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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: The Second Tetralogy – King Henry IV First Part

From the Painting at the Boydell Gallery, R. Westail, R.A.

You stiffly force the turn of the revolving door flanked by glass panels flashing the buzz of the downtown street. You traverse the shimmering lobby floor and sway with your shifting weight as you await the arrival of the elevator. When it arrives, you leap from the doors as a rush of people flood from the car. Then you enter, alone, light the button for the wrong floor, then the correct floor, and dance your hyper finger on the “Door Close” button. You relax, stare at the glowing numbers count closer to your goal. The doors open. Close. You shouldn’t have pushed that wrong button.

After subduing the receptionist with your charms and forged press badge, you enter his office and find him lying on a sofa tossing a ball in the air to himself. Papers laze about his desk like beastly cats on a hot day in the Savanah and you look for his absent computer, then quickly to the point at hand. He looks to you, your lips quiver and you hold out the bottle of wine which dried up your last paycheck.

You just want to ask one question. You will have no other opportunity to question Shakespeare. He bends his brow, sits up impatiently…What will you ask him?

“Why John Falstaff?”

Amidst more civil strife, spawned by an uncomfortable seat which provides only the opportunity to fight for its keeping, we witness two sides of a politically epic tale. One side, starring Henry Bolingbroke as King Henry IV, portrays the warring factions of Lords Northumberland, Worcester and Percy, the very men who aided Bolingbroke’s apprehension of King Richard II’s throne, against the new King, their one-time friend. Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur for his reckless and cavalier temprament, counters a paranoid King obsessed with protecting, washing and wringing his hands, as Jon Finch plays him, in order to parley the guilt of King Richard II’s deposition and murder. If only Richard could witness the accuracy of his prophecy when he said to Northumberland,

The love of wicked friends converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

True to his form, Shakespeare urges sympathy to both sides of this historical conflict, since all angles bear the kink of humanity. I sympathize with Percy’s faction because the new King returns the courtesy of their previous aid with scorn and mistrust. Although, to a small degree, I blame Percy’s reckless thirst for action which likely exaggerates his intentions against the King. But I do not find his complaint against Bolingbroke without merit. In this, the new king learns how he opened the gate for equality amongst nobility and royalty by usurping a throne designed for the security of perfect succession. How can he assert his dominance when he owes so much to others? How can he expect others to live submissively when he whom they serve sits on the throne by their actions? Humanity has now tainted the divine sanctity of the English monarchy and bears conflict with her.

Shakespeare might have better entitled King Henry IV – The First Part as The Rise of Prince Henry. Beyond the perilous drought of political conflict, we meet Henry, Prince of Wales, who galavants through inns and taverns with baseborn commoners and insignificant, cowardly villains. Presumabely, he abandons the royal court for the court of paupers where he still maintains his title but enjoys a life a bit outside of the law, like a youth above it. But Shakespeare begs his audience to remember the prince’s own words:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok’d humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents,
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill;
Reckoning time when men think least I will.

He plays this part so successfully that the King, his father, preaches to him about his holiday behaviour, comparing it to that of King Richard II, and beckons him to behave as he did, humbly presenting himself to gain favour and support as king. Perhaps I prematurely sympathized with Bolingbroke during King Richard II’s time, imagining he only wanted his birthright from Richard. But it would seem, according to his advice, he had his eye on the throne all along, deposing Richard when his birthright would have done. Now in this conflict with Percy he knows his enemies have just grievance against him. So this meeting between father and son, King and Prince, full of advice, with a hint of regret and nostalgia in comparing the prince to King Richard II, and both indicative of the prince’s successful ploy and the King’s apparaent guilt, marks the prince’s return to the royal fold after a very different upbringing than Bolingbroke. After all, Bolingbroke came from Gaunt and nobility while Prince Henry, though of the same blood, wallowed with commoners and miscriants. He has a deeper potential for character and may avoid the shallowness of envy and animalistic paranoia of possession. I wonder if the prince’s humble actions with the likes of John Falstaff, conspiring to rob robber friends, mirrors the pompous political circumstances of the state. The king, then, shares this reunion with a purified and strengthened son who can better lead England.

After the battle, the prince describes the nobility of his heart with mournful praises of fallen Percy and mercy for Douglas in return for his valor. But his true grace lies in his love for men like John Falstaff, jolly cowards who provide good company and unshakeable loyalty despite distastes for war, rebukes of honor and shameful behavior.

Yet who is John Falstaff? Like many other characters in your plays, he beckons so many different interpretations. Why did you write him? What purpose does he serve? You spend so much time on this obvious fiction juxtaposed to the historical plot…why? What sort of past does Falstaff carry with him? Who is he?

While away from court, perhaps the prince embraced Falstaff as a kind of father figure. Falstaff brought him up in all his vulgar practices and they enjoyed an intimate familiarity of loving speech and knee-buckling slurs. Falstaff outweighs the prince in years and pounds and they even perform the part of father and son opposite one another, taking turns imitating the prince and the king. Perhaps Falstaff willingly accepts the prince’s projections of feelings for his father, perhaps he foreshadows the prince’s fate should he choose to hide himself behind the base contagious clouds too long. If Falstaff does serve as a father figure, it would indicate a dual parentage for the prince which serves to strengthen his character for the commons and the nobility – and needless to say, in love, for I do not doubt that Falstaff loves the prince. And all these things combine to create a character that Vernon described:

He made a blushing cital of himself;
And chid his truant youth with such a grace,
As if he master’d there a double spirit,
Of teaching and of learning instantly.
There did he pause: but let me tell the world, –
If he outlive the envy of this day,
England did never owe so sweet a hope,
So much misconstru’d in his wantonness.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: The Second Tetralogy – The Life and Death of King Richard II

From the Painting by G.H. Boughton

Thus play I, in one person, many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: – but whate’er I am,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas’d till he be eas’d
With being nothing.

I read an act, then watched the act performed by the company supporting Derek Jacobi as King Richard II. I saw the words. Then I heard them. I imagined the words. Then I lived them. Shakespeare wrote The Life and Death of King Richard II completely in verse. He only gifted one other play with such diligent artistry. Because of this rare decision, I must imagine that Shakespeare saw something in Richard’s story which wanted poetry’s aesthetic purity, its demand for perfect word choices and allowance for multidimensional meaning. Using this form, Shakespeare both plays with language and gracefully crafts it into the clearest and most prodigious form of expression. He masters every angle of a word, frolicking with puns and ruthlessly wringing the word wet towel for every meaning and application to an idea, a feeling. He displays a simple duality, stripped naked and vulnerable, of compared and contrasted characters and situations, opposing viewpoints flipped at the turn of circumstance, which construct the very personage of this English king!

The play seems to divide itself in two. Before he embarks for Ireland, King Richard II plays the dunce with the carefree zest of an adolescent child unchecked by the guidance of responsibility or ethics’ urgency. His counselors offer their opinions freely in his presence and those on trial rebuke his entreaties to abandon their griefs at their honor’s cost or soul’s compromise. Yet he does not rage, or flash his merciless power. He listens but to no consequence. Not because he fears them, but because, like an ornery child facing the chastisement of his elders, he does not care. He cares about his will, the coffers, and the luxuries of power. John of Gaunt eloquently argues against Richard’s lease on England and York bitterly pleads against his seizure of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Yet when he returns from Ireland, he endures a harsh reckoning with the world and the pain of invincibility vanished. He must now pay for these stolen eyes with his own.

I wholly embraced this new Richard, this deposed and woeful Richard, who finds himself within the belly of nothingness after the long fall of the blessed. He contemplates his own dual nature as man and rightful king. When facing the insecurity of his position, Richard’s convictions swing like a manic pendulum. He wrestles internally with a king’s mortally uncomfortable burden and the high spiritual calling and civil duty of his office, owned by him as anointed to the task. Suddenly, Richard, once an immature cliche of a carefree, flattered and corrupt king, transforms into a person contemplating his newly divided nature, a nameless identity. And while Richard splits, so does the world. Men must now speed familiarity with a world newly starred with common royalty, “base glory”, enslaved sovereignty, and kingly vulnerability – a world in which fathers prosecute sons and ill-succeeded kings open gates to civil strife as the delicate vale between subject and king weakens and faith in the king’s incontestable grace shatters. As Richard must understand his new identity, so must humanity, like newborn babes, understand a world reshaped.

Richard, who embodies this split, this duality of humanity’s longing and the dogmatic infliction of position – while we contemplate new worlds pioneered as if into uncharted wildernesses never before seen – reaches out to the patron and begs them to project their own struggle onto the himself. Let him wail for you! Let him contemplate himself for you! Let him grow into a sympathetically tragic martyr on your behalf as he calls his counselors Judas’, washing their hands with Pilate, and himself Christ led to his crucifixion. Let him ascend the steps of consciousness and unity between self and identity, leading into the depths of death and social deposition. And listen to the master playwright’s language represent the beautiful complexity of our birthright, our guaranteed struggle, our condition.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: The First Tetralogy – Henry VI Third Part

From the Painting in the Boydell Gallery, by J. Northcote, R.A.

Full well hath Clifford play’d the orator,
Inferring arguments of mighty force.
But, Clifford, tell me, didst though never hear
That things ill got had ever bad success?
And happy always was it for that son
Whose father for his hoarding went to hell?
I’ll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind;
And would my father had left me no more!
For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousand-fold more care to keep
Than in possession any jot of pleasure.

With these words, Henry defies those who accuse him of cowardice, including myself. As I conclude this story of King Henry VI, I find myself concerned solely with his character. I understand that with a broad enough scope, discontent and sedition prove cyclical without an end point where justice stands victorious over her enemies and all wronged parties contendtedly relieve themselves. After all, as it may always sway with politics, the powerful alone define the truth of justice.

Yet Henry VI introduces me to an unfamiliar type of king, one who remains so much in the background of the civil warring in his kingdom yet still symbolizes the boon of one side of the fight. It seems Shakespeare inverts the story arch with my emotional reactions to Henry’s behavior. Where a story begins by setting the scene, then introduces the rising conflict, the climax and finally the falling resolution, I held Henry in a high regard, then he fell when the story rises and climaxes, then he rose again, for me, during the falling resolution. I esteemed his wisdom and sense of priority regarding the kingdom above himself in Part 1, began to question his conviction and will to defend his moral integrity in Part 2, then let him fall entirely in my regard as he agreed to York’s succession. But then I embraced him again, more fully than any other time during the trilogy, as a righteous philosopher who understands more of a man’s contentment and the false promise of happiness included with the purchase of a crown.

As the next generation enters the stage, after the tumultous revolting of Henry’s younger years, I wondered if Henry might have his own son’s true interests at heart when he gives up Prince Edward’s right to the crown. Of course, Queen Margaret, a beautifully bold feminine image of power and conviction in a man’s political world, violently defends their son’s right to the crown. But where they hold in common purpose for Prince Edward’s happiness, they differ in their methods. She thinks raising him to the highest office in England means providing his joy. Henry fundamentally disagrees as he comes to understand the true nature of this game and life.

In Act II, Scene V, Shakespeare illustrates a wonderous portrait of civil strife. First, Henry delivers a moving soliloquy on his perspective, one which he may have always had but finally puts in words and owns as his stance, then the image of fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers. The language would crush the heart of any horse-blinded warrior but I appreciated its simplicity most – an image of a corpse, colored in white by his pale cheeks and red by his blood, embodying both the red and white roses of this civil conflict. Such strife serves only to pay tribute unto death, nothing more. The victor dies as much as the vanquished as both share the same body politic.

We now look forward to the exploits of Richard III. I loved his confrontation with Henry VI when he decides to forfeit the effort to keep the nature of his soul and intellect differentiated from his body – a difference the public had ignored and considered his parts one and the same in monstrosity. With develish words Richard surrenders the battle to keep apart the magnetized aspects of his being and allows his spirit to reflect his physical form as so many in ignorant bigotry had marked him. What a tragedy, but no more tragic than the end of a life which wanted nothing more than to know God, serve his realm justly and live happily.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: The First Tetralogy – Henry VI Second Part

From the Painting in the Boydell Gallery, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he arm’d that hath his quarrel just,
And he but naked, though lock’d up in steel,
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.

In this second part of Henry VI’s story, we see the bricks of the English realm begin to fall and crumble into wasted building blocks.

It seems that any bold citizen would dip their hands into the bloody cauldron filled with the jewels of English power. From lowly laborer to noble duke, conspiracy and revolt surround Henry VI. Every character played a role in this seditious plot by either promoting it or by aligning themselves with the honorable and noble few who would suffer only an untainted heart as consolation.

I enjoyed Shakespeare’s loud and sometimes bombastic language in this second part. I imagined villainous players bellowing their words in passionate dynamics and dramatic conviction. It contrasted the tone of Henry VI who, I admit, frustrates me a bit. Despite the tumult and revolt happening all around him, he does not take control of the situation or exhibit any ability to bring down an iron fist. It seems he stands only as a flat symbol of his position while the other characters portray personality, ambition, honor, malice and other aspects of humanity. Henry VI might have made a better priest than king and York and others see this as an opportunity to overthrow such a king.

I also appreciated Shakespeare’s presentation of justice in this second part. It would seem that justice does not save the blameless but it assuredly avenges them. Henry VI and Gloucester, and even Lord Say, have faith that the law will protect their untainted hearts, that no man can attack the righteous because of their blameless character. Of course, this proves far from a reality. Are we to lose our own faith in justice – the virtuous falling to the discontented? Why would anyone, then, adopt virtue?

Yet while the loyal fall, the villains suffer the resulting justice – not directly by the hand of Henry VI but seemingly by natural course. While the honorable remain so remembered in the annals of history, the villains lose life and name as well. Perhaps justice acts as an avenger rather than a protector. And if this theme carries into the third part, I anticipate Henry VI’s demise and an even more horrible fate for his opponent.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: Introduction

20130203_105736_0My father owned this edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and it passed down to me. I don’t recall the circumstances under which I came to own this book but I do know that it has glistened with its gold-leaf lettering and rustic brown binding on my bookshelf providing me a sort of peace.

As a literature major at Saint John’s University, I chose to study Shakespeare for a semester but, like other times when natural passions suffer submersion under official tutelage, I squandered the opportunity to apply myself fully into Shakespeare’s genius. Even now, I have trouble referring to his “genius”. I should say I have an inherent disinclination toward all things one ought to glorify. If the world crowns Babe Ruth as the greatest in baseball history, I argue for Ted Williams.

However, like so many other things, I have reluctantly disengaged myself from my own pompous rebellion to discover the man, as I dabble here and there, as one deserving of the affections. Call me hard-headed or obstinate, thick-skinned, a late bloomer, one who won’t acknowledge how that official tutelage has finally emerged from my subconscious into my waking mind, but I grow because of that emergence in my own perfect timing.

20130203_105819Therefore, I begin. Through this year, and carrying into future ones, I pledge to study one play in between novels. I will read plays I have already read, delve into plays which have intimidated me and endure the plays which I had found ridiculous. I entitle this series of study “My Time of Shakespeare” and it will include essays of my own thoughts and reactions after reading, watching or discussing the plays. I have included my most recent reading of King Lear into this series even though I finished it prior to its conception. Unfortunately, I have yet to disengage myself from my pompous rebellion against the sonnets, or poetry in general for that matter, so the plays shall remain my sole focus. I have outgrown my bias against him, my excuses to avoid taking him seriously because so many others already do. After all, such an attitude coupled with a literary passion void of Shakespeare’s influence only serves to hinder my intellectual growth and bolster my arrogant pride.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in William Shakespeare

 

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