The play begins with the wealthy title character, Antonio, depressed. “I know not why I am so sad” is his famous opening line. His friends Salerio and Solanio attempt to comfort him. “Your mind is tossing on the ocean” (8), observes Salerio, foreshadowing the sinking of Antonio's fleet in 3.1. Solanio wonders if he might be in love, though Antonio quickly dismisses the notion (46-8). But, as we'll see (and as is played up in many modern productions), there is a strong current of homoeroticism between Antonio and Bassanio throughout Merchant (and many other Shakespeare plays) that cannot be so easily refuted. Might Antonio's quick denial of being in love mask homosexual desires that he doesn't want to admit?
Shortly after Solanio's amorous inquiry, Bassanio, Antonio's “most noble kinsmen” (57), enters along with friends Lorenzo and Gratiano, who invite Antonio to dinner later that evening (70-71). A moment later, Antonio and Bassanio are left alone on stage. “To you, Antonio,” Bassanio admits, “I owe the most in money and in love,” (130-1). There is no explicit evidence that “love” in this case means anything other than “Platonic friendship”, though it's not difficult to infer implicit intimacy into this scene. However, Bassanio then reveals his romantic interest in Portia, a wealthy heiress in Belmont. It is unclear to what extent Bassanio's interest in Portia is genuine affection vs. gold digging – is he sincerely in love, or just after her fortune? We learn in the following scene (1.2.112-21) that they have met at least once before, and recall each other fondly. But Bassanio also frames his courtship as a plan for “How to get clear of all the debts I owe.” (130-4).
Straightforwardly or otherwise, if Bassanio is to pursue Portia, he'll need more money to compete with her many other suitors. “[B]e assur'd”, consoles Antonio, “My purse, my person, my extremenst means / Lie all unlock'd to your occasions” (137-9). However, “all my fortunes are at sea / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum; therefore go forth / Try what my credit can in Venice do.” (177-80)
The scene switches to Belmont, where Portia and her attendant, Nerissa, discuss her marital situation. “I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike”, she complains. “[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb'd by the will of a dead father.” (23-5) Before his death, Portia's father devised a game in which potential spouses must guess between three caskets – one gold, one silver, one lead. Hidden in one of them is Portia's portrait (note the similarity between those words). If guessed correctly, he wins Portia as a wife.
Nerissa lists several suitors from all over Europe, whom Portia mocks mercilessly, until Nerissa asks, “Do you not remember, lady, in your father's time, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier[?]” (113). “Yes, yes, it was Bassanio”, Portia responds enthusiastically. “I remember him worthy of thy praise.” (115-6 & 120-1) Why does Nerissa mention Portia's father in this context? Might Bassanio have been Portia's father's choice to marry her?
But Portia's momentary relief at the mention of Bassanio is short-lived, for just then a servant enters to notify Portia that “the Prince of Morocco … will be here to-night.” (125-6) Reminded again of her lack of marital choice, she hangs her head in disappointment and sulks off stage.
Back in Venice, Bassanio negotiates with Jewish moneylender Shylock. They agree to a loan of “Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.” (9-10). The term “bound” in this case has multiple meanings: Not only is Antonio agreeing to pay back the money, but it also foreshadows his physical binding in 4.1 after he fails to pay.
Antonio enters, prompting an aside from Shylock. “I hate him for he is a Christian[.] …He hates our sacred nation[.] … Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him!” (42, 48, 51-2). Clearly they have a history of animosity, as Antonio is extremely antisemitic. “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / And spet [spit] upon my Jewish gaberdine”, he accuses Antonio. But “now it appears you need my help.” (111-4)
What is going through Shylock's mind in this scene? His easiest and safest choice would be refusing to lend the money in the first place. After all, he admits “I cannot instantly raise up the gross[.] … Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe, / Will furnish me.” (55-8) Shylock's lack of immediate access to the money results in a chain of borrowing: Bassanio borrows from Antonio, who borrows from Shylock, who borrows from Tubal. But Shylock does accept the bond – and the extra work that comes along with it. Why? What's in it for him? The obvious answer is revenge.
At what point does revenge dawn on Shylock? Is it right away, at the start of the scene? Or might Antonio inadvertently instigate this vengeance? “I am as like to call thee so again,” Antonio retorts sardonically to Shylock's accusations, “To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too.” (130-1) One way or the other, Shylock responds with insincere amity. “I would be friends with you, and have your love,” he insists. “Forget the shames that you have stain'd me with” (138-9). Only when Antonio defaults do we come to realize that Shylock's friendly words were deceptive – he never had any friendly intent, only retribution.
Under the guise of humorous absurdity, Shylock suggests as most unusual and cruel punishment should Antonio fail to reimburse:
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me. (146-51)
And Antonio is more amused than fearful at the proposition. “Content, in faith, I'll seal to such a bond,” he assents, “And say there is much kindness in the Jew.” (152-3) Antonio will be much less jovial in 4.1, when Shylock actually sharpens his knife!
Shylock has been the most dynamic character in the long history of performances of The Merchant of Venice. The Royal Shakespeare Company details that history, and how Shylock has been portrayed over the centuries. What started as a comedic role assumed more dramatic and compelling interpretations, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust in the mid-twentieth century.
Back in Belmont, the Prince of Morocco arrives. “[L]ead me to the caskets / To try my fortune” (23-4), he confidently proclaims. (Ironic that he uses the word “lead”, when the correct casket is the one made of “lead”!) But before she does so, Portia raises the stakes of the game. “[I]f you choose wrong,” she warns, “Never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage” (40-1) Undaunted, the Prince proceeds.
The clown Launcelot Gobbo appears on stage, alone. He speaks of “this Jew my master” (2), meaning Shylock, who consistently mistreats him. When his father, Old Gobbo enters, they together discuss the pros and cons of abandoning his master. “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation,” Launcelot concludes. “I will run … for I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.” (27-8, 31, 112-13) From now on, he will work as Bassanio's servant, instead.
Meanwhile, Gratiano wishes to travel with Bassanio to Belmont. Bassanio consents, though not without a stern warning “To allay with some cold drops of modesty / Thy skipping spirit, lest through thy wild behavior / I be misconst'red in the place I go to, / And lose my hopes.” (186-9)
Shylock's daughter, Jessica, is the last major character to be introduced. Apparently she and Launcelot have been talking candidly off-stage, for her scene-opening line expresses sorrow over his decision that “thou wilt leave my father so. / Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.” (1-3) Launcelot's abandonment of Shylock might inspire Jessica's own, for she gives him a letter to deliver to Lorenzo, her secret lover. “O Lorenzo,” she pleads in a brief scene-ending monologue, “If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife.” (19-21)
Launcelot dutifully delivers Jessica's letter to Lorenzo. “She hath directed”, he explains upon reading it, “How I shall take her from her father's house” (29-30).
Shylock, having been invited to dinner by Bassanio, leaves Jessica home alone, with strict restrictive orders:
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-neck'd fife
Clamber not you up to the casement then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish'd faces;
But stop my house's ears, I mean my casements;
Let not sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house. (29-36)
Shylock's anti-music proclivities correlate him with other anti-music Shakespearean characters, most notably Cassius from Julius Caesar, who “loves no plays, … hears no music; [and] Seldom he smiles” (1.2.203-5). This will resurface in 5.1. “Farewell,” Jessica bids her father in a scene-concluding couplet, “and if my fortune not be cross'd / I have a father, you a daughter, lost.” (56-7)
Lorenzo, with assistance from Gratiano and Salerio, arrives at Shylock's house, where Jessica, disguised in boys' clothing, is awaiting rescue. She takes a “casket” full of her father's most precious valuables as she flees.
In one of the most interesting passage of the whole play, she comments, “I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me, / For I am much asham'd of my exchange.” (34-5) But what does she mean by “exchange”? She could be referring to her eloping – the illegitimate exchange of her residence. Or perhaps to her theft of her father's jewels. Or maybe to her “gender exchange”, being a female character dressed as a male. Or possibly all of those things at once. “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit,” she continues. “For if they could, Cupid himself would blush / To see me thus transformed to a boy. (36-9) Jessica is self-conscious about her love for Lorenzo while cross dressing, as they would appear to be a gay male couple to any unknowing observer. This gender bending and homophobia reinforces the homoerotic tension already present between Antonio and Bassanio.
Portia presents the Prince of Morocco with the three caskets, instructing him to make his choice. Each is adorned with an inscription. The gold reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (5); the silver reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (7); the lead, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (9). He chooses gold, but departs in agony when it turns out to be incorrect.
Salerio and Solanio mock Shylock's misfortunes and discuss “A vessel of our country richly fraught” (30) that “miscarried” (29) in the English Channel, foreshadowing the fate of Antonio's own ships.
Yet another suitor, the Prince of Arragon, arrives in Belmont. He selects the silver casket, and departs disappointed. The scene closes with news of Bassanio's arrival, with “Gifts of rich value” (91), which brightens Portia's mood considerably.
Solanio and Salerio are talking once more, this time “that Antonio hath a ship of rich lading wrack'd on the Narrow Seas” (1-3), fulfilling the foreshadowing we saw in 1.1 and 2.8.
Shylock enters, lamenting the loss of his daughter. “She is damn'd for it”, he wails, “My own flesh and blood to rebel!” (31, 34) It's hard for an audience not to feel sympathy for him, especially as Solanio and Salerio ridicule him ruthlessly. “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory,” the latter taunts, “more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish [white wine].” (39-42)
Their conversation quickly moves on to Antonio and his recently lost ship. “I am sure if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh”, Salerio proclaims. “What's that good for?” (51-2) “[I]f it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (53-4), Shylock responds ominously, before launching into one of the most famous speeches of the play, and one of the most poignant speeches in all of Shakespeare:
He hath disgrac'd me, and hind'red me half a million, laugh'd at my losses, mock'd at my gains, scorn'd my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool'd my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hat not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute (54-72).
It's this scene – and this passage specifically – that precludes a completely comedic or thoroughly villainous interpretation of his character.
Fellow Jew Tubal (who, you'll recall, Shylock mentioned in 1.3) arrives with news of Jessica. “Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I hard, one night fourscore ducats,” he relates, as Shylock cringes. “One of them show'd me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey” (108-9, 118-9). It's unclear if the term “monkey” refers to a literal animal, for which she exchanged the ring, or if that is a metaphor – perhaps Elizabethan slang, the significance of which is lost on modern audiences. In any case, the only comforting news Tubal bears to Shylock is confirming that Antonio's ships have indeed sunk, and thus “Antonio is certainly undone.” (124)
Having witnessed the Prince of Morocco choose the gold casket in 2.7, and the Prince of Arragon select silver in 2.9, we the audience know the correct casket must be the lead one. But Bassanio doesn't know that, as he prepares to make his decision.
As he deliberates, Portia orders, “Let music sound while he doth make his choice” (43). Curiously, the song sung while Bassanio deliberates opens with three lines, all of which rhyme with the correct answer:
Tell me where the fancy bred,
Or in the heart of in the head?
How begot, how nourished? (63-6)
Portia made no such command for either of the previous suitors, and she clearly wishes to marry Bassanio, so might this be her way of tilting the odds in her favor? Whether or not Bassanio heeds her hint, he correctly selects the lead casket, and thus wins Portia's hand in marriage. Ecstatic, Portia gives Bassanio a ring, “Which when you part from, lose, or give away, / Let it presage the ruin of your love” (172-3).
Gratiano, meanwhile, has developed a parallel affection for Nerissa. “My eyes, my lord, can look as swift as yours”, he asserts. “You saw the mistress, I beheld the maid.” (197-8) Nerissa happily reciprocates his ardor, and at some point gives him a ring, too (it comes up in 4.2), though apparently off stage.
But their celebration is cut short when a telegram arrives notifying Bassanio that Antonio has failed to pay back their loan. “Here are a few of the unpleasant'st words / That ever blotted paper!” (251-2), he bemoans to Portia. When she realizes the amount is only three thousand ducats, she's shocked that it's so low. “What, no more?”, she asks. “Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond. … First go with me to church and call me wife, / And then away to Venice to your friend” (298-9, 303-4).
Meanwhile, back in Venice, Antonio attempts to reason with Shylock to avoid the harsh penalty for failing to pay back the loan. But Shylock will have none of it. “I'll have my bond”, he insists, “I will not hear thee speak.” (12) And Antonio realizes that Shylock's friendly face from 1.3 was just a facade.
Portia gets the zany and legally dicey idea to impersonate the judge adjudicating between Shylock and Antonio, thereby saving Antonio's life. She sets her plan in motion by lying to Lorenzo:
I have toward heaven breath'd a secret vow
To live in prayer and contemplation,
Only attended by Nerissa here,
Until her husband and my lord's return.
There is a monast'ry two miles off,
And there we will abide. (27-32)
She also instructs her servant Balthazar to deliver a letter she has written to one Doctor Bellario in Padua.
In perhaps the most unnecessary scene of the play, Launcelot warns Jessica that she might have trouble getting into heaven because “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (1-2), despite her conversion to Christianity. Lorenzo arrives and tells Launcelot to back off, rebuking him for impregnating a black woman out of wedlock. After Launcelot exits, Jessica speaks of her deep admiration for Portia, though they have only met once (in the previous scene).
In a Venetian courtroom, the Duke encourages Shylock to “show thy mercy” (20), yet he refuses. When Bassanio also encourages mercy, Shylock answers, “I am not bound to please thee with my answers.” (65) And when Bassanio offers six thousand ducats – double the original amount – Shylock still declines. “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?” (88), asks the Duke, foreshadowing that the tables will soon turn on Shylock. But again he refuses. “What judgment shall I dread,” Shylock responds, “doing no wrong? … If you deny me, fie upon your law!” (89, 101)
Meanwhile, Nerissa, disguised as a lawyer's clerk, brings a letter from Doctor Bellario “commend[ing] / A young and learned doctor to our court. … His name is Balthazar.” (143-4, 154). But Balthazar (not to be confused with Portia's servant of the same name) is actually Portia impersonating a legitimate lawyer. She, too, first attempts to talk Shylock into mercy, then into accepting several times the loan amount. But Shylock refuses every offer. “There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me” (241-2), he maintains.
Quickly realizing that any such attempts to talk sense into Shylock will fail, Portia changes tactics, instead adopting a paralyzing hyper-literal interpretation of the contract: Since the bond makes no mention of blood, she says, should Antonio bleed “one drop” during the flesh-ectomy, “thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (310-1) on the grounds that Shylock has failed to follow the contract. Furthermore, she continues, since the contract explicitly states “a pound of flesh”, should Shylock should remove any more or less than exactly one pound, “Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.” (332)
Realizing his sticky situation, Shylock reluctantly agrees to accept the reimbursement of the original three thousand ducats. But Portia shoots him down again. “He shall have merely justice and his bond.” (339), she declares.
Shylock, defeated and dejected, prepares to leave. But Portia intervenes yet again.
If it be proved against an alien,
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state.
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke only. ...
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant. …
Down therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke. (347-63)
In an ironic twist, Portia forces Shylock to do precisely what she begged of him only moments earlier.
Shylock is stunned at the sudden and severe change of events. “You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house”, he complains. “[Y]ou take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.” (375-8) But the back-breaking blow comes a moment later, when Antonio adds “He [must] presently become a Christian” (387). Having lost his daughter, his valuables, and his loan, he now looses his religion, too. He loses everything dear to him. In short, he loses his integrity and reasons for living.
It appears that Shakespeare intended this scene (indeed, the whole play) to be funny. After all, it was listed as a comedy when published in the First Folio in 1623. Moreover, Judaism was illegal in England at the time this play was written (ca. 1596-97), and had been since King Edward I's Edict of Expulsion in 1290 – one reason why the play is not set in England. There are reports of Jews living (or at least practicing) secretly in England at this time, but it seems unlikely that Shakespeare ever met any Jewish people, much less sympathized with their struggles, though no concrete evidence exists to either confirm or deny that.
Courtroom drama over, Antonio and Bassanio meet with Balthazar (whom they still don't realize is actually Portia) to thank him (her), and offer gifts in thanks (nevermind the obvious conflict of interest). At first he (she) refuses any gifts, saying, “He is well paid that is well satisfied” (415). But after reconsidering, he (she) requests Antonio's gloves, and Bassanio's wedding ring. At first, Bassanio refuses to part with the ring, and Balthazar (Portia) exits. But Antonio coerces him into changing his mind. “Let his [Balthazar's] deservings and my love withal”, he coaxes, “Be valued 'gainst your wive's commandement.” (450-1) And so Bassanio gives the ring to Gatiano, with instructions to deliver it to Balthazar (Portia).
Gratiano catches up with Balthazar (Portia) and hands over the ring. Seeing Portia's manipulative power, Nerissa wonders if she can pull off the same stunt. “I'll see if I can get my husband's ring,” she confides to Portia, “Which I did make him swear to keep for ever.” (12-13) We find out in the next and final scene that she was indeed successful, albeit off stage (as was her giving of the ring in the first place).
Back in Belmont once last time, Lorenzo and Jessica sit together in the moonlight, comparing their love to famous couples throughout history. (Oddly, all the lovers mentioned end in tragedy!) Lorenzo calls for music, and declares, “The man that hath no music in himself / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons[.] … Let no such man be trusted” (83-5, 88). This is a clear reference to Shylock's diatribe against music in 2.5.29-36.
Portia and Nerissa (no longer in disguise) enter and comment favorably on the music. When Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio arrive a moment later, Nerissa pranks her husband by asking what happened to the ring she gave him. “I gave it to a youth,” Gratiano stammers, still not realizing the joke. “No higher than thyself, the judge's clerk, / A prating boy, that begg'd it as a fee. / I could not for my heart deny it him.” (161-5) Portia joins the ironic marital fun by saying that her man would never part with his ring. To which Bassanio sheepishly confesses, also not realizing the joke. Portia and Nerissa give “new” rings to Bassanio and Gratiano, who are shocked to find they are the same rings in question. In one final joke, the two women claim that they obtained back the rings by having sex with the doctor and his clerk, rendering both men cuckolds. But enough is enough, and they finally reveal the truth: That Portia was the doctor, and Nerissa the clerk. Finally recognizing the gag, Gratiano takes the play's final lines: “[W]hile I live I'll fear no other thing”, meaning another man, “as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.” (306-7)
The 472-mile drive took 11 hours and 36 minutes, including stops. On March 7, I arrived back home in Indianapolis following a brief but grueling lecture tour through Illinois and Missouri in which I delivered seven presentations in four days. To keep me company through the endless rural landscapes of Interstate 70, I downloaded Jillian Keenan's 2016 memoir SEX WITH SHAKESPEARE. I'm not entirely sure why I chose that title – I've never been a fan of Shakespeare (I can't say the same for sex!), but I've always felt like I should be. So, having only the slightest idea what Keenan's book was actually about, I hit play as I left Kansas City, and the 10-hour audiobook concluded just before pulling into my garage.
In short, SEX WITH SHAKESPEARE is Keenan's realization that she's a spanking fetishist, and how Shakespeare assisted her self-acceptance. “If I could find myself reflected in Shakespeare's world,” she confides in the opening chapter, “maybe that meant I wasn't as unnatural as I feared.” (p. 21) Though I had difficulty relating to either subject, I found her story and writing engaging and moving. I liked it so much that I bought a hard copy.
Four days later, covid19 hit home: Both Ball State and Butler canceled all remaining in-person classes, and quarantine began. Since March 12, I've barely left the house. The first several weeks were extremely stressful, as all the courses I was taking and teaching suddenly switched to online formats. After that chaos settled and I acclimated to the new normal, I knew I had to find something new to engage with intellectually. Taking and teaching classes is, of course, extremely intellectually challenging (that's why I enjoy it), but I needed something more – something I'd never done before.
I'd never read Shakespeare outside of school. My freshman high school English class studied ROMEO AND JULIET (for which I composed my opus 1, a piano solo that I'm still rather proud of), my sophomore class covered MACBETH, and I scrutinized HAMLET last fall for a doctoral seminar – all three of which I struggled with, but ultimately enjoyed. And so, inspired by Keenan and those three plays, I bought a used copy of THE RIVERSIDE SHAKESPEARE on Amazon for $12 and embraced my new-found quarantine-induced free-time.
It took 69 days (of course it did!) and about 400 hours (estimating an average of 5-6 hours per day) to read all 38 plays at least once (8 of them twice). As I finished each one, I awarded entirely subjective ratings out 10. Below is my ranking system and initial thoughts (a mix of summary, explanation, and criticism) on all 38.
1/10 – Few redeeming qualities (1 play)
2/10 – A few standout qualities (1 play)
3/10 – Significant problems (4 plays)
4/10 – Slightly more bad than good (3 plays)
5/10 – Equal parts good and bad (3 plays)
6/10 – Slightly more good than bad (5 plays)
7/10 – Good, but with problems (9 plays)
8/10 – Very good (5 plays)
9/10 – Excellent (4 plays)
10/10 – Extremely compelling (3 plays)
1/10 – Few redeeming qualities (1 play)
TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
This was the only play that tempted me to give up. I found the story and characters bland. That combined with its length (3,592 lines makes it Shakespeare's seventh-longest play) made TROILUS a slog! It was also one of the most challenging plays to understand and least rewarding – I put more effort into deciphering TROILUS than any other, yet got less out of that effort than any other.
2/10 – A few standout qualities (1 play)
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Objectively, this isn't a terrible play; but subjectively, I couldn't stand it – I hate all the main characters! Antony is a hollow shell of a man, never able to balance what he wants with he needs, and incapable of long-term planning; Cleopatra is an ancient example of manic/depressive bipolar disorder and its problems when not properly managed; Caesar cares mostly about public image (a true politician); Lepidus is feeble and out-matched by every other character, even though he's the eldest and most experienced; Pompey craves power yet refrains when opportunity knocks, not out of moral outrage but out of concern for what people will think of him. Clearly that's all part of Shakespeare's plan – it is a tragedy, after all – but I don't find terrible decision-making engaging.
3/10 – Significant problems (4 plays)
TWO NOBLE KINSMEN
I quote from this play in my “Baseball Before the Civil War” presentation (it references stoolball, a predecessor to modern day baseball, in V.ii.74), so I was quite eager to read the entire play and thus have a better understanding of the larger context in which that quote appears. But I was disappointed: The characters and plot make no sense!
The title characters are cousins Palamon and Arcite. Captured in battle and imprisoned together, they swear enduring allegiance and mutual affection. “[H]ere being thus together,” comments Arcite with more than a hint of homoeroticism, “We are one another's wife” (II.ii.78-80). “You have made me / (I thank you, cousin Arcite) almost wanton / With my captivity”, Palamon immediately reciprocates. “What misery / It is to live abroad” (95-8). All of that changes, however, as soon as they spot Emilia. Both are immediately smitten and start competing to win her hand, despite her lack of interest in either man. For some reason, “The cause I know not” (222), Arcite is released from prison and “Banish'd. … [N]ever more / Upon his oath and life, must he set foot / Upon this kingdom.” (244-6) But, still infatuated with Emilia, he remains, and enlists in a foot race and wrestling tournament (wha?), where he wins both (wha??), and thus wins Emilia's hand in marriage (wha???). Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter (she's never given a name) falls in love with Palamon (even though he despises her), and busts him out of prison (even though that means her father will be executed for failing to retain his prisoners) in the hope that he'll love her in return. Instead, he ignores her, and immediately pursues Emilia, unaware that she's now betrothed to Arcite. Eventually, the cousins reunite and agree to fight to the death (wha????), with the winner wedding Emilia (wha?????). As they joust, the local Duke enters. “Save their lives,” he orders in III.vi.251, “and banish 'em”, apparently forgetting that he had banished Arcite already, just one scene prior! Shortly thereafter, Palamon and Arcite resume their scuffle, and Arcite proves victorious. With Palamon about to be executed, news arrives that Arcite has been fatally wounded in horse accident (wha??????) and so Palamon can marry Emilia after all. In the midst of all that, a wooer (he is never given a name, either) pretends to be Palamon in order to trick the jailer's daughter into marrying him (wha??????????????????).
Clear as mud, right? And that's why KINSMEN is so problematic – nothing makes any sense! I associate this play with TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (see below), which also features two young men jockeying for the love of a single woman. But VERONA is the better play because the characters and situations actually make some sense (until the very end – but I'll address that later).
KING JOHN and HENRY VI, PART ONE
My favorite part about reading Shakespeare's history plays was that I knew basically nothing about English political history, so every bit of information was new and stimulated my curiosity. I watched a dozen or so documentaries as I read through those ten plays, which greatly enhanced my understanding of the historical events on which they are based.
That being said, my least favorite part was the asinine decision-making of the characters – these people were all idiots! And that inanity is highlighted in KING JOHN and HENRY VI, PART ONE, both of which revolve around differing interpretations of the royal line of succession. It begs the question: Why didn't somebody determine the rules of succession beforehand?!
KING JOHN is most significant in the context of Shakespeare's other histories. It has little merit on its own, rather like how the STAR WARS prequels relate to the original trilogy. Its most important lines come at its close, which issue a stern warning against English civil war:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself. ...
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (V.vii.112-8)
That prophesy unfolds most clearly in HENRY VI, PART ONE. “[W]hat a scandal is it to our crown”, King Henry VI berates his underlings in III.i.69-73, “That two such noble peers as ye should jar! … Civil dissension is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.” As foretold in JOHN, that civil disobedience has foreign ramifications as England loses control over France.
HENRY VI, PART ONE might also be Shakespeare's least poetic play – the verse (or rather lack thereof) and imagery lacks depth and nuance (excepting IV.v). It's also not a terribly long play (2,931 lines), but it feels like it is given how little actually happens in it.
THE WINTER'S TALE
I know this is a favorite for many Shakespeare enthusiasts, but, like ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, I find the characters (mostly Leontes) flat and obnoxious. Leontes' unfounded jealousy destroys his family and his kingdom, then he suddenly changes his mind when “Apollo's priest” tells him he's being an idiot (III.ii.127-36). “The heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice”, he claims out of nowhere in III.ii.146-7 & 153-5. “Apollo, pardon / My great profaneness 'gainst thine oracle! I'll reconcile me”.
Redemption is one of the most difficult character arcs to execute well. A good example comes from STAR WARS: Darth Vader is redeemed at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. In that case, though, Vader's redemption doesn't come out of nowhere (like Leontes'), but rather is the result of carefully planted seeds in the previous films that set up this transformation. Such seeds are nowhere to be found in THE WINTER'S TALE, thus Leontes' redemption is undeserved on the part of the character and clumsy on the part of the author.
4/10 – Slightly more bad than good (3 plays)
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
If Leontes in THE WINTER'S TALE is the worst example in Shakespeare of unearned redemption, then Bertram in ALL'S WELL is the second-worst offender. He's forced to marry Helena (who genuinely loves him) at the start, even though he can't stand her. The middle of the play continuously establishes him as a terrible person, and then in the last few lines he suddenly repents. This transformation is not earned – it only happens as a way to end the story happily.
That leads to the second major problem: If TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (see below) exhibits the most egregious example of “tie it up in a bow” syndrome, then ALL'S WELL is the second-worst offender. The drama wraps up so abruptly, that it's almost like Shakespeare said, “Iunno how to end this, so I'll just throw in a happily-ever-after conclusion, and call it ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL!”
Everybody loves this one, but I find it convoluted and tedious. Some of Shakespeare's plays read as if they took no effort at all to write – as if a complete and perfect idea flashed through his brain in a moment of profound inspiration, and all he had to do was write it down without changing a word. TWELFTH NIGHT is the opposite of that – I imagine Shakespeare had a brilliant but preliminary idea, then struggled to find a way to make that idea make sense, contorting this and tweaking that until he ended up with product that sort of makes sense, but not really.
On the other hand, the strong theme of gender-bending (even more so than in other Shakespeare plays) makes this a much more interesting work in the 21st century than it could have been in the early 17th, even though women were legally barred from performing on stage at that time. Obviously, contemporary productions have much more freedom to play with these undercurrents of homoeroticism than actors had in Shakespeare's day.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
I will forever associate THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and TWELFTH NIGHT – both are highly regarded works that I struggle to enjoy. The horrors of the Holocaust inevitably give this play (which centers on the Jewish character Shylock) a different tone than it had in Elizabethan England (when practicing Judaism was illegal). It seems to me that Shakespeare never intended his audience to sympathize with Shylock, but instead view him as a laughingstock as he endures one devastating loss and humiliation after another. A more modern and empathetic interpretation makes Shylock sympathetic. Thus, like TWELFTH NIGHT, VENICE is also a play that has much more to offer in contemporary interpretation and production than it would've had when it was written.
5/10 – Equal parts good and bad (3 plays)
Rather similar to Richard Wagner's opera RIENZI, CORIOLANUS tells the story of a valiant Roman soldier who, falsely accused by Rome's citizens and thus banished from the city, teams up with Rome's enemy, the Volscians, to destroy Rome in revenge. But after a visit and pleas from his wife and young son, Coriolanus cancels the attack. That ticks off the Volscians, who plan to kill Coriolanus for abandoning them, but the fickle Roman public beat them to it, killing the title character in the final scene for some reason that either I missed or is not clearly explained. It's really not a bad play, but it's really not good, either. But it does address several topics that remain relevant: wealth and its uneven distribution throughout society, and the capricious nature of public opinion.
As a side note, it also includes some of Shakespeare's best insults in II.i:
TIMON OF ATHENS
Most Shakespeare plays either start better than they end, or end better than they start. TIMON is definitely the former. It begins with the title character throwing large parties, forgiving debts, and buying excessive gifts for his friends. In gist, Timon is generous to a fault, and his debts eventually ruin him. Never fear, he thinks, I have many friends who will help me out! But alas, all those who he thought were true friends abandon him, and Timon dies alone and resentful. There's so much more Shakespeare could have done with this premise – it feels like a missed opportunity!
HENRY VI, PART TWO
The bickering over who is the rightful king that started in HENRY VI, PART ONE (see above) continues in PART TWO. One of the major turning points in this civil war – and probably King Henry's biggest tactical error – comes when a small group of Henry's court turn him against his loyal uncle, Humphrey. “Thus King Henry throws away his crutch”, Humphrey spits ominously and presciently as he's hauled off to prison (III.i.189-90). This is similar to OTHELLO and JULIUS CAESAR in how characters are persuaded to act against another character who is close to them. After Humphrey's death, the court devolves into chaos as one character after another is murdered as the two rival factions compete for the crown. The play is left unresolved, setting up HENRY VI, PART THREE (see below).
6/10 – Slightly more good than bad (5 plays)
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth, upon viewing HENRY IV, PART ONE, loved the character Falstaff so much that she personally requested a sequel. Shakespeare responded with THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, in which Falstaff is the victim of three pranks orchestrated by the title characters.
But the witty and engaging Falstaff from HENRY IV is almost unrecognizable from the bumbling idiot Falstaff from MERRY WIVES. Their characters are so different that, if not for the same name, I'm not sure I would have realized they are same person. That being said, it's enjoyable and engaging, if not terribly special. Verdi's opera, on the other hand, I found utterly uncompelling.
Verdi wrote a much better opera based on OTHELLO, commonly regarded as one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, but I genuinely hate the title character. I have no sympathy for any husband who refuses to trust his wife. Instead, he succumbs to jealous suspicions, and murders her. The most compelling character is certainly Iago, the villain, who tempts Othello “into a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure” (II.i.301-2). And I feel sorry for the other characters who suffer as a result of Othello's poor decisions – Desdemona in particular. But I certainly don't feel sympathy for Othello. If anything, I feel pity towards him: He made a string of ridiculously bad decisions, only recognizing his errors after it was too late. Dare I say Othello got what he deserved? For a more compelling story of a character coerced into murdering someone he really doesn't want to kill, see JULIUS CAESAR.
Written in 1613, ten years after Queen Elizabeth's death, HENRY VIII is clearly nostalgic for her reign. I don't know what Shakespeare thought of Elizabeth's successor, King James I, but based on this play I'm guessing he much preferred her over him. The Tudors (of which Queen Elizabeth was the last) are perhaps the most fascinating family of English monarchs, and Henry VIII, with his six wives, could've yielded a more interesting dramatic adaptation than this. Shakespeare instead glorifies Elizabeth – her birth being the climax of this play. It's drenched in nostalgia; unfortunately, that does not a compelling story make.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
As a child, whenever I heard of this play, I assumed it meant this kind of shrew...
… and, being fascinated with all things nature, I was extremely disappointed when (not until high school, I'm embarrassed to admit) I finally figured it out the shrew was actually a tempestuous woman named Katherina. Reading it some twenty years later, I can appreciate the artistry of the script, but I have severe misgivings over its misogyny, as Katherina is literally and figuratively beaten into obedience by her husband.
Many readers don't find SHREW misogynistic, but I have a hard time drawing any other conclusion. Like Shylock in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, I suspect Shakespeare intended his audience to find Katerina's submission amusing – perhaps the Elizabethan equivalent of Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel's THE MAN SHOW.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
The original romcom, MUCH ADO is another play more highly regarded in consensus than by me personally. The play made more sense to me when I read somewhere that in Shakespeare's day, the word “nothing” was pronounced “noting”, which can refer to eavesdropping, which occurs frequently throughout MUCH ADO and leads to several humorous misinterpretations. It also opens up ADO to musical exploration – music being based on notes. Indeed, I count 21 musical references – some explicit, some subtle. Lastly, it has also been observed that the word “nothing” is Elizabethan slang for vulva. “Men have a 'thing' between their legs”, explains Jillian Keenan, “woman have 'no thing.'” (p. 128)
Lastly, though I'm no fan of Hector Berlioz, his opera BEATRICE AND BENEDICK is surprisingly good! I love how Berlioz adds a musical rehearsal within the opera, much like how Shakespeare frequently (though not actually in this case) employs a “play within the play”.
7/10 – Good, but with problems (9 plays)
HENRY IV, PART TWO
The coming of age story of Prince Henry (aka Hal) that started in PART ONE (see below) naturally continues in PART TWO. By the end of the sequel, he has been crowned King Henry V, and rejects his unruly youthful behavior to assume his royal role. Along with his base nature, he rejects his base friends, most notably Falstaff, whom Henry brutally disowns in the final scene. That loss, however, is counterbalanced by the addition of a new character, who also serves as a father substitute: the Lord Chief Justice. Where Falstaff is a father figure for Hal, the Lord Chief Justice is a father figure to Henry V. And when base Hal transforms into noble Henry, Falstaff becomes irrelevant.
Where HENRY IV explores the father/son relationship, PERICLES explores that of the father/daughter. While several such relationships appear throughout, the main focus is on the title character and his daughter, Marina. Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and Marina are all separated shortly after Marina's birth; the play ends happily, when all three are reunited. Though an extremely quick read, there's a lot of plot to keep track of – maybe even rivaling CYMBELINE for Shakespeare's most plot-heavy work.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
VERONA is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and his immaturity shows in the clunky characters and situations. It is guilty of the worst example of “tie it up in a bow” syndrome I've ever encountered – STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION has nothing on VERONA in that department!
The title characters are friends Valentine and Proteus. Though Proteus is betrothed with Julia, he develops an interest in Valentine's girlfriend, Silvia. When Silvia rejects Proteus, he attempts to rape her. “I'll woo you like a soldier,” he threatens in V.iv.57-8. “And love you 'gainst the nature of love – force ye.” Valentine arrives just in time to stop the rape. “Who should be trusted, when one's right hand / Is perjured to the bosom?” he shames his former friend in V.iv.67-9. “I must never trust thee more”. But then, in a sudden reversal that comes out of nowhere and undermines the entire play up until this point, Valentine forgives Proteus, saying, “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee.” (83) But for some crazy reason, Proteus equally suddenly and equally out of nowhere decides that Julia is more beautiful after all (“What is in Silvia's face,” he questions in V.iv.114-5, “but I may spy / More fresh in Julia's”) and marries her, allowing Valentine to marry Silvia. And they all lived happily ever after. The end. (Wha???????????)
Criticisms aside, I find this play most compelling in how the ideas at play would resurface in Shakespeare's subsequent work: cross-dressing, city vs. country, homoeroticism, characters lower in social status are higher in moral integrity, appearance vs reality, women as more logical than men, and forgiveness all feature prominently in VERONA and in his later plays. So by itself, TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA might not be compelling, but in the context of Shakespeare's entire career as a playwright, there's a lot to engage with. In that sense, we might think of VERONA as a counter-balance to CYMBELINE.
Where VERONA (written 1594) is a hodgepodge of aspects that would surface again in Shakespeare's subsequent plays, CYMBELINE (written 1609-10) does likewise but, coming at the end of his career, can be seen as a summation of his previous works. For that reason, I associate the two – neither are bad plays, but their ultimate contribution to Shakespeare's oeuvre is how they combine aspects of his other, more significant, accomplishments.
Strong humanist and enlightenment values (ie: forgiveness) help make this one of Shakespeare's most mature works. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I sense strong similarities between Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST and Richard Wagner's last opera PARSIFAL.
Prospero's words in I.ii.89-90 resonate with my own current quarantine situation: “I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind.” This passage also reminds me of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST (see below), in how the mind inevitably succumbs to the heart. “The strongest oaths”, observes Prospero in IV.i.52-3 “are straw To th' fire I' th' blood.” Those words would fit nicely in LLL IV.iii.
Many readers consider LEAR Shakespeare's finest play, but I found it overly long and complicated. The highlight of this convoluted play is III.iv, in which Lear (who is genuinely going mad) meets and bonds with Edgar (who is pretending to be mad to protect himself from unwanted attention). Despite Lear's advanced age, this scene develops his nascent empathy as Edgard's antics resonate with Lear's equally nascent insanity, resulting in a most strange and wonderful understanding – even intimacy – between the two men. This set up has lots of potential, but it never earns the emotional payoff it seeks.
Richard III's Machiavellian rise to power and prompt fall is ultimately about conscience, of which the title character has none until the final act, when all the ghosts of those he murdered (representing his conscience) return to haunt him.
There are many parallels between Richard III and Donald Trump that make this 427-year-old play still applicable in 2020. Just last week, National Guard troops fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters near St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. to clear the way for a Trump photo op in which he was rumored to hold the Bible upside down.
A similar scenario plays in III.vii of RICHARD III: He organizes a publicity stunt in which a crowd sees him as he appears to be praying. “[L]ook you get a prayer-book in your hand,” advises Richard's right-hand man, “And stand between two churchmen … Two props of virtue of a Christian prince, / To stay him from the fall of vanity; / And see a book of prayer in his hand” (III.vii.47-8 & 96-8).
Despite its current relevance, the play suffers from a lack of subtlety (it's like Shakespeare doesn't trust his audience to make connections, and so spells everything out) and an excess of length (at 3,887 lines, only HAMLET is longer).
TITUS clicked for me when I started imagining it as a Richard Strauss opera. It would make a better modernist companion to SALOME than ELEKTRA. How come Strauss never wrote it?
HENRY VI, PART THREE
Easily the best of the Henry VI trilogy, PART THREE delves into the mind of King Henry VI as he struggles to control the civil disputes that constituted the War of the Roses. And it's the psychological state of the king – not the physical war of his subjects – that makes PART THREE compelling.
It opens with Henry brokering a compromise with his rival, Richard Plantagenet (not to be confused with Richard II, who is entirely unrelated, or Richard III, who is his son): They agree to let Henry's reign continue until his death, whereupon Richard (or his descendants) will assume power. While this truce puts a temporary end to the bloodshed, it pisses off both Henry's and Richard's subjects. Henry's queen, Margaret, is furious that Henry disinherited their son, Edward. “[T]hou prefer'st thy life before thine honor” she fumes in I.i.244-6. “Soldiers should have toss'd me on their pikes, / Before I would have granted to that act”. What's so fascinating is why Henry made this decision: Disinheriting Edward is his way of saving his son from experiencing the problems he himself has faced as king. “I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind,” Henry waxes in II.ii.49-50, “And would my father had left me no more!” Henry VI's reign has been so plagued with problems and infighting that he wishes he had never inherited the throne in the first place. By ensuring his son will not inherit the throne, Henry assures that his son will lead a better, if less historically important, life.
8/10 – Very good (5 plays)
How similar OTHELLO and JULIUS CASEAR are! Both center on characters coerced into murdering someone who they really don't want to kill: Iago brainwashes Othello into uxoricide by spreading rumors of her infidelity; Cassius seduces Brutus into assassinating Caesar for being a tyrannical dictator. The problem: Neither claim is true – Desdemona is faithful to Othello; Caesar never displays the dictatorial ambition that doomed him (at least not in the play – maybe he did in real life).
But here's the difference: All Othello had to do was trust his wife. Brutus' situation is far more subtle and complex because you can't just go up a dictator and ask him if he's a dictator! Cassius convinces Brutus that the people of Rome worry that Caesar will turn into a dictator, and thus want him dead. Brutus' job, as a public representative, is to act on behalf of the people he represents, even though he's friends with Caesar. So in Brutus' mind, he has to make a decision: Do my job and kill my friend, or save my friend and neglect my responsibilities? It's a far more compelling choice than Othello's.
The other big difference is in structure and scope: Othello kills Desdemona in V.ii; Brutus kills Caesar in III.i. Where OTHELLO is the story of a lover deceived into believing his wife unfaithful, CAESAR is more about the aftermath of a fateful murder (similar to MACBETH). That said, I found the first three acts much more compelling than the last two.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
This one is not commonly regarded as among Shakespeare's best, but I quite enjoyed it – it's exactly what it's trying to be: a comedic romp. No more, no less. Like SOLO, ERRORS sets an admittedly low target, and hits that target dead center. It is exactly what it tries to be. It's not terribly sophisticated because it doesn't need to be. The exposition is slow (especially act one), but once the premise is set up, the writing is effortless and funny.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Highly relevant in the #MeToo era, MEASURE FOR MEASURE depicts Angelo, a high-ranking government official, who threatens to kill Isabella's brother unless she sleeps with him. “You must lay down the treasures of your body”, he intones in II.iv.96-97, “or else to let him suffer”. When Isabella threatens to expose his extortion, he resorts to sheer intimidation. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”, he purrs mirthlessly. “My unsoil'd name, th' austereness of my life, / My vouch against you, and my place I' th' state, / Will so your accusation overweigh[.] … [M]y false o'erweighs your true.” (154-7 & 170) It's a study of how authority corrupts, or, as Shakespeare himself wrote, “If power change purpose” (I.iii.54).
The play's problem is its ending. While the first several acts are gripping and intense, it concludes with several marriages (including Angelo's, though not to Isabella) and everybody lives happily ever after. Simply put, the ending doesn't match the start. That beginning is so powerful that the play as a whole is still very compelling, but it prevents me from ranking higher than 8/10.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
This one clicked for me when I realized the city of Athens represents the intellectual side of humanity, while the forest represents the emotional side. Lysander and Hermia's flee “to that place the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue us” (I.i.162-3) can thus be seen as a flee from the overly-controlled city life to a more lax rural existence. And from there, it's easy to interpret the play as emphasizing the emotional side of human nature over the rational. The rest of the play, with its magical fairies and love potions, fits solidly in the realm of fantasy, including Puck's concluding soliloquy:
You have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream (V.i.425-9)
Thus, the play as a whole seems to support the emotional/fantastical/whimsical side of human nature over the rational/practical/routine. As an intellectual in Trump's America, I have major problems when this “emotion over reason” principle is overdone. But it's also a reminder (like LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST) that too much emphasis on the rational can also have severe consequences. And that's my ultimate takeaway from MIDSUMMER: the need for balance between the intellectual and emotional sides of human nature.
HENRY IV, PART ONE
Though King Henry IV is the title character, this is more the story of his son, Prince Henry (nicknamed Hal). Where PERICLES centers on the father/daughter dynamic, both parts of HENRY IV center on the father/son dynamic. Hal is a rambunctious and irresponsible playboy at the start of PART ONE, stoking his father's jealousy. “Thou mak'st ... me sin / In envy”, laments the king in I.i.78-88, “that my Lord Northumberland / Should be the father to so blest a son[.] ... O that it could be prov'd / That some night-tripping fairy had exchang'd / In cradle-clothes our children”. Fed up with his biological father and the royal responsibilities that accompany him, Hal finds a makeshift father figure in Falstaff, a portly and witty knight who encourages Hal's boisterous behavior. The famial tension comes to a head in III.ii, as biological father and son meet on stage for the first time. “[T]hou hast lost thy princely privilege / With vile participation”, the elder Henry reprimands the younger. “Thy place in Council thou hast rudely lost, / Which by thy younger brother is supplied” (86-7 & 32-3). Thereupon Hal oaths atonement through the killing of Lord Northumerland's son, Percy, who is helping lead a rebellion against King Henry. “I will redeem all this on Percy's head,” the younger swears, “[T]he time will come / That I shall make his northren youth exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities.” (132 & 144-6) Indeed, Hal kills Percy in V.iv, marking his first major rite of passage toward what will ultimately be his own reign as King Henry V.
9/10 – Excellent (4 plays)
ROMEO AND JULIET
This was the first Shakespeare play I ever read, back in high school. It was also the first I read for my “Complete Shakespeare Quarantine Challenge”, back on April 2. It clicked for me when I discovered a connection with STAR WARS. Attack of the Clones features the musical theme Across the Stars, the title of which references the “star-crossed lovers” of R&J's famous prologue (6). Plus, the notion of forbidden love so prominent in R&J is also present between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. Furthermore, R&J features extensive space imagery (sun, moon, stars most obviously, but also clouds, night, light and darkness, eyes, dreaming, fire), all of which further the parallels with science fiction.
Lastly, R&J might be Shakespeare's most poetic play – or at least the most poetic of the tragedies. In no other is his use of text painting (how the words and verses Shakespeare implemented relate to and help convey their semantic meanings) more effective than in I.v, where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time and suddenly speak synchronously in flawless Shakespearean sonnet structure.
LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST
King Ferdinand of Navarre seeks fame and fortune by starting a school. (Wha???) To ensure strict and proper focus solely on academic pursuits, all teachers must renounce sex for three years. “The mind shall banquet,” trumpets one instructor in the opening scene, “though the body pine” (I.i.25). Yeah, no – that doesn't last long! Even before the first scene concludes, another character predicts problems: “Such is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh.” (217-8) By the second act, “Navarre is infected … With that which we lovers entitle 'affected.'” (II.i. 230-2); and by the fourth act, they all agree to abandon the no sex rule, “For none offend where all alike do dote.” (IV.iii.124) But the joke is on them, for the women who inspired this mass exodus from promise refuse their amorous advances in the fifth act!
It's not all bawdy jokes, however. The underlying message is a warning against overly academic pursuits. In other words, don't let the heart suffer for the head. The schoolmaster Holofernes is an obvious and amusing symbol of the pointlessness of pedantic academic discourse for its own sake – a warning that many academics have failed to heed!
It's also one of Shakespeare's most poetic plays – what ROMEO AND JULIET is to the tragedies, LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST is to the comedies. The problem with poetic language, of course, is intelligibility. Certain passages required re-re-re-reading to figure out what was being said.
LLL also has structural problems, and at times is unnecessarily long (like when the guys dress up as Russians in V.ii for some hair-brained reason). It's as if Shakespeare sketched out the entire play, then decided it wasn't long enough, and so padded.
Where its two predecessors focus on young Hal's coming of age, HENRY V shows the title character in full maturity as he valiantly leads his country to victory in the Battle of Agincourt. The play shines brightest when Henry is alone on stage, soliloquizing on his anxieties as leader. It is in those scenes that he, temporarily unconcerned about maintaining his royal image, appears most vulnerable, most human, most intimate, and most compelling. “What have kings, that privates have not too, / Save ceremony?” he ponders in IV.i.238-40. “And what art thou, thou idol ceremony? … But for ceremony, such a wretch, / Winding up days with toil, and nights with sleep, / Had the forehand and vantage of a king.” In other words, the biggest difference between himself and his subjects is mere pomp and circumstance – ultimately meaningless. Henry's conclusion (that he's not inherently better than any of his subjects) culminates in his famous St. Crispin's Day speech and the best-known lines of the play: “We few, we happy few, we band of bothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (IV.iii.60-2). And that's my main takeaway from this play: That all people are created equal. Shakespeare said it 177 years before Thomas Jefferson.
Though I mildly disagree, the consensus regards HAMLET as Shakespeare's best work (some have even claimed it's the greatest literary accomplishment ever in English). Rather like Henry V, Hamlet's psychological anxieties are highlighted – the whole play revolves around him trying to figure out how to revenge his father, but of course there is no right way to commit murder! He's entrenched in a true dilemma: damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. It seems that those who find Hamlet's existential quandary compelling rate this play extremely highly, while those (like myself) who find him a touch whiny and annoying rate it slightly lower.
10/10 – Extremely compelling (3 plays): How curious that I ranked onetragedy, one history, and one comedy 10/10.
If MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is the original romcom, then MACBETH is the original horror. (The 2010 film starring Patrick Stewart did a fantastic job of taking the horror this play must have for audiences four hundred years ago and translating it for a modern audience.)
Shortly after murdering Duncan, Macbeth delivers one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare quotes: “Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” (II.ii.57-60) It took me a while to figure it out why Shakespeare used the color green here. Rather, I've always thought of the ocean as more blue. Then I realized that green and red are complementary colors – opposites on the color wheel.
So choosing green over blue in this context emphasizes the severity of Macbeth's crime.
On the surface, RICHARD II chronicles the 1399 deposition of the title character. Yet it is more a vehicle for Shakespeare's ruminations on the nebulous nature of grief than the story of a monarch overthrown – the plot is merely the means through which its deeper meaning is manifest. “Grief boundeth where it falls,” observes the Duchess of Gloucester in I.ii.58 & 61, “For sorrow ends not when it seemeth done.” She illustrates how challenging it can be to acknowledge, pinpoint, and address depression, and the difficulty in recognizing when the grief cycle has completed.
Before I had ever read this play, I quoted II.ii.14 as the epigraph to my book FROM THE SHADOW OF JFK: “Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows”. I found that quote while perusing the internet, and it fit the book perfectly. I didn't realize at the time that the whole play (not just that one line) was centered around those words. As Richard looses authority, his guilt and regret over his political mishandlings equally grow. Inversely reflecting this demise, Shakespeare writes progressively more poetic and insightful verse for him. Richard's sorrows – and thus his poetics – culminate in IV.i.295-302, when he is overthrown, and proclaims the most important passage of the play:
My grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul.
There lies the substance; and I thank thee, king,
For thy great bounty, that not only giv'st
Me cause to wail, but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Love is often problematic in Shakespeare. And love at first sight all the more so. (How deep can Romeo and Juliet's love really be, when they only spoke to each other four times?) But in AS YOU LIKE IT, Shakespeare finds an ingenious way around the problem of love at first sight: Having Rosalind, disguised as a man, train Orlando how to be a good lover allows their mutual attraction to develop into a more realistic relationship. Thus, when Rosalind reveals her true identity, their professions of love are actually based on their own substantial shared experiences. Nowhere else does Shakespeare offer such a compelling celebration of the diverse and often messy romantic preferences of human beings.
So, quarantine challenge complete, now what? I've been considering starting a Shakespeare blog. I already have several other blogs (The Beatles, pop music, Star Wars, and origami). My standard reasoning behind whether or not I start a new blog is if I have anything original to say. If yes, a blog is a perfect way to develop my ideas; if not, a blog seems like more work than it's worth. In this case, I have nothing original to say, yet with this post it is launched.
“If you don't know where you are going,” quipped New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a witticism worthy of Shakespeare, “you might end up some place else.” Wherever my current Shakespeare obsession takes me, this blog will be a road that helps me get there.
A workshop for developing thoughts on William Shakespeare's writings.