Sunday 28 February 2021

Henry IV, Part 1

1/ The play is part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V

Unlike Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 has comedy, and has both prose and verse. 

There are 4 different Henrys in the play (did people only have a dozen names available back then or something?), but Shakespeare is kind and makes it easier for us: 

- King Henry IV, who was Bolingbroke in Richard II

- His son, the future Henry V, is called Prince Hal. 

- Henry Percy is Earl of Northumberland and referred to as Northumberland. 

- His son, also Henry Percy, is nicknamed Hotspur. 

2/ Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have much more insults than other plays I’ve read. 

Poins says “true-bred cowards” and refers to Falstaff as “the fat rogue” (Act 1 scene 2), Gadshill says “mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms” (Act 2 scene 1); Falstaff yells at the travellers “whoreson caterpillars”, “bacon-fed knaves”, “gorbellied knaves”, “fat chuffs”, then says “no more valor in that Poins than in a wild duck” (Act 2 scene 2); Lady Percy calls her husband Hotspur “mad-headed ape”, “A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen as you are tossed with”, “paraquito” (Act 2 scene 3), etc. 

(Note: maltworms are drunkards, spleen means caprice, and paraquito is a parrot/ parakeet).  

I’m making notes—you never know, these insults may become handy. 

I’ve also noticed that there are lots of plague curses. E.g.: “a plague upon you both”, “a plague of all cowards”, etc. 

Now look at these exchanges in one of the best scenes in Henry IV, Part 1 and one of the greatest scenes Shakespeare’s ever written:

“PRINCE These lies are like their father that begets them—gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch—


PRINCE I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh—

FALSTAFF ‘Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish—O for breath to utter what it is like thee!—you tailor’s yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck!” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

The best word here that you need to know is pizzle, meaning penis.  

That is fabulous. Why did I fear that the history plays would be dry? Hal and Falstaff have great chemistry, even better than Romeo and Mercutio. Look at the bit where Falstaff role-plays Hal and Hal role-plays King Henry IV and “abuses” Falstaff:  

“PRINCE […] Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoll’n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? Wherein cunning, but in craft? Wherein crafty, but in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing?” 


(Note: Vice, Iniquity, Ruffian, and Vanity are characters from old Morality plays and corrupters of virtue, but unlike Falstaff, who ought to know better, they’re young). 

Read it for the banter. Then the banter turns into something serious—is Hal warning Falstaff, or does he get carried away in his role-playing? It’s hard to say. Then they get interrupted.  

3/ At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare moves between 2 sharply divided worlds—the world of the court and the world of taverns (or 3, if you count the world of the rebels). Shakespeare also switches between 2 kinds of language, which is marvellous to see.

(I wonder how Oxfordians, who keep saying that Shakespeare lacked the personal experience to write about aristocrats, explain how Edward de Vere could have written about the thieves and other lowlifes).  

Now, does any character switch between 2 kinds of language in the play? Yes, Prince Hal. 

4/ I like the way Lady Percy appears in Act 2 scene 3—she clearly needs some dick. 

The more important character is of course her husband Hotspur. People understandably talk more about Hal and Falstaff, but Hotspur is also a fascinating character—he is hot-tempered, proud, confrontational; a courageous warrior who is nevertheless neither diplomatic for the court nor good for domestic life. His world is in battle. Tony Tanner notes that Hotspur is more interested in his horse than in his wife. 

There’s something else interesting: we know Shakespeare always changes something when borrowing stories from other sources; with the history plays, he has less freedom but still makes some changes. Falstaff for example is his own creation. Another change is that he makes Hotspur younger—the image of a young Hotspur is evoked over and over again throughout the play and he becomes a foil for Hal. The real Hotspur was 22 years older than Prince Hal and 3 years older than King Henry. 

Thus Shakespeare deliberately creates some parallel: Henry IV and Hal have a troubled relationship, Hal looks for a father figure in Falstaff whilst King Henry sees Hotspur as a surrogate son. 

5/ The scene of Hotspur bickering with Glendower is hilarious. 

“GLENDOWER I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR Why, so can I, or so can any man; 

But will they come when you do call for them?”

(Act 3 scene 1) 


6/ Falstaff is a fantastic character, witty, vigorous, exuberant, full of humour and imagination. 

Hear William Hazlitt: 

“Wit is often a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation; an effusion of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others, from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good-humour and good-nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter, and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart's ease and over-contentment with himself and others. He would not be in character, if he were not so fat as he is; for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come again; and pours out upon them the oil of gladness. His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his brain 'it snows of meat and drink'. He keeps up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with him in a round of invitations to a rump and dozen.—Yet we are not to suppose that he was a mere sensualist. All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His sensuality does not engross and stupify his other faculties, but 'ascends me into the brain, clears away all the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes'. His imagination keeps up the ball after his senses have done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his ease, of his vanity, in the ideal exaggerated descriptions which he gives of them, than in fact.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

For Hazlitt, Falstaff is “perhaps the most substantial comic character that ever was invented”, and I can see why. He also offers a warmth that Hal doesn’t get from his own father. 

But the brilliance of Falstaff as a character is that he’s not just a funny and witty man, he’s also a rogue, a liar, a braggart, a glutton, and a coward. He’s complex and full of faults. 

Enough has been said of his robberies, what gets my attention is the way he verbally abuses the hostess of the tavern in Act 4 scene 1. He is normally a jovial, comic character, but here he is unjust, here he slanders and provokes her, here he hurts her feelings—over what? for what? Only to avoid paying her money?


7/ See this part of Worcester’s speech where he accuses Bolingbroke of having broken his oath of rebelling only to get back “the seat of Gaunt” and his properties and usurped the throne instead:  

“WORCESTER […] You took occasion to be quickly wooed 

To gripe the general sway into your hand;

Forgot your oath to us at Doncaster;

And, being fed by us, you used us so

As that ungentle gull, the cuckoo’s bird, 

Useth the sparrow—did oppress our nest, 

Grew by our feeding to so great a bulk 

That even our love durst not come near your sight 

For fear of swallowing; but with nimble wing

We were enforced for safety sake to fly 

Out of your sight and raise this present head…” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 


There’s more animal imagery in his speech to Richard Vernon in the following scene: 

“WORCESTER […] For treason is but trusted like the fox,

Who, never so tame, so cherished and locked up,

Will have a wild trick of his ancestors. 

Look how we can, or sad or merrily,

Interpretation will misquote our looks, 

And we shall feed like oxen at a stall.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

And then he calls Hotspur “hare-brained”. 

Interesting stuff. 

8/ I like that Tony Tanner writes about 2 levels of “thieves robbing thieves”—Falstaff and some others rob a group of a travellers then get robbed by Hal and Poins; on a higher level, Prince Henry IV has to defend the throne from a group of rebels including Hotspur, but he himself has usurped the throne from Richard II. 

In the introductory essay, Tony Tanner writes more about other parallels in Henry IV, Part 1, especially the concept of “counterfeit” that runs through the play. The genius of Shakespeare is not only in language and characters, but also in structure and pattern. 

9/ Tony Tanner talks about Hal: 

“Hal is ‘like’ everybody, and can beat them all at their own games. He out-policies his bemused father; he outwits Falstaff in his tavern knaveries; and he defeats Hotspur at his own chosen sport—on the killing-field of chivalric combat. He knows them all. Certainly, he is the lord and owner of his face.” (Introduction)

I think I’ll write more about Hal and Falstaff in a later post, but I love the way Tony Tanner analyse the role-playing scene:

“Falstaff playing the King is one sort of a joke—we have already gathered that he is, in some unspecifiable sense, a surrogate father, or father-figure. But the Prince playing the King—the son playing the father—is a different matter.” (ibid.) 

He then explains his point, using the text to back it up, and talks about the “abuse” that Hal heaps upon Falstaff. Then he mentions the famous line “I do, I will”. 

“At this point a chill comes over the play—over both plays—which is never quite warmed away. Partly because one of the effects of the Prince’s response is that feeling you get when someone says something outrageous, or deeply disturbing, to you, at the same time maintaining an absolutely impassive face which tacitly says—I defy you to tell whether I am joking or not. Is the Prince still ‘playing’ the King; or is this the Prince taking the chance to rehearse (‘practice’) what he will do and say when he is king? Is he still playing at all, or has he stepped out of the game?” (ibid.) 

This is fantastic. If you haven’t bought any Shakespeare, the best is the Everyman edition, which comes in 7 volumes (or 8 if you count the one about sonnets and other poems)—each volume has introductory essays by Tony Tanner. Or if you’ve got a Shakespeare collection already, get Tony Tanner’s book called Prefaces to Shakespeare, which is a collection of these essays. 

10/ I’m ending my post with Tony Tanner’s words: 

“What Shakespeare does, in these plays pre-eminently, is expose the realities of the amoral concern for power behind the pious orthodoxies and beneath the self-protective carapaces of men in high—and not so high—places.” (ibid.) 

Thursday 25 February 2021

Contested Will by James Shapiro

I’ve just finished reading Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro.

It’s about the Shakespeare authorship question and divided into 4 sections: “Shakespeare”, “Bacon”, “Oxford”, and “Shakespeare”. The first 3 sections are not really about the arguments of anti-Stratfordians, but more about the history of the authorship debate; the culture, the environment that led to the first expressions of doubt; the development of the Baconian theory (Francis Bacon was the most popular candidate for a while) and then the Oxfordian theory (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford is now the most popular candidate), etc. The main point of the book, I think, is to understand why the authorship question was first raised a few centuries after Shakespeare’s death, why the first candidate (a Bacon-led group) was proposed in the 19th century in America, and why de Vere replaced Bacon as the most popular candidate. 

In the last section “Shakespeare”, Shapiro writes about the evidence proving that Shakespeare was indeed Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. He also explains why many of the arguments against Shakespeare come from ignorance of, and mistaken assumptions about, life and writing and relationships in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

Here is my full twitter thread about Contested Will, with photos of many interesting passages from the book:

Interestingly, James Shapiro also warns about the danger of reading Shakespeare’s plays and poems as autobiographical and assuming that he drew from personal experience, which is done by both anti-Stratfordians and Shakespearean scholars who believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare—things were different back then. 

Many anti-Stratfordians tend to say that, besides what they call a lack of training and personal experience, Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon doesn’t have the personality of the Shakespeare of the plays, but what personality? J. Thomas Looney, the first proponent of the Oxfordian theory, even makes a list of personality traits and I personally don’t know how anyone can do so. Recently I’ve read 3 tragedies (Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet), 3 comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Much Ado About Nothing), and 1 history (Richard II), before this, I read another 3 tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar) and 2 comedies (Twelfth NightAs You Like It)—they are all different and Shakespeare speaks in so many different voices and never in his own voice that it’s impossible to know his personality. I cannot see his personality and views the way I can see other authors; I can or at least think I can see authors who try to be invisible on the page, such as Flaubert or James, I can even see Jane Austen’s moral vision, though Woolf says Jane Austen’s mind “consumes all impediments” and we cannot know her; but I cannot see Shakespeare because his plays have such a great range, a diversity of voices and views and subjects, and do not share a single vision. 

Back to Contested Will, it’s a good, enjoyable read, and especially useful if you want to learn about the different norms and habits during Shakespeare’s days, and the development of the authorship debate. 

Friday 19 February 2021

Richard II

1/ In my previous blog post about Shakespeare and the empty words of consolation, I put up a very moving speech by Henry Bolingbroke after he’s banished by king Richard II. 

There are lots of great passages in Richard II, and a lot of them in the first two Acts are said by Henry’s father, John of Gaunt. 

See the scene of the banishment—Gaunt isn’t consoled even though Richard reduces 10 years to 6 years.


I thank my liege that in regard of me

He shortens four years of my son’s exile.

But little vantage shall I reap thereby,

For ere the six years that he hath to spend

Can change their moons and bring their times about, 

My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light

Shall be extinct with age and endless night.

My inch of taper will be burnt and done

And blindfold death not let me see my son.


Why, uncle, thou hast many years to live.


But not a minute, King, that thou canst give.

Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow

And pluck nights from me, but not lend a morrow.

Thou canst help time to furrow me with age

But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage. 

Thy word is current with him for my death,

But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Is that not so good? 

Later on, Gaunt has some great speeches on his sickbed. This is when he wants to give Richard some hard advice and his brother, the Duke of York and another uncle of Richard, tells him not to bother, but Gaunt thinks that “the tongues of dying men/ Enforce attention”: 

“… The setting sun and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,

My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

Richard is a vain king and a bad king—he only listens to flatterers. York thinks he wouldn’t listen. 


[…] His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last

For violent fires soon burn out themselves.

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short; 

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder;

Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.” 


I know I’m gushing but this is so good. This begins a long speech about England, “this dear dear land”, and about Gaunt’s pain at seeing what the king’s been doing to it. The entire speech is great, but I love the lines above, especially the images of “rash fierce blaze of riot”, “violent fires”, and “sudden storms”. 

Now I feel bad for not putting up on my blog some great passages from Macbeth and Othello. Those magnificent plays. 

2/ Tony Tanner notes an important detail: 

“The Holinshed Chronicles make it absolutely clear that Bolingbroke (Hereford, and now, after the death of Gaunt, Lancaster) was invited back to England by the discontented nobles […]. Whatever else, this at least exonerates Bolingbroke from having initiated the idea of usurpation. Not a word of this in Shakespeare. Instead, when the nobles collude in exasperation after Richard has left for Ireland, Bolingbroke is already, mysteriously, back in England, and had been waiting in Brittany, with allies and troops, simply for Richard’s departure for Ireland.” (Introduction) 

This puts a very different colour on Bolingbroke’s motives. He says, over and over again, that he comes back not to usurp the throne but to claim his rightful inheritance (taken away by the king), but is it true? In the time scheme of the play, Tony Tanner notes that Bolingbroke is already in England some 60 lines after Richard announces going to Ireland, which in turn occurs only some 75 lines after Gaunt’s death (all in the same scene). 

“This means that, dramatically, Bolingbroke could hardly have known of his father’s death and of Richard’s infamous expropriation of the whole Lancaster estate.” (ibid.) 

It could just be the nature of a play—we don’t know how much time has passed. However, one thing is certain: there is no invitation, he comes of his own will. 

“… Bolingbroke never soliloquizes. He remains shut up, shut off, and we can never know what truly moves him.” (ibid.) 

This is not criticism, and it’s possible that his impulses are mysterious even to himself. Tony Tanner continues: 

“All this makes him at once mysterious and human, and I think this root uncertainty and ambiguity is a masterstroke on Shakespeare’s part. Such are the figures who, at once, make and are made by history.” (ibid.) 

3/ Many characters curse each other in Richard II, much more than in other plays. There are curses and curses throughout the entire play. 

I notice that Shakespeare’s comedies tend to have some tragic moments and his tragedies tend to have some comic moments. Richard II doesn’t really have much comic relief. This is an observation, not a complaint, and I suspect that it’s just this play, not all of Shakespeare’s histories. 

It’s interesting to note, though, that Richard II is a contemporary of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

4/ Richard is a bad king, self-regarding and callous, but Shakespeare gives him some moving lines: 


[…] Throw away respect,

Tradition, form and ceremonious duty.

For you have but mistook me all this while,

I live with bread like you, feel want, 

Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The scene where Richard abdicates the throne and smashes the mirror (Act 4 scene 1) is, I think, one of the greatest scenes I’ve read from Shakespeare. Richard appears utterly human—Shakespeare brilliantly depicts him as both a vain king and a betrayed martyr, a tragic figure, and you can feel Richard’s pain, even if it’s only pain for the loss of the title of king. 

Part of his tragedy, I think, is that he believes he as a king is chosen by God and can do anything whereas Bolingbroke and other nobles think a bad king can and must be replaced by someone more capable.    

Here is Tony Tanner on the abdication speech: 

“Where lies the substance? Richard makes this the question. Was it in the court that has vanished, the favourites that have gone, the armies that have dispersed, the kingly glory that has melted away? Was that ever-deliquescent world truly ‘substantial’—did it have real ‘weight’? Or was the ‘emptiness’, the ‘hollowness’ exactly there?

[…] The material world of externalities, seemingly so solid and physical, is not, truly, the ‘substance’, but, paradoxically, ‘hollow’, a realm of shadows. […] The real ‘lies all within’, with ‘unseen grief’ and the silence of the ‘tortured soul’.” (Introduction) 

That’s good. 

5/ Richard has another interesting soliloquy, when he’s in the castle. I especially like this part:

“… But whate’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is, 

With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased 

With being nothing.” 

(Act 5 scene 5)

Monday 15 February 2021

Shakespeare and the empty words of consolation

After several tragedies and comedies, I’m now reading a history play—Richard II

Look at this passage: 


O, who can hold a fire in his hand

By thinking on the frosty Caucasus? 

Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite

By bare imagination of a feast?

Or wallow naked in December snow

By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?

O no, the apprehension of the good 

Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.

Fell sorrow’s tooth doth never rankle more

Than when he bites but lanceth not the sore.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Such a moving speech. This is the response of Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford when his father John of Gaunt tries to get him to view the banishment positively. 

Now look at this great speech in Much Ado About Nothing, when Antonio tries to console his brother Leonato about Hero, and Leonato responds: 


I pray thee cease thy counsel, 

Which falls into mine ears as profitless 

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel, 

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear 

But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine. 

Bring me a father that so loved his child, 

Whose joy of her is overwhelmed like mine, 

And bid him speak of patience. 

Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine, 

And let it answer every strain for strain, 

As thus for thus, and such a grief for such, 

In every lineament, branch, shape, and form. 

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard, 

And sorrow wag, cry “hem” when he should groan; 

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk 

With candle-wasters; bring him yet to me, 

And I of him will gather patience. 

But there is no such man. For, brother, men 

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief 

Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it, 

Their counsel turns to passion, which before 

Would give preceptial medicine to rage, 

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread, 

Charm ache with air and agony with words. 

No, no! ‘Tis all men’s office to speak patience 

To those that wring under the load of sorrow, 

But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency 

To be so moral when he shall endure 

The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel; 

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.


Therein do men from children nothing differ.


I pray thee peace. I will be flesh and blood; 

For there was never yet philosopher 

That could endure the toothache patiently, 

However they have writ the style of gods 

And made a push at chance and sufferance.” 

(Act 5 scene 1)

These words of consolation, though well-meant, are empty words—they cannot change the situation, and cannot change the way people feel.

There is a similar moment early on in Othello, when the Duke advises Brabantio (father of Desdemona) to cheer up “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief/ He robs himself that spends a bootless grief”, this is how he responds: 


So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile: 

We lose it not so long as we can smile. 

He bears the sentence well that nothing bears 

But the free comfort which from thence he hears; 

But he bears both the sentence and the sorrow

That to pay grief must of poor patience borrow.

These sentences, to sugar, or to gall, 

Being strong on both sides, are equivocal. 

But words are words. I never yet did hear

That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear. 

I humbly beseech you, proceed to th’ affairs of state.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

We may judge Brabantio for disapproving of the marriage between Desdemona and Othello, but his pain feels real enough for him and it cannot be lessened with some clichés. Words are words.

In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in Macbeth, Macduff gets the news that his entire family was killed and Malcolm tries to soothe him with some cliché: 


Be comforted.

Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge

To cure this deadly grief.


He has no children. All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hellkite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?


Dispute it like a man.


I shall do so;

But I must also feel it as a man.

I cannot but remember such things were

That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on

And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,

They were all struck for thee. Naught that I am,

Not for their own demerits but for mine

Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now.” 

(Act 4 scene 3)

It’s a different kind of platitude, but still a platitude—Malcolm tells Macduff to be comforted, to take revenge on Macbeth, and to “dispute it like a man”, but can any of that bring back his wife and children? Can any of that lessen his terrible pain? Macduff must “feel it as a man” just as Leonato “will be fresh and blood”.

These passages are different but they all have something in common—a character tries to soothe, to cheer up another character and the one in pain feels that it’s just empty words of consolation. Words are just words. 

I know that we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that Shakespeare is his characters, but look at all these examples—from Richard II, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Macbeth. In the plays I’ve read, at least the recent ones, I’ve not seen a moment where a character is comforted or consoled after someone’s speech (unless the speech offers some practical solution or advice, such as Iago’s manipulative speeches to Roderigo or Cassio). 

There is, I think, a distrust of words in Shakespeare: words can lie, words can be slander—see Don John and Iago; words are easy—Beatrice tells Benedick “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it” (Act 4 scene 2), the princess and Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost don’t trust words but tell the prince and Berowne respectively to prove themselves, and of course we all know King Lear.  

I can imagine what Shakespeare would have thought about motivational quotes. 

Update on 29/3: I found a passage about the empty words of consolation in The Comedy of Errors. See my blog post about the play.

Saturday 13 February 2021

Much Ado About Nothing and parallels with other plays

1/ See the way Benedick talks about Hero, when asked by Claudio: 

“BENEDICK Why, i’ faith, methinks she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.” (Act 1 scene 1) 

That is rather mean. What does it make me think of? 

““Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me…”” (Pride and Prejudice, Ch.3)

Benedick is wittier and funnier than Darcy, but Beatrice does make me think of Elizabeth Bennet. 

2/ The fun of reading many Shakespeare plays in a row is that you notice the similarities and parallels between them and at the same time see how different they are—sometimes you may even feel that in one play, Shakespeare is doing the opposite, or taking the piss out of another (as Jane Austen later does in her novels). 

Much Ado About Nothing has a masquerade ball, like Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, it also has assumed and mistaken identity: Don Pedro (prince of Aragon) pretends to be Claudio to help him woo Hero; the princess and Rosaline switch places whilst Maria and Katharine exchange places to make fun of the men who come to woo them.

Beatrice is also witty like Rosaline, but she seems livelier, sharper, and meaner. I mean, look:  

“BEATRICE Alas, he gets nothing by that! In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one; so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse. For it is all the wealth that he hath left to be known a reasonable creature. Who is his companion now? He hath every month a new sworn brother.

MESSENGER Is’t possible?

BEATRICE Very easily possible. He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

That is brutal. Rosaline wouldn’t talk like that. 

In Act 2 scene 1, Benedick says about Beatrice “I would to God some scholar would conjure her, for certainly, while she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a sanctuary…”. That makes me think of The Taming of the Shrew because of the plot, even though I haven’t read it. 

Benedick, like the men in Love’s Labour’s Lost, naively thinks he would never fall in love. However, Berowne, Longaville, Dumaine, and the king turn to writing sonnets when they’re in love, whereas Benedick cannot rhyme. He and Beatrice cannot “woo peaceably”—they both are unsentimental. 

Much Ado About Nothing, in a sense, has 2 strands of stories:

- The battle of the sexes—between Benedick and Beatrice. 

- The relationship between Beatrice’s cousin Hero and Claudio, which is fucked up by Don John the villain. 

Don John makes me think of Iago, but of course he is nowhere near Iago. After all, this is a comedy, not a tragedy. 

This play is dated 1598 and Othello is dated around 1604, so I suppose Shakespeare reckons, after a few years, that he can do more with the theme of jealousy and insinuations, that he can push it to the extreme of malignity and evil. 

3/ I’ve noticed that the Shakespeare plays I’ve read recently all have some level of plotting and manipulating: in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth scheme to kill Duncan, frame some others, and get the throne; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies plot to get people and the queen of fairies fall in love with someone else, using love potion; in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the men dress up as Russians to joke around and the ladies play a trick back on them by switching places; in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence has a plot to help Romeo and Juliet be together, but everything goes kaput because of a plague (which sounds strangely familiar); in Othello, the plot is mainly driven by Iago, the master manipulator, who plays everyone and orchestrates everything. 

The interesting thing about Much Ado About Nothing is that there are 3 kinds of plotting and tricking—one to bring about a marriage, one to end a marriage, and one to save a marriage (and a lady’s honour)—all of the main characters are engaged in one plan or another. All of the main characters are playwrights and actors. 

The Friar in this play, by the way, is reminiscent of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet

4/ One of the best speeches in Much Ado About Nothing is this one by Leonato, when his brother Antonio is trying to console him:  

“LEONATO I pray thee cease thy counsel, 

Which falls into mine ears as profitless 

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel, 

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear 

But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine. 

Bring me a father that so loved his child, 

Whose joy of her is overwhelmed like mine, 

And bid him speak of patience. 

Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine, 

And let it answer every strain for strain, 

As thus for thus, and such a grief for such, 

In every lineament, branch, shape, and form. 

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard, 

And sorrow wag, cry “hem” when he should groan; 

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk 

With candle-wasters; bring him yet to me, 

And I of him will gather patience. 

But there is no such man. For, brother, men 

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief 

Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it, 

Their counsel turns to passion, which before 

Would give preceptial medicine to rage, 

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread, 

Charm ache with air and agony with words. 

No, no! ‘Tis all men’s office to speak patience 

To those that wring under the load of sorrow, 

But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency 

To be so moral when he shall endure 

The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel; 

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

ANTONIO Therein do men from children nothing differ.

LEONATO I pray thee peace. I will be flesh and blood; 

For there was never yet philosopher 

That could endure the toothache patiently, 

However they have writ the style of gods 

And made a push at chance and sufferance.” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

Ironically it comes from a man who turns against his own daughter at the wedding, and wishes her dead! 

5/ Tony Tanner writes: 

“Shakespeare had an acute sense of (and revulsion for) the gratuitous, irreparable damage that can be done by malicious slander […[ There is an enormous delight in word-play throughout, but there is a concurrent suspicion of the wayward power of tongues, and of the man who is, as it were, all tongue.” (Introduction) 

He writes at length about the theme of “misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misapprehensions” in the play—“It is a world in which appearances cannot be trusted—men are not what they seem; words are not what they say.” (ibid.)

It is all hearsay and “seeming truth”. Don John tells Claudio and Don Pedro (the king) not to trust him, but to trust what they see—but what they see is not the truth. Their eyes deceive them, the way Othello’s sight is poisoned by Iago’s lies. 

Here is something I find interesting, again Tony Tanner’s words:

“‘Seeming’ is, indeed, one of Shakespeare’s great themes, and he wrote against or about it continually.” (ibid.) 

This is one of the similarities between Shakespeare and Jane Austen: this is also one of her central themes—the difference between appearances and reality, and the way people deceive themselves. 

6/ Benedick and Beatrice are probably the most delightful couple in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Judging by a few things I’ve seen, their story seems to be often misunderstood or misrepresented—I think they’re not tricked into falling in love, but tricked into realising that they already love each other. Both are intelligent and quick-witted and they’re known for always having a go at one another that they live up to that image and don’t understand themselves, until the little trick helps them see something that has always eluded them. 

Just go to Act 1 scene 1, Beatrice’s very first line in the play is asking about Benedick. 

See Tony Tanner: 

“Even before they are tricked into love and partly (only partly) let their defences down, they are clearly obsessed with each other. From the first moment, they cannot let each other alone.” (Introduction) 

He notes the last things they say to one another in the play:

“BENEDICK Come, I will have thee; but by this light, I take thee for pity.

BEATRICE I would not deny you; but by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.

BENEDICK Peace! I will stop your mouth. [Kisses her]” 

(Act 5 scene 4) 

Tony Tanner comments: 

“Long before this, we can see that they were made for each other.” (Introduction)  

I’ve decided that they’re my favourite couple in Shakespeare, so far. 

William Hazlitt’s essay about Much Ado About Nothing is, disappointingly, not very good. But we still have Tony Tanner. 

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Love’s Labour’s Lost

1/ Love’s Labour’s Lost is not among Shakespeare’s most popular comedies and it’s not hard to see why—it is his most verbal comedy and there is lots of wordplay, some of which may be obscure or difficult, and may be lost if you’re watching a production. It is fascinating though, because Shakespeare seems to be testing, playing with, and stretching the English language, to see what it can do.  

Here is Tony Tanner explaining the context: 

“Even up to the 1580s, in learned circles, where Latin gave dignity and conferred prestige, it was a matter for debate whether English was suitable for anything but low, everyday matters. Then quite suddenly, towards the end of the 1580s, apologies for the barbarousness of the vulgar tongue gave way to a new (nationalistic) triumphalism concerning the English language (a triumph finally sealed with the translation of the bible). […] Barber says of Love’s Labour’s Lost that it catches something of ‘the excitement of the historical moment when English, in the hands of its greatest master, suddenly could do anything’. You also feel, in this play, that Shakespeare is beginning to realize that he can do anything, too.” (Introduction) 

The play barely has a plot, and to borrow a friend’s phrase, it’s about a bunch of people farting around. But that is the fun, so we have the king of Navarre (Ferdinand) and his 3 witty lords Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, who vow to buy themselves in books but fall in love the next day and resort to Petrarchan and bookish conventions when talking to their lovers; the princess of France and her 3 ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine, who engage in a battle of wits with the king and the lords.

See this hilarious bit when Longaville wants to know Maria’s name and asks Boyet, a French lord who attends on the princess and her ladies: 

“LONGAVILLE I beseech you a word: what is she in the white?

BOYET A woman sometimes, and you saw her in the light.

LONGAVILLE Perchance light in the light. I desire her name.

BOYET She hath but one for herself; to desire that, were a shame.

LONGAVILLE Pray you, sir, whose daughter?

BOYET Her mother’s, I have heard.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 


The play also has Don Adriano de Armado, a Spaniard who has a very convoluted style in writing and uses 10 sentences when one would do. See his letter to Jacquenetta. 

“By heaven, that thou art fair, is most infallible; true, that thou art beauteous; truth itself, that thou art lovely. More fairer than fair, beautiful than beauteous, truer than truth itself, have commiseration on thy heroical vassal! The magnanimous and most illustrate king Cophetua set eye upon the pernicious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon, and he it was that might rightly say veni, vidi, vici; which to anatomize in the vulgar—O base and obscure vulgar!—videlicet, he came, saw, and overcame: he came, one; saw, two; overcame, three. Who came? the king. Why did he come? to see. Why did he see? to overcome. To whom came he? to the beggar. What saw he? the beggar. Whom overcame he? the beggar. The conclusion is victory. On whose side? the king’s; the captive is enriched: on whose side? the beggar’s. The catastrophe is a nuptial. On whose side? the king’s, no, on both in one, or one in both. I am the king, for so stands the comparison; thou the beggar, for so witnesseth thy lowliness. Shall I command thy love? I may: Shall I enforce thy love? I could: Shall I entreat thy love? I will. What shalt thou exchange for rags? robes; for tittles? titles; for thyself? me. Thus, expecting thy reply, I profane my lips on thy foot, my eyes on thy picture, and my heart on thy every part.

Thine, in the dearest design of Industry,

Don Adriano de Armado.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

This man needs to chill. All he means to say is simply “I love you, will you marry me?”. 

Armado has a page named Moth (pronounced Mote), who is funny. 

“ARMADO The way is but short: away!

MOTH As swift as lead, sir.

ARMADO Thy meaning, pretty ingenious?

Is not lead a metal heavy, dull, and slow?

MOTH Minime, honest master; or rather, master, no.

ARMADO I say, lead is slow.

MOTH You are too swift, sir, to say so:

Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

And if Armado says 10 sentences when one would do, Holofernes the pedant is one who seems to think that he doesn’t say something unless he says it about 6 different ways. Here is him praising himself: 

“HOLOFERNES This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.” 

(Act 4 scene 2)   

He also throws in his speech a lot of Latin. 

“HOLOFERNES Most barbarous intimation! yet a kind of insinuation, as it were, in via, in way, of explication; facere, as it were, replication, or, rather, ostentare, to show, as it were, his inclination,—after his undressed, unpolished, un-educated, unpruned, untrained, or, rather, unlettered, or, ratherest, unconfirmed fashion,—to insert again my haud credo for a deer.” (ibid.) 

In this speech he is mocking Anthony Dull, who is not a learned man like other people. Shakespeare seems to have lots of fun with the English language in this play. 

2/ Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream and some other plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost doesn’t have 2 people loving the same person so it’s all very neat—the king loves the princess, Berowne loves Rosaline, Longaville loves Maria, and Dumaine loves Katharine.

But the point is that the king and the lords are bookish (or nerds, as the kids say), so the ladies would have to teach them how to love and how to live—Shakespeare celebrates language and at the same time makes fun of pedantry, affectation, and the abuse of rhetoric. 

The men in Love’s Labour’s Lost are such donkeys though, I have to say. The most hilarious scenes are probably the overhearing scene and the scene where the men woo the wrong women by mistake. 

Consider the overhearing scene—it starts with Berowne, a fool in love; he hides and eavesdrops when the king enters, talking to himself about his infatuation for the princess; the king hides, separated from Berowne, when Longaville enters, reading out loud his sonnet about Maria; Longaville then hides, without knowing about the previous two, when Dumaine appears, reciting his love poem about Katharine, making them “four woodcocks in a dish”; seeing Dumaine, Longaville and the king come out of hiding and admit that they have both fallen in love and broken the oath, then the king says that if Berowne were here, he would laugh at them.  

So Berowne now appears and mocks them all. 

“BEROWNE […] I am betrayed by keeping company 

With men like you, men of inconstancy. 

When shall you see me write a thing in rhyme? 

Or groan for Joan?” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

The chutzpah! 

3/ I note that Berowne is the one who argues with the king from the start that his rules go against nature and the oath would be broken, but he is later the one most surprised at finding himself in love, and most aggressive at denying it and decrying others. He even, more than once, compares love to the plague.  

Funnily, Tony Tanner notes in the introduction that Love’s Labour’s Lost was written quite close to the 1592-1593 London plague. 

(And now I’ve just read it during a plague). 

4/ Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost has a play within the play (well, sort of): the nine Worthies. 

However, if the audience of Pyramus and Thisby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a bit critical, the audience here are absolutely brutal—it’s like they appear on Britain’s Got Talent and get roasted by Simon Cowell, but worse. 

It’s funny how the lords cruelly make fun of the performers when just a few minutes ago they were tricked and exposed by the ladies to be pompous fools. Such short memory they’ve got! 

Tony Tanner says:

“There really is nothing like the bad manners of good society! […] As the crude, rude, mockery continues, we feel that if this is so-called wit, then it is wit at its most despicable, turned to bad ends.” (Introduction) 

See Holofernes’s reaction to the mockeries: 

“This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” (Act 5 scene 2) 

That should shame them all. 

Only the princess is gracious and supportive (and her ladies are silent) whilst the men are being cruel. 

5/ Look at these lines from Love’s Labour’s Lost

“BEROWNE Our wooing doth not end like an old play;

Jack hath not Jill; these ladies’ courtesy

Might well have made our sport a comedy.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

The play doesn’t have a conventional ending for a comedy. But what does that speech make me think of? 

“PUCK […] And the country proverb known,

That every man should take his own,

In your waking shall be shown:

Jack shall have Jill;

Nought shall go ill…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

That is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

6/ Is this love? Tony Tanner asks the right question. 

“One cannot help but feel that these young men enjoy talking about it; trying to find clever ways of expressing how they feel, competing in hyperbolic praises of their adored ones. They seem to be caught up in—enjoyable—post-Petrarchan posturings.” (Introduction)

It’s all a game to them, and the princess and her ladies are perfectly right in taking it all as a jest, a merriment—nothing serious.  

Berowne understands it:  

“The ladies did change favours, and then we,

Following the signs, wooed but the sign of she.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

That is an excellent line. They don’t see the princess, Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine as individuals, but as some generic idea of the female. 

The question now is, would their love last a year? Would they be together in the end? We cannot know. The fun is interrupted. 

“The ‘sport’ is over, and it is back to the naked, unadorned realities of birth, work, sickness, and death.” (Introduction) 

7/ It’s interesting to read Love’s Labour’s Lost right after Romeo and Juliet—if Juliet and Romeo fall in love at first sight and get married the next day, the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost regard the flirtations and professions of love with coolness, caution, and wit, and they all are more mature than the men. The women, especially the princess and Rosaline, see through the men, beat them at their own game, and force them to accept their terms. 

If anyone thinks Shakespeare is a misogynist, this play is the rebuttal. 

Saturday 6 February 2021

Romeo and Juliet and William Hazlitt

1/ To compare the Shakespeare plays I’ve read recently, Macbeth is fast-paced and the entire thing is at the pitch of hysteria; Othello is slow at first as things build up but becomes much faster once Iago has dropped the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity and poisoned Othello’s mind; A Midsummer Night’s Dream is dreamy and whimsical; Romeo and Juliet is fast-paced, everyone seems to be driven by passion, whether love, hate, or violence, and everything seems to be in haste.

It might seem odd that the Everyman edition (with Tony Tanner’s excellent introductory essays) puts Romeo and Juliet in Comedies- Volume 1, but I think the point is to pair it with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was written around the same time, and the play within the play is the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (spelt Thisby in Shakespeare’s play), which echoes the plot of Romeo and Juliet. A Midsummer Night’s Dream also starts with Egeus forcing his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, or she has to die, even though she loves Lysander, which is reminiscent of Capulet ignoring Juliet’s feelings and forcing her to marry Paris. 

It’s also interesting that in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare seems to take romantic love seriously, even in its youthful impetuosity, whereas in the other one, he seems to take the piss out of it.  

Romeo and Juliet does have lots of comedy in it though, and Mercutio is probably one of the most spirited characters in Shakespeare, full of sexual innuendos and dirty jokes. The funniest parts in the play are the exchanges between him and Romeo. 

For example: 


Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done; for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose?


Thou wast never with me for anything when thou wast not there for the goose.


I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.


Nay, good goose, bite not.


Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting. It is a most sharp sauce.


And is it not well served into a sweet goose?


Oh, here’s a wit of cheveril, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad!” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

(Note: “goose” was slang for “prostitute”). 

Men, I see, have always liked making bad puns.  

2/ See Mercutio after the Queen Mab speech:


True, I talk of dreams; 

Which are the children of an idle brain, 

Begot of nothing but vain fantasy; 

Which is as thin of substance as the air, 

And more inconstant than the wind, who woos 

Even now the frozen bosom of the North 

And, being angered, puffs away from thence, 

Turning his side to the dew-dropping South.” 

(Act 1 scene 4) 

That makes me think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

3/ If you know me, you’d know that I’m not a fan of stories about love at first sight. Can’t stand them, even.  

So naturally I found myself nodding along with Friar Lawrence a lot. 

Like when he asks about Rosaline and it turns out that Romeo, who was just heartbroken a short while ago, has forgotten her and is now in love with another girl.  


Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here! 

Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, 

So soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies 

Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. 

[…] If e’er thou wast thyself, and these woes thine, 

Thou and these woes were all for Rosaline. 

And art thou changed? Pronounce this sentence then: 

Women may fall when there’s no strength in men.


Thou chidst me oft for loving Rosaline.


For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.


And badst me bury love.


Not in a grave 

To lay one in, another out to have.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

Exactly. Romeo is a silly, fickle teenage boy. 

Friar Lawrence says more later: 


These violent delights have violent ends 

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, 

Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey 

Is loathsome in his own deliciousness 

And in the taste confounds the appetite. 

Therefore love moderately: long love doth so; 

Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.” 

(Act 2 scene 6) 

That is so good. Later the Friar has a delicious speech scolding Romeo, but I love the poetry here—the similes, the images. 

Although Romeo and Juliet is not my kind of story, it’s impossible to deny its exuberance and Shakespeare’s genius. Everything in it happens too fast—Shakespeare condenses the story of several months into several days—but somehow in the play it all makes perfect sense. Romeo and Juliet are both young, they are passionate, they are impetuous, everything is in haste and they’re both driven by factors beyond their control, and it makes sense that everything happens the way it does. I’m swept up by it, in spite of myself. 

4/ I like that Count Paris is an obstacle, whom Capulet forces Juliet to marry against her will, but he is not a villain. He is hard to like as he’s impetuous and cannot wait—even though Capulet says at the beginning that she’s too young and shouldn’t get married for another 2 years, he keeps asking, and asks again right after Tybalt’s death, which is insensitive. But his presence and action at the churchyard near the end show that he does care about Juliet, even if he has never understood her. 

5/ Here is William Hazlitt on Romeo and Juliet: 

“There is the buoyant spirit of youth in every line, in the rapturous intoxication of hope, and in the bitterness of despair. It has been said of Romeo and Juliet by a great critic, that 'whatever is most intoxicating in the odour of a southern spring, languishing in the song of the nightingale, or voluptuous in the first opening of the rose, is to be found in this poem'. The description is true; and yet it does not answer to our idea of the play. For if it has the sweetness of the rose, it has its freshness too; if it has the languor of the nightingale's song, it has also its giddy transport; if it has the softness of a southern spring, it is as glowing and as bright. There is nothing of a sickly and sentimental cast. Romeo and Juliet are in love, but they are not love-sick. Everything speaks the very soul of pleasure, the high and healthy pulse of the passions: the heart beats, the blood circulates and mantles throughout.” 

This comes from his book Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. Indeed, thanks to Shakespeare’s language, the play isn’t corny, and the most poetic lines are said by Juliet and Romeo.  

Hazlitt goes on to defend the play, against the charge that the 2 characters barely know each other and haven’t experienced life, and this is the best defence I have seen: 

“[Shakespeare] did not endeavour to extract beauty from wrinkles, or the wild throb of passion from the last expiring sigh of indifference. He did not 'gather grapes of thorns nor figs of thistles'. It was not his way. But he has given a picture of human life, such as it is in the order of nature. He has founded the passion of the two lovers not on the pleasures they had experienced, but on all the pleasures they had NOT experienced. All that was to come of life was theirs. At that untried source of promised happiness they slaked their thirst, and the first eager draught made them drunk with love and joy. They were in full possession of their senses and their affections. Their hopes were of air, their desires of fire. Youth is the season of love, because the heart is then first melted in tenderness from the touch of novelty, and kindled to rapture, for it knows no end of its enjoyments or its wishes. Desire has no limit but itself. Passion, the love and expectation of pleasure, is infinite, extravagant, inexhaustible, till experience comes to check and kill it.” 

What an essayist. The whole piece should be read. What is there for me to write anymore, after that? I haven’t read the entire book but all the essays I’ve read in it are wonderful. It is helpful that I’ve not been reading Shakespeare alone—I’ve been reading him in the company of Tony Tanner, William Hazlitt, and my friend Himadri at Argumentative Old Git. With some others.

Friday 5 February 2021

Some brief thoughts on Othello (2019) ft. Michael Blake

It is perhaps not wise to write so soon after watching the play, especially when I have not seen any other production and have nothing to compare it to, except the text itself. But I’ll jot down some thoughts anyway. 

This is a production at Stratford Festival, Canada, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams and produced for film by Barry Avrich, with Michael Blake in the title role, Laura Condlln as Emilia, Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona, Gordon S. Miller as Iago, and Johnathan Sousa as Cassio. 

Shakespeare’s Othello is a great play, but it’s a difficult play, because of the way the 2 roles of Othello and Iago may be approached and played. The Oxford edition of Othello discusses at length the different productions over the years and it seems that the handling of Iago is even more difficult than that of Othello because one, how does an actor approach the role and his motivation, and two, what do they do so Othello doesn’t become diminished in comparison and it doesn’t become a play about Iago. 

The problem with this production, I think, is Iago. Iago in my head is the quiet, soft-spoken type, the type who doesn’t express much emotion on his face, the type who appears honest and trustworthy but underneath that façade is a cold, vicious sociopath driven by inexplicable hatred and resentment. Iago in my head makes insinuations whilst pretending to be unsure or reluctant—he drops an idea here, an image there, and slowly poisons Othello’s sight without appearing to talk much. Gordon S. Miller’s Iago is way too loud, too eager and pushy, and not at all likable or subtle—it’s hard to believe why anyone would see him as reliable. The image of honest Iago is not credible from the start, when he’s manipulating Roderigo, and it becomes a lot worse in the scenes where he talks to Othello about Desdemona’s infidelity—it’s impossible to understand why Othello would fall for these insinuations. 

This affects the play as a whole even though I find Michael Blake good as Othello, and Farhang Ghajar is good as Roderigo. 

Laura Condlln plays Emilia in a way that is different from how I imagined her from the text—partly because this production has the actors dressed in modern clothes and turns Emilia into a soldier protecting Desdemona, and partly because she plays Emilia as pained and badly treated by her husband from the start. She acts very well, overshadowing Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona (and also Iago), and it is an interesting approach, but the approach also changes the meaning of the ending—her rage, her outburst in the final scene seems less about love for Desdemona than about her pain and anger at the misogyny of the men, especially her husband. In a sense, it feels like it’s less about Desdemona than about herself. 

Another thing is the scene where Desdemona asks Iago to praise her and he makes some generalisations about women—Gordon S. Miller’s Iago comes across as a complete dick and Laura Condlln’s Emilia is visibly upset but nobody notices. We all know that Iago in Shakespeare’s play is a misogynist, who sees all women as wanton and deceitful, but I think the scene should be done in such a way that Iago appears to be half-joking and it all seems silly and harmless, rather than something bitter and obviously sexist. Iago in this production doesn’t look at all witty or likable—why would anyone trust him? And why did Emilia ever fall for him? 

The best parts of the play, therefore, are when Gordon S. Miller isn’t on stage. Michael Blake, I think, is pretty good as Othello—I like that he seems very confident and assured and comfortable with himself at the beginning of the play, in spite of other people, but slowly it all crumbles and by the end he knows he’s damned. He’s especially good in the bit where he, full of rage, threatens Iago’s life and asks for proof, and later, when he collapses and has an epileptic fit on the ground. The scene of him killing Desdemona is unbearable to watch—utterly awful, and heartbreaking.

I should watch some other productions to compare. 

Have you seen this one? What do you think? 

Wednesday 3 February 2021

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What a charming and delightful thing to read after the darkness of Macbeth and Othello

In many ways, this is a lovely surprise. I didn’t know there would be 3 groups of characters and various subplots, and didn’t know there would be a play within a play:  

- The Athenians: Theseus the Duke and his betrothed Hippolyta, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, etc.; 

- The craftsmen who perform a play for them at the wedding: Peter Quince, a carpenter (Prologue in the play), Nick Bottom, a weaver (Pyramus), Francis Flute, a bellows mender (Thisby), Snug, a joiner (Lion), Tom Snout, a tinker (Wall), Robin Starveling, a tailor (Moonshine);

- And the fairies: Oberon (King of the fairies), Titania (Queen of the fairies), Puck (or Robin Goodfellow), Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed, etc. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is generally categorised as a comedy, but it’s quite different from the comedies I read before—Twelfth Night and As You Like It. It is a fairytale. It is a world of fairies and love potion and a guy suddenly finding himself having an ass’s head. 

One of the things I particularly like is that in a world that has the logic of fairytales, the characters still react in a realistic way. I mean, at the beginning of the play, Demetrius and Lysander both want Hermia but she only loves Lysander, and Helena is heartbroken because she was abandoned by Demetrius, so the fairies intervene but make a mistake by putting the love potion in Lysander’s eyes and inadvertently making him fall in love with Helena, then Oberon, the king of fairies, makes Demetrius fall in love with Helena. All that is fantasy stuff, but Helena’s reaction is realistic—she thinks they’re making fun of her. 

“HELENA. O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent

To set against me for your merriment:

If you were civil and knew courtesy,

You would not do me thus much injury.

Can you not hate me, as I know you do,

But you must join in souls to mock me too?

If you were men, as men you are in show,

You would not use a gentle lady so;

To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,

When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.

You both are rivals, and love Hermia,

And now both rivals, to mock Helena:

A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,

To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes

With your derision! none of noble sort

Would so offend a virgin, and extort

A poor soul’s patience all to make you sport.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Is that not so good? Even better is Helena’s speech a short time after, when Hermia appears and doesn’t understand what’s happening, and Helena thinks that Hermia’s part of the game:

“HELENA. Lo! she is one of this confederacy.

Now I perceive they have conjoin’d all three

To fashion this false sport in spite of me.

Injurious Hermia! most ungrateful maid!

Have you conspir’d, have you with these contriv’d

To bait me with this foul derision?

Is all the counsel that we two have shar’d,

The sister-vows, the hours that we have spent,

When we have chid the hasty-footed time

For parting us, O! is it all forgot?

All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,

Have with our neelds created both one flower,

Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,

Both warbling of one song, both in one key,

As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,

Had been incorporate. So we grew together,

Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,

But yet an union in partition;

Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;

So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;

Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,

Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.

And will you rent our ancient love asunder,

To join with men in scorning your poor friend?

It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly:

Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,

Though I alone do feel the injury.” (ibid.) 

The anger! The hurt! That just breaks my heart.

That’s the power of Shakespeare—even in a charming fantasy play, where people fall in love at random and fight each other under the effect of love potion so that Puck the fairy exclaims “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, there are many moving moments. Shakespeare can in a few lines convey or give us a glimpse of a character’s depth and make us see them differently, when most writers would need dozens of pages. In the blog post about Othello, I wrote about Emilia, but the best example would be a single line in Twelfth Night, said by the dim-witted and ridiculous Sir Andrew Aguecheek: “I was adored once too.” (Act 2 scene 3) You can’t look at him the same way again after that line.

But that is enough seriousness for this magical play. The point of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think, is to delight, and it is delightful. The fairies intervene again and in the end all is well. Did I say the characters reacted in a realistic way? The counterexample is Nick Bottom, who seems to notice no difference about his metamorphosis, except feeling “marvellous hairy about the face”. Like Gregor Samsa, he’s unperturbed. 

Nick Bottom is also the only mortal in the story who can see the fairies, but he’s cool about seeing them just as he’s cool about the profession of love from Titania: 

“Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days. The more the pity, that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.” (Act 3 scene 1) 

As Tony Tanner notes in his introduction: “You will hardly find more wisdom in the wood than that.” 

Nick Bottom is the one who I think would change after his experience in the forest however, the one who is transformed after “a most rare vision”. 

I’m ending my blog post with Theseus’s speech near the end of the play:  

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name…” (Act 5 scene 1) 

Theseus is here speaking against the imagination, but how imaginative and magical this play is!