Monday, August 19, 2013

Week 8 - Love's Labour's Lost

Oh, man, guys. I'm excited to write about this one because I get to tell you about the first time I saw the Kenneth Branagh film adaptation. I hadn't read it then, so when I sat down to watch it I expected to have to pay close attention to the language to ensure I grasped the nuances of the action. I figured good old traditional Branagh would give a pretty standard rendering. Watch this:


Yeah, when I sat down to watch this, I had no idea that the whole thing was half Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost and half Cole Porter musical numbers. Why is it like that? Who knows. It kind of works. It is also kind of ridiculous.

The premise of the play is that four men decide to take up a three year academic study during which time they will not have any social intercourse with marriage. Unfortunately, as soon as they're done making their pledges, a Princess shows up with her entourage to settle some business with the King (titles are capitalized because that's how the characters are named in the text). Naturally, each of the four men falls in love with one of the four women. Somehow no one doubles up and no one gets left unloved, which is not how life has taught me that works at all.

The play is clever and funny, particularly in its wordplay and back-and-forth dialog. The characters are not especially fleshed out, which I would have enjoyed, and the plot is extremely simple (for once), but it's a fun read. I particularly enjoy that the women are noticeably savvier and wittier than their male counterparts. If you'd like to see a full (non-Cole Porter) version, here's a production from the Globe. I haven't watched it yet, but I'm going to so just shut up and stop judging me.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Week X - The Comedy of Errors

Okay, I may have gotten a little sidetracked for a few... days there. Although there are, of course, a variety of factors, I'm going to pin my truancy on the fact that I hate dramatic irony, and The Comedy of Errors is a farce. I don't know why I hate it; farce just gives me this deep down sense of anxiety. Probably because I'm some sort of spiritual savant and sense that farce some sort of cruel allegory for our actual lives. When I overcome that anxiety, I'm just bored. The whole "she thinks he's this guy when he's actually this other guy" doesn't do anything for me. It doesn't tell me anything about the human condition (unless my anxiety is really on to something); it just reminds me about the importance of communication, which, as a writer, I'm already quite keen on.

So I'm not going to do a plot summary for The Comedy of Errors, or analyze any themes or anything. I'm just going to copy out this pearl of a speech (which, yes, makes the rest of the play an oyster. I'm not sure what that means but I'm pretty sure it's an insult, Billy).

Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield.
But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe
Far more, far more to you do I decline.
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears:
Sing, siren, for thyself and I will dote:
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die:
Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink!

              --3.2.31

I promise I actually like Shakespeare and will start coming over all fangirl-y in a couple of weeks here.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Week 7 - Richard III

In which we consider character.


While reading Richard III, I was particularly drawn to the soliloquies, because Aaron's were so intriguing in the last play I read, Titus Andronicus. I'm not quite sure how to feel about Richard's in this one. Some of the language is masterful, but does it really tell us what makes this guy tick?



I don't know, guys. "I'm bad because I'm ugly"? "I'm bad because I can't have the nice shit everyone else does"? It's not unbelievable, but it isn't quite enough for me to understand why he wants so badly to be King, or why he's willing to do so many awful things to attain that position (Spoiler Alert: he has his two young nephews murdered, and attempts to marry his niece). And it's not just Richard. 


The film makes some significant changes to the play, but it doesn't escape the thorny problem of why on earth Anne gives in to Richard when he murdered her husband. Later on she says she was won over by his eloquence, but come on. 

One of the things that makes Shakespeare's work great is that it demonstrates an understanding that people sometimes behave strangely, in ways that are out of keeping with their general character. That's what makes them so compelling. But here, I think he hasn't gone far enough to show why the characters make some of the decisions they do. 

BONUS: Here's a good video exploring the issues around the historical Richard III and the Shakespearean Richard III. It's more interesting than it sounds:


DOUBLE BONUS: Here's the creepiest line from the play. This is Richard talking to Queen Elizabeth (if you're not too clear on English history this is Edward IV's wife, NOT Queen Elizabeth I). Richard has murdered her two sons, his nephews, and now he wants to marry her daughter, who is his niece by blood:

"But in your daughter's womb I bury them,
Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomfiture"
Richard III, 4.4.46-48

Using the imagery of her dead sons being buried in her daughter's womb by their uncle so they can come back to life, like her uterus is some sort of Pet Sematary? So weird she doesn't go for that. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Week 6 - Titus Andronicus

In which the concept of forgiveness does not exist, and decent writing is pretty thin on the ground, too.


Ah, Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare's first tragedy. Wonderfully poignant and understated. Ha! No. The play is melodramatic to the point of silliness, really, but it's kind of fun. I'm just not sure it's supposed to be. The intro to the text said that Titus Andronicus is better in performance than in reading, so after I read it, I watched the 1999 Julie Taymor version, Titus. It did not improve my general impression of the play. If you want, you can find the whole thing on YouTube, but this is a fun one to summarize, so don't and read this instead. Also imagine that I drew cartoons for the whole thing.

We're in ancient Rome this time. Saturninus and Bassianus, the dead emperor's kids, are arguing over who should be elected emperor. Because I guess this is a empire slash republic? I don't know. Weird. By the way, in the Taymor film Saturninus is played by Alan Cumming, and it's probably the best performance in the movie (tied with Colm Feore as Marcus Andronicus). Very much illuminated the character for me.

Anyway, the titular Titus arrives home from the wars with the Goths. His first order of business is to bury two of his sons in the tomb where nineteen others already rest, all of whom died in the wars. Don't feel too bad for the guy, though, he has four sons left. And he certainly doesn't feel bad for himself. No! Because his sons died honorably! Hoo-ha! To appease their spirits, Titus feels he has to sacrifice the oldest son of the Queen of the Goths, Tamora. She begs him not to, but he doesn't listen.

Enter Marcus, Titus's brother, who announce that Titus has been nominated as a candidate for emperor. It's made clear that Titus more or less has the candidacy in the bag, but he says he's sort of worn out from all the wars and says he supports Saturninus. As a thank you, Saturninus says he'll marry Lavinia, Titus's daughter. Unfortunately, Lavinia is engaged to Bassianus. They promptly run off together, protected by Titus's four sons. Titus, however, thinks they should all do whatever the goddamn emperor tells them to do, and kills one of his sons (Mutius) in I guess a fit of extreme pique.

Saturninus, of course, totally understands. By which I mean he throws a little bitch fit and denounces the entire Andronicus family, despite the fact that about two seconds ago (this is literally all one scene), Titus made him emperor. Then he decides that since Tamora is smokin' hot, he'll marry her instead.

Marcus and Titus' remaining sons and all beg him to forgive Mutius enough to bury him in the family tomb. He's still pissed, because, you know, honor, but he eventually relents. Tamora tells Saturninus to pretend to forgive the Andronici so they can really screw them over later, which he does.

The next day, they all go hunting. Lavinia and Bassianus come across Tamora and Aaron the Moor (who runs off). They upbraid Tamora for being a brazen hussy and threaten to tell Saturninus that she's totally a cheater, which doesn't really matter because the whole thing was a trap. Chiron and Demetrius come out of the forest and and stab Bassianus and announce they're going to rape and murder Lavinia. Lavinia begs Tamora to spare her, and when that does work, she begs her to just kill her outright. Again, Tamora refuses. This scene should be incredibly powerful, and yet somehow is not. Marcus finds Lavinia later, with her tongue cut out and both her hands chopped off.

In accordance with Aaron's plan, two of Titus's remaining sons come across the hole where Bassianus's body has been thrown. Well, Martius falls in the hole. And Quintus falls in trying to pull him out. When Saturninus finds them, he immediately assumes that Martius and Quintus killed Bassianus, because... um... Yeah. Titus begs to be allowed to bail them out, but Saturninus refuses.

Titus also begs the people of Rome, who he's spent his life defending, to take his sons' case, but they ignore him. Lucius, the only son who isn't dead or imprisoned, is banished for attempting to free his brothers. But hark! Aaron the Moor shows up at Chez Andronicus and says that Saturninus has agreed to release Martius and Quintus--in exchange for one of their hands. Which I mean, it's a goddamn shame Lavinia didn't keep one of hers after it'd been cut off, right?! That's just plain careless. Titus, Marcus, and Lucius go into a tizzy over who will get to have their hand cut off, but in the end Aaron cuts off Titus's, after Titus tricks Marcus and Lucius into running off.



A short time later, a messenger returns Titus's hand. And Martius and Quintus's heads.

So that worked out well for everyone.

At this point, Titus says game on. He sends Lucius off to rally the Goths and come take over Rome.

Lavinia uses her "stumps" to write what happened to her in the sand, and I'm sure everyone swears revenge.

A nurse runs to Aaron with a baby and announced that it's his. And Tamora's. Which is a problem, because the baby is, like Aaron, black. Tamora has told him to kill it, but he refuses. Instead, he kills the nurse and plans the murder of the midwife who saw the birth.

A very nice and not at all racist portrayal of Aaron.

He also plans to swap the baby with an orphaned white one he randomly knows of, which will mean telling the people who have it about the whole thing. I don't know; this plot point is never cleared up very well. Next we see Aaron, he's been captured by the Goths. Lucius says he's going to kill him and the baby, and Aaron says he'll tell him... stuff, if Lucius doesn't kill the baby. Which seems sort of pointless, since the audience already knows what Aaron did, and Titus and Marcus back home already know who raped and mutilated Lavinia.

Meanwhile, Titus writes complaints (ostensibly to the gods) about how he's been treated, attaches them to arrows, and has them fired into Rome. Well, he has them fired at the heavens, but guess where they land? It's one of those "is this guy crazy, or crazy like a fox?" moments. Tamora thinks he's just plain nuts, and to head off the threat of the Goths, she goes to Titus disguised as Revenge, with Demetrius and Chiron, who are disguised as Murder and Rape. She says to invite the emperor and empress and Lucius to a banquet, where she'll totally help him get revenge. Titus says Great! But he needs Murder and Rape to stay with him. He doesn't give a reason, which is fitting, because there's no real reason for Demetrius and Chiron to be there in the first place, other than that Shakespeare needed them there.

Of course, Titus recognized them the whole time. He calls his guards to tie them up. Then he tells them he's going to kill them, cook them, and serve them to their mother.


The guests for the feast arrive and Titus and Lavinia serve them. Titus asks Saturninus if the centurian Virginius, who killed his daughter because she was raped (BECAUSE HONOR) was right to do so. Saturninus says yes, because as long as she was alive she would remind her father of his shame. Titus promptly kills Lavinia. Saturninus says WTF, and Titus says Chiron and Demetrius raped her. Saturninus says to bring them to him, and Titus reveals that they've been eating their corpses. Before Tamora really even has time to react, Titus kills her. Which I mean, come on, at that point you're just putting her out of her misery. Saturnius kills Titus. Lucius kills Saturnius. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. The scene is barely longer than this paragraph. Maybe everyone was just embarrassed by this point and wanted to get it over with.

Lucius and Marcus explain to the Romans what's just happened, and Lucius is crowned/elected/declared emperor. Aaron is buried up to his neck and left to die, and gives a speech about evil he is and how much he loves being evil. He's probably my favorite part of the play, the last lines of which, by the way, are a rhyming couplet in which "pity" is rhymed with, get ready for it, "pity."

BONUS: My friend Mollie wanted to see the cartoon of the eye bullets from last week, so I drew this. I tried to scan it, but my scanner rejected it on an artistic basis.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Weeks 4 & 5, King Henry VI Parts 3 & 1

In which we--oh hey, what's that over there?

Okay, everyone, I'm back. You can stop panicking. I got a late start last week and as I was feeling sort of generally uninspired I thought I'd do a combined entry on King Henry VI Part 3 and Part 1. Reading Part 3 and then Part 1 may sound like utter nonsense, but that's the order in which Shakespeare supposedly wrote the plays. At least according to the source I'm using, which is the Wikipedia article on the subject (it uses the chronology from the Oxford Shakespeare but notes that all the major collections of Shakespeare's work have presented different chronologies but that "none of the major chronologies has any real authority over any of the others").

Now for the portion of our program where I wish I could draw, because I don't have anything in particular to say about these plays. They're sort of boring, honestly. In Part 3, we've got a billion scheming characters double crossing each other and then getting themselves killed. Not to mention the kind of confusion one experiences when there is a character named Prince Edward but there's also another Edward who is supposed to actually inherit the crown due to the politically un-bright but sort of honorable deal Henry VI makes with the Duke of York. That's Richard Plantagent, Duke of York, not to be confused with Richard Plantagent,  who becomes Duke of Gloucester (not to be confused with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester), who later becomes Richard III. That's the second Richard who becomes Richard III. Richard's son Richard. Not Richard's father Richard. Got it? Okay. Good.

In Part 1, I mostly found myself not giving a fuck because I'd just watched all the characters die either in Part 2 or in Part 3. The characters who hadn't died in Parts 2 or 3 proceeded to die in Part 1. Honestly, there's so much death in these plays that I can only remember who's alive at the end because I've read Richard III. Contributing to my dearth of fucks to give is the fact that this is Not His Best Work. I mean, I have to assume that some people get REALLY into these, because it's Shakespeare, and bad Shakespeare is still okay, but man, some of this was just a chore. Witness this passage when John Talbot goes to help his dad in a hopeless military situation and Talbot tells his son to get the eff outta here:

TALBOT: Upon my blessing I command thee go.

JOHN: To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.

TALBOT: Part of thy father may be saved in thee.

JOHN: No part of him but will be shame in me.

TALBOT: Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose it.

JOHN: Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?

TALBOT: Thy father's charge shall clear thee from that stain.

JOHN: You cannot witness for me, being slain.
             If death be so apparent then both fly.

TALBOT: And leave my followers here to fight and die?
                  My age was never tainted with such shame.

JOHN: And shall my youth be guilty of such blame?
           
--King Henry VI Part 1 4.4.36-47

That's just an excerpt of the rhyming couplets from that scene; it goes on for pages, or I guess minutes. Shakespeare as Fezzick. At first, I thought the elevated stress on form was meant to reflect the elevated sentiment of both characters, but the other character to use rhyming couplets in the play (Joan of Puzel, better known as Joan of Arc) turned out to be a witch and a coward, so I don't know what to think.

On the bright side, I'm pretty sure I found the most hilariously bad sentence in all of Shakespeare. Ready? Here you go:

"O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces."
--King Henry VI Part 1 4.4.191-192

Just imagine I've drawn a hilarious cartoon of someone's eyeballs popping out of their head like bullets and hitting someone in the face.

NEXT WEEK: Titus Andronicus, which will be way more entertaining, if for no other reason than that I'll have more media.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Week 3: King Henry VI, Part 2

In which we consider plot construction.


Intrigue! Double-crossing! Beheadings! Murders! Madness! Witchcraft! Battles! Rebellion! Treason! Rebellion, again! 

King Henry VI, Part 2* is a million compelling actions shoehorned into one long play. It's pretty impossible, in my opinion, to keep up with it emotionally; there's never a breath of air to ponder someone's death because someone else is already busy getting themselves killed. Reading this has made me interested in how plot works in Shakespeare's other plays. They're often complicated (thus my very very long blog posts). Are they ever too complicated? And in which areas? I know modern productions sometimes leave out parts of the plays due to time/audience attention span constraints, but I'm not sure which plays and which parts and how all that's decided. Anyone with information, I'd be glad to hear.

I was going to write a little about Henry's qualities as a ruler, but since my blog posts thus far have tended to be, in my friend Martin's words, "extensive," I'll give you and myself a break and stop there. After all, I have to slog through get to read two more parts of this story. So here, for your entertainment and edification, is another number from Kiss Me, Kate (this performance is not from the film, because all the best/dirtiest puns were censored from that).



*From what I understand it's believed Shakespeare wrote this first, then Part 3, then Part 1 as a sort of prequel. 


Friday, May 24, 2013

Week 2 - The Taming of the Shrew

In which your dutiful author manages to bring it all back to Bob Fosse.

Ah, the immortal question: Is The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic, or isn't it?

First, a brief summary:

Baptista, a wealthy gent in Padua, announces that his younger, desirable daughter Bianca will not be allowed to wed until his older daughter Katherine (the shrew of the title) does. Luckily for the many guys who want to marry Bianca, a down-on-his-luck man, Petruchio, needs a wife with a dowry and decides he can change Katherine's horrible character. He meets Katherine and announces he will marry her, which he does--over her objections. He takes her back to his run-down estate, where he proceeds to essentially psychologically torture her. He refuses her food and clothes and a good night's sleep, all on the pretext that nothing is good enough for her. As long as Katherine argues with him, she can't win. However, as soon as she agrees with his nonsensical comments--for instance, calling the sun the moon--she gets what she wants. Slash he gets what he wants.

In the meantime, Bianca is wooed by--among others--Lucentio, who has been wooing her in the disguise of a tutor so he can be closer to her, while his servant Tranio pretends that he is Lucentio. Once Katherine is married, Baptista says whoever can give the bigger dowry can marry Bianca, at which point Tranio (as Lucentio) and another of Bianca's suitors have a bidding war to see who will get to marry her. Yes. Charming. Tranio wins, and Baptista says that as soon as Lucentio's father, Vincentio, has confirmed the dowry, Lucentio and Bianca can marry. Unfortunately, Tranio has bid more than Lucentio has. Tranio and Lucentio decide to trick a merchant into pretending that he is Vincentio and having him confirm the dowry. Baptista approves the marriage between who he thinks is Lucentio and Bianca, and the real Lucentio and Bianca elope. The real Vincentio turns up and shenanigans ensue, but Lucentio and Biana show up, now married, and explain the charade. Luckily their fathers both forgive them. Possibly because that plot was so convoluted they had no idea what had just happened.

Finally, Lucentio, Petruchio, and Hortensio, who was one of Bianca's suitors, but who married someone else, place a bet on whose wife is most obedient. Petruchio wins, and Katherine gives a long, over-the-top speech on being a super dutiful, faithful, and pliable wife.

If you didn't feel like reading all that, this may refresh your memory on the plot:

I remember feeling like I should turn my nose up at this movie
back in the day, but it's actually pretty delightful.

So back to the big argument. On the one hand, we've got the camp that says the play is misogynistic, because, well, obviously. On the other hand, we've got the camp saying it's not misogynistic, because Katherina is only pretending to have let Petruchio "tame" her, or, it's not misogynistic because it's a farce, pointing out the problems with this type of narrative through exaggeration and ultimately making the audience realize that the subjugation of women is pretty depressing.

Now, it's pretty difficult to talk about this without considering the historical context. After all, Shakespeare was writing in a misogynist society. It wasn't like powerful women didn't exist; Elizabeth I was the queen, after all. Still, women weren't even allowed to act in The Taming of the Shrew, or at any point in Shakespeare's lifetime.

So what would Shakespeare's contemporaries have thought of the play? Well, no one really knows, and again, there are arguments on either side. Looking at Shakespeare's other works, which contain a veritable multitude of straight bitchin' chicks, I don't think it's possible to argue that the works as a whole demonstrate a misogynist attitude. Although I'm sure someone has argued that, because people are stupid. 

What does the play itself say?

By Washington Allston.
Click to see it full size and check out everyone's hilarious expressions--
Petruchio and his servant (far left) both look like they're about to
waggle their heads and say, "OH NO YOU DIDN'T!"

First of all, this play actually uses a twist on the play-within-a-play device. The first thing the audience sees is an introduction in which a lord decides to trick a drunk man he finds into thinking he himself is a lord who has been suffering from madness. I guess they didn't have a lot of entertainment options back then. The rest of play is supposedly one being performed for this drunkard. Right away, we know everything's a little upside down.

When it comes to the shrew herself, I think there's a tendency to romantize Katherine as the Poor Downtrodden Woman. In my minimal reading of outside sources, I keep coming across the word "headstrong" to describe her. That's a euphemism if ever I've heard one. Katherine is not a feisty gal who's misunderstood by her contemporaries. She's a raging bitch. She threatens violence often and early on in the play ties her sister to a chair and hits her. 

... Yeah.

One could argue that Katherine's character is in itself proof that the play is misogynistic, but I think her over-the-top awfulness is part of the play's essentially farcical nature. The scene in which Bianca's suitors bid for her, Petruchio's use of romantic language to woo Katherine, the multiple disguises--it's all too ridiculous and silly to read it as a serious commentary on either how women are or on how they should be treated. 

In a final piece of delicious irony, when Petruchio asks Katherine how women should behave, she says they should obey their husbands in everything--and in doing so, she gives the longest speech in the play. It's pointedly long--she isn't expressing a lot of different thoughts, she's expressing the same thought in different ways. Of course those thoughts are problematic: "do whatever your husbands says! He knows best!" but how seriously do we take them? A lot of it depends on how the lines are delivered. In my head, they're delivered by a character who has just learned how to manipulate people from a master of trickery (Petruchio) and who is now reveling in the fact that she finally has the spotlight that has for so long been Bianca's. But that's just the feeling I get from it. 

Finally, if you are tired of all the is-it-or-isn't-it-misogyny, here's an excerpt from Kiss Me, Kate, a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. It's definitely misogynistic (how many times have I used that flippin' word now?! There's no real synonym) but this thankfully has nothing to do with that. This is a musical number featuring Bob Fosse, a genius of the theatre in his own right. He's the one in the orange tights who looks like his soul is on fire with joy. I will leave you with that!