Monday 31 January 2022

Brief thoughts on The Third Wife

Yesterday I watched a Vietnamese film called Vợ ba, or The Third Wife in English, directed by Ash Mayfair (despite the name, she is Vietnamese). The film is about a 14-year-old girl in 19th century Vietnam, who becomes the third wife to a wealthy landowner, and who develops some feelings for another wife. Vợ ba was released in 2018, and won a few awards at international film festivals.

I myself am not a fan.

The story is clearly inspired by Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (which naturally invites comparison), and the style is heavily influenced by Trần Anh Hùng. According to a few articles I’ve read, Vợ ba has quite a few inaccuracies: for example, the use of lá ngón (Gelsemium elegans, mistranslated as nightshade in the subtitles) as poison is a practice among some ethnic minorities but not among Kinh people, the main ethnic group in Vietnam. There are also things presented as traditions that are not traditions in Vietnam, such as the use of egg yolk on the wedding night, the hanging of the blood-stained sheet the following day, the funeral on a boat, and so on.

Even if we ignore all these inaccuracies, the film as a whole is weak. Its greatest strength is the cinematography—visually, the film does look very good, very poetic. But there isn’t much to the story, nor the characters. 

I can’t help thinking that Vợ ba is a film calculated to appeal to Western audiences: exotic, but filled with “Western” themes such as patriarchy, women’s rights, and lesbianism. And under all that, it’s hollow.  

Sunday 30 January 2022


1/ Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus discuss Caius Marcius (who later becomes Coriolanus): 

“BRUTUS Being moved, he will not spare to gird the gods.

SICINIUS Bemock the modest moon. 

BRUTUS The present wars devour him; he is grown

Too proud to be so valiant. 

SICINIUS Such a nature, 

Tickled with good success, disdains the shadow

Which he treads on at noon…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

That reminds me of a line from Ahab: 

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” (Moby Dick, Ch.36)

2/ This is Marcius’s mother Volumnia, speaking to his wife Virgilia: 

“VOLUMNIA […] If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love…” 

(Act 1 scene 3)  

That’s interesting.

Coriolanus is unusual for depicting a mother-son relationship when Shakespeare more often writes about father-daughter relationships. Volumnia has some rather strong ideas about honour. 

“VIRGILIA But had he died in the business, madam, how then?

VOLUMNIA Then his good report should have been my son; I therein would have found issue. Hear my profess, sincerely; had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.” 


Scary mother.

In his essay, Tony Tanner writes at length about the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother—Coriolanus, in spite of everything, is a mother’s boy. Commenting on Act 5 scene 3, Tony Tanner says: 

“What has she done? She has saved Rome: but in the case of her son, she has both made and marred him; taught him immutability and made him change; ‘manned’ him and unmanned him. Made him steel, turned him silk.” (Introduction) 

This must be one of the greatest depictions of mother-son relationships in literature. 

3/ Coriolanus says to his mother: 

“CORIOLANUS […] Would you have me 

False to my nature? Rather say I play 

The man I am.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

She’s persuading him to go back to the marketplace and take back his words to the tribunes and the people. 

“CORIOLANUS Well, I must do’t. 

Away, my disposition, and possess me 

Some harlot’s spirit! My throat of war be turned, 

Which quired with my drum, into a pipe

Small as an eunuch or the virgin voice 

That babies lulls asleep! The smiles of knaves 

Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys’ tears take up

The glasses of my sight! A beggar’s tongue 

Make motion through my lips, and my armed knees, 

Who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his 

That hath received an alms! I will not do’t; 

Lest I surcease to honor my own truth,

And by my body’s action teach my mind 

A most inherent baseness.” 


Coriolanus is extreme and inflexible—I can see myself in him, I can relate to that inflexibility, that short temper, that inability to flatter. 

When we first see Marcius (Coriolanus), he’s short-tempered and full of curses, a contrast to Menenius Agrippa, who uses arguments and tries to reason with the angry citizens. Marcius is also (said to be) proud. But when we see him in battle, he appears different—he’s a great warrior and believes in honour, and doesn’t want praise or rewards. 

“MARCIUS Pray now, no more. My mother,

Who has a charter to extol her blood, 

When she does praise me grieves me. I have done 

As you have done, that’s what I can; induced 

As you have been, that’s for my country.” 

(Act 1 scene 9)     

Is it an act? Sinicius and Brutus think so. 

“MARCIUS I thank you, general; 

But cannot make my heart consent to take

A bribe to pay my sword. I do refuse it, 

And stand upon my common part with those, 

That have beheld the doing.” 


I find it interesting that later Shakespeare lets us see that the appearance of modesty comes from great pride—Coriolanus is too proud to show off his wounds, too proud to talk about his bravery and achievements. 

“CORIOLANUS Most sweet voices! 

Better it is to die, better to starve, 

Than crave the hire which first we do deserve. 

Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here, 

To beg of Hob and Dick that does appear 

Their needless vouches?...” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

Coriolanus, like Troilus and Cressida, has lots of debates, much more than in other Shakespeare plays. There aren’t many soliloquies, but lots of debates, about power and politics—it almost feels like a play of ideas (if that’s a thing). 

Coriolanus is a great warrior, and a hero, but that doesn’t make a good politician.  

“FIRST OFFICER That’s a brave fellow; but he’s vengeance proud, and loves not the common people. 

SECOND OFFICER Faith, there hath been many great men that have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them; and there be many that they have loved, they know not wherefore; so that, if they love they know not why, they hate upon no better a ground. Therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge in their disposition, and out of his noble carelessness lets them plainly see’t. 

FIRST OFFICER If he did not care whether he had their love or no, he waved indifferently ’twixt doing them neither good nor harm. But he seeks their hate with greater devotion than they can render it him, and leaves nothing undone that may fully discover him their opposite. Now, to seem to affect the malice and displeasure of the people is as bad as that which he dislikes, to flatter them for their love.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Coriolanus despises common people.  

“CORIOLANUS […] I say again, 

In soothing them, we nourish ’gainst our Senate

The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition, 

Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed, and scattered, 

By mingling them with us, the honored number; 

Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that 

Which they have given to beggars.” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Brutus and Sinicius do manipulate people to change their decision, but don’t they have a point? 

“CORIOLANUS […] As for my country I have shed my blood, 

Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs

Coin words till their decay against those measles, 

Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought 

The very way to catch them.

BRUTUS You speak o’ th’ people, 

As if you were a god, to punish, not

A man of their infirmity.” 


He also refers to common people as crows, and the nobility as eagles. Coriolanus is a rich, fascinating portrait of a brave warrior who places lots of importance on honour but doesn’t want to hear praises, who sheds blood for his country but feels contempt for the people.

But that isn’t all. Our perception of Coriolanus changes again when we see him with his mother. 

“VOLUMNIA At thy choice then. 

To beg of thee, it is my more dishonor

Than thou of them. Come all to ruin! […] 

Do as thou list. […] 

CORIOLANUS Pray, be content: 

Mother, I am going to the marketplace; 

Chide me no more…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Coriolanus is, at heart, still a mother’s boy. 

I think Coriolanus suffers in comparison with Shakespeare’s best plays because, compared to Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, or Lear, Coriolanus is a killing machine, with no introspection and little self-knowledge. He also doesn’t change. But Shakespeare is still doing something interesting, depicting the self-contradictions in Coriolanus and other characters’ different, conflicting perceptions of him. 

4/ When Coriolanus, now banished from Rome, turns to his old enemy Tullus Aufidius, Aufidius’s speech has an odd bit: 

“AUFIDIUS […] Know thou first, 

I loved the maid I married; never man 

Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here, 

Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart 

Than when I first my wedded mistress saw

Bestride my threshold…” 

(Act 4 scene 5) 

No? Only I find it weird? 

It’s interesting though, that Aufidius and Coriolanus are old enemies but still respect each other (until, you know…).  

Like every other Shakespeare play, there is disguise in Coriolanus, even if Shakespeare doesn’t do anything with it. I’ve noted, however, that there is no comedy in Coriolanus. There is comedy, though often sardonic, in Troilus and Cressida, (perhaps) Shakespeare’s most cynical play. The only other play I’ve read that has no comic relief is Richard II, but that play has greater poetry and more great speeches than Coriolanus

Coriolanus also has no subplot, which is unusual. 

5/ What is Coriolanus about? 

I think it’s a play for Shakespeare to explore several ideas. He must have asked himself, why did a hero like Coriolanus deflect to the other side and invade his own city? 

Shakespeare also explores some conflicting ideas about politics: a great warrior and hero doesn’t necessarily make a good politician; he may even be an enemy of the people; but even if Coriolanus is an enemy of the people, Rome still needs him. Related is the question about democracy or government: the common people are easily provoked, easily swayed, easily manipulated, but can politicians ignore public opinion? 

Coriolanus may be a bit hard to like, but it’s in many ways a great play. 

Sunday 23 January 2022

Review of Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare

I should start off by saying that I received a copy from the author to review. But don’t worry, I’m not paid for it, and anyone who knows me knows that I can’t flatter anyone and I’m too blunt for my own good.  

That said, I think it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. One complaint I have about How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education is that it’s a bit of a misleading title: it made me think that it’s a book about Shakespeare, for Shakespeare’s fans (such as me), but it’s about education. Once I got that out of my head, it’s an interesting book.

In 14 chapters, Scott Newstok examines 14 subjects, 14 ways in which education today isn’t quite working (he focuses on American education but certain values and trends can also be found in other countries), and he writes about what we could learn from a Renaissance education, the kind of education that produced Shakespeare. 

“Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused—let’s be blunt: just plain wrong—educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constrain limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.”  

The most interesting chapters for me are perhaps 8 “Of Imitation”, 9 “Of Exercises”, 10 “Of Conversation”, 11 “Of Stock”, 12 “Of Constraint”, and 14 “Of Freedom”. Newstok makes lots of good points. I do think, for example, that people now are not taught to argue, especially argue against themselves and their own positions; many people see “argument” as a bad word, Devil’s advocate as a bad thing, and are incapable of considering different sides to an issue and different arguments on each side. There is too much certainty in the current climate, too much cant, too much black-and-white thinking. There is too much us vs them mentality, too much conformity, too much intolerance. 

I’ve also noticed an ignorance of and indifference, if not outright hostility, to tradition and classic works. In English-speaking countries, many people including teachers no longer care about cultural inheritance or legacy of the past, and only talk about relevance and relatability. A lot of it seems to come from an ignorance of the past, ignorance of context and history and development. Some teachers, for example, see Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of feminism or post-colonial theory or anti-racism or some fashionable ism, impose modern standards on his works, and want to remove him from the curriculum, partly because they don’t understand literature and can’t talk about literary merit, and partly because they look at the plays alone, ripped off from context, and have no understanding of literary history and Shakespeare’s influence on literature and other arts. 

Scott Newstok doesn’t name those movements and doesn’t directly talk about the attacks on Shakespeare and the Western canon. He focuses on what’s not right with today’s education and what could be learnt from a Renaissance education, though it does help me see the roots of the problems I’ve been noticing in academia and the teaching of literature in English-speaking countries. 

Sometimes a chapter feels a bit too short and makes me want something more. In “Of Imitation”, for example, I want more counter-arguments, and want to read more about how one moves beyond imitation. Newstok is right that imitation was seen as a good thing in Shakespeare’s days and a bad thing now, and today’s culture values (or is supposed to value) originality, but contradictingly we’re also living in an age of countless film adaptations of the same books over and over again, we’re also living in an age of remakes and reboots and modernisations and prequels and sequels and spin-offs. 

Or, in “Of Attention”, he writes about distraction and the overload of information, but I’m not quite sure what the solution is for better attention.

Overall, it’s still a thought-provoking book. Newstok also lets me see how many of Shakespeare’s qualities, such as his ability to consider every side to an issue and ability to enter the minds of such a wide range of characters, were partly shaped by the education he got at grammar school. I enjoy that. 

If you consider reading How to Think Like Shakespeare, it’s only 163 pages (not counting the thanks and index).   

Friday 21 January 2022

The Jew of Malta, anti-Semitism, and Marlowe vs Shakespeare

1/ Could anyone read The Jew of Malta now without comparing it to The Merchant of Venice? I doubt it.

The difference is quite clear from the beginning. After the Prologue, spoken by Machevill (Machiavelli), Marlowe’s play begins with Barabas the Jew in his counting-house, surrounded by money and jewels. 

“BARABAS Thus trowls our fortune in by land and sea, 

And thus are we on every side enriched: 

These are the blessings promised to the Jews,

[…] Who hateth me but for my happiness?

Or who is honoured now but for his wealth? 

Rather had I a Jew be hated thus, 

Than pitied in a Christian poverty:

Tuesday 18 January 2022

Cymbeline, an underrated Shakespeare play


Painting of Imogen by Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon

1/ I often say we cannot know Shakespeare the way we know other writers, because his plays have such different visions and depict such a wide range of perspectives and views—he is elusive. But we may notice his obsessions, we may notice the themes that keep recurring in the plays. Forced marriage is one example, which can be found in Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and now Cymbeline. Father-daughter relationship, especially a difficult one, is in those plays and also in King Lear, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, and probably some other plays I haven’t read. 

Let’s look at Cymbeline

“CYMBELINE That mightst have had the sole son of my queen. 

IMOGEN O blessed that I might not! I chose an eagle 

And did avoid a puttock. 

CYMBELINE Thou took’st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne 

A seat for baseness. 

IMOGEN No, I rather added 

A luster to it.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

I like that.

Here’s the plot: King Cymbeline wants his daughter Imogen to marry his second wife’s son Cloten (strictly this isn’t incest, but still rather weird) but Imogen secretly marries a guy called Posthumus Leonatus, adopted as an orphan and raised in Cymbeline’s family (also kinda weird—no?). Cymbeline imprisons his daughter, as one does, and banishes Posthumus. In Italy, Posthumus meets a bunch of guys and one Iachimo, believing that all women could be seduced, makes a wager that if he can “[enjoy] the dearest bodily part of [Posthumus’s] mistress”, he can keep the diamond ring Posthumus got from Imogen, and if he loses, he has to give him 10,000 ducats. 

Pleasant guy, that Iachimo.

There are many elements in Cymbeline that make me think of other plays: the wager and the ring make me think of The Merchant of Venice and All’s Well That Ends Well; the potion reminds me of Romeo and Juliet; the chastity theme echoes Much Ado About Nothing and contrasts with Troilus and Cressida; the separation and adoption are later echoed by The Winter’s Tale; the banishment is reminiscent of King Lear and The Tempest; the father’s ghost makes me think of Hamlet. Cymbeline has the jealousy theme, as in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale; it also has the theme of appearance vs reality, and slander (the danger of words), two of Shakespeare’s obsessions. 

“PISANIO […] The paper 

Hath cut her throat already. No, ‘tis slander, 

Whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue 

Outvenoms all the worms of Nile, whose breath

Rides on the posting winds and doth belie 

All corners of the world. Kings, queens, and states,

Maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave

This viperous slander enters…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

And of course, like every other Shakespeare play, Cymbeline has disguise. 

2/ Look at this line: 

“CLOTEN […] If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too…” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

HAHAHAHAHAHA. If that doesn’t persuade you to read Cymbeline (or just Shakespeare in general), I don’t know what will.

This is Cloten talking to the musicians.

I don’t know what Jane Austen thought about Cymbeline, but I imagine that she would have enjoyed the foolish Cloten’s courtship of Imogen.

A critic (I forgot which one) has pointed out that Shakespeare often has his characters cling to, and become fixated on, a word or a phrase that they say over and over again. An example is here, when Cloten keeps repeating “his garment” and “his meanest garment” before Imogen, only because she says “His meanest garment/ That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer/ In my respect than all the hairs above thee/ Were they all made such men” (ibid.). 

3/ Imogen’s soliloquy when she’s alone in Wales in men’s clothes (before she meets Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus) has 3 things I find interesting. 

“IMOGEN I see a man’s life is a tedious one…” 

(Act 3 scene 4)

In Shakespeare’s plays, there are many women who disguise themselves as men, and generally they then have more power and are more in control—see Portia in The Merchant of Venice or Rosalind in As You Like It. With Imogen, Shakespeare shows that it’s not always the case.

“IMOGEN […] To lapse in fulness

Is sorer than to lie for need, and falsehood

Is worse in kings than beggars. My dear lord, 

Thou art one o’ th’ false ones…”


I like that. 

“IMOGEN […] I were best not call; I dare not call. Yet famine, 

Ere clean it o’erthrow nature, makes it valiant. 

Plenty and peace breeds cowards; hardness ever

Of hardiness is mother…” 


That is very true.


“IMOGEN […] Gods, what lies I have heard!

Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court. 

Experience, O, thou disprov’st report!” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

In his essay, Tony Tanner points out that there are many secrets in Cymbeline; Imogen is in a unique plight, compared to other Shakespeare heroines, in that she is unaware of many secrets, and also doesn’t have anyone to guide her like Isabella has Vincentio in Measure for Measure; and no character knows much. 

The last point I think is interesting. In Measure for Measure, Vincentio knows and stages everything; it’s the same for Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Prospero in The Tempest. In Othello, Iago is the one with secrets and plots everything—the only thing he doesn’t know is the love his wife is capable of. In King Lear, Edmund knows most secrets, except Edgar’s disguise. Other plays tend to have one big secret that one character or more know.

Cymbeline is a play full of secrets and each character only knows a bit. It’s a fog-bound play. 

4/ The jealousy theme in Cymbeline is different from that of other plays in that the slanderer doesn’t point towards someone else: in Much Ado About Nothing, Don John tells Claudio that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself and later makes him think that Hero has sex with Borachio; in Othello, Iago poisons his mind and leads him to think Desdemona has sex with Cassio; whereas in Cymbeline, Iachimo claims that he has had sex with Imogen. But why?

Is Iachimo evil, like Iago? Or is he a callous, thoughtless man who wants to prove a point and makes a wager, and once he fails, cheats so as not to lose money, without thinking about consequences for others?

I’m inclined to think Iachimo is callous, thoughtless, and even misogynistic rather than evil—I don’t think he aims to destroy Posthumus and Imogen—he seems to think it’s a harmless game. Posthumus is the one who wants to have Imogen killed. Considered from every perspective, it is wrong, and it’s even more inappropriate when Imogen is a princess (currently the only heir to the king, as Cymbeline’s sons are long lost), Posthumus is socially inferior to her, their marriage doesn’t seem to be official, and he is banished. What right does he have to kill her?

However, he later repents and tries to kill himself. 

“POSTHUMUS […] You married ones, 

If each of you should take this course, how many 

Must murder wives much better than themselves 

For wrying but a little!” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

This is interesting because at this point, Posthumus doesn’t know that Imogen was innocent. He is filled with guilt and remorse, whereas Othello doesn’t regret killing Desdemona until he realises that she never did anything wrong. It doesn’t justify his order for Pisanio, but there’s a difference and it must be said.   

5/ Apparently one of the common complaints about Cymbeline, and one of the reasons it’s not very popular, is that it has too much plot. Samuel Johnson, going even further, calls it “unresisting imbecility” (he’s wrong). 

The complex plot, with various secrets, doesn’t really bother me till Act 5, when it becomes rather messy. 

When the ghost of the father appears, I think, wait, is this Hamlet?

Then some time after, a character says “The Queen is dead” (Act 5 scene 5), and I think, is this turning into Macbeth

“CORNELIUS With horror, madly dying, like her life, 

Which, being cruel to the world, concluded 

Most cruel to herself…” 


That sounds like Lady Macbeth. But no. Cornelius goes on about the Queen’s confessions before death.

“CORNELIUS […] She did confess she had

For you a mortal mineral, which, being took, 

Should by the minute feed on life and, ling’ring,

By inches waste you. In which time she purposed, 

By watching, weeping, tendance, kissing, to 

O’ercome you with her show and, in time, 

When she had fitted you with her craft, to work 

Her son into th’ adoption of the crown…” 


What is going on? Is this Hamlet

I can’t help thinking that Shakespeare is doing something in Cymbeline but I don’t know what it is—there are lots of parallels to his other plays. Self-parody?  

But finally, when Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends (there are much more here than in other plays, as far as I remember), all details fit together and somehow it all makes sense: Imogen casually tells Cloten that he can’t even compare to Posthumus’s clothes so he puts on those clothes and seeks her (with the intention of raping her); he wears Posthumus’s clothes and gets beheaded, so Imogen thinks Posthumus is dead; Cloten dies so the Queen dies (admittedly she doesn’t know he’s dead, only that he’s gone missing), and it has to be Guiderius who kills Cloten so Belarius has to tell Cymbeline who they are, etc.

Act 5 is messy, but it gets all tidied up. Perfectly. 

As Tony Tanner puts it: 

“And yet, in what seems like the last few minutes of this very long play, everything is resolved, clarified, unified, without a loose end left behind. Never was a more dazzling feat of tidying-up.” (Introduction) 

6/ I myself love Cymbeline. If you like the play, read Tony Tanner’s essay. If you don’t, read it and see if he may change your mind. 

For example, he says that the scene of Imogen (as Fidele) next to the headless body of Cloten “must be the strangest scene in Shakespeare”. 

“She not only assumes that it is Posthumus but identifies the body, part by part, as that of her beloved—yet it is the body of the figure she most abhorred, on which she proceeds to throw herself. What is this telling us? Is it the head alone (=quality of mind, refinement of intelligence and understanding) which differentiates man from man?” (ibid.)

When I read the scene myself, I thought it was an implausible, fairytale-logic scene—how could Imogen not recognise that it’s not Posthumus’s body, even if she’s somewhat dazed from the potion? But she clearly identifies the body, part by part. There’s something odd here. 

Tony Tanner goes on: 

“Take off the heads or ‘tops’, and is there then no difference between Posthumus and Cloten? And didn’t we see Posthumus effectively ‘lose his head’ in Rome, succumbing figuratively to what has overtaken Cloten literally? This point was nicely made by Robert Hunter, who suggested that, since we see the insanely jealous Posthumus adopting the mindless savagery of Cloten, during Posthumus’s two-act absence Cloten provides us with a present parody of him. Others have suggested that the execution of Cloten in Posthumus’s clothes acts as a vicarious or symbolic (or substitute) death of Posthumus’s bad self. However you take it, there is certainly an odd continuity between Posthumus and Cloten; and, despite what looks like their all too obvious oppositeness, a curious kind of heads-and-tails identity.” (ibid.)

As he points out, they are never on stage together—it would be funny if a production has the same actor play both Posthumus and Cloten.

Are these good interpretations, or far-fetched? But clearly there is something here—Shakespeare deliberately has Imogen identify the body parts as Posthumus’s. 

This is how Tony Tanner ends his essay: 

“Shakespeare has taken an assortment of the most disparate, incongruous, intractable material imaginable, all concerning important matters—sexual, familiar, dynastic, political, imperial, and proceeds to show with what a light touch it can be handled. He allows it to puddle and fog together to the point of hopeless chaos, and then—whoosh! it’s all significantly related and cleared up. And suddenly the play seems to have been like Imogen’s dream: 

‘Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,

Which the brain makes of fumes.

(IV, ii, 300-301) 

Our pleasure should be tragical-historical-comical-pastoral-romantical, and also, theatrical-magical, Cymbeline, it seems to me, is the most extra-ordinary play that Shakespeare ever wrote. How does he do it! Staggering!” (ibid.)

Friday 14 January 2022

The Merry Wives of Windsor

1/ Apparently the thing most often said about The Merry Wives of Windsor is that it’s a disappointment, for fans of Falstaff. It’s not hard to see why—Falstaff of the Henry IV plays is one of the finest creations in Shakespeare, and in literature in general, whereas Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor barely has any of the charm or wit. But it’s still a very funny play. Perhaps the key to enjoy it is to pretend that this Falstaff is a different character altogether. 

There are two plots.

The sub-plot mainly involves Anne Page and her three suitors (Slender, the French doctor Caius, and Fenton). That makes me think of Bianca and her three suitors in The Taming of the Shrew.

The main plot mostly involves Falstaff, the merry wives of Windsor (Mrs Ford and Mrs Page), and their husbands (Ford and Page). Falstaff is the butt of the jokes, but the plot is more interesting for the jealousy theme. 

2/ Some funny bits in the play: 

“CAIUS […] By gar, I vill cut all his two stones; by gar, he shall not have a stone to trow at his dog.” 

(Act 1 scene 4) 

Stones are testicles, if you’re wondering. 

“MRS FORD […] What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many turns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor? How shall I be revenged on him? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

That whale is later thrown into the Thames.  

“PISTOL He woos both high and low, both rich and poor, 

Both young and old, one with another, Ford. 

He loves the gallimaufry. Ford, perpend.” 


I don’t like the eye dialect very much—Shakespeare makes fun of the French and Welsh accents—but this line makes up for it: 

“CAIUS If dere be one, or two, I shall make-a de turd.” 

(Act 3 scene 3) 

Sometimes a line amuses me greatly but I can’t say why, like what Ford says to Mrs Page about her and his wife: 

“FORD […] I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.” 

(Act 3 scene 2)

And this is probably the funniest speech in the play: 

“FALSTAFF […] I suffered the pangs of three several deaths: first, an intolerable fright to be detected with a jealous rotten bellwether; next, to be compassed like a good bilbo in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease. Think of that, a man of my kidney—think of that—that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw. It was a miracle to ‘scape suffocation. And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horseshoe. Think of that—hissing hot—think of that, Master Brooke!” 

(Act 3 scene 5)


Again, if you think of Falstaff of the Henry IV plays, this seems out of character—the real Falstaff always paints himself to be greater, braver, more glorious, not such a laughingstock. But this is a different Falstaff, and the speech is so hilarious and the images are so colourful that it doesn’t matter.

Tony Tanner thinks differently. With the same speech, he argues: 

“The accounts he gives of his misadventures […] are not the words of a broken man. He can be funnier about his own body than anybody else. With his rich elaborations, he transforms what was pure knock-about farce into something of grander proportions and resonances—mock epic perhaps, but the epic note is there.” (Introduction) 

Maybe I should think about that some more. But whatever we think about Falstaff (and the question “Is this the same Falstaff as in the Henry IV plays?”), some of the funniest lines in The Merry Wives of Windsor are said by Falstaff. 

“FALSTAFF […] If it should come to the ear of the court how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgeled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen’s boots with me. I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfall’n as a dried pear…” 

(Act 4 scene 5) 


“QUICKLY […] Mistress Ford, good heart, is beaten black and blue that you cannot see a white spot about her. 

FALSTAFF What tell’st thou me of black and blue? I was beaten myself into all the colors of the rainbow…” 


3/ I haven’t read all of Shakespeare (I’ll get there), but The Merry Wives of Windsor again confirms my suspicion that every single one of Shakespeare’s plays has some sort of disguise, some form of acting or pretending. The device is present in both plots.

The play also has the jealousy theme, which is clearly one of Shakespeare’s obsessions. Everything works out in the end because the play is in comic mode, but it could easily turn into something tragic, like Othello

The thing that interests me more in the jealousy plot is the idea of “seeming”, or appearance versus reality, one of the themes that keep recurring in Shakespeare’s plays. Ford is undeniably jealous and unjust to his wife, but if you look at it from his perspective, everything appears to be what he thinks is happening, every detail fits. In his mind, he is reasonable and right.  

4/ Some people may like the play and find it hilarious; some may find it slight, not witty like Much Ado About Nothing, not lyrical like Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; some others may even find it a disappointment because of Falstaff, but I think everyone would agree that the highlight of the play is the merry wives. They’re the smart ones in the play, the men are dumb. 

“MRS PAGE […] We’ll leave a proof by that which we will do, 

Wives may be merry, and yet honest too. 

We do not act that often jest and laugh; 

‘Tis old but true, ‘Still swine eats all the draff’.” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

The point of all the staging and playing pranks on Falstaff is not only to punish Falstaff but also to educate a man, Ford.

(In the sub-plot, we have a smart girl, with her guy, outwitting her parents and two men, and escaping a forced marriage).

It’s interesting to see how Page reacts when Ford apologises to his wife however: 

“FORD Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt. 

I rather will suspect the sun with cold 

Than thee with wantonness. Now doth thy honor stand

In him that was of late an heretic.

As firm as faith.

PAGE ‘Tis well, ‘tis well; no more. 

Be not as extreme in submission as in offense.

But let out plot go forward…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

That’s very good. Out of context, the line doesn’t look like much, but in context, it is said by a man who from the beginning has been calm and secure about his wife, who fully trusts her and pays no heed to hearsay. He’s chill throughout. In his eyes, Ford seems to swing from one extreme to another. 

Tony Tanner writes about Ford:  

“If his jealousy is ‘in the round’, then he is anticipating Othello and we suffer with him and sympathize. If he is a ‘humour’ figure, he could easily appear in a Ben Jonson satire and we should laugh at him and condemn. I suppose you take your pick. It is very hard for Shakespeare not to humanize what he touches, and he does not offer the skeletally thinned-down humour-figures of a Ben Jonson. On the other hand, given the manifest virtue and probity of his wife, and the attitude of his fellow citizens—‘the lunatic is at it again’—I think he is more of an amplified humour than an inchoate Othello. Still, jealousy is a phenomenon which can always generate tragedy, and in this comedy, it has to be very thoroughly defused. Shakespeare has just the verb for it; they have to ‘scrape the figures out of [his] brains’ (IV, ii, 212, my italics). By the end, we are to take it that they have succeeded.” (Introduction) 

5/ I’ve also watched the 1982 BBC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by David Hugh Jones (credited as David Jones). 

In both text and performance, the play takes some time to set up, and the second half is much funnier than the first half. The Merry Wives of Windsor is perhaps also funnier in performance, partly because of the accents (I don’t really like eye dialect) and partly because of the farce (especially the scene of Ford beating up Falstaff in women’s clothes). Richard Griffiths is good as Falstaff, I like Judy Davis and Prunella Scales as the merry wives, but most surprising is Ben Kingsley as Ford—I didn’t know he could be so hilarious. 

I also like the warmth of the ending. 

Saturday 8 January 2022

Reading Light in August

I’ve been reading Light in August. Faulkner is very, very different from Proust.

People (or rather Proust fans) often say that after Proust, it’s hard to read anything else for a while, because nothing could compare. I myself thought that perhaps characterisation in most novels would appear crude after the intricacy and subtlety of Proust. But after Swann’s Way, I was enjoying the fresh air in Faulkner, and thought that next to Faulkner, Proust appeared so narrow, almost even trivial, in his navel-gazing, his focus on minutiae, his long passages about the look of asparagus or the changing colour of a steeple or the light on a tiled roof. I thought, there’s much more to life than being desperately obsessed with someone and wondering how different the real person is from the one in your head.

But about 80 pages in (the book is about 350 pages on my kobo), I started getting a bit weary of Light in August. Again, it’s personal—I think it seems to be a great novel and Faulkner is a great writer—but at the moment, I’m rather fed up with race issues, especially in America. Light in August is more than that, but race is one of the main themes (it’s set in the South in the 1930s), and it’s a cruel, violent world that the novel is depicting.

I can see what Faulkner is doing (or so I think). I like the way he jumps back and forth in time, and switches between perspectives. I like the way he depicts characters. I also like his metaphors and images—interesting without drawing much attention to themselves. 

For example, look at the wagon moving very slowly that Lena is watching: 

“Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much so is this that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost travelling a half mile ahead of its own shape.” (Ch.1) 

The novel is bleak from the beginning. Lena is unwed and pregnant, hitchhiking without much money from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi to look for her baby daddy, Lucas Burch.

In chapter 2, Faulkner switches to Byron Bunch, a guy working at a mill. See the metaphor when he watches Joe Christmas and Joe Brown, two other men working at the mill: 

“And then Christmas would turn and with that still, sullen face of his walk out of whatever small gathering the sheer empty sound of Brown’s voice had surrounded them with, with Brown following, still laughing and talking.” (Ch.2) 

That’s very good. I like that. 

This is Hightower, the disgraced minister, friend of Byron Bunch: 

“His skin is the color of flour sacking and his upper body in shape is like a loosely filled sack falling from his gaunt shoulders of its own weight, upon his lap.” (Ch.4) 


See Joe Christmas: 

“It seemed to him that he could see the yellow day opening peacefully on before him, like a corridor, an arras, into a still chiaroscuro without urgency. It seemed to him that as he sat there the yellow day contemplated him drowsily, like a prone and somnolent yellow cat.” (Ch.5) 

Christmas turns out to be the central character of Light in August

“Nothing can look quite as lonely as a big man going along an empty street. Yet though he was not large, not tall, he contrived somehow to look more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of a desert. In the wide, empty, shadowbrooded street he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost.” (ibid.) 

He grows up in an orphanage: 

“… the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.” (Ch.6) 

Note: “black tears”. 

Christmas is later adopted by Mr McEachern, a devout Presbyterian and a hard man who believes in corporal punishment as the way to bring up children. I like the metaphors when Faulkner writes about Mrs McEachern: 

“She was waiting on the porch—a patient, beaten creature without sex demarcation at all save the neat screw of graying hair and the skirt—when the buggy drove up. It was as though instead of having been subtly slain and corrupted by the ruthless and bigoted man into something beyond his intending and her knowing, she had been hammered stubbornly thinner and thinner like some passive and dully malleable metal, into an attenuation of dumb hopes and frustrated desires now faint and pale as dead ashes.” (Ch.7) 

Being an orphan with no knowledge of his family background, Christmas is nevertheless convinced from a young age that he’s part black. The novel revolves around the conflicting emotions, the loathing of a man believing himself to be part black in the time of Jim Crow laws. Cheery stuff. 

Light in August seems to be a great novel. I loved The South and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. But I can’t help thinking that literary works sometimes must come at the right time, and this is perhaps not the right time for me and Light in August.  

Sunday 2 January 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: love, obsession, jealousy

I have complaints.

Before we get to that, it must be said that I do think Proust is a great writer, which you can see in my previous 5 blog posts about Swann’s Way. I absolutely love “Part 1: Combray”, with which many readers seem to struggle, and I do think that “Part 2: Swann in Love” is a great study of obsession and jealousy.

My problem with Proust is personal, and seems to be a clash of sensibilities. 

First of all, Proust is exhausting. He goes on and on and on about Swann’s obsession with Odette, and his jealousy. Swann’s Way is not a big volume—on my kobo, it is 445 pages, and Part 2 is about 184 pages or so—and yet it feels very long. Why do I find Proust, though not Tolstoy, so long and exhausting when both writers are interested in details and subtleties? I asked myself.* A major difference between Tolstoy and Proust is that Tolstoy moves rather quickly between characters and between groups of characters, and he inhabits everyone’s mind, whereas Proust’s underlying tempo is slow, and mostly stays in one character’s mind for a long time, either the narrator (unnamed but generally called Marcel for convenience), or Swann. Everyone says Swann is like Marcel, or at least his obsession with Odette will be later paralleled by Marcel’s obsession with Gilberte and Albertine (Proust writes “like certain novelists, he had distributed his own personality between two characters”).  

Another difference is that many things happen in Tolstoy and he writes about the minute changes in consciousness, whereas Proust writes about different actions and different incidents that are essentially manifestations of the same thing—Swann’s obsession with Odette and his jealousy.

Proust fans don’t have to tell me that the two novelists have different aims and must be judged accordingly, I know. I understand that Swann projects his fantasies onto Odette, as the narrator does with Gilberte in Part 3. I understand that Proust deliberately stays in Swann’s mind so that we don’t quite see Odette, only the Odette in Swann’s head. I understand that Proust is making a point about the impossibility of truly knowing another person. The comparison with Tolstoy is to explain what about Proust I personally find exhausting.

Part 2 of Swann’s Way is a great study in obsession, but being stuck in Swann’s neurotic, jealous mind feels oppressive after a while. Proust and Cao Xueqin have opposite “problems”: if Cao Xueqin largely conveys characters through action and dialogue, and sometimes makes me want to know more about characters’ thoughts but doesn’t go any further, Proust holds me hostage in a character’s head and doesn’t let go. Proust explores the subject till exhaustion, I end up feeling exhausted. 

My second complaint, again personal, is that I don’t know how old the characters are and how much time passes between events. We know how much time passes in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, in The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng…; in In Search of Lost Time, memories are jumbled together and time is generally unclear (even though once in a while there are references to historical events). In novels, sometimes it doesn’t matter, but the omission of time references in Swann’s Way can be a barrier: my perception of the behaviour of the narrator and Gilberte in Part 3 would change depending on how old they are (their language about playing games sounds young, but they’re probably older); I want to know the time gap between him first falling in love with Gilberte in Combray and meeting her again in Paris; the time gap also changes the significance when the narrator makes a distinction between Combray Swann and Swann as father of Gilberte; even something as minor as Marcel lying to Françoise and writing a note to his mother to ask for a goodnight kiss would be viewed differently depending on his age, and so on. 

Perhaps this is premature and reading all 7 volumes may help me create some sort of timeline, but my complaint remains true for Swann’s Way

My third complaint is to do with Psychological Proust. In my previous blog post, I wrote that I didn’t understand Swann’s love for Odette. I have decided to go along with Proust and see that love as irrational, though there’s something very strange about the way Swann associates Odette’s face with a painting by Botticelli (for some sort of satisfaction, because he’s not attracted to her), and associates their love with Vinteuil’s music. But let’s say I accept that.

Proust writes: 

“For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. The life of Swann’s love, the fidelity of his jealousy, were formed of the death, the infidelity, of innumerable desires, innumerable doubts, all of which had Odette for their object. If he had remained for any length of time without seeing her, those that died would not have been replaced by others. But the presence of Odette continued to sow in Swann’s heart alternate seeds of love and suspicion.” (Vol.1, P.2) 

Perhaps I misunderstand what Proust means, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s true for Swann, and I suppose, for some people, but Proust writes it as a universal thing and I don’t think it is. Swann’s love for Odette seems to die and gets replaced with jealousy (or insecurity) when they’re apart, and he loves her again when they’re together (and she doesn’t play games with him), then his love dies again, and so on and so forth, but that isn’t normal. This is the relationship of a neurotic and insecure man with a manipulative woman; loving couples aren’t like that. 

“… The important thing was that we should see each other, Gilberte and I, and should have an opportunity of making a mutual avowal of our love which, until then, would not officially (so to speak) have begun. Doubtless the various reasons which made me so impatient to see her would have appeared less urgent to a grown man. As life goes on, we acquire such adroitness in the cultivation of our pleasures, that we content ourselves with the pleasure we derive from thinking of a woman, as I thought of Gilberte, without troubling ourselves to ascertain whether the image corresponds to the reality, and also with the pleasure of loving her without needing to be sure that she loves us too…” (Vol.1, P.3) 

Again, I suppose it’s true for the narrator, and many people, perhaps also Proust, but Proust presents it as a general thing and I don’t think it’s true for everyone. It’s not true for me, for example—I know that I cannot truly know my boyfriend and can only know what I know (I’ve seen Solaris), but I do care that my love for him is grounded in (part of) reality rather than some sort of fantasy entirely in my head; and it’s not enough to love unrequitedly. I asked a few grown men, and they didn’t think it’s a universal thing either.  

Generally speaking, Proust does have great psychological insight, especially when he pierces through people’s pretensions and hypocrisies, and when he writes about cruelty (the scene of Mlle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover in Part 1 is shocking and unforgettable). His depiction of a sick mind (I mean Swann’s) is brilliant. But Proust seems to have no idea what a normal, healthy love is like, so when the narrator speaks of his own or Swann’s feelings as something universal, problems arise.

Having said all that, I still think Proust is a great writer, and the last 20 pages of Swann’s Way, when the narrator returns to the Bois much older, are wonderful. 

“They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (Vol.1, P.3) 

(The excerpts are from the edition translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright).

That is magnificent writing. 

Will I read Volume 2? Probably, but not yet. 

*: I once came across a tweet from a (self-proclaimed) Proust fan saying that Proust did everything Tolstoy could do, and better. This, now I know, is pure bollocks. This person clearly knows neither Tolstoy nor Proust.