Review: Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III

Henry VI Part III (Folger Edition)
William Shakespeare

I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine the Henry the 6th plays are among the least performed in the Shakespeare cannon. Written early in Will’s career, they just aren’t very good. The first is really down right awful. It is confusing, poorly plotted and hard to get through. Joan of Arc is a character in Part I and it still sucks. The second is a little better (the middle of Part II is dominated by an alternately bloody and comedic peasant revolt which is pretty amusing) but still not worth all that much. Part III, while not rising to the typical Will standards, isn’t bad, if you like ‘em bloody. It gets especially good in the second half when the evil caricature of Richard the III really gets going.

There are a couple of things about Henry VI Part III that I want to note. First is the real cruelty on display in portions of the play. I am no Shakespeare scholar, but it seems to me that the early Shakespeare plays* are more graphically violent than the later plays. In Henry VI Part III we have the cold blooded killing of a little child by a knight, the child’s father is then taunted with a handkerchief dipped in the kid’s blood and then if that wasn’t enough, get the mass stabbing of a  Prince by a gang of nobles. It is gruesome stuff.

Critics give a lot of reasons for this brutality in Henry VI Part II. Two of the reasons often argued resonate with me. Perhaps Will wasn’t confident enough yet that his dialogue could hold the crowd’s attention so he resorted to more graphic violence. He was competing with bear baiting after all. I’ll buy this. If you write a scene where a queen puts a paper crown on a man’s head, gives him a handkerchief with his own child’s blood on it, and then has him killed, people are going to remember your name.

The second reason for the violence often given is that the plays reflect a critique of chivalry and a dislike for war that was common in England in the years after the War of the Roses and the various wars in Europe. Maybe.  I will say that there are few heroes in these plays and generally the aristocracy behaves badly. Perhaps that is because Will was attempting a critique of the nobility, or perhaps royals acting badly filled seats. Like much in Shakespeare studies, it doesn’t much matter anymore what Will intended. It matters what resonates with us.

Also of interest is how the plays represent the Tudor ruling classes perception of the War of the Roses and the houses of York and Lancaster.** There is a huge literature out there on the way that Shakespeare’s plays influenced our understanding of the historical persons he used as the basis of his characters. I’ve read some of it, but not much. What I have read says that Richard very likely wasn’t a hunchback, if he was deformed, it probably was minimal. He also probably didn’t kill the princes in the Tower. But that doesn’t stop Shakespeare from portraying him as an evil hunchback murderer. And that is how we imagine him today.

When I think of Richard the Third, I think of Olivier, sneering:


I will go into this more after I read and review Richard III, but Henry VII, the founder of Tudor England, usurped Richard so it isn’t surprising that Richard is portrayed so awfully in Henry VI. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the play isn’t just a hit piece on the house of Lancaster. The Yorks, those of the killing of the little kids, don’t get off easily either.  The Henry the VI cycle isn’t among the best Shakespeare has to offer, but it is worth the time to read both to put the other, better, works in context and to enjoy the spectacle of royalty acting badly.

* People argue ad nausea about the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays, but there is little doubt that the Henry the VI plays are among the first.

** Before I read these plays I knew jack shit about the War of the Roses. I might write something just synopsizing this skirmish. If you are reading the Henry Plays and Richard III, instead of watching them, I think you need to have some familiarity with the War or you’ll be lost.

Review: Shakespeare’s Richard III

Richard the Third, William Shakespeare, Folger Edition

Richard the III is one of the most quoted of all Shakespeare’s plays (“My kingdom for a horse!), it is a title role all serious Shakespearean actors wish to play, and it is a huge step forward in the Bard’s writing from the Henry VI trilogy. This is the fourth play by the Bard I have read, and the first one I can say I actually enjoyed.

What is it about RIII that makes it so popular and so much better than the Bards earlier works? Some of the reasons are simple technical improvements in the construction. The HVI plays have enormous casts of characters and plots (such as they are) that wind this way and that r, major events happen suddenly and with little flourish, and long periods of time are spent on subplots and diversions. The HVI plays have too many battle scenes and too few insights into the motivations of the characters. RIII is slimmed down to a smaller cast, and more linear plot centered, like most of the best Shakespeare plays, on a single character. Start to finish this is the story of one thing – Richard and his rise to power.

The smaller cast and more focused plot give this play better definition, but what makes it a classic is Richard. Richard III, as created by Shakespeare, is such a captivating character that he has already overtaken my review of Henry VI Part III. As I mentioned there, the historical Richard almost surely wasn’t the maniacal, murdering, evil genius of Shakespeare’s play, but that doesn’t matter. The true nature of the historical Richard is lost to history. What we are left with is the Richard of the play, a man of almost pure evil. He seduces a widow while she accompanies the body of her dead husband, he kills children, all in the pursuit of power which he holds for a very short time.

Richard is a nasty, nasty man, and we love him for it. Or rather we love watching him behave so wickedly. In his plotting for power Richard is the Id gone wild. Richard is an exemplification of our desires for power above all else. It is disgusting and horrific and we cannot stop talking about it. My reaction to him reminds me of my reaction to Charlie Sheen. I hate him, think he is loathsome, and cannot turn away.

While audiences love seeing Richard’s rise to power through wickedness, vicariously living through a man willing to do anything to get what he wants, we love even watching him met his violent end. Because while we may enjoy watching Richard be nasty, or Sheen behaving like a sex crazed madman, we wouldn’t like the story unless it ended badly for the protagonist.

Review: Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

Comedy of Errors (Arden Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare

When I decided, years ago, to read the Bard’s works in chronological order, who knew that was going to be such a trying ordeal? I warn you, before you get to Lear and Hamlet you have to go through the long and turgid Richard the VI and the silly and unfunny Comedy of Errors. You have been cautioned, fellow readers.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies leave me cold, but the early comedies, starting with Comedy or Errors, really take the cake for unfunny. The plot here is simple  and wildly unbelievable – two sets of twins, one set of gentleman, one set of servants, are separated at birth, but come together when the twins from Syracuse visit the twins from Ephesus. Confusion and plenty of cheap jokes ensue. Putting aside the shear implausibility that a wife wouldn’t recognize her husband, the comedic slap stick of the play is just poorly done.

Shakespeare’s later comedies are filled with double entendres and clever set pieces – this one is not. It is the same joke told in variation for five acts. Antipholus of Syracuse is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Dromio of Syracuse is confused for Dromio of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Antipholus of Syracuse confuses Dromio of Ephesus with Dromio of Syracuse and Drimio says something silly… and on and on.

Perhaps I’d like the work better if I saw it performed by a competent company. Comedy of Errors is one of the early plays which is often staged, probably because the comedies are eternally popular, and this has a relatively small cast. The only production of Comedy of Errors I have ever seen was performed by a high school drama group when I was fifteen. It was not funny. I would guess the Royal Shakespeare Company does a better job.

Harold Bloom, who seems able to find something or merit in almost all of the works of the Bard, says in his enormous Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human (which I read parts of in conjunction with the plays) that “Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Human. A role in a face hardly seems an arena for inwardness by genre never confined Shakespeare, even at his origins, and Antipholus of Syracuse is a sketch for the abysses of self that are to come.”

Really? I just don’t see it, Harold. Perhaps there are hints of the kind of character development and articulation of the human condition that will make the later plays so great, but on first reading all I see a silly little play which uses the same trick over and over again to get cheap laughs.

Notes on Reading All of the Shakespeare Plays

Last year, I completed a project I’d been working on for years – to read the complete works of the Bard, in chronological order. It was a very up and down affair. You have to kiss a lot of frogs (King John, Comedy of Errors) before you find the princes (Hamlet (ha!), Lear, the HIVs).

All in all, I’m glad I did it.  I can now speak with at least a little knowledge now about all the plays, but it was also a bit of a slog.

Anyway, throughout the course of the project, I wrote short review of some, but not all, of the plays for various blogs and websites. I’m transferring those reviews (and much else besides!) over here.

As part of that, here’s some general notes that may be of interest to other undertaking such a project.

What Did you Include?

I went with the maximalist approach in determining what to read. This means I included works such as Timon of Athens and the Noble Kinsman (bad as I think both these plays are) which are not in the first folio, but which modern scholars believe Shakespeare at least had a hand in writing. I did not read the sonnets, yet, as the project was confined to the plays and by the time I was done with that I’d have enough of the Bard for now, thanks.

In What Order Did You Read The Works?

Determining the chronology in which Shakespeare wrote the plays is problematic and scholars argue about it to this day. I simply googled “Shakespeare Plays Chronology” and read them in the order that was given on this website.

Here they are in the order I used. Linked titles lead to my idiosyncratic reviews:

 

First Performed Plays First Printed
1590-91 Henry VI, Part II 1594?
1590-91 Henry VI, Part III 1594?
1591-92 Henry VI, Part I 1623
1592-93 Richard III 1597
1592-93 Comedy of Errors 1623
1593-94 Titus Andronicus 1594
1593-94 Taming of the Shrew 1623
1594-95 Two Gentlemen of Verona 1623
1594-95 Love’s Labour’s Lost 1598?
1594-95 Romeo and Juliet 1597
1595-96 Richard II 1597
1595-96 A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1600
1596-97 King John 1623
1596-97 The Merchant of Venice 1600
1597-98 Henry IV, Part I 1598
1597-98 Henry IV, Part II 1600
1598-99 Much Ado About Nothing 1600
1598-99 Henry V 1600
1599-1600 Julius Caesar 1623
1599-1600 As You Like It 1623
1599-1600 Twelfth Night 1623
1600-01 Hamlet 1603
1600-01 The Merry Wives of Windsor 1602
1601-02 Troilus and Cressida 1609
1602-03 All’s Well That Ends Well 1623
1604-05 Measure for Measure 1623
1604-05 Othello 1622
1605-06 King Lear 1608
1605-06 Macbeth 1623
1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra 1623
1607-08 Coriolanus 1623
1607-08 Timon of Athens 1623
1608-09 Pericles 1609
1609-10 Cymbeline 1623
1610-11 The Winter’s Tale 1623
1611-12 The Tempest 1623
1612-13 Henry VIII 1623
1612-13 The Two Noble Kinsmen* 1634

 

Frankly, I didn’t much care about the precise order. I wanted to read the early works before the later to get a general sense of his development, but really all I needed was a basic organizing principle to the project. This was the one I chose. It was practically random.

In What Editions Did You Read The Works?

Through the project, I read different works in different editions including editions published by Penguin, Arden, Royal Shakespeare Company, and Folger. Arden is the gold standard in Shakespeare. It provides the most scholarly introductions and the most comprehensive notation. However, I found it heavy lifting for an amateur such as myself. As the project went on, I gravitated to the Folger editions with their more approachable modern explanations of the text, helpful glossaries of terms, and scene synopses.

If you, like me, are an amateur interested in digging into the Bard’s work, I’d suggest Arden. If you’re going to seriously look at a single work, I’d go with Arden. Everything else is second fiddle.

Of course, you can just enjoy the good plays, you know. You don’t have to be a fucking freak about it and read the crummy ones. Odds are if you’re familiar with the big dogs, you’ve gotten enough Shakespeare. No one but the pros and the masochists need to read Two Noble Kinsmen.

 

Review: Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)

William Shakespeare

Is this the most disturbing of Shakespeare’s plays? If it isn’t, it is close. Titus Andronicus returns from war, triumphant, but his cruelty to his captive, Tamora, queen of the Goths, sets of a spiral of increasingly horrific acts of vengeance.  The violence is copious and horrific: Titus murders one of Tamora’s son in vengeance for the death of his own on the battlefield; Titus’s daughter, Lavina, is horrifically raped and mutilated; Lavina’s fiancée is murdered;  two more of Titus’s sons are murdered; Titus’s hand is cut off; Tamora’s sons are murdered and feed to her baked into a pie; Lavina is murdered, by her father; and, finally, after having lost everything, Titus himself is killed and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover who was behind much of the treachery, is buried chest deep and left to die.

It is important when reading plays like Titus to remember that in his time, Shakespeare was competing against such sophisticated entertainment as bear baiting. The level of violence here is like a horror movie and it can be very rough going.  Especially tough are the scenes involving the rape of Lavinia and its aftermath — the cruelty here rivals the torture porn of today’s horror movie industry. There is a strong thread of misogyny running through Shakespeare works. Woman are routinely abused or portrayed as evil and conniving. In Titus, we have both.  Lavinia is raped, abused and finally killed, while Tamora is portrayed as the conniving, evil, villain. There are those who will think I am being too harsh, bringing my contemporary feminism to a playwright working hundreds of years ago, but it is hard to look past Shakespeare’s depictions of women in these early plays – he was profoundly sexist and that need to be remembered.

The rape scene and Lavina’s mutilation are hard enough, but the scene later in the play where Lavinia carries away her father’s hand in her mouth is really just over the top in its cheap cruelty. Am I supposed to laugh at this? If so, then something has been lost between the Bard’s time and our own. I find nothing amusing in the scene. There is a reason this is one of the least preformed of Shakespeares works. It is offensive, bloody, and just not very good.

Bloom and others have championed Aaron the Moor as one of Shakespeare’s first great characters. I am not sure I agree. Though Aaron is somewhat humanized by his love for his child, in the end, he is a caricature of the villain. If any character foreshadows the Bard’s later, greater, creations it is Titus himself, a sort of horror show funhouse King Lear and perhaps for that alone, this is one worth reading if you can stomach it.

The Books I Read in 2012

Attention conservation notice: this post is long and has nothing to do with working out. 

I have kept a list of every book I have read I have read since I was thirteen years old.  Yeah, obsessive record keeping didn’t start with my running log.  Below is a list of every book I read this year followed by my idiosyncratic one sentence review.  Books are either recommended, meaning I think I the average reader will like them, not recommended, or recommended for a specific sub-group of readers.

I read thirty three books this year.  A general trend in my reading over the last couple of years is that I am reading less, and more of what I am reading can only be described as mind-candy pop fiction.  Such is adulthood.  I want to go home and work through the Organon, but somehow or other I often end up reading another spy novel.

Anyway, here’s the round up of what I read this year*

Best Fiction Book:  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. 

This book is actually better than the hype and considering the hype, that’s saying a lot.  My wife, who hates baseball, loved it.  I, who have little patience the young lions of American literary fiction, loved it.  I think you’ll probably like it as well.

Best Non Fiction Book: Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin. 

A really great overview of an empire which had a huge influence on modern society and about which I knew little.  Goodwin’s approach in covering the cultures, politics, and wars of the empire is clever and approachable.  I feel like I still have a lot to learn about the Ottomans, but this is a great place to start.

Book Which Was Much Better Than I Was Expecting:  Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by Benjamin Yorr

I picked this one up because it got a good write up in the Times and had the words Yoga and Obsession in the title.  I was expecting a someone annoying experiential journalism piece written by a snotty New Yorker ironically judging the yogis around him.  Instead, its an insightful look into yoga culture and a thoughtful critique of Bikram yoga.  I was disappointed this one wasn’t longer, which is high praise for any book.

What Was I Thinking When I Got This Book and Why Did I Read The Whole Thing?: The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, by Timothy Ferris

Honestly, there must be something wrong with me.

 Every Book I Read I 2012

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarre – Recommended
  2. Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Samuel Beckett – Recommended for enthusiast’s of high modern theater.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (Arden), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  4. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Barnes – Recommended for those wishing to brush up on their undergraduate philosophy degree.
  5. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach – Highly Recommended
  6. The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana, Leonardo Sciascia – Recommended for those interested in left-wing terrorist organizations in 1970s Italy.
  7. Richard II (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended for obsessives determined to read every work by the Bard in chronological order.
  8. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, A.C. Grayling – Recommended for those trying to determine whether Ludwig is worth the trouble.
  9. Arctic Rising, Tobias S. Buckell – Recommended for connoisseurs of global warming dystopia futures.
  10. A MidSummer Nights Dream (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  11. The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, Timothy Ferris – Recommended for idiots (like me) who enjoy reading pop science about working out even when it was written by the world’s biggest frat boy.
  12. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr – Recommended
  13. The Honorable Schoolboy, John LeCarre – Recommended for readers of spy fiction.
  14. The Ex Pats, Chris Pavone – Recommended for readers of spy fiction who have read all the LeCarre and Steinhauer books listed here.
  15. Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon – Recommended for mystery fans dying to visit Venice even if everyone tells you that you will be disappointed.
  16. King John, William Shakespeare – Not recommended.  The only reason to read this is if you’re trying to read everything the Bard wrote.
  17. Drive, James Sallis – Recommended for fans of really well written crime fiction.
  18. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Thomas R. Martin – Recommended for buddy amateur ancient historians.
  19. Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon – Recommended for cold war espionage fans and those about to travel to Turkey.
  20. The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare – Recommended if only because of its is the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays – if you are going to talk about Shakespeare, then you need to talk about the Merchant of Venice and you really cannot talk about the Merchant unless you have read it.
  21. The Snake Stone, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for mystery fans traveling to Turkey.
  22. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for those, like me, with limited knowledge of the Ottomans.
  23. The Black Monastery, Stav Sherez – Not recommended.
  24. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum – Recommended for the thriller enthusiast, especially those on an inter-continental flight
  25. King Henry IV Part I (Arden), William Shakespeare – recommended.
  26. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – recommended.
  27. King Henry IV Part 2 (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  28. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal, Mark Owen – Not recommended
  29. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, Matti Friedman – Recommended for amateur Hebraists and book nerds.
  30.  In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman – Recommended for students of Hebrew.
  31. The Nearest Exit, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended
  32. Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, Benjamin Yorr – Recommended
  33. An American Spy, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended

Next year I hope to finally finish my project to read all of Shakespeares works, once again cross the fifty books in a year threshold, and balance the serious with the frivolous a little better.

*Note that I am trying out the Amazon associates program with this post.

 

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)

Is this the most disturbing of Shakespeare’s plays? If it isn’t, it is close. Titus Andronicus returns from war, triumphant, but his cruelty to his captive, Tamora, queen of the Goths, sets of a spiral of increasingly horrific acts of vengeance.  The violence is copious and horrific: Titus murders one of Tamora’s son in vengeance for the death of his own on the battlefield; Titus’s daughter, Lavina, is horrifically raped and mutilated; Lavina’s fiancée is murdered;  two more of Titus’s sons are murdered; Titus’s hand is cut off; Tamora’s sons are murdered and feed to her baked into a pie; Lavina is murdered, by her father; and, finally, after having lost everything, Titus himself is killed and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover who was behind much of the treachery, is buried chest deep and left to die.

 

It is important when reading plays like Titus to remember that in his time, Shakespeare was competing against such sophisticated entertainment as bear baiting. The level of violence here is like a horror movie and it can be very rough going.  Especially tough are the scenes involving the rape of Lavinia and its aftermath the cruelty here rivals the torture porn of today’s horror movie industry. There is a strong thread of misogyny running through Shakespeare works. Woman are routinely abused or portrayed as evil and conniving. In Titus, we have both.  Lavinia is raped, abused and finally killed, while Tamora is portrayed as the conniving, evil, villain. There are those who will think I am being too harsh, bringing my contemporary feminism to a playwright working hundreds of years ago, but it is hard to look past Shakespeare’s depictions of women in these early plays – he was profoundly sexist and that need to be remembered.

 

The rape scene and Lavina’s mutilation are hard enough, but the scene later in the play where Lavinia carries away her father’s hand in her mouth is really just over the top in its cheap cruelty. Am I supposed to laugh at this? If so, then something has been lost between the Bard’s time and our own. I find nothing amusing in the scene. There is a reason this is one of the least preformed of Shakespeares works. It is offensive, bloody, and just not very good.

 

Bloom and others have championed Aaron the Moor as one of Shakespeare’s first great characters. I am not sure I agree. Though Aaron is somewhat humanized by his love for his child, in the end, he is a caricature of the villain. If any character foreshadows the Bard’s later, greater, creations it is Titus himself, a sort of horror show funhouse King Lear and perhaps for that alone, this is one worth reading if you can stomach it.