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!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

In which our heroine/author/international woman of mystery treats The Bard with some irreverence.

The proverbial fly in the ointment of my plan to read Shakespeare's plays in chronological order is that like all writers, before Shakespeare was good, he was relatively bad. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is enjoyable in many places: there are funny bits, and some imagery that's thought provoking, if perhaps a bit heavy-handed. However, the final scene is so horrifying and abrupt that it's a little difficult to remember the good in the play. 

Since this isn't one of Shakespeare's more widely-read plays, I'll run through the plot while offering my commentary. Am I supposed to announce spoiler alerts on works that have been around for 400-odd years? Just in case: Spoiler Alert. 

The play opens with two young men, Proteus and Valentine, saying their goodbyes--Valentine is being sent off to Milan to learn how to do the things gentlemen do (the play doesn't go into this much, but I like to imagine it has to do with how to pick the right codpiece and giant floppy hat). Proteus is staying at home in Verona, which is handy, because he is madly in love with a girl named Julia.

Julia claims to her maid, Lucetta, that she doesn't fancy Proteus in the slightest. However, whenever Lucetta's offstage, Julia starts talking about how much she loves Proteus. Apparently, though, it would be totally unacceptable for anyone to know this--remember how mortifying it was when someone knew who you had a crush on in middle school? The contrast between the show of indifference Julia puts on and the over-the-top feelings of love she expresses when she's alone is pretty hilarious, and also introduces the issue of the importance of appearances. Love is often (ironically) referred to as being blind in the play.

Cut to Valentine in Milan, speaking to his servant, Speed, about how much he loves Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke. There's a lot of word-play, which serves to make it clear that Valentine is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Enter Sylvia. She has previously asked Valentine to write a love-letter for her to an unnamed suitor. Valentine gives it to her, and she gives it back to him and leaves. Speed has to explain to Valentine that the letter was meant for Valentine himself all along. 

Shortly afterwards, Proteus arrives in Milan, having been sent by his father for the same reasons as Valentine: to learn how to gentleman it up (before he left, we saw him exchange vows of true everlasting love with Julia). As soon as the Duke and Sylvia leave Valentine and Proteus alone, Valentine confesses that he's in love with Sylvia. Valentine leaves, and Proteus tells us that, you know what? He's totally in love with Sylvia too. Screw Valentine. Screw Julia. 

Here's a nicely acted video of Proteus' monologue:

I think this serves as a good example of the quality of this play as a whole--it's not bad, but it's not incredibly compelling.

Naturally, Proteus doesn't tell Valentine that he's also "in love" with Sylvia. He's dickish, not stupid. So when Valentine reveals that he and Sylvia are going to elope--Sylvia's engaged to someone else (Thurio), and is far above Sylvia's social station--Proteus turns right around and tells the Duke, Sylvia's father. The Duke then tricks Valentine into revealing his elopement plan, in a scene that would be funny if it weren't a little too dumb. I mentioned Valentine's a bit stupid, right? Right. Valentine is banished, obviously, but hooks up with some outlaws on his way out of Milan. Well, first they try to rob him, then he explains that he's poor, so they ask him to be their leader. Not sure who gave Shakespeare the skinny on how outlaws operate.

With Valentine out of the way, Proteus is free (... sort of) to woo Sylvia for himself. Claiming to be acting for Thurio, the Duke's approved suitor, Proteus serenades Sylvia with the following song:

There's also a video of Dame Janet Baker singing the same song beautifully on YouTube, but I chose this one because it has boyz singing. The music is by Franz Schubert--as far as I can recall, none of Shakespeare's music (excepting the lyrics) has survived. 

Here's the kicker: Julia has disguised herself as a boy and run off to Milan to be with Proteus, and hears him sing this to Sylvia. Proteus doesn't know it's her, because we all know if you cut your hair and put on pants, you become completely unrecognizable. Sylvia, upon hearing Valentine, gives him what for:

"Think'st thou I am so shallow, so conceitless,
To be seduced by thy flattery,
That has deceived so many with thy vows?
Return, return, and make thy love amends.
For me, by this pale queen of night I swear,
I am so far from granting thy request
That I despise thee for thy wrongful suit
And by and by intend to chide myself
Even for this time I spend in talking to thee." (4.2.102-110)

You tell 'im, girl.

Being the kind of knows-her-own-mind gal that she is, Sylvia decides to run away to be with Valentine. Unfortunately, she's followed by Proteus (who is followed in turn by Julia). Proteus finds Sylvia and attempts to woo her again. I guess he wasn't paying attention last time. Of course Sylvia rejects him, at which point--get ready for it--Proteus decides to rape her.

Yes. You read that correctly.

Valentine jumps out of the trees and rescues her, but I'm still traumatized.

By Angelica Kauffman. Interesting subject for a woman to paint, I think. 

Valentine berates Proteus, as I hope one would, if one came upon one's best friend about to rape one's true love. Proteus essentially says "MY BAD" and Valentine, in turn, says "It's cool."Julia then reveals her identity to Proteus, who says:

"What is in Sylvia's face but I may spy
More fresh in Julia's, with a constant eye?" (5.4.124-125).

Well, Julia's just as hot as Sylvia, now that he sees her again, so problem solved, right? Well, not quite. Thurio (Sylvia's intended) and the Duke show up. Thurio says Sylvia is supposed to be his, Valentine says he'll fight him for it, the Duke says he likes the balls on Valentine and he can marry Sylvia after all. Valentine says sweet, but he also has to pardon the outlaws he's been kicking it with. The Duke says fair play.

The end.

I'm sure it sounds like I'm oversimplifying things, but please, go ahead and read the last act of the play and tell me if you find it any more satisfying. I'll wait.

... Done? It's not any more satisfying, is it? In fact, it's worse, because you came across this little gem that Valentine utters to Proteus right after Proteus almost raped Sylvia:

"All that was mine in Sylvia I give to thee." (5.4.89)

From what I've gathered from Wikipedia and the critical essay in the copy I'm reading, there are a couple ways to read this. The first is that Valentine is literally offering Sylvia to Proteus. In fact, this line was often left out of theatrical productions, probably so people didn't leave the theatre before the play was actually finished. The other common reading is that Valentine is referring to the love he has for Sylvia--that is, he loves Proteus as much as he loves Sylvia. 

That reading makes a little more sense when bolstered by the argument that one of the play's central themes is the tension between friendship and romantic love. As in all things, there must be a balance. I think that's a legitimate reading, but to me, it doesn't make the play any less disturbing or any better a work of literature. There's a reason this is commonly regarded as one of Shakespeare's worst works and isn't performed as often as many of the others. It may have seemed like I rushed the ending in my summary, but it does actually have that choppy, cropped-together feel. Everything and the kitchen sink is tidied away with so little fuss that it is quite impossibly to believe. Sylvia, who's been a smart, savvy chick in the play thus far, does not have a single line after the attempted rape.

Gotta love the Sylvia-centric irony of this cover. The Folger doesn't have the best notes, but it's all the library had, and my Norton is in a box somewhere.

I have to think even a heavily misogynistic audience wouldn't be too chuffed with the most likable character (smarter than Valentine, less pathetic than Julia, more loyal than Proteus) essentially disappearing from the play. Which brings me to my question for you: if you directing the play, or playing Sylvia, what would you do at the end when Valentine forgives Proteus? How do you read or hear Valentine's words of forgiveness? Personally, I think the only way I could do it is by staring agape at Valentine until the Duke grants him person to marry me, at which point I would sneak off into the woods. 

Copyright, Once Upon a Time


But then again, I'm not an actress. What say ye, people of the internets? And what do YOU think that troublesome line of Valentine's means?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

An Introduction

In which our intrepid/daring/audacious/charming/fearless/devastatingly beautiful author outlines her plan for this blog (without an actual outline and not much of an actual plan). 

Everyone knows that if you have a blog with either a cute gimmick or hilarious drawings, you will get a book deal and become that special amount of famous in which many people love you rabidly but most people have no idea who you are, so I have decided to write this blog. Since I can't draw, I'm doing the cute gimmick thing--I'm going to be reading all of Shakespeare's plays in chronological order, one per week for 37 weeks,* and writing about it here.

Having made this decision, I expect that the entries will come tumbling from my brain like Athena from Zeus' forehead. Should that not happen, I may end up getting drunk and post videos of myself reenacting scenes from the plays with my dog. After all, I do intend for this to be a fun exploration of Shakespeare's plays. It's a little too easy to overdo solemn when talking Shakespeare. And I know if I take myself too seriously, I'll end up mired in self doubt (like Hamlet, and we know how well that worked out for him) and never get anything written or published. Although, to be honest, that doesn't sound like the worst thing to me--part of the (real) reason I'm doing this is I'm sort of shy about my writing, as well as being overly perfectionistic. Which would be fine, except that I am a writer (neither paid nor published, but none the less), and sometimes people want to know what I write about, or--god forbid--actually read something I've written, and I should probably get a little more comfortable with it. 

I hope Idris Elba plays me in the movie adaptation of this blog.**

*There's some uncertainty as to how many plays Shakespeare actually wrote, but this seems to be a fairly agreed-upon number.

**I am 26, and white, and American, and a woman, but I feel like he'd be right for the part.