Category Archives: William Shakespeare

My Time of Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

220px-comedyerrors1No way. He can’t have taken it this far. It’s just so ridiculous! It couldn’t have happened that way. It’s just not possible!

Okay, yeah, but it was funny.

I could stop there. As opposed to other works by the Bard, this play comes off as nothing more than an entertaining means to pass time during which Shakespeare sharpens his wit and seemingly challenges himself to extend this comedy of errors as far as can be contained within the limits of a small group of characters effected by a single coincidence.

The play itself boasts brilliant and playful writing with its simplistic poetic rhythms, creative word-play and puns; unfolding a plot which seems to boast a maniacal swagger while executing a challenge well beyond its bounds. There inlies the deeper humour. I imagine audiences aghast at the pile of errors; so much so that they simply laugh – not necessarily at jokes or clever lines, but because they don’t know how else to react. It feels like witnessing someone accepting a dare and performing it with brilliant ease. One can only laugh despite the danger and insanity of the deed. That is, after they lift their jaw from the floor, remove their hand from their forehead and blink.

I must acknowledge that I read this play in the year 2018 and do not watch it during the 16th century. British culture at that time versus American culture now can be described, at best, as long distance cousins. So I cannot say with much fervor that Shakespeare intentionally implanted a subtle thread of social commentary. However, it does seem so.

During Adriana’s speeches regarding the feminine plight under the male yoke, one notices a slight difference in tone and meter; imagery and beauty takes the place of puns and foolish reasoning. In the 16th century, audiences undoubtedly laughed at male actors expounding on the dire existence of the fairer sex as many would laugh at any kind of stereotype.

Or consider Pinch’s religious explanations for Antipholus’ apparent madness when mistaken for his twin brother. Was Shakespeare poking fun at clergy stereotype blaming misfortune or ill-behavior on demon possession or sin?

In the 21st century, readers and patrons might see time-honored rants against injustices perpetrated upon women and the folly of blindly adhering to religious dogma. But in the 16th century, perhaps seeing this play gave them reprieve from these aspects of their lives; a chance to laugh at what they believe is ridiculous knowing they would still go back to living that same foolishness in a few short hours. Shakespeare may have said, “Within these theater walls, you may laugh at what you cannot outside of them. You must wear actor’s costumes outside but in here you may shed them and call your lives ridiculous.”

At the zenith of the errors, the play resolves with the characters’ realization of what the audience has known throughout the entire endeavor. This leaves me feeling less satisfied but rather relieved. Shakespeare does not force the characters to call attention to what they have learned. No one apologizes, really. Perhaps adding a romantic element such as an intellectual epiphany would have ruined the play leaving sour dispositions funneling through the theater doors; grabbing their actor’s costumes on the way out.

But I do appreciate the simplicity of the ending. The characters go back to their lives much like the audience will; the fools walking together to their abusive lots.

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Posted by on November 2, 2018 in William Shakespeare


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My Time of Shakespeare: As You Like It

This play has left me with more questions than pleasant emotions or kindly insights. Yes, one must credit Shakespeare with an entertaining “romantic comedy” but also chide him, just a bit, for leaving much to the audience member’s disquiet. Rarely have I felt such a lack of resolution in such a neatly resolved story.

I quickly lauded Shakespeare’s literary construction around the concepts of Nature and Fortune and their relationship to each other. The play begins with a stage set with separation – particularly of Oliver and Orlando and of the Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. Fortune has divided each character respectfully in regards to the kingdom and fathers’ will. Fortune, it would seem, guides the lives of these men while their nature simply reacts to their fortunes. Rosalind also finds herself in a similar plight – kept under the heel of her usurping Uncle but with the unwavering companionship of Celia, her cousin.

Along with this separation of characters and of Nature from Fortune, Shakespeare symbolically pits Nature against Fortune via a symbolic wrestling match between Charles and Orlando. Yet with repetitive terms, such as “overthrowing”, we can anticipate a reversal of circumstances. As the Duke Senior experiences banishment into the Forest of Arden, with Orlando and Rosalind to follow, we must notice how these characters, quite literally, leave their fortunes for Nature. In leaving their misfortunes behind for sanctuary in the forest, we may interpret that they begin to guide their lives according to Nature rather than Fortune.

In Acts III and IV, sandwiched within the play, Shakespeare begins the folly and entertainment of love, between Silvius and Phebe, Touchstone and Audrey and Orlando and Rosalind. Phebe, who does not dote on Silvius, Touchstone, who behaves as a chauvinist man intent on Audrey’s abuse, and Orlando who relents to the curing of love by a disguised Rosalind. Honestly, I found it all very silly. I cannot think of a better word. In nature, unburdened by concern for fortune with its impressing greed and fear – left simply with the quality of their characters – these people stumble about like fools with “fools” to teach them and mock them. Luckily, Shakespeare presents such characters as Duke Senior and Corin to keep the patron informed of the new environment mastered by human nature rather than circumstance. The usurped Duke wisely expounds on sweet uses of adversity in developing a person’s nature and Corin explains to Touchstone of the simple exposure of man’s nature as a laborer. In this new setting, Nature and Fortune begin to reconcile not as two things outside of a person but rather the same thing embodied within a person which develops a perspective on circumstances endured in the outside world. Worldly things do not determine the nature of someone’s fortunes but rather their nature and perspective define those fortunes.

However, as the play resolves, the questions begin bubbling like excited water. Honestly, I found the resolution extremely romantic – in the anti-Hemingway sense. Of course, Rosalind works for the coupling of the eight men and women using her best Shakespearean craft. But why the abrupt changes in the usurping Duke and Oliver, Orlando’s brother? Shakespeare offers reasons but they seem completely unsatisfactory and out of character from what we know of them early in the play. Also, did Orlando know of Rosalind’s deceit and play along? If so, why? Then, with the usurping Duke’s conversion and the return of court fortunes to their “rightful” owners, one’s suspension of disbelief snaps irreparably and the patron grimaces at the sudden and perfect arrangement of restored fortunes just when they anticipated a re-imagining of true fortunes to differ from their definition early in the play.

While all of this seems excessively romantic and too perfect, one must remember Jaques and Touchstone. Jaques grows to appreciate the foolery of Touchstone and Touchstone may be the only one of the group who remains true to himself, though not a very respectable self, in nature and away from court. I think Jaques admires this and, in his melancholy, becomes the fool only in as much as he differs in countenance and philosophy from the others. As in all Shakespeare plays, the fool professes wisdom which often flies in the face of accepted truths and reasoning in popularly constructed social circumstances. Within this definition, both Touchstone and Jaques fit the bill. While Fortune and Nature seem to reconcile in the end, perhaps this enlightenment does not settle on Jaques who must journey on.

But what are we to make of Jaques? Why did Shakespeare include him if our good money went to watch a silly play so we could feel good at romantic nonsense? Why does he offer little as to a back story on Jaques? Who is he? What were his circumstances? Why so melancholy? Why is he not of the disposition to appreciate a happy ending as the others?

Like Jaques, I feel awkward and ultimately skeptical about the play’s resolution – as if things unsaid haunt the good fortunes of things said and done. Perhaps Shakespeare couldn’t stand to leave anything real out of his play.

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Posted by on April 4, 2015 in William Shakespeare


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My Time of Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

LLLI found one! A Shakespeare play for which I care very little – dare I say, I don’t like!

Yet even when confronted with works which do not titillate one’s fancy, I imagine one can still find things to respect or even admire within it. While this play does not stimulate me, it may stand as one of Shakespeare’s best in regards to his occupation as a wordsmith. He effortlessly plays with words like many athletes juggle balls or sticks. His characters dissect words nearly to the point of voiding them of meaning, perhaps leaving the audience look elsewhere for themselves within the play. Comedic? Maybe – to an old English audience more sophisticated in language than this generation.

The privileged and care-free circumstances of the characters also disappointed me. They take their social status for granted and in so doing fail to realize any consequence for their boredom induced mockery of love and relationships. Even the King’s vow to avoid love and pursue study for three years may suggest his longing for meaning in a privileged life but he devalues the pursuit of that meaning (even if in the wrong direction) by abandoning the vow fairly easily. Only at the end, when real consequence halts the lovers’ suits do they realize they do not live in a world apart from agony or sadness rendering their labor’s lost.

I can respect many things in this play but ultimately the word play and character play fail to comprise a coherent plot or stimulating idea. It all seems meaningless. But perhaps we witness Shakespeare’s labor’s lost in this endeavor of his loved passion for play writing.

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Posted by on November 16, 2014 in William Shakespeare


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My Time of Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act II, Scene 2 from the Painting by Sir J Noel Paton, RSA

Act II, Scene 2 from the Painting by Sir J Noel Paton, RSA

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this – and all is mended –
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I’m an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

As a comedy, this play embellishes Love as its overarching theme. One notices how love effects each character differently throughout the course of the play and yet we understand it as an autonomous essence – a Cupid – something which exists absolutely of its own accord. Helena’s first monologue describes her thoughts on a personified Love. The universal experience of love binds all creatures in a common condition but fuels each individual fire to different outcomes. For some it drives them to humble indignity, others to indescribable bliss, and still others to serve the vengeful will of spite – to be wielded as a weapon of revenge! Yet in one common experience of love, whatever its form, we find ourselves unified, intertwined.

Shakespeare has a notorious sense of humor about mistakes – innocent, meaningless mistakes – which effect the fates of his characters catastrophically, leading them to their direst ends. These mistakes, such as Puck’s accidental “blessing” of Lysander’s eye, and others within Shakespeare’s works, not only serve to engage the audience, but cause one to wonder how Shakespeare himself would have behaved at a future party with nihilists and existentialists. I can only posit that he rebuked the general belief of his day that Fates and supernatural powers spun the world on their finger and jovially jerked us with their puppet strings. Perhaps he felt that these Fates possessed fallibility much like people or if the many twists in life lack the meaning men often place on them.

In any case, these mistakes lend to a much larger idea of manipulation and control within the play. Oberon and Puck use a magical elixir to bend the natural order of love to their will – much like the duke and Egeus try to bend the natural governance of love surrounding Hermia and Lysander to Egeus’ will. Before the fairies enter the play, we have a particular dynamic between our four lovers – Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander. To begin, the dynamic looks a bit like this: Helena chases Demetrius and Demetrius chases Hermia who loves Lysander. After the first application of the elixir, mistakenly applied to Lysander’s eye rather than Demetrius’, the dynamic shifts to look a bit like this: Lysander chases Helena; Helena chases Demetrius; Demetrius chases Hermia. The fairies spin the sides of the Rubix Cube only to get further from colorful harmony. The second application produces the next dynamic: Hermia chases Lysander and Lysander chases Helena who loves Demetrius.

We now have a perfect inversion of the initial dynamic. Hermia now replaces Helena in the original dynamic – pining after a man who loves another – Lysander replaces Demetrius chasing a woman who rebukes him while shunning a woman who loves him – Helena now experiences Hermia’s previous place and Demetrius Lysander’s. With this inversion we see the very inversion of love as well – into rage and pending violence. Earlier, we witnessed happiness mixed with sadness in Helena and bitterness in Demetrius. Yet it all centered around love. In this dynamic, the men seek to harm each other and Hermia wishes to attack Helena. Yet, amidst this discord, one can hope that it can serve a better purpose in causing each character to sympathize with the one who now experiences their previous position – thus, again, unifying them in one condition.

The natural has deformed into the unnatural – like producing life outside of birth. Consider how Oberon and Titania argue in their first scene about their manipulation of Theseus and Hippolyta. Titania likens it to the shifting of the very seasons.

Yet in addition to the dynamics between the characters, Shakespeare, again, adds further dimension to the play with his signature play-within-a-play. In the final acts, after Puck labels mortals as fools (Act III, Scene II), these mortals witness a play during which they call the players fools, in so many words – adding their commentary and pompous judgement much like the fairies did while entertaining themselves with the mortal’s drama in the woods! With different powers, different parts, and different lives, Shakespeare unifies all characters by exposing a singular, fundamental experience through juxtaposition in similar scenarios. The lovers share the fairies’ experience and the players’ the lovers’.

And yet! as Puck addresses the audience in his final speech, which coincidentally mirrors the Prologue of Pyramus and Thisbe, do we as the audience not see ourselves as the same dramatists in the woods or players in the play? And do we then, with our disbelief no longer suspended, not look at Master Shakespeare as the fairy king manipulating our very senses and feelings?

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Posted by on October 18, 2014 in William Shakespeare


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My Time of Shakespeare: Measure For Measure

Measure for MeasureMeasure for Measure by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not

After each Shakespeare experience, I realize how much I have yet to learn The Bard we love so much. If the man wrote average works merely for the sake of his professional livelihood, one might count Measure For Measure among them even if only for its lack of notoriety. I did. Yet Shakespeare must have enjoyed envious blessing in his ability to transform mediocre intent into golden wonder.

I had no idea what to expect as I picked up Measure For Measure. I hadn’t the slightest familiarity with its characters, plot, themes, etc. I did, however, expect an “easy” play. On the contrary, Measure For Measure expounds on ethical conundrums in the oximoronic term “state justice” and the manipulated intent of civil and religious law when it serves to enforce morality.

Surely, Man created Law to protect freedom, not restrain it. Consider Angelo’s analogy of the scarecrow,

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape till custom make it
Their perch, and not their terror (Act II, Scene I)

However, though I concede Angelo’s point, I have to ask: does the scarecrow exist only to scare crows or to protect the crop? Understandably, the two intentions intertwine yet if we untangle them, we must ask whether the crow, or the crop, represents the public. The Duke describes the public as a caged lion denied the use of its nature. He fears the public may no longer fear the cane once used to control it. The cage now angers them more than the pain of the cane frightens them. So they will endure that pain for the sake of exploding from the cage. Of course, after they explode from the cage, the cane may seem all the more necessary as the public indulges itself on every allowance once denied them. Claudio ponders,

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, –
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, –
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. (Act I, Scene III)

The public turns to a government to restrain their freedoms when they should rather enjoy the freedom to deny themselves as much as indulge themselves. They would see value, not in the lack of denial, but in the lack of a hand denying them. The problem is not denial itself, but who denies. That power ought to lie in each man. Freedom is power over oneself, not the lack of power at all which leads to irresponsible indulgence – not the ability to do anything, bu the power to choose for our own good. Perhaps Claudio speaks sarcastically, but I can’t argue with him.

Escalus, when pitying Claudio’s circumstances, laments, “Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; / Pardon is still the nurse of second woe:” (Act II, Scene I). Imagine if the Bishop of Digne had sent Jean Valjean back to prison for stealing his silver. Mercy and pardon always and steadfastly exist as Good and Right and fertilize seeds which grow green among crispy brown stalks. We simply cannot see the future or trust nature and mankind to unfold its story like Hugo’s – to raise the green stalks. Therefore, we believe that we need to snuff mercy and take power away from Fate and the evolution of nature to ensure justice.

Let he who has no sin cast the first stone – yet somehow we convince ourselves that government stands immune to this philosophy. We plead for justice from a civil authority like Angelo. As Angelo solicites Isabel, after her petition for mercy on behalf of her brother, I see a hypocrite but also a trickster. With leading logic, like a seven-figure lawyer, he manipulates her thinking to serve both his pious judgement and crude, base hypocrisy. He nearly resembles a satanic figure preying on a Godly sheep, “my false o’erweighs your true” (Act II, Scene IV). However, one can argue that Angelo labored logically not only to convince Isabel, but himself. If his prisoner’s sister, and a woman of the cloth no less, can defend his judgement than how can anyone else, or he, accuse him of injustice?

Their intellectual battle between civil law and religious reason exposes another concept. By pursuing infallible purity through reasoned or spiritual labor, Man unavoidably faces a crossroads of his reasoned and explained Right versus real, autonomous, unchangeable Right – a Right perhaps beyond analysis but surely constant, unaffected by his ability to grasp it, existing outside of his influence and content to carry on independently of his acceptance. Neither Angelo nor Isabel can flawlessly defend Claudio by means of reason, law or religion (at least within the realms of their understanding). Yet the audience knows Claudio suffers unjustly despite these characters’ inability to explain it. Angelo manages to portray Isabel’s sacrificial willingness as a sin. She follows and agrees, unable to show any conviction in sinning for the sake of saving her brother. Therefore, the audience remains unsatisfied and continue to wait for Shakespeare to present some wise perspective, to show a true Right that makes legally arguable sense among civil and religious law when neither rule has done so yet.

Speaking for myself, as a member of that audience, I sympathize with Claudio not only because he suffers for a behavioral slip which in this day bares minimal legal reciprocity, if any, but because Angelo, a statesman, holds sway over his very life as if he has a right to it. To Angelo, a human life signifies only its part in the machine of the public, of society. If that part breaks, or causes the machine to sputter, Angelo would simply dispose of it. Not only does this bother me, but the idea that Angelo, or any statesman with this power, can decide a man’s fate, or even a machine part’s fate, based on the machine’s performance when he determines the quality or intent of that machine’s function! To another, that machine might appear to do exactly what it ought to do but if Angelo disagrees, the part enters the hearth regardless of if the machine does, in fact, perform as it should according to a constant, autonomous assessment.

I found the Duke terribly interesting. He somehow stands apart from the other judges in this play. He leaves his seat and powers to Angelo, much like God may have done with Satan in the story of Job, and disguises himself as a friar. In contrast to Angelo and Isabel’s opposition, the Duke embraces both agents within himself. I also find it ironic that Venice’s highest judge would orchestrate justice away from his seat of power. I admit I had trouble believing in the Duke since he executes much of his more benign justice under a false guise and by tricking and employing falsehoods in the name of good. Yet he contrasts Angelo by employing “wrong” to accomplish good while Angelo and Escalus believe they do “good” by employing wrong. While Isabel and Angelo argue about the logic of sinning to save, the Duke encourages religiously indictable tricks in the pursuit of justice. Law does not motivate the Duke nor do any metaphysical or philosophical doctrines on justice. To use a cliche, the Duke follows the Golden Rule and feels that someone who has sinned should by no means cast any kind of stone. But if the head of government believes this, how can any man hold sway over another’s life? Lucio even distracts us into wondering, at least, if the Duke himself ought to cast any stones.

Finally, the Duke levies sentences against those who the audience might lead to the gallows themselves. And yet even here justice does not quit. We have yet more to glean about true justice and real Right. Isabel gets her chance to petition again for a life, though this time the life means quite the opposite to her from what Claudio’s means to her. But if she wants to remain true to her spiritual nature, she must pass the test or somehow, without ever anticipating it, find herself likened to her enemy and branded as a hypocrite. Claudio finds his justice, as does Angelo and Lucio. In the end, justice finds satisfaction in rectifying wrongs rather than punishing them.

All do not live happily ever after. But each wrong measure found its righteous and equal countermeasure. And time moves on for more wrongs and more rights and more mercy and more justice to find their places in our lives.

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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in William Shakespeare


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My Time of Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

from the Painting in the Boydell Gallery, by Rev W Peters


Why, Sir John, do you think, though we would have thrust virtue out of our hearts by the head and shoulders, and have given ourselves without scruple to hell, that ever the devil could have made you our delight?

Has Sir John Falstaff learned the humour of the age? to suffer tactics similar to his own, turning him into a pathetic minstrel unwittingly singing praises of his own demise? Perhaps his humour, as Nym would overly use the word, permeates the age across gender and social barriers. Mistresses Page and Ford do not count themselves above such deceptive tactics to profit in humour. Nor does Master Fenton.

I gladly meet Falstaff again in this Merry Wives of Windsor. Not only did I miss him after finishing the Henry IVs, but I feel that I know a little more about him in terms of his literary merit. On one level, Shakespeare could have intended to use him as a symbol of the haughty hypocrisy and base normality of English nobility, soldiers and knighthood. Yet when comparing this “Merry” John Falstaff to the Falstaff at young Prince Henry V’s side, we see more of a transition than static statement. Falstaff himself represents the turning of the age in England to one of national conscience and meaning, a state in which he has trouble placing himself. These comic characters of Windsor care little about laws, state regulations or anyone other than themselves for that matter. They do not mind humiliating, propositioning married women, venting their anger and insecurities upon innocents, supporting others against each other for profit or neglecting their vocations for, well…silliness. With the coronation of Henry V, this petty rabbling dissolves away.

Of course, it’s just a play and one which assuredly entertained the masses at the Globe, or wherever Shakespeare staged it. On might think that he abandoned some intellectual integrity in order to coax a laugh or two. Alas, should we forget that we speak of Shakespeare? Of his familiar comedies, I think this one had the most complex plot though simplest adhesive. As in other comedies, deception fuels the humour. Yet the audience sees every deceptive move at every level. They also usually see the perpetrator and victim quite clearly and thusly knowing full well with whom they ought to sympathize. Yet with these Windsor folk, they all suffer as the perpetrator and the victim. So how ought the audience react? Who should they laugh at, pity, sympathize with or scorn?

Due to this complexity, I found the play rather flat in terms of meaning. After they bow, nothing changes either within the minds of the patrons or in the hearts of society. We witnessed one big trick over-cooked by several tiny versions of itself. Life moves on as it had.

But it was funny!

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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in William Shakespeare


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My Time of Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

From the Painting in the Boydell Gallery by Aug’a Kauffman Zucchi

I do not seek to quench your love’s hot fire,
But qualify the fire’s extreme rage,
Lest it should burn above the bounds of reason.
Lucetta, Act II, Scene VII

I imagine Abbot and Costello performing dramatic devices from The Merchant of Venice for an idea which wouldn’t fully mature until Romeo & Juliet.

Shakespeare’s tale of romantic love may seem like shallow entertainment. However, as in most Shakespeare pieces, he weaves fundamental and universal elements of the human condition into this humorous rendering of a story experienced by all people.

Love – that meaning of life, that shared bond mastered by none but claimed by all, that passion in life to which we find ourselves chemically dependent though it ironically serves us best when focused on others. Shakespeare boldly claims ignorance to the true nature of love by exploring its crevices and peeks, transforming it from a drunken obsession into a raging demand and ultimately into a sort of mirror to our naked character.

As a comedy, Shakespeare playfully manipulates the essence of his art, planting word-plays and terse dialogue to which only live studio audiences or laugh tracks can provide justice. He arguably constructs a less than believable ending to serve his audience and theater’s bottom line.

Yet within the comedy we see two inseparable friends fated by love toward blissful and desperate ends. Love plays the trickster, the maniacal devil of mischief, twisting the relationships and lives of those gathered around its fire. Once revered as a brilliant display, it betrays the friends and lovers with its scorching touch but then ultimately shines its light on the integrity or inconstancy of its pagan idolaters. But we bear the responsibility of indulging the entertainment while seeing the activity in the dark areas over-shadowed by the light which exposes that entertainment. Though motivated by love, one gentlemen becomes the villain who fatefully suffers the forgiveness of one who arguably allows love to transform him. Yet will this villainous friend find happiness in the same way as his forgiver enjoys the fruits of his loving disposition? Even if all ends well, can he call his life free of the envy and animosity which love inspires, that same passion which leads another man to a very different life experience.

Within the text, one may notice the soliloquies jammed between the terse dialogue. During these inner monologues, our characters consider how love will either force them to betray or indulge themselves and how that choice will dictate their lives. Though these characters make different choices regarding self-indulgence or love’s self-betrayal, they seem to respect that the shared inspiration of love drives them, albeit to different experiences. Alas, perhaps this only helps me swallow Shakespeare’s ending – likely scripted in order to glue a certain smile on every patron’s face as they leave the theater only to live what they just witnessed on the stage.

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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in William Shakespeare


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