rhetoric designed to be impressive and appealing to the reader.
One of my other traditional complaints about poetry is the idea that it is ‘deep’. Actually most of the poems in this volume and elsewhere often express only truisms or statements of the obvious – love fades, time passes, we will die. The sentiments about religion, war or patriotism are often quite simple when removed from the seductive language used. We are more likely to learn deep truths from the longer works of novels or non-fiction.
Again, I have to challenge this prejudice in myself. Certainly poems do not usually express very profound messages, but there are short poems that say more than many very long and vacuous novels. We may also ask whether it is really necessary for a brief poem of the kind we see in Palgrave’s anthology to somehow compress profound nuggets of wisdom in a few brief lines.
Perhaps the most we should expect of any artistic work is only the ability to express a truth or opinion about the world in memorable and brilliant language, rather than to yield large nuggets of wisdom. In the end, how often does anything we read seriously transform our thinking? Is it a realistic expectation for us to expect from any work we read anyway, especially if it is only a work of art?
Turning to this volume, Palgrave limits himself to English poetry spanning from the Elizabethan period to the early twentieth century. While it has been said that Palgrave’s choice reflects the dated tastes of the age he lived in, there is room for many famous classic poems and poets that remain well-loved today.
We may question some of his choices, and I doubt Alexander Pope would be pleased to see his work given equal parity with the detested Colley Cibber. We can also detect clear favourites, e.g. Wordsworth, who receive a larger number of poems than many others. On the whole though, the great writers of each age have some representation and Palgrave tries to be scrupulously fair in including them.
Palgrave’s choices also reflect the sentiments of his age. There may be room for one Wilfred Owen anti-war poem or the scepticism of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, but for the main part the poems are pious and patriotic, suggesting an intention on Palgrave’s part to honour his country and god in his choices.
Overall, the selection is useful for those who wish to experience a variety of styles and writers, or who wish to take a sample of poetry and try to determine the writers whose works they would like to explore further. ...more
Perhaps one of the most curious things about H P Lovecraft is his association with Cthulhu, a fictional creation that is perhaps more well-known than the man who created this malign god-like being. Indeed, many of his stories are classified as part o
Perhaps one of the most curious things about H P Lovecraft is his association with Cthulhu, a fictional creation that is perhaps more well-known than the man who created this malign god-like being. Indeed, many of his stories are classified as part of the Cthulhu Mythos.
What makes this curious is that Cthulhu only actually appears in one Lovecraft story, and by no means his longest story. True there are allusions to Cthulhu elsewhere, but no more than to any of the other peculiar alien horrors that occupy the Cthulhu Mythos.
Perhaps one reason for Cthulhu’s popularity is that he is one of the few identifiable individual monsters in the Lovecraft world. Often Lovecraft is dealing with mysterious races of beings rather than a powerful individual focus of evil. True there is also Nyarlothotep, a creature of chaos, but there is no full story dedicated to this particular being. Cthulhu therefore remains by default the leading ‘hero’ of Lovecraft.
In reality, Cthulhu is one of the many forces in Lovecraft’s world that leaves mankind powerless in the face of evil forces outside his own control. The world is a dangerous place for humanity in Lovecraft’s stories. There are godlike, almost-immortal monsters who possess powers far outside human control – they can bend the rules of time and space, and possess the minds and even the bodies of humans. We are at the mercy of heredity or the controlling force of outward influences that threaten our lives, sanity and freedom.
This is not to say that humans are not without some responsibility for their own downfall. The stories are full of evil entities unleashed by unholy rituals, or by scientific curiosity that leads men to discover forces that they end up wishing they had not. The human race is trapped by its legacy from the past and a dangerous future where their own progressive instincts will instead lead to calamity.
In this respect, Lovecraft is not a progressive writer. Though he may depict the awful forgotten places of the past where atavistic forces are lurking, he has no great faith in human development in the time to come. In general, there is no great love for the human race in Lovecraft’s work, or indeed for human races. Many of the people involved in dark practices are members of what Lovecraft would consider inferior races or miscegenation.
This raises an interesting question about whether horror writers can be truly empathic. Certainly a good horror writer needs to be sensitive and imaginative to make a convincing tale, but is it possible to feel an intuitive understanding of human beings and then inflict the worst imaginable sufferings on them for the sake of a sensational horror story?
It is notable that the characters in Lovecraft rarely show any emotion except horror, usually taking the form of fear and disgust. Characters may have children or get married, but there is little serious attempt to portray filial or romantic love. There may be deaths, natural and violent, but there is little attempt to show the grief of their loved ones. Only horror is described in detail, and even this is a literary device designed to increase the anticipation in the reader.
This is a risky strategy, as a big build-up about the revealed horrors will raise the expectations of the reader. Impressively, Lovecraft rarely disappoints. He manages the difficult task of taking horror away from the implied and into the more revealed and blatant dimension without producing results that are crude or unintentionally funny.
Part of this lies in the fact that Lovecraft is more than a sensationalist writer, producing horror stories for money. Indeed, he made little in his lifetime. He has created his own unified world just as much as J R R Tolkien, L Frank Baum or C S Lewis.
There has also been a lot of care taken over the writing of the stories. While there is some repetition of key words – Cyclopean, eldritch, nameless, etc – Lovecraft never writes lazily. Even the weakest story in this collection has clearly been worked on meticulously. The reader is more likely to protest against excess than indolence, as Lovecraft piles on the words.
Interestingly, it is not only intellectual curiosity that causes problems for humanity, but even artistic endeavour, and we have a number of stories where painters, musicians and the like are susceptible (often lethally) to the darker powers. It is almost as if Lovecraft is reflecting about himself, and how his own obsession with producing grotesque art is somehow pushing him into the dangerous nether regions that lie beyond sanity.
This volume represents an impressive selection of Lovecraft’s stories, offering us a variety of settings and ideas as mankind is forced to battle, usually unsuccessfully. with forces immeasurably beyond his control. There are few happy endings here – at best there is a temporary reprieve where the human characters succeed in combating the danger for the present. We are given a full glimpse of the dangerous world of Lovecraft where dreams and reality will dangerously merge and the world is not a safe place. ...more
Apr 17, 2015 08:30AM · like · see review · preview book
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" Ali wrote: "hmm... I don't know if that means he has really done anything wrong. she could just be nervy and distraught because she's dying. Could jus Ali wrote: "hmm... I don't know if that means he has really done anything wrong. she could just be nervy and distraught because she's dying. Could just be a way to show that she is doubtful and scared and he c..."
This is after her death, in the last act. We might see it as a figment of Peer's imagination, a twinge of guilt or fear that he has led her astray. ...more "
" David wrote: "This is the second Ibsen play that I have read where the idea of marriage is questioned and that it is not generally 'happily ever after David wrote: "This is the second Ibsen play that I have read where the idea of marriage is questioned and that it is not generally 'happily ever after'."
It's a recurring Ibsen theme - the marriage based on a lie. ...more "
The arrival of Pericles heralds a shift in tone in Shakespeare’s works. After a long period of mostly writing tragedies, Shakespeare is now apart to embark on the so-called tragicomedies or romances that effectively conclude his writing as a dramatis
The arrival of Pericles heralds a shift in tone in Shakespeare’s works. After a long period of mostly writing tragedies, Shakespeare is now apart to embark on the so-called tragicomedies or romances that effectively conclude his writing as a dramatist.
Admittedly, tragicomedy is a little misleading, as there is not a lot of humour in Pericles – perhaps rather more in the later works. It may be easier to view them as romances, as they are stories that use far-fetched and extraordinary plotting with fantastic elements, sometimes including magic.
Of course Shakespeare’s plays have always relied on far-fetched contrivance, but in these late plays we will have to get used to even more of this. In a scene where a bawd tries to break a virtuous woman into prostitution and her virtuous preaching turns the cynical clients to piety, even Shakespeare is obliged to play it for laughs, as if to wryly acknowledge the unlikeliness of his story material.
This is far from a solitary example. Missing suits of armour are mysteriously washed up from the sea just at the point when our hero needs them. There are an astonishing number of tempests and ships in trouble afflicting our hapless hero and his family. His wife, presumed dead, will just happen to arrive at a place where a physician (an improbable lord of all things) knows practices that rouse the seemingly dead from their comatose state. Similarly, wife, daughter and Pericles will be reunited in a manner that involves considerable contrivance.
Worse still the characters themselves often behave in a manner that is unlikely. Pericles opens the play by wooing a woman for whom death is the penalty if he fails to solve the riddle, though why any man would put his life at risk for a good marriage is beyond comprehension. Later he will refuse to cut his hair until his daughter marries. When Thaisa, Pericles’ wife is revived from the dead, she decides to become a nun, as opposed to getting on another ship and returning to either her father or her husband.
The story also throws up a number of loose ends, which are only carelessly tied up. The opening act where Pericles solves the riddle of Antiochus’ daughter, only to discover that she is in an incestuous relationship with her father, soon vanishes from the play, and appears to be only a device for explaining why Pericles leaves Tyre. Antiochus hires Thaliard to kill Pericles, but this story soon peters off when Thaliard goes to Tyre, finds Pericles has left, and simply goes home again.
We will also have to reconcile ourselves to several absurd stage directions in the late Shakespeare romances. ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ in A Winter’s Tale is notorious, but there is also ‘Enter Ariel, invisible’ (in The Tempest) and in this play, ‘Enter Pericles, wet’.
In this sense, the play seems more like a fantasy such as the Thousand and One Nights, rather than a dramatic work – an episodic structure of events and characters who come and go on our hero’s journey. Notably there is none of the magic of such fantasy stories, unless we count a cameo by the goddess, Diana towards the end, who directs Pericles to the place where he will be reconciled with his wife. Even this is only a dream.
Shakespeare’s use of a Greek goddess is interesting in that it shows that he simply uses the material at hand. Critics try to make a great deal out of the scene in Hamlet where his father claims to be in purgatory, a zone erased from Protestant consciousness, but it seems likely that Shakespeare is sticking to the original source material, rather than trying to undermine the honesty of the ghost. Shakespeare will use the idea of purgatory just as he will use Diana in Pericles and an unseen Apollo in Antony & Cleopatra, purely to add colour to his story.
It is only in Act Three that various strands start to come together. When Pericles arrives at Tharsus in Act One with the food that will relieve their famine, we are puzzled when we learn that he immediately leaves again, rendering this storyline seemingly redundant. However, this leads to the later scene where Pericles will leave his daughter in the care of the ungrateful Cleon and Dionyza, only for Dionyza to later try to kill Pericles’ daughter, Marina.
I have already summarised most of the story, but here is a quick precis. After uncovering the incest of Antiochus while courting his daughter, Pericles leaves his home of Tyre, fearing an angry king will attack his weaker principality. Pericles woos and wins Thaisa, but she appears to die in childbirth and her coffin is put overboard during a storm.
In fact, Thaisa is still alive and revived from this state. Meanwhile Pericles leaves his newborn child, called Marina, in the hands of Cleon and Dionyza. Dionyza tries to arrange Marina’s death, but she is rescued by pirates and eventually sold to a bawd who tries to make her into a prostitute. Marina’s virtue makes her invulnerable to the attention of clients, and the pimp agrees to help her become a teacher instead.
Meanwhile Pericles, believing his daughter is dead, sinks into a relapse and will not speak. As luck would have it, he arrives at Mytilene, where his daughter is and the two are reconciled. After seeing the goddess Diana in a dream, Pericles goes to Diana’s temple at Ephesus, only to be reconciled with his wife who has become a nun there.
As the full plot summary shows, the story is preposterous if taken too seriously. However, it should be seen merely as a device that allows the ideas of the play to flow. The play is a romance and these romantic elements are not meant to be viewed as probable or likely. The story is often fatalistic. The sea, a symbol of fate, seems to wash things in and out. It takes away Pericles’ wealth (a shipwreck), his wife (her coffin) and his daughter (by pirates). However, journeys by sea restore food to the starving people of Tharus and will bring back Pericles’ lost wife and daughter.
Notably, all loose ends will be tied up. The incestuous king and daughter, and later, the conniving husband and wife of Tharsus will be burnt to death for their crimes and sins.
The play has its darker elements like the tragedies, and it is astonishing to see Shakespeare using incest as a theme. However, ultimately it is about reconciliation and reunion. No matter what losses and suffering Pericles endures, all will ultimately be redeemed. This will be a key idea in all of the romances that follows.
From an artistic point of view, this makes a satisfying end to Shakespeare’s career. We have seen his plays move from the more detached history plays and the occasionally cynical but generally upbeat comedies, through to the complex problem plays and darker tragedies, and now culminating movingly in a series of plays in which early tragedy is reversed and the heroes and heroines can find some happiness after all.
It is hard not to wonder how this relates to Shakespeare’s own life. We know so little about how Shakespeare felt, but it is tempting to view this as some kind of wish fulfilment on his part. In his private life, he is unable to bring back that which is lost (e.g. the death of his son, Hamnet) or that which is separated (he lived away from his wife in London). However, in his final plays, he is able in his art to bring together that which is lost.
Ultimately this makes the end of Pericles quite powerful and moving. It is hard not to feel an aching sense of joy when Pericles, a man who has done nothing to justify his suffering, is finally restored to his family and the play brought to a happy conclusion.
Pericles is a minor Shakespeare play – it is perhaps too short for the large amount of material it tries to get through, and it can sometimes seem rushed, with the pivotal Act 3 being one of the briefest Acts in all of Shakespeare and many characters failing to get sufficient dialogue in the final scene.
However, it has many charms and is always enjoyable in the story it tells. It is a moving play and a welcome antidote after a long spell of increasingly dark tragedies. ...more
" A wrote: "The basic premise of the book is absurd and never adequately explained there's a vast sum of nazi funds (=crime proceeds) to be used for com A wrote: "The basic premise of the book is absurd and never adequately explained there's a vast sum of nazi funds (=crime proceeds) to be used for compensating victims. Well then, hand it over to the author..."
Yes, hardly surprising the money ends up falling into the hands of the very people Holcroft has been trying to stop throughout the entire book. That in itself makes a lame ending since it makes a nonsense of his endeavours over several hundred pages. ...more "
For never was there a play of so much matter
As this of Antony and his Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is a late Shakespeare play, and an ambitious one that seems to straddle most of the genres that Shakespeare wrote in during his life. It is first and For never was there a play of so much matter
As this of Antony and his Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is a late Shakespeare play, and an ambitious one that seems to straddle most of the genres that Shakespeare wrote in during his life. It is first and foremost a play about love, and one of three that takes its name from the two central lovers. It is also a tragedy and occupies a clear place in the line of tragedies written up until this point.
However, Antony & Cleopatra also has many comic scenes that appear to recall earlier Shakespeare comedies. In that sense, it could almost be seen as the first of the tragicomedies that were the culmination of Shakespeare’s works, albeit a tragicomedy that ends in tragedy.
Finally, Antony & Cleopatra is a history play, one of four that Shakespeare wrote about Roman times. These many elements are going to make this a hard play to review briefly.
Let’s begin with the plot summary. The Roman Empire is controlled by a triumvirate, of which Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony are the rivals and lynch pins. However, Antony is neglecting his duties in Rome and living a decadent pleasure-loving life with his paramour, the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. His relatives are fighting against Octavius, although Antony denies any personal involvement.
The clash between the two world leaders is averted when Antony returns to Rome in time to prevent a war with Pompey and agrees to marry Octavius’s sister. However, it is not long before Antony returns to Cleopatra and the two rivals square off to fight a war with one another.
In the event, Antony’s foolish decision to fight at sea and then turn back to follow the retreating Cleopatra costs him any advantage he had over Octavius and despite some brave fighting he heads for defeat while his followers desert him.
Fearing (correctly) that Antony feels she has betrayed him to Octavius and means to kill her, Cleopatra asks her servants to tell Antony that she is dead. On hearing the news, Antony kills himself. As Cleopatra falls into the hands of an admittedly gracious Octavius, the queen decides that she would rather follow Antony in death and kills herself.
As my opening pastiche of Romeo & Juliet would suggest, the play bears an interesting contrast to that earlier play. In some respects, Antony & Cleopatra is closer to the cynicism of the other love play, Troilus and Cressida. It is almost as if the jaded lovers of that play had met again in later life and accepted a compromised relationship.
However, if Cressida is ruined by her infidelities, Cleopatra is able to pursue an active sex life and remain a strong and respected rule, albeit often the butt of hostile and misogynistic comments from disapproving voices.
However, the contrast with Romeo & Juliet is the more interesting one. We see here the work of an older playwright. In Romeo & Juliet, the lovers are young, romantic, pure and true to one another. The lovers of Antony & Cleopatra are older, decadent and barely-faithful or trusting of one another.
Antony & Cleopatra is both greater and lesser than Romeo & Juliet in its concerns. Romeo & Juliet concerned only a couple of warring families, whereas the future of a large part of the known world lies at stake in Antony & Cleopatra. However, the earlier play holds to pure and noble ideals, while the characters in the later play are often concerned with pettier concerns – partying and feuding and plotting.
However, there is a sense in which the two plays are alike. Both end with the heroine faking her death, the hero responding by killing himself and the heroine following on. Also for all their infidelities and untrustworthiness, there is a kind of true love between Antony and Cleopatra. Ultimately they are unable to remain apart in life or death and will always return to one another.
In fact, one main theme of the play is one that I explored when I was reviewing the plays of Ibsen – the dilemma between following duty and following the pleasures of the heart. Octavius and his sister Octavia are dutiful, but also cold and pleasure-denying. Cleopatra represents an escape into pleasure and neglect of responsibility, but she is fickle and luring our hero to his own demise.
Antony must choose between a stultifying life of duty that is cold and life-denying or a life of pleasure that is dissipation and will lead to his death. In short, he has two deathly choices open to him. Antony vacillates between the two, seeking to escape the sybaritic lifestyle of his lover. However, he will metaphorically and literally turn his fleet back to retreat with Cleopatra at the expense of his own wider interests.
While he is condemned for his actions, there is a sense in which Shakespeare (and many of the audience) will nonetheless side with Antony’s decisions. Antony is disloyal, dissolute and foolish in his judgments. However, he is also generous, brave and noble in a way that the scheming tactician, Octavius is not. It is hardly surprising that his presence is enough to discourage the warring Pompey and his death commands grief from Octavius himself.
Similarly, Cleopatra may be frivolous, fickle and capricious, but she has a charm, humour and affectionateness that is lacking in the still and dutiful Octavia. It is hardly surprising that Antony (and indeed Shakespeare) keep returning from the formal civilities of Rome to the fun-loving world of Egypt.
As I have said, the play fits in with the tragedies that Shakespeare was writing at this time. While there is no rigid pattern, the earlier tragedies often feature heroes and heroines who are trapped in circumstances that are no fault of their own, and which they are unsuccessfully seeking to rise above (Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet). Later plays have a hero who is fatally compromised in his own actions, but only when he is acted on by evil forces outside himself (King Lear, Othello).
During this phase of Shakespeare’s writing, however, we have the tragic heroes whose fall is entirely their own doing (Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Coriolanus). Antony & Cleopatra fits into this category. We are left in no doubt that the hero and heroine are the architects of their own fate. While Antony may have an arch-nemesis in Octavian, he fritters away any possible advantage he has, following the fortunes of the changeable Cleopatra.
This does not alter the fact that this is much lighter play than many of Shakespeare’s later tragedies. We do not have the same feeling of doom-laden dismay that we have in reading Macbeth, Timon, Lear, Hamlet or Othello. In fact, there are many light-hearted scenes in the play. In Macbeth we have a servant called Seyton (Satan); in Antony & Cleopatra, the servant is called Eros (the god of love). For this reason, I have described it as the first of the tragicomedies that Shakespeare was to embark on.
This label is perhaps misleading, as the play is recognisably a tragedy and does not deal in the same themes that characterise the four tragicomedies of Shakespeare’s last phase of writing. It is not especially about loss or reconciliation and does not have magical or semi-magical themes in it. It deals in real, rather than fantastic and mythical elements. The exception is the scene where Antony’s god, Hercules, is heard to abandon him, an interesting element in the work of a Christian playwright.
These comic elements are in fact closer in spirit to earlier Shakespeare comedies. In those plays, we see capricious and self-indulgent heroes and heroines dedicating their time to love. Why then, we may ask, does this lead to tragedy in this play, and a happy ending in the other plays?
An important element here is timing. In the comedies, the characters are self-indulgent, but only during idle moments when there is time. The witty aristocrats of Much Ado About Nothing wait until after they have fought their wars before they go masquing and wooing. The self-indulgent lovers of Twelfth Night reach an end of their festivities and accept marital responsibilities at the end of the play. Similarly, the foppish courtiers of Love’s Labour’s Lost and the idle court in exile in As You Like It recognise that they must return to their responsibilities at the right time.
By contrast, Antony and Cleopatra show no sense of timing in their indulgences. They neglect their duties and their own good safety, and lose all sense of their positions and the issues at stake. The behaviour that would be appropriate in a love comedy is not appropriate in two important leaders on the world stage.
This leads us nicely into the play’s last area as a history play. Antony & Cleopatra is the third of four Roman plays, but not part of a tetralogy in the way that most of the English history plays are. The plays were written over the entire span of Shakespeare’s play and not especially connected. Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus bear no connection to any other play.
There is a connection between Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, and a reading of both plays will enhance our understanding of the events described. However, Antony & Cleopatra is no sequel. The events may follow those of the earlier play, but there is no sense in which the play shows the consequences or resolutions of plot threads and themes began in the earlier play, as was the case in the English history plays.
The political intriguing in Antony & Cleopatra is the element that makes the play hardest to follow for the modern viewer, and may explain why the play does not receive as many productions. There are a bewildering number of scenes and characters thrown on the stage, and often wilfully removed with the same ease.
There are 42 scenes in Antony & Cleopatra, more than in any other play. Characters such as Lepidus and Pompey appear prominently in earlier acts, only to be swept away in a few lines of dialogue in the third act. There are also a number of scenes that hardly seem necessary.
For example, at the start of Act Three, Ventidius appears on the stage with the body of Pacorus. The scene provides some amusingly ironic comments about the dangers of megalomaniacal leadership, but neither of these characters were heard of before or will be mentioned again.
There is a kind of charm for me in writers who do include unnecessary scenes and seem to be brimming with good ideas that must have a place in the play. However, it is fair to say that Shakespeare’s attempts to follow the many historical vicissitudes of the time do not always add well to the unity of the play.
We do have a sense of how finely-attuned Shakespeare’s writing has become in a scene where Antony and Octavian iron out their differences. In the early English history plays, we would have been treated to characters engaging in childish and rather tiresome slanging matches. However in this play, the two rivals handle things in a more statesmanlike way, angry, but civil. Even the blunt Enobarbus shows some restraint in his interruptions.
In conclusion, we have a play that is ambitious and perhaps over-ambitious at times. It is not an easy play to grasp on a first reading, but it repays further readings and attempts to grasp its many complex levels. ...more
Jan 22, 2015 08:34AM · like · see review · preview book
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The Skeptics Annotated Bible might be said, if one would forgive so ironic a phrase, to be a godsend for atheists everywhere. It began its existence online, and this is still the best place to use it. However, its compiler, Steve Wells, decided to ta
The Skeptics Annotated Bible might be said, if one would forgive so ironic a phrase, to be a godsend for atheists everywhere. It began its existence online, and this is still the best place to use it. However, its compiler, Steve Wells, decided to take things further and have it made available in book form.
The idea is quite simple. The work comprises the entire text of the Bible. Along the side of it, Well has provided annotations identifying everything that might be considered wrong with the Bible. These include contradictions, absurdities, failed prophesies and historical or scientific inaccuracies, as well as examples of intolerance, injustice, violence and cruelty, and passages that attack women and homosexuals.
I approached the idea of a written form of the text with some trepidation, as inevitably no book form could capture the full beauty of the original Internet version. Here we have no links to other pages, including Wells' own entertaining blog, Dwindling in Unbelief, and the delightful Brick Testament, a partial version of the Bible produced in Lego form.
Other omissions include the section 'What the Bible says about', which gives us the lowdown on certain key subjects mentioned in the Bible - everything from clothing to children. We also do not have in the book version the full list of all absurdities, intolerance etc, although Wells offers us a brief summary of contradictions and god's killings in the Bible.
We are also deprived of the ability to quickly follow internet links that will take us to any passage or theme that we like, as well as using the search function on the computer to locate key words.
So what, it may be asked, is the point in having a book form that is inevitably going to be inferior to the Internet version? True, much of Wells' loving work has been recaptured here, occasionally a little toned down, but essentially following the form established by the online version. Nonetheless, it is a version that has much missing.
The arguments in favour of possessing the Skeptic's Annotated Bible in book form are as follows. It is more reliably durable than an internet page which can be taken down It can be read with more ease and without the need to stare at a computer screen for hours. It is portable, albeit quite heavy, and does not require any technology to read.
Of course, the book has come in for some criticism, mainly from Bible apologists, including an abortive attempt to produce a Skeptic's Annotated version of the Skeptic's Annotated Bible. It is true that we can frequently question Wells' negative interpretations. He can be very literal-minded in his criticisms of text that is dated or ambiguously worded, and the criticisms also take in a literal interpretation of passages that some would view as metaphorical stories or fables.
However, Wells does not have to present these criticisms as established fact - merely as possible criticisms that people have found in the book. In any case, Bible apologists have to explain why their god has allowed his word to be presented in a form that is open to overly-literal interpretations and ambiguous and unflattering translations.
In any case, even if 10% of the faults that Wells found were untrue, this would still leave a massive collection of absurd or appalling Bible passages that need quite some explaining away. Only the most fundamentalist or brainwashed believer could possibly think that every one of these flaws, running into their thousands, could be explained away. There is not a single book in the Bible, and very few chapters that Wells has not found some fault with.
Of course, Wells also tries to identify good passages in the Bible, and these are surprisingly few and far between. The end result is a summary that should cause all right-minded people to lose respect for this work and for the belief system that it inspires.
Wells has also produced an annotated version of the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon, but for all his efforts it's clear that his heart lies with the Bible. He is simply fascinated with its many bizarre and unpleasant passages, and often bored by its many tedious genealogies and lists. It is hard not to read the book and feel some of his fascinated outrage and cynical amusement as he deconstructs one of the most influential works ever made. ...more
Dec 17, 2014 01:26PM · like · see review · preview book
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Shakespeare’s tragedies often deal with the nature of evil, and none more so than Macbeth where the theme may be said to reach its apotheosis. Indeed, the play’s reputation precedes it to the extent that actors refuse to name the play for fear of bad
Shakespeare’s tragedies often deal with the nature of evil, and none more so than Macbeth where the theme may be said to reach its apotheosis. Indeed, the play’s reputation precedes it to the extent that actors refuse to name the play for fear of bad luck.
This atmosphere of evil is heightened by a large number of superstitious elements and these are not of a benevolent or even ambiguous nature. They are firmly associated with evil deeds, either being planned or already executed. This is the play that has a bloody ghost, a dagger and a voice telling its hero he will sleep no more.
Even if we dismiss these elements as part of Macbeth’s fevered brain, we cannot say the same for the three witches who help bring Macbeth to his fall or the unnatural phenomena attending Duncan’s death. Even the comic relief character is pretending to porter the gates of hell whilst the hero’s servant is named Seyton.
At the centre of this is a hero who may well be Shakespeare’s most daring portrait of a tragic hero yet. With Hamlet, Lear and Othello, we have heroes who we almost want to see overcome their tragic ends, and who often seem close to it. Indeed, an alternative version of King Lear was performed for many years in which the play did give the audience the happy ending it craved for.
Our modern tastes allow us to accept tragic endings better and not to desire the play to be spoilt by pat happy endings. Nonetheless, there is a part of us that somehow would like to see our heroes triumph. This is not the case in Macbeth, where our hero is damned from the second act on, and a happy ending can only be reached with his overthrow and death. How then can we identify with a regicide and a tyrant?
Added to this, Macbeth’s fate is fairly clear to us. Once he kills the king, he is trapped in a cycle of inevitability, reflected in the play’s language – what’s done can’t be undone, I am in blood steeped so far, I’m tied to the stake, I cannot fly.
The plot can be easily summarised. Spurred on by his wife, the prophesies of the witches that he would become king and his own ambition, Macbeth murders the innocent king, Duncan. The blame is put upon Duncan’s sons who flee the country and Macbeth becomes king.
However, he never gets to enjoy his new glories. Insecure in his position, he murders Banquo, whom the witches prophesied would have sons who would become king. Next, he kills the household of Macduff, including his wife and children.
Macduff meanwhile is in England, helping Malcolm (Duncan’s son) to lead a rebellion against Macbeth to put Malcolm on his rightful place on the throne. Macbeth seeks the counsel of the witches once more and is told that he will not fall from power until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, and that he personally cannot be killed by anyone born of woman.
Spurred on by these hopes, Macbeth gives battle, but finds that the witches have tricked him. Malcolm’s army carry the branches of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill in a bid to hide their numbers. Confronted by a vengeful Macduff, Macbeth learns that Macduff was not born of woman, but the product of a Caesarian birth. Macduff kills Macbeth and Malcolm becomes king.
As we can see this summary offers us little reason to like or care about Macbeth, a man who takes the throne through violence and maintains it through tyranny until the rightful king is returned to the throne. Indeed the politics of the play are more conservative even than earlier plays like Richard II, where we can at least see some right to Bolingbroke’s claims and recognise that Richard was a bad king. By contrast, Duncan is a good king (as far as we can tell) and has bestowed great honour and favour on Macbeth.
How then can we care about Macbeth? Shakespeare offers us a few reasons why we should. Firstly, Macbeth possesses the typical manly qualities of a Shakespeare hero, including valour in the face of battle. He is clearly well-liked at the play’s start, and we may see him as a man who is destroyed by his own ambition, perhaps the key theme of the play.
Indeed, Macbeth soon learns the hollowness of that ambition. He imagines that he can take the throne through violence and the deed will be done. However, this is not the case. He reigns in perpetual insecurity about the other nobles. He lives with guilt and insomnia as he thinks of his actions. He becomes isolated from friends, nobles and even his own wife, as he loses trust and affection from everyone.
His noble nature has become tainted and he can only resort to more crimes to keep himself safe. However, none of this is enough and he will die violently, heir to a barren sceptre that will not pass to his heirs. By the end of the play, Macbeth has lost all belief, as we see in his famously nihilistic speech (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow).
Macbeth has been corrupted by false hopes – both his own and those of equivocation, another key theme in the play. The prophesies by the witches are not merely designed to give information to Macbeth about his future, but to lure him into further acts of degradation. The prophesy that he will become king encourages him to kill Duncan. The prophesy about Banquo’s heirs taking the crown will cause him to kill Banquo.
The warning about Macduff leads to the death of everyone in Macduff’s household. The reassurances that he cannot be overthrown until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill or that he cannot be harmed of anyone born of woman will make him desperately fight until his own destruction is assured.
However, these temptations cannot alter the fact that Macbeth is the instrument of his own fate. He chooses how to respond to the witches, just as he chooses whether to accept the incitements of his wife. Indeed, he later moves beyond his wife and is able to plot killings without informing her of what he is planning. Hence their positions becomes reversed, and she becomes weaker until she (probably) takes her own life out of guilt.
Macbeth is a surprisingly short play, the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but this seems hard to believe as so much happens within its comparatively brief acts. It is a masterpiece of mature Shakespeare, never declining in quality from start to finish. There are some great moments right up until the last act, and the poetry of the writing is Shakespeare at his best, making it one of his most quotable plays. ...more
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