Monday 28 March 2022

As You Like It revisited

Among the 5 Shakespeare plays I had read before last year, As You Like It was one that I chose to read myself rather than get assigned in class. I was going to save the rereading till later, but it seems like a good choice now after The Two Gentlemen of Verona

1/ Shakespeare is clearly fascinated by the kind of hate that seems to have no reason.  

“OLIVER […] I hope I shall see an end of him; for my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Oliver is talking about his own brother Orlando. It’s not really without reason though—it is envy, and even though he keeps Orlando at home without an education and treats him like a servant, Orlando is still more popular and that makes Oliver hate him more. However, his change near the end of the play is not (wholly) unconvincing. 

2/ Why does Shakespeare have 2 characters named Jaques in the same play—a discontented lord in the Forest of Arden (“All the world’s a stage”), and a brother of Oliver and Orlando? What’s the significance?

Two things should be noted: firstly, the character of the bitter, discontented lord is Shakespeare’s creation and not in Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde. The name Jaques is close to “jars”. 

“DUKE SENIOR If he, compact of jars, grow musical, 

We shall have shortly discord in the spheres…” 

(Act 2 scene 7) 

(compact of jars: made up of discord) 

Secondly, Lodge’s Rosalynde does have a middle brother, and I’ve read that he’s more developed and more important in the story than Shakespeare’s character, but he isn’t called Jaques. Clearly, Shakespeare wants to link the two characters together, but why? 

3/ When talking about the actors in Shakespeare’s comedy, Jonathan Bate says: 

“Cooke and Tooley were there, with several other apprentices, including one “Ned,” […]. Little is known about the characteristics of the leading apprentices, who seem to have been Tooley and Cooke. It may perhaps be inferred that one was a lot taller than the other, since Shakespeare often wrote for a pair of female friends, one tall and fair, the other short and dark (Helena and Hermia, Rosalind and Celia, Beatrice and Hero).” (Soul of the Age, ch.21) 

I do remember that Helena is taller than Hermia (“Though she be little, she is fierce”), and Beatrice is taller than Hero (Benedick says Hero is “too low for a high praise” and “too little for a great praise”). In As You Like It, there seems to be a mistake at the beginning of the play when Le Beau talks about the cousins, because Rosalind is clearly the taller one—later on, she dresses up as a man because she’s “more than common tall”, and Celia is described as “low”.  

4/ See my blog post about Jonathan Bate’s analysis of counter-voices in As You Like It and in Shakespeare in general.

Quite early on in the play, when we’re introduced to Duke Senior and his talk about the sweet life in the Forest of Arden, quite immediately after, Shakespeare brings in Jaques’s perspective even though he’s not even present in the scene: 

“FIRST LORD […] Thus most invectively he pierceth through 

The body of the country, city, court, 

Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we 

Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse, 

To fright the animals and to kill them up 

In their assigned and native dwelling place.” 

(Act 2 scene 1)   

I must thank Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) for pointing out the parallels between this play and The Tempest: an exiled duke takes over a remote and wild place, away from court, and makes it his new dukedom; and Jaques, like Caliban in The Tempest, pointedly asks what right the duke has over the forest. 

However, if we cannot know what Antonio is like as a duke in The Tempest, in As You Like It, Shakespeare lets us see what Duke Frederick is like—he’s a tyrant. 

To go back to Jaques, I don’t see him as an animal rights sympathiser. To me, he likes wrongfooting people and being contrary. In the end, he alone refuses to join in the celebration.    

5/ As You Like It is one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays and it’s not hard to see why (even if I myself don’t include it in my top 10, generally preferring the darker plays).  

“JAQUES I thank you for your company; but, good faith, I had as lief have been myself alone. 

ORLANDO And so had I; but yet for fashion sake I thank you too for your society. 

JAQUES God b’ wi’ you; let’s meet as little as we can.”

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Hahahaha. Whatever you think about Jaques—whether or not you like him—he is funny.  

“JAQUES Rosalind is your love’s name? 

ORLANDO Yes, just. 

JAQUES I do not like her name. 

ORLANDO There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.” 


Must save that for future use. 

I forgot how witty Orlando was. 

“JAQUES By my troth, I was seeking for a fool when I found you. 

ORLANDO He is drowned in the brook. Look but in and you shall see him.” 


Hahahahaha. He loses to Rosalind though. Whereas Benedick and Beatrice are a perfect match, Rosalind is much wittier and more intelligent than Orlando.  

It’s impossible not to like Rosalind. 

“ROSALIND They say you are a melancholy fellow. 

JAQUES I am so; I do love it better than laughing. 

ROSALIND Those that are in extremity of either are abominable fellows, and betray themselves to every modern censure worse than drunkards.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

Jane Austen would have loved that exchange, as she writes in Persuasion: “like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits” (Ch.12). But it’s not only Persuasion, all of her novels advocate balance: between sense and sensibility, between emotional display and restraint, between pride and humility, between vivacity and quiet introspection, between openness and reservedness, between a persuadable temper and a resolute character, and so on. Rosalind too seems to like balance. 

“ROSALIND […] Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

As Ganymede, she mocks affectations of love, though she chides Phebe for mocking Silvius’s excessiveness.  

“ROSALIND […] Men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives…” 


Rosalind is playing a role, though we can see that she has no illusions about love and marriage. This is why she’s the most beloved of Shakespeare’s female characters: she’s very much in love without losing her head; and has no illusions without becoming cynical. 

Tony Tanner says: 

“Her disguise affords her detachment, even while her engaged feelings ensure her involvement; so that she can comment ironically, wisely, angrily (to Phebe), wryly, sadly, happily on all the lovers, including herself. She can look at love from every angle, so that her vision and comprehension is much wider and more inclusive than the partial attitudes displayed by goatish Touchstone and soppy Silvius.” (Introduction) 

I agree. And Rosalind is delightful. If I have to name the most charming and endearing female characters in fiction, I would mention Rosalind, Beatrice, Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Natasha Rostova (War and Peace), and Shi Xiangyun (Hong lou meng).

To me, more interesting is the development of the female lead in Shakespeare’s comedies: Rosalind seems to be a combination of Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and Rosaline from Love’s Labour’s Lost—she has the wit of both; like Beatrice, she is vivacious and sharp-tongued; like Rosaline educating Berowne, she educates Orlando. If Rosalind disguises herself as a man, so does Viola later in Twelfth Night, and Viola also has her intelligence and sensitivity, but she has issues (how else do you explain Viola’s love for Orsino, and her behaviour even after he threatens to kill her?). In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare also goes further in his exploration of gender and love: not only does Olivia fall in love with Viola in male disguise, the same way Phebe in As You Like It falls for Rosalind disguised as Ganymede, Orsino also develops feelings for Cesario and continues calling her Cesario and boy after she reveals herself to be Viola. 

Of course, one may argue that there’s some of it in As You Like It

“PHEBE If this be so, why blame you me to love you? 

SILVIUS If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

ORLANDO If this be so, why blame you me to love you? 

ROSALIND Why do you speak too, “Why blame you me to love you?”

ORLANDO To her that is not here, nor doth not hear.”  

(Act 5 scene 2)  

This could be Shakespeare’s joke with the audience, but Orlando does seem to like Rosalind as Ganymede, though he pretends it’s still the role-playing game. But Shakespeare goes further in Twelfth Night: unlike Orlando, Orsino never sees Viola in women’s clothes for the entire play. 

6/ Tony Tanner says: 

“At the time Shakespeare wrote this play, there was something of a vogue for pastoral and woodland (Robin Hood) plays, and Shakespeare’s contribution is an unparalleled exploration of the genre of pastoral. He leads his characters into a curiously suspended, time-out-of-time, pastoral moment or interlude, and then sets about exposing, testing, mocking, celebrating, elaborating pastoral’s conventions, assumptions, and pretensions—in the process, not only laying bare its manifest limitations, but also revealing new possibilities in its artifice—it’s obvious artifice.” (Introduction) 

On the one hand, Shakespeare makes fun of the idealisation and romanticisation of country life (himself being a country boy), partly through the counter-voices of Jaques and Touchstone, and partly through the country characters, such as Corin.  

“CORIN […] But I am shepherd to another man

And do not shear the fleeces that I graze. 

My master is of churlish disposition 

And little recks to find the way to heaven 

By doing deeds of hospitality…” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

Life isn’t all sweet on the countryside. 

On the other hand, Shakespeare “[reveals] new possibilities in its artifice”, as Tony Tanner says, and he turns the forest into an unreal place, almost like the woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—just without fairies. There is evil at the beginning of the play, but by the end, it has evaporated away, thanks to the forest. 

Comparing As You Like It and Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Tony Tanner says that Shakespeare drains all violence from his source. Orlando is very different from Lodge’s character, and the ending is also changed.  

On my rereading, I still find As You Like It an enjoyable play but don’t like it as much as many other Shakespeare plays—among the comedies, I prefer Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. The best thing about the play is, as everyone would say, Rosalind. She is wonderful. 

Friday 25 March 2022

The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the fun of reading Shakespeare’s earliest plays

Like Titus Andronicus, this is considered one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays. How bad could it be? Let’s see. 

1/ If I’m not mistaken, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the only Shakespeare play that has a dog (he must have learnt, from experience, the maxim in show business “Never work with children or animals”). There are some hilarious bits, but I won’t copy them out—see for yourself. 

If you ask about my favourite character(s) in the play, I would say Launce and his dog Crab. 

2/ Shakespeare’s earliest plays (this is one of them) are light, but they’re fun to read because they show that right from the beginning, there was wit, there was humour, there was variety, and there was something interesting about the female characters. 

By the last point, I mean the way Shakespeare depicts Julia liking Proteus but pretending not to care about his letter, or Sylvia playing games and flirting with Valentine. The two sisters Adriana and Luciana in The Comedy of Errors are also interesting. You don’t find such lifelike female characters in Marlowe, for example. 

I particularly like Lucetta, Julia’s waiting woman. 

“JULIA […] My penance is to call Lucetta back 

And ask remission for my folly past. 

What, ho! Lucetta! 

[Enter Lucetta]

LUCETTA What would your ladyship? 

JULIA Is’t near dinnertime?

LUCETTA I would it were; 

That you might kill your stomach on your meat, 

And not upon your maid.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Later, when Julia intends to dress up as a man (there’s disguise again) and travel to see her love Proteus: 

“JULIA […] But tell me, wench, how will the world repute me 

For undertaking so unstaid a journey? 

I fear me, it will make me scandalized. 

LUCETTA If you think so, then stay at home, and go not. 

JULIA Nay, that I will not. 

LUCETTA Then never dream on infamy, but go…” 

(Act 2 scene 7) 

I like that exchange. When Lucetta expresses doubt about Proteus being pleased to see Julia, Julia mentions his “A thousand oaths, an ocean of his tears” and gets this response: 

“LUCETTA All these are servants to deceitful men.” 


She’s right. 

Another fun thing about reading the early plays is seeing parallels to later plays. For example: 

“VALENTINE […] My foolish rival, that her father likes

Only for his possessions are so huge, 

Is gone with her along: and I must after, 

For love, thou know’st, is full of jealousy. 

PROTEUS But she loves you? 

VALENTINE Ay, and we are betrothed; nay, more, our marriage hour 

With all the cunning manner of our flight, 

Determined of: how I must climb her window, 

The ladder made of cords, and all the means 

Plotted and ’greed on for my happiness…” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

Doesn’t that make you think of Romeo and Juliet

Valentine is talking about Silvia. Now look at his best friend Proteus: 

“PROTEUS […] Even as one heat another heat expels, 

Or as one nail by strength drives out another, 

So the remembrance of my former love

Is by a newer object quite forgotten. 

Is it mine eye, or Valentine’s praise, 

Her true perfection, or my false transgression, 

That makes me reasonless to reason thus? 

She is fair; and so is Julia, that I love—

That I did love, for now my love is thawed,

Which, like a waxen image ’gainst a fire, 

Bears no impression of the thing it was…” 


Doesn’t that sound like Romeo falling in love with Juliet and forgetting Rosaline? As Friar Laurence says to Romeo, “Young men’s love then lies/ Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

There’s even a Friar Laurence in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I’m not kidding. 

The poetry here doesn’t have the exuberance of Romeo and Juliet, but that’s to be expected. 

3/ Valentine plans to elope with Silvia, but Proteus betrays them to Silvia’s father, the Duke. The Duke then plots to expose Valentine by pretending to be attracted to some woman in Verona and asking for his advice. 

“VALENTINE Win her with gifts, if she respect not words. 

Dumb jewels often in their silent kind

More than quick words do move a woman’s mind.” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

People don’t seem to have changed much. 

“VALENTINE A woman sometimes scorns what best contents her. 

Send her another; never give her o’er; 

For scorn at first makes after-love the more. 

If she do frown, ’tis not in hate of you, 

But rather to beget more love in you. 

If she do chide, ’tis not to have you gone; 

For why, the fools are mad, if left alone. 

Take no repulse, whatever she doth say; 

For “get you gone”, she doth not mean “away!”…” 


Doesn’t Valentine sound like one of those “nice guys” one finds all over the internet, who can’t take no for an answer? 

The villain of the play, however, is Proteus. Having got his rival banished, Proteus is asked by the Duke what they should do about Silvia. 

“PROTEUS The best way is to slander Valentine

With falsehood, cowardice, and poor descent, 

Three things that women highly hold in hate. 

DUKE Ay, but she’ll think that it is spoke in hate. 

PROTEUS Ay, if his enemy deliver it; 

Therefore it must with circumstance be spoken 

By one whom she esteemeth as his friend.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

This shows that right from the beginning, Shakespeare was interested in the dangerous power of words, even if he didn’t directly depict in this play. He’s preoccupied with the same themes throughout his career and this is one of them—the peak, as everyone knows, is Othello

Proteus seems to be a mix of Iachimo from Cymbeline and Bertram from All’s Well That Ends Well. Julia dresses up as a man and comes to work for Proteus as a page, and he tells her to court Silvia for him, which anticipates Viola, Orsino, and Olivia in Twelfth Night. There is also a ring in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as in All’s Well That Ends Well, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline. There are lots of parallels to later plays.  

I’m going to get back to Proteus later. 

4/ Silvia knows that Proteus is committed to a woman named Julia, so when Julia, dressing as a page and calling herself Sebastian, courts her on behalf of Proteus and claims to know Julia, Silvia asks for details about her.  

“JULIA About my stature; for, at Pentecost, 

When all our pageants of delight were played, 

Our youth got me to play the woman’s part, 

And I was trimmed in Madame Julia’s gown, 

Which servèd me as fit, by all men’s judgements, 

As if the garment had been made for me. 

Therefore I know she is about my height. 

And that time I made her weep agood, 

For I did play a lamentable part. 

Madam, ’twas Ariadne passioning 

For Theseus’ perjury and unjust flight, 

Which I so lively acted with my tears 

That my poor mistress, movèd therewithal, 

Wept bitterly, and would I might be dead 

If I in thought felt not her very sorrow!”

(Act 4 scene 4) 

Tony Tanner says: 

“This is sending all kinds of signals, not so much to Silvia who of course cannot pick them up, but to the audience, and to herself. And think about it. A boy actor is playing a woman (Julia), who is playing a boy (Sebastian), who describes being dressed up as a woman who is in fact herself, who then plays the part of the mythical female, Ariadne. Curiously enough, it is at this moment of five-levelled artifice, that she comes across to us most convincingly as ‘real’, the most substantial of shadows—a grieving, abandoned woman who has lost her love.” (Introduction) 

That’s even more complicated than in As You Like It: a boy actor is playing a woman (Rosalind), who is playing a guy (Ganymede), who plays a woman in the “courtship practice” with Orlando. 

The entire essay by Tony Tanner should be read—it could be found in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, or the Everyman edition of Shakespeare’s plays (in 7 volumes). He analyses the play, explains the classical allusions, and deepens our understanding.

5/ If you think about it, Proteus is worse than all the similar characters I have mentioned earlier: compared to Orsino, he’s worse because Julia has some claim on him and he’s a cheat; compared to Bertram, he’s worse because Bertram is forced to marry Helena and has never loved her nor made oaths to her; and Proteus is also worse than Iachimo because Iachimo and Posthumus aren’t friends, whereas Proteus and Valentine have been close friends since childhood. Valentine talks about not taking no for an answer, but Proteus is the one who enacts it, and even attempts to rape Silvia. 

In light of all that, the ending is deeply unsatisfying—unless it’s intentional—is it? What should we think about Valentine suddenly offering Silvia to Proteus as a token of friendship? How should we view the resolution at the end of the play? 

Tony Tanner argues: 

“I think this is part of Shakespeare’s discovering of instabilities, absurdities, unrealities in the conventions he was experimenting with. I should, perhaps, make my general position clear. I hold it as axiomatic that, if we find something (or someone) cruel, unconscionable, intolerable (not to mention admirable, lovable, or laughable), in Shakespeare’s plays, then so did Shakespeare. I think the same goes for anything which we find implausible or unacceptable. I have little time for the line that begins—you have to bear in mind that, back then, they felt differently about… I have no wish to sound like Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (though I am not out of sympathy with the implications of the title). I believe we should do all we can to discover the beliefs, values, expectations and so on, of the age of Shakespeare lived in. Historicism, old and new, is to be, selectively, welcomed. But if Shakespeare does not appeal to universal feelings, then nothing does. The idea of ‘making allowances’ for Shakespeare, seems to me some kind of ultimate in benighted presumptuousness. I assume that if we feel something, he felt it too. Shakespeare was certainly learning as he went along, and learning very quickly. But I believe, and thus assume, that he always knew what he was doing. Even if he did not realize quite how extraordinary it all was.” (ibid.)  

This perhaps sounds like Bardolatry, but I agree. For the entire play, Shakespeare depicts Proteus as treacherous—to his childhood friend, to his beloved, to the Duke, to Thurio. Even Proteus’s own servant, Launce, thinks he’s a knave. I don’t think that Shakespeare thinks in the last moment, Proteus would change and return to Julia and have a happy ending. I also refuse to believe that Shakespeare writes Valentine offering Silvia to Proteus merely to contrast Valentine as a true friend to the false friend Proteus. This is similar to the way some people today think Shakespeare was a man of his time and couldn’t have understood the concept of consent, but he did—he kept writing about forced marriages in different plays and was in favour of marrying for love.

When I object to Valentine’s speech “Take no repulse, whatever she doth say” (from earlier), I don’t think that I’m just looking at it with modern eyes and imposing today’s values on the play. Shakespeare knows it’s wrong for a man to impose himself on a woman and not take no for an answer, for he depicts it in Thurio and in Proteus. It’s no wonder that such a man as Valentine would offer Silvia to his friend, as though she’s some sort of property. That moment casts doubt on the marriage between him and Silvia, the same way we have doubt about the happy ending of Proteus and Julia. 

It's interesting to note the character of Eglamore, whom Silvia asks to accompany her when she runs away from court and looks for Valentine. Strictly speaking, Shakespeare doesn’t really need him—Silvia could disguise herself, as Julia does. But Eglamore, whose sole purpose is to protect Silvia, runs away the moment the outlaws appear in the woods, and leaves her to potential rape and death. Chivalry’s dead. Clearly, Shakespeare is saying something about the values of the men in the play.  

There is of course another reading of the scene. 

“VALENTINE […] But that my love may appear plain and free, 

All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.” 

(Act 5 scene 4) 

Most critics interpret the last line as Valentine offering Silvia to Proteus because that happens in the story of Titus and Gisippus, one of the sources for The Two Gentlemen of Verona. However, some other critics read the ambiguous line as Valentine saying that he would love Proteus as much as he loves Silvia. If that’s the case, that does change the ending, but there are two things that must be noted. First of all, after those lines and for the rest of the play, Silvia doesn’t speak a single word, not even when her father allows them to get married. 

Secondly, look at the final lines in the play: 

“VALENTINE Please you, I’ll tell you as we pass along,

That you will wonder what hath fortunèd. 

Come, Proteus; ’tis your penance but to hear 

The story of your loves discoverèd. 

That done, our day of marriage shall be yours; 

One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.” 


Valentine addresses “one mutual happiness” to Proteus, not Silvia—Proteus, who not long ago was courting Silvia and attempting to rape her. In fact, in the final scene, Valentine doesn’t address her once, when they haven’t seen each other for some time. In Shakespeare’s plays, people who reunite after separation always say something to each other, as we see in The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Cymbeline…; the only exceptions are when they cannot reconcile with each other, like Isabella and her brother Claudio in Measure for Measure, Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and Prospero and his treacherous brother Antonio in The Tempest. In those plays, the silence speaks volumes. 

Perhaps it’s the same in this case? 

Thursday 24 March 2022

On my indifference to the Oscars

Watching the Oscars was to me, for a long time, a “family tradition”. But this year, I’m utterly indifferent—the ceremony is in 4 days but I haven’t seen any of the films. 

Among the Best Picture nominees, I might watch Drive My Car (because it’s Japanese), Belfast (because I love Kenneth Branagh’s Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing), and The Power of the Dog (because I liked Jane Campion’s The Piano, though it was a long time ago and I don’t know if I would still like it now), but Drive My Car is the only film I may watch any time soon, even if it’s based on a story by Haruki Murakami. Licorice Pizza intrigues me a bit, because it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, but I think he is hit-and-miss (hits: There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights, Magnolia; misses: The Master, Inherent Vice, and worst, Punch-Drunk Love). 

As for the rest, Dune isn’t my thing; West Side Story doesn’t interest me (I haven’t even seen the original, though I will); I won’t watch Don’t Look Up because of my dislike of Adam McKay’s Vice and The Big Short; and I haven’t heard of CODA, King Richard, nor Nightmare Alley

When we look at films nominated for other awards, the only films I have seen are Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, and I didn’t like either. If anything, I’d like The Tragedy of Macbeth to win Best Cinematography and Best Production Design, because it’s excellent (the cinematography should make people realise that Roma and Mank shouldn’t have won), but the nomination for Denzel Washington as Macbeth is a joke.

But why am I indifferent to the Oscars, especially considering my film background? 

There are three main reasons. First of all, American cinema is dead—it’s over. Mainstream Hollywood is dominated by franchises and superhero nonsense, crushing to death mid-budget films. For a long time, people have complained about the lack of originality in Hollywood, but it’s so much worse today, with remakes and reboots and sequels and prequels and origin stories and spin-offs dominating the market. The star system in Hollywood has been slowly replaced with the franchise system. 

The more “artistic” films in Hollywood are meanwhile distorted and ruined by political agendas.

For a while, I have had problems with modern (American) films, partly because they tend to move the camera for no reason and cut quickly for fear of boring the audience, and partly because film dialogue is now much reduced in quality. When you’re used to films such as A Star Is Born (1954), Casablanca, Room at the Top, The Heiress, Chinatown, or Billy Wilder’s films, in which every line is perfect and many are unforgettable, you can’t help noticing that film dialogue today is mostly banal and corny, often inane, and full of exposition. And it becomes much worse when distorted by politics. 

The second reason for my indifference is to do with the awards. After The Shape of Water won Best Picture in 2017, I could no longer take the Oscars seriously. Adding to that was the Best Cinematography for Life of Pi in 2012, Roma in 2018, and Mank in 2021. Others may mention the Best Editing Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody, which was shocking. These are just a few examples. 

In recent years, I can’t help thinking, and I’m not the only one, that the Oscars are no longer about best films, but about the worthiest films—films about the most important social issues, with the most important political messages. With the move to make the Oscars more diverse and the announcement about quotas, the awards would just become worse and worse. People don’t seem to realise that with such policies and such announcements, any non-white winner would be seen as winning because of “diversity” and not because of merit, and the awards themselves would become less prestigious, and reduced in value. 

It’s similar to the way they now mix up Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film (now called Best International Feature Film): it’s seen as a progressive move, celebrating non-English language films in the Best Picture category, but it’s actually much more insulting to cinema around the world because the Best Picture category is still dominated by American films, as though 9 of the 10 best films of the year are in English and only one film from the rest of the world made it to top 10. 

And finally, I no longer want to watch the ceremony. My mom and I watched the Oscars for years because we liked watching people getting celebrated for their achievements, but now the ceremony is heavily political, performative, and self-congratulatory. Now all I see is rich celebrities getting onstage and making self-absorbed speeches, satisfied with how socially conscious and progressive and tolerant they are, not knowing that they don’t live in the real world and don’t know about any problems faced by normal people. Last year I watched the ceremony, despite having seen only Nomadland, The Father, Mank, and Minari, and it was insufferable. I watched it and couldn’t help thinking of the quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” 

When I look at the way ratings for the Oscars have been going down and down over the years, I know I’m not alone. 

Monday 21 March 2022

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

This is the first play I’ve read by John Webster, a Jacobean playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare. Dated around 1612-1613, it is considered one of the greatest tragedies from the Jacobean era. 

1/ The titular character, oddly enough, doesn’t have a name. She is a widow, and at the beginning of the play, her two brothers, Ferdinand (Duke of Calabria) and the Cardinal try to persuade her not to remarry.  

“FERDINAND You are a widow; 

You know already what man is…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

That isn’t how it works, man. 

“FERDINAND […] I would have you to give o’er these chargeable revels; 

A visor and a mask are whispering-rooms

That were nev’r built for goodness; fare ye well; 

And women like that part, which, like the lamprey, 

Hath nev’r a bone in’t. 

DUCHESS Fie sir! 


I mean the tongue; variety of courtship; 

What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale

Make a woman believe?...” 


Tongue, sure. The thing I don’t understand is, out of all possible phallic images, why does he pick the lamprey? I googled it—that thing’s going to give me nightmares. 

2/ The imagery in The Duchess of Malfi (except the above) is very good. 

“BOSOLA […] I will thrive some way: blackbirds fatten best in hard weather: why not I, in these dog days?” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Bosola is a man who has just returned from the galleys for murder. He is hired by Ferdinand to spy on his sister, the Duchess. He is cynical and sardonic, reminiscent of Apemantus in Timon of Athens and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida—especially Apemantus, because Antonio says Bosola rails at the things he wants, and would be “as lecherous, covetous, or proud/ Bloody, or envious, as any man/ If he had means to be so” (ibid.). 

“BOSOLA He and his brother are like plum trees, that grow crooked over standing polls, they are rich, and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flatt’ring panders, I would hang on their ears like a horse-leech, till I were full, and then drop off. […] There are rewards for hawks, and dogs, when they have done us service; but for a soldier, that hazards his limbs in a battle, nothing but a kind of geometry is his last supportation.

DELIO Geometry? 

BOSOLA Ay, to hang in a fair pair of slings, take his latter swing to the world, upon an honourable pair of crutches, from hospital to hospital: fare ye well sir. And yet do not you scorn us, for places in the court are but like beds in the hospital, where this man’s head lies at that man’s foot, and so lower and lower.” 


Metaphor upon metaphor. Isn’t Webster’s language interesting? 

I can’t write down everything, but here’s some more: 

“ANTONIO […] He speaks with others’ tongues, and hears men’s suits 

With others’ ears: will seem to sleep o’th’ bench 

Only to entrap offenders in their answers; 

Dooms men to death by information, 

Rewards, by hearsay. 

DELIO Then the law to him

Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider, 

He makes it his dwelling, and a prison 

To entangle those shall feed him.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Antonio and Delio are talking about the Duke. The court comes across as a rotten place, a wilderness—the language is packed with animal imagery. 

3/ The Cardinal talks to his mistress Julia about her husband Castruchio: 

“CARDINAL […] Thou hadst only kisses from him, and high feeding, 

But what delight was that? ’Twas just like one 

That hath a little fing’ring on the lute, 

Yet cannot tune it: (still you are to thank me.)” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

That’s an interesting way to talk about a man who can’t satisfy his wife. The Cardinal, as we can see in this scene, is a misogynist; so are his brother and Bosola. Ferdinand’s anger, when he discovers that the Duchess has given birth, is abnormal.  

“FERDINAND […] ’Tis not your whore’s milk, that shall quench my milk-fire 

But your whore’s blood.” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

It’s an odd thing to say about one’s sister. 

“FERDINAND […] I could kill her now, 

In you, or in myself, for I do think 

It is some sin in us, Heaven doth revenge 

By her. 

CARDINAL Are you stark mad? 

FERDINAND I would have their bodies 

Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopp’d, 

That their curs’d smoke might not ascend to Heaven:

Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulphur, 

Wrap them in’t, and then light them like a match: 

Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis, 

And giv’t his lecherous father, to renew

The sin of his back.” 


Even his brother thinks that’s crazy, and says “I’ll leave you”. This is not the anger of a brother who wants his widow sister to remain unmarried and sees her disobey him—his rage is more like the rage of Othello, Leontes, or Posthumus. You may argue that Hero’s father in Much Ado About Nothing also wants her dead, because of dishonour, but he doesn’t use such language. Ferdinand clearly has some incestuous feelings for his sister. What he says about love potions, in the following scene, sounds as though he has tried them and found them ineffective.  

What’s the significance of him and the Duchess being twins? 

4/ The Duchess of Malfi may be what people today call a sex-positive play. The Duchess doesn’t want to comply with her brothers’ irrational demand, and doesn’t want to remain unmarried for the rest of her life after her first husband’s death. She loves Antonio, and she likes sex.  

“DUCHESS To what rule will you put me? 

ANTONIO We’ll sleep together. 

DUCHESS Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Wink wink. 

Her maid Cariola chimes in. 

“CARIOLA My lord, I lie with her often: and I know 

She’ll much disquiet you. 

ANTONIO See, you are complain’d of. 

CARIOLA For she’s the sprawling’st bedfellow. 

ANTONIO I shall like her the better for that.” 



Webster portrays her as a woman with feelings and desires, a woman who asserts her independence and refuses to be controlled by her brothers; he doesn’t portray her as a lascivious, loose woman. Her marriage to Antonio is a secret, but they’re nonetheless married—she is different from Julia.   

I think most readers today would like the nuanced portrait of the Duchess. She even proposes to Antonio!

Throughout the entire play, she stands upright and believes in herself: why can’t she remarry? Does she ask to change customs? What is wrong about her marriage? As Bosola and others throw accusations at her and talk about killing her, she remains dignified, reminiscent of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale

“DUCHESS […] I know death hath ten thousand several doors 

For men to take their Exits…” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

Is that linked to the idea of “All the world’s a stage”? Shakespeare several times compares life to the stage, in As You Like It, in The Merchant of Venice, in Macbeth… The same comparison can be found in Webster. 

“DUCHESS […] I account this world a tedious theatre, 

For I do play a part in’t ’gainst my will.”

(Act 4 scene 1) 

That could be said by Bosola, who is forced to play the part of a spy, and a murderer. 

“FERDINAND […] For thee, (as we observe in tragedies 

That a good actor many times is curs’d 

For playing a villain’s part) I hate thee for’t…” 

(Act 4 scene 2)

And at the end, when Bosola is asked how Antonio is dead:

“BOSOLA In a mist: I know not how; 

Such a mistake as I have often seen 

In a play…” 

(Act 5 scene 5) 

Now that’s meta. 

5/ I can’t help raising some questions—the realist in me gets in the way again. What does the Duchess’s son to her late husband do all this time? How old is he? How old is she? How old are the children of the Duchess and Antonio? How much time passes throughout the play? Why does Ferdinand do nothing after learning about the first child, and let them have another two children before he takes action?

Why does he have her killed, after all that time? 

When Ferdinand looks at her dead body, the lines are good:  

“BOSOLA Do you not weep?

Other sins only speak; murther shrieks out: 

The element of water moistens the earth, 

But blood flies upwards, and bedews the heavens. 

FERDINAND Cover her face. My eyes dazzle: she di’d young.” 


The writing is so good. But his guilt and remorse are not quite believable to me. Compare it to Othello: the murder of Desdemona is also premeditated, but everything moves very quickly from the moment Iago first poisons Othello’s ears, and not much time passes between Othello talking about killing Desdemona and the murder itself; he kills her in heated passion, and seems to be in a daze afterwards, and only fully realises what he has done when he hears the truth from Emilia. 

In contrast, Ferdinand first speaks of killing his sister when he learns about the birth of the first baby, but lets her and Antonio have two more children before he has her killed—lots of time has passed, lots of time to think about what he’s doing, lots of time to change his course. He doesn’t feel moved looking at the bodies of the kids. But soon after seeing the body of the Duchess, he changes, realising what he has done, and blames Bosola for not pitying her. Psychologically it doesn’t quite make sense. 

Bosola however is believable. He’s felt torn from the start, but has to do it because he’s hired by the Duke. 

“BOSOLA […] while with vain hopes our faculties we tire,

We seem to sweat in ice and freeze in fire; 

What would I do, were this to do again?

I would not change my peace of conscience 

For all the wealth of Europe. She stirs; here’s life. 

Return, fair soul, from darkness, and lead mine

Out of this sensible hell…” 


And when she’s truly dead:

“BOSOLA […] Oh sacred innocence, that sweetly sleeps

On turtles’ feathers: whilst a guilty conscience 

Is a black register, wherein is writ 

All our good deeds and bad; a perspective

That shows us hell; that we cannot be suffer’d 

To do good when we have a mind to it! 

This is manly sorrow: 

These tears, I am very certain, never grew 

In my mother’s milk. My estate is sunk 

Below the degree of fear: where were 

These penitent fountains while she was living?

Oh, they were frozen up: here is a sight 

As direful to my soul as is the sword 

Unto a wretch hath slain his father…” 


All the faults of characterisation and psychology (or so they seem to me) don’t seem to matter much when the poetry is so good. 

6/ The context is silly, but I like these lines: 

“FERDINAND […] Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, 

Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.” 

(Act 5 scene 5) 

7/ As I haven’t read anything else, I don’t want to make generalisations about John Webster. My impression is that he’s very different from Shakespeare, though I’m not sure how to explain it, and The Duchess of Malfi has a very distinctive atmosphere. The play also has many striking and dreamlike images, such as the scene of the madmen, the scene of Antonio and his friend Delio and the echo from the Duchess’s grave, or the image of the mad Ferdinand thinking he's a wolf. 

It also has a darker vision. 

“DUCHESS […] Farewell boy, 

Thou art happy, that thou hast not understanding

To know thy misery. For all our wit

And reading brings us a truer sense 

Of sorrow…” 

(Act 3 scene 5) 


“ANTONIO […] In all our quest of greatness, 

Like wanton boys, whose pastime is their care, 

We follow after bubbles, blown in th’air. 

Pleasure of life, what is’t? only the good hours

Of an ague: merely a preparative to rest, 

To endure vexation…” 

(Act 5 scene 4) 

That’s such a great passage. 

Outside the Shakespeare canon, The Duchess of Malfi is probably my favourite of the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays I’ve read. 

Friday 18 March 2022

Titus Andronicus: one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, or a misunderstood play?

1/ First, let’s get the who’s who questions out of the way. 

Saturninus is son to the late Emperor of Rome, afterwards Emperor. 

Bassianus is his younger brother.  

Titus Andronicus is a noble Roman. He has a brother called Marcus, a tribune. Marcus has a son called Publius. 

At the beginning of the play, Titus has lost 21 sons for Rome, and his 4 surviving sons are Lucius, Quintus, Martius, and Mutius. Titus also has a daughter named Lavinia, who marries Bassianus. 

Tamora is the Queen of Goths (this is a Germanic tribe, not the goth subculture). At the beginning of the play, she is one of Titus’s prisoners, but Saturninus marries her (out of lust?) and makes her the new Empress. She however has an affair with Aaron, a Moor. 

Tamora has 3 sons: Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron.  

And other characters. 

2/ Titus Andronicus has the reputation as one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. The first impression is that that’s correct, in terms of language.  

Look, for example, at Titus’s speech to his dead sons: 

“TITUS […] There greet in silence, as the dead are wont, 

And sleep in peace, slain in your country’s wars! 

O sacred receptacle of my joys, 

Sweet cell of virtues and nobility, 

How many sons hast thou of mine in store, 

That thou wilt never render to me more!” 

(Act 1 scene 1)  

I know I’m being unfair and unreasonable, but it’s hard to look at that without thinking of the “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” speech in Cymbeline

Or later, when Tamora’s son Demetrius and Chiron fight over Lavinia (who isn’t even single) and Aaron asks how they intend to “achieve” her, this is the response: 

“DEMETRIUS Why makes thou it so strange? 

She is a woman, therefore may be wooed; 

She is a woman, therefore may be won; 

She is Lavinia, therefore must be loved. 

What, man! More water glideth by the mill 

Than wots the miller of, and easy it is 

Of a cut loaf to steal a shive, we know: 

Though Bassianus be the Emperor’s brother, 

Better than he have won Vulcan’s badge.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

(Vulcan’s badge is the horns of cuckoldry, as Vulcan’s wife, Venus, deceives him with Mars). 

The passage makes me think of Iachimo in Cymbeline in its misogyny, but the language is much, much inferior. I couldn’t help thinking, is this really Shakespeare? 

But let’s not think of the late plays, when Shakespeare’s at the peak of his career. Even if you compare it to some relatively early plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet, the exuberance of language in these plays makes the language in Titus Andronicus appear quite coarse and simple. Anyone who names it as their favourite Shakespeare play is just a contrarian.

The opening scene is quite ridiculous. The only thing of interest is that it makes me think of King Lear, partly because of Titus’s blindness; Tamora’s calculating mind makes me think of Lady Macbeth, Goneril, and Regan; and Aaron seems to be a proto-Iago. 

Once in a while, there’s a curious passage. 

“LAVINIA Under your patience, gentle Empress, 

’Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning, 

And to be doubted that your Moor and you 

Are singled forth to try experiments: 

Jove shield your husband from his hounds today! 

’Tis pity they should take him for a stag.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

That is when she and Bassianus catch Tamora and Aaron together—isn’t that very coarse for a young lady? 

“LAVINIA And, being intercepted in your sport, 

Great reason that my noble lord be rated 

For sauciness. I pray you, let us hence, 

And let her joy her raven-colored love; 

This valley fits the purpose passing well.” 


That’s coarse, no? 

This is also strange, when Aaron leads Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius to the pit: 

“QUINTUS […] What subtle hole is this,

Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers, 

Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood

As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers?...” 


“As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers” is a strange comparison for blood. But look again—that is clearly a sexual image, that is Lear’s sulphurous pit. 

As I read more, I refuse to accept Titus Andronicus as a straight tragedy—it can’t be—if it’s indeed a Shakespeare play, it must either be a black comedy or a parody. Why? Look at the moment Quintus asks Martius, who has fallen into the pit, how he recognises Bassianus’s body if it’s so dark down there:  

“MARTIUS Upon his bloody finger he doth wear 

A precious ring that lightens all this hole, 

Which, like a taper in some monument, 

Doth shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks, 

And shows the ragged entrails of this pit: 

So pale did shine the moon on Pyramus,

When he by night lay bathed in maiden blood…” 


Surely Shakespeare can’t be serious! 

The scene of Titus meeting his daughter Lavinia after the rape however is sad. 

3/ I complained, but once in a while there’s an interesting line. 

“TITUS When will this fearful slumber have an end?” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

This speech is also interesting: 

“TITUS […] Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones, 

Who though they cannot answer my distress, 

Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes, 

For that they will not intercept my tale: 

When I do weep they humbly at my feet 

Receive my tears and seem to weep with me; 

And were they but attirèd in grave weeds, 

Rome could afford no tribunes like to these.

A stone is soft as wax, tribunes more hard than stones: 

A stone is silent and offendeth not,

And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death…” 


In the following scene, Titus chides his brother Marcus for killing a fly, saying “How, if that fly had a father and mother!”, but immediately changes his mind and strikes at the fly because of its likeness to “a coal-black Moor”.  

“MARCUS Alas, poor man! Grief has so wrought on him, 

He takes false shadows for true substances.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

That’s a good line, but when I look at the scene again, a question arises: is Shakespeare serious, depicting Titus’s descent into madness (which prefigures King Lear), or is he parodying something in contemporary revenge plays and having a laugh? Is the detail of the fly ridiculous because the play’s one of the sins of Shakespeare’s youth (to steal William Hazlitt’s phrase), or because it’s deliberate mockery? 

It is hard to know what to do with Titus Andronicus, as some parts seem serious and some are just grotesque. Lavinia, after the rape, also loses her tongue and hands so she can’t identify the rapists. Two of Titus’s sons are wrongfully condemned to death for killing Bassianus; the remaining one is banished; and Titus is tricked by Aaron to have his hand chopped off and sent to Saturninus in the hope of exchanging it for his sons’ lives, only to see his hand sent back to him in scorn together with the heads of his sons. These are horrific scenes—are the horrors and savagery more like King Lear, or more like The Jew of Malta? I have no idea. But then comes this line: 

“TITUS […] And Lavinia, thou shalt be employed in these arms, 

Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth…” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

That’s just ludicrous. The editor of my Everyman copy says that perhaps Shakespeare intended to delete “teeth” from his manuscript and substituted “arms” above it, then the compositor mistakenly took “arms” to be part of the previous line and changed “employed in this” to “employed in these arms”, but even if that were the case, the image of the father telling his handless daughter to carry his hand is quite absurd. And later, he says to her: 

“TITUS […] When thy poor heart beats with outrageous beating, 

Thou canst not strike it thus to make it still. 

Wound it with sighing, girl, kill it with groans; 

Or get some little knife between thy teeth, 

And just against thy heart make thou a hole…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Here is another line of Titus telling Lavinia to do something with her teeth. I can’t take the play seriously—but is it meant to be? 

4/ Everything can be found in Shakespeare. 

“AARON Villain, I have done thy mother.” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 


Even though there’s much absurdity, there’s much more sense in Titus Andronicus than in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. I also enjoy it a lot more. The characters are more individualised, and overall, more believable. 

Just compare the two villains Aaron and Tamora to Marlowe’s Barabas. 

Tamora is motivated by revenge and the sense of humiliation, as she was the Queen of Goths and had to kneel and beg for her son’s life, in vain. She also has to be more calculating with Saturninus because she’s an outsider. Similarly, her sons Demetrius and Chiron are motivated by revenge, and lust. 

Aaron is more like Iago in his motiveless malignity (to use Coleridge’s phrase). 

“AARON […] I played the cheater for thy father’s hand, 

And when I had it drew myself apart, 

And almost broke my heart with extreme laughter. 

I pried me through the crevice of a wall, 

When for his hand he had his two sons’ heads; 

Beheld his tears and laughed so heartily 

That both mine eyes were rainy like to his…” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

What a sociopath. He also makes me think of Goneril and Regan—they’re evil just because they’re evil. But Aaron is not a two-dimensional villain with nothing but hate in his heart: there’s also love, for Tamora and their child. Barabas in contrast kills the man his daughter loves, and later kills her—there is no humanity in Barabas, no love but the love of gold and ducats.  

Shakespeare also gives him some thought-provoking lines: 

“AARON Zounds, ye whore! Is black so base a hue?...” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

Later, to Demetrius and Chiron:

“AARON […] What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys! 

Ye white-limed walls! Ye alehouse painted signs! 

Coal-black is better than another hue, 

In that it scorns to bear another hue; 

For all the water in the ocean

Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white, 

Although she lave them hourly in the flood…” 


Shakespeare must have thought about Aaron when he decided to write Othello


5/ I like that the characters in Titus Andronicus mention Hector, Brutus, and Coriolanus, about whom Shakespeare wrote in later plays. 

It also amuses me that there is disguise, as in almost every other Shakespeare play, but it’s the only play in which the disguise is so bad that the person meant to be tricked easily sees through it. It’s almost like Shakespeare is having a laugh, even if in later plays, he constantly uses the disguise plot device. 

6/ When I was reading the ending, my reaction was: what the fuck is going on? 

Is Titus Andronicus a serious tragedy? A black comedy? A parody? It should be noted that most of the most graphic and violent images in the play are classical allusions: they come from Ovid, or Seneca, or the story of Virginius. 

One thing I can say is that, whatever Shakespeare’s intentions for the play as a whole, he raises some interesting questions about the cycle of revenge. Titus demands the sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son for the loss of his own sons in battle, then Tamora takes revenge, then Titus takes revenge, then what? They all kill each other in the end, but Lavinia, who has had nothing to do with any of it, also ends up dead. And even with the new Emperor, there is a sense of uncertainty about the future of Rome.   

Sunday 13 March 2022

The 10 best films of every decade from the 1940s to the 2010s (2022 list)

My personal list, maybe idiosyncratic. Some are firm choices, some may be different tomorrow.

- The 40s:

The Great Dictator (1940)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Casablanca (1942)

Gaslight (1944)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Brief Encounter (1945)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Heiress (1949)

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) 

- The 50s:

All about Eve (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Ace in the Hole (1951) 

On the Waterfront (1954)

A Star Is Born (1954) 

12 Angry Men (1957)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Room at the Top (1959)

- The 60s:

The Apartment (1960)

Psycho (1960)

The Innocents (1961) 

Yojimbo (1961)

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962) 

8 ½ (1963)

Woman in the Dunes (1964) 

Charulata (1964) 

Persona (1966)

- The 70s:

Cries and Whispers (1972) 

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) 

The Last Detail (1973) 

Amarcord (1973) 

The Conversation (1974)

Chinatown (1974) 

The Phantom of Liberty (1974) 

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Stalker (1979) 

- The 80s:

Raging Bull (1980)

On Golden Pond (1981)

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (1982) 

Ran (1985)

Dangerous Liaisons (1988) 

Monsieur Hire (1989)

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) 

Cinema Paradiso (1989) 

- The 90s:

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Farewell my Concubine (1993) 

To Live (1994)

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) 

Happy Together (1997)

Festen (1998) 

Run Lola Run (1998)

- The 2000s:

Memento (2000)

The Pianist (2002)

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)

Memories of Murder (2003) 

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Sideways (2004) 

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Babel (2006) 

The Lives of Others (2006) 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

- The 2010s:

The Dance of Reality (2013) 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) 

Spotlight (2015) 

The Handmaiden (2016) 

Phantom Thread (2017) 

The Square (2017) 

Shoplifters (2018) 

Parasite (2019) 

Pain and Glory (2019) 

Little Women (2019) 

Saturday 12 March 2022

Julius Caesar revisited

Before last year, the Shakespeare plays I had read were Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It. My favourite, I believe, was Julius Caesar. Let’s see if anything changes. 

1/ Cassius thinking about Brutus after he’s gone:  

“CASSIUS […] Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see 

Thy honorable mettle may be wrought 

From that it is disposed; therefore it is meet 

That noble minds keep ever with their likes, 

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?...” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

In my blog post about Timon of Athens, I wrote that Shakespeare’s Roman and ancient Greek plays tended to be heavy in ideas and filled with debates. Antony and Cleopatra is an exception, but Julius Caesar isn’t—it is full of rhetoric. It doesn’t feel heavy, however, and doesn’t have the sour, bitter tone of Timon of Athens or Troilus and Cressida

2/ Lots of great passages in Julius Caesar

“CASCA Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth 

Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero, 

I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds 

Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen 

Th’ ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam, 

To be exalted with the threat’ning clouds; 

But never till tonight, never till now, 

Did I go through a tempest dropping fire. 

Either there is a civil strife in heaven, 

Or else the world, too saucy with the gods, 

Incenses them to send destruction.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Striking images: “scolding winds”, “knotty oaks”, “swell and rage and foam”, “tempest dropping fire”, etc. I love Shakespeare’s choice of words.  

The descriptions of the night make me think of Macbeth

“LENNOX The night has been unruly. Where we lay, 

Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say, 

Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death, 

And prophesying with accents terrible 

Of dire combustion and confused events 

New hatched to th’ woeful time: the obscure bird 

Clamored the livelong night. Some say, the earth 

Was feverous and did shake.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

Note the earthquake in both. Later: 

“OLD MAN Threescore and ten I can remember well; 

Within the volume of which time I have seen 

Hours dreadful and things strange, but this sore night 

Hath trifled former knowings.” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

I love “dark night strangles the traveling lamp” and “that darkness does the face of earth entomb” in Ross’s answer. The old man and Ross talk about the unusual scenes they saw. Look at this: 

“OLD MAN […] On Tuesday last

A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place, 

Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.” 


There is also an owl in Julius Caesar

“CASCA […] And there were drawn 

Upon a heap of hundred ghastly women, 

Transformèd with their fear, who swore they saw 

Men, all in fire, walk up and down the streets.

And yesterday a bird of night did sit

Even at noonday upon the market place, 

Hooting and shrieking…” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

3/ The two plays are different but, in my head, I still want to compare Julius Caesar and Macbeth.  

“BRUTUS […] Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, 

I have not slept. 

Between the acting of a dreadful thing 

And the first motion, all the interim is 

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream. 

The genius and the mortal instruments

Are then in council, and the state of a man, 

Like to a little kingdom, suffers then

The nature of an insurrection.” 

(Act 2 scene 1)

That makes me think of Macbeth before the killing of Duncan. Brutus, however, is colder and driven by reason—or so he thinks. He sees no dagger before him. 

4/ Calphurnia’s bad dream about Caesar is reminiscent of Andromache’s dream about Hector in Troilus and Cressida (Act 5 scene 3). In both cases, the women are right but ignored by their husbands. 

The conversation between Caesar and Decius about Calphurnia’s dream makes me laugh though—what would Shakespeare have thought of Freud?  

“CICERO Indeed, it is a strange-disposèd time: 

But men may construe things after their fashion, 

Clean from the purpose of the things themselves…” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

And that is demonstrated time and time again throughout the play. Even Cassius, who earlier persuades Casca to join his conspiracy by suggesting that “all these fires, all these gliding ghosts” are “instruments of fear and warning/ Unto some monstrous state” (Act 1 scene 3), believes in the omens himself in the final act. He then is no longer secure. 

5/ When Cassius speaks of killing Mark Antony, Brutus stops him: 

“BRUTUS […] Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius. 

We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar, 

And in the spirit of men there is no blood. 

O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit, 

And not dismember Caesar! But, alas, 

Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends, 

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully; 

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, 

Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

Cool-headed, rational. But after Caesar’s death: 

“BRUTUS […] And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood 

Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.

Then walk we forth, even to the market place, 

And waving our red weapons o’er our heads, 

Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Doesn’t that sound a bit sick? Or am I looking at it through modern eyes? 

6/ Except for the little disguise of the conspirators when they go to Brutus’s house, Julius Caesar doesn’t really have the disguise theme as we find in almost every other Shakespeare play. But it does have two common Shakespearean themes: appearance vs reality, and manipulation, or the danger of words. 

“MESSALA […] O hateful Error, Melancholy’s child, 

Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men

The things that are not?...” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

The problem with “seeming” is a recurrent theme in Shakespeare. Things are not as they seem. 

Related is the theme of deception, manipulation, and the danger of words. At the beginning of the play, the manipulator is Cassius, who gets Brutus to join the conspiracy and to think that he does it for a good cause. He also persuades other people. But over time he becomes quieter, and barely says anything in the scene after Caesar’s death—before Mark Antony, the main speaker is Brutus. The new manipulator in the play is Mark Antony, especially in the scene before the plebians. The people are fickle and impressionable, just like the crowd in Coriolanus, but Mark Antony does talk well. He is very different from Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, like Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor is different from Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. 

In a way, he makes me think of Iago in the way he drops some little things to make people curious, and get them all worked up—I mean in terms of persuasion. But Mark Antony is not a villain. His loyalty to Caesar is admirable, and I like him in this passage: 

“ANTONY This is not Brutus, friend, but, I assure you, 

A prize no less in worth. Keep this man safe; 

Give him all kindness. I had rather have 

Such men my friends than enemies…” 

(Act 5 scene 4) 

7/ I like the sea metaphors in this passage: 

“BRUTUS […] There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; 

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries. 

On such a full sea are we now afloat, 

And we must take the current when it serves, 

Or lose our ventures.” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

I must thank Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) for pointing out the self-centredness and sanctimony of Brutus. Look at this: 

“BRUTUS […] For I am armed so strong in honesty 

That they pass by men as the idle wind, 

Which I respect not. I did send to you 

For certain sums of gold, which you denied me; 

For I can raise no money by vile means. 

By heaven, I had rather coin my heart 

And drop my blood for drachmas than to wring 

From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash

By any indirection. I did send 

To you for gold to pay my legions, 

Which you denied me…” 


“I am armed so strong in honesty”, “I can raise no money by vile means”—where do you think Cassius’s gold comes from, Brutus? As long as Brutus’s own hands are clean, it’s fine. What a virtue signaller.

Brutus also talks a lot about his own nobility. It’s probably true to some extent—after all, he inspires respect and loyalty—but he talks a lot about it. As he appears more sanctimonious, Cassius becomes more sympathetic in the last two acts. 

In his essay, Tony Tanner points out that Brutus is a bad politician: he kills the tyrant but releases chaos and anarchy; “he does not dispatch Antony; he lets Antony address the people; he insists on the wrong military tactics at Philippi—in all these matters, from a purely political point of view, Cassius is right.” (Introduction) 

As I wrote at the beginning of the blog post, before last year, Julius Caesar was my favourite Shakespeare play. Naturally it no longer is, but I still love the play. And rereading has deepened my understanding of it.