Friday, September 22, 2017

Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

I was actually super excited to read this play, because it's the last instalment in Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe before Richard III. And it may be rather an irony of this whole belated journey through the history plays, that the chronologically last in this eight-part series is also the one which I first came to. Fifteen years ago or so, my parents hired a DVD of Laurence Olivier's Richard III.

It was mesmerising. It was unforgettable.

It was super confusing, because I didn't know who half the characters were or why they were important or what they'd all been up to before the play began. You could piece together a few things, for example, like the fact that Richard had already been stabbing people pretty freely. But I never actually knew what had happened, and somehow I never quite made the mental connection that hey, maybe I should actually read those plays.

I'm thrilled to have now rectified this situation.

As much as I loved Henry VI, Part 2 I'm now tempted to prefer Henry VI, Part 3This play is a little tighter and more focused than Part 2, and it is intense.

With the Wars of the Roses in full swing and the Duke of York now openly claiming the throne, Henry VI desperately engineers a peace by promising to make York his heir. York is satisfied with this, but Henry's formidable warrior queen Margaret is outraged, and so are many of his staunchest supporters. Margaret raises an army and succeeds in capturing, humiliating, and murdering the duke--but in doing so, unleashes York's three surviving sons on a vengeful rampage that carries eldest son Edward to the throne itself. The Lancastrians retreat to Scotland and France to regroup--and when Edward IV makes a diplomatic faux pas, they're more than ready to reignite war.

This play was terrific, and shows that even after Part 2 Shakespeare had an incredible amount of epic awesome up his sleeve. Defiance, murder, revenge, betrayal, ambition, and the by-now obligatory romantic scene, all of which in this first tetralogy excel in being creepily wrong compared to the more heartfelt and tender scenes in the second. But by far the most compelling element of this play is the relationship between the three brothers that anchors the story.

At the end of the last play, the York brothers are just the Duke's four sons, and the only one with a discernible personality is Richard, already distinguishing himself as a reckless and outspoken fighter. But Part 3 is the tale of how the brothers are welded together into a triumvirate by the tragedies that befall their family--and then shattered apart by their own lusts.

Douglas Wilson once identified "girls, gold, and glory" as the usual temptations of great warriors, and it's interesting that each of the three York brothers is drawn to each of these things. Edward IV's weak spot is women, and his downfall comes at the unwilling hands of presumably the first beautiful woman he's met who refuses to fall into his arms. The steady and dutiful George, Duke of Clarence, is quickly alienated when Edward grants wealthy heiresses to his new wife's family over the heads of his brothers, and defects to the Lancastrians. Meanwhile Richard remains faithful to Edward--but underneath his loyal exterior he's hatching his own plans to eliminate everyone standing between him and the throne.

All this tragedy, revenge and betrayal is everything you ever wanted in a story about siblings. But everything just gets that tiny bit better when one of the siblings concerned is Richard of Gloucester. Richard is a hugely fun character in this play. Silver-tongued, ambitious, snarky, and unscrupulous, it's actually hard to call him a villain, as hard as Shakespeare works to depict him as one. The reason for this is that Richard is only one of many unsavoury characters in this play. Both York and Lancaster are equally morally compromised, and this play merely continues a mounting series of terrible actions on both sides. By now, the civil war is so rancorous that when Margaret kills York, or the York brothers kill Clifford, they do it with lingering, malicious mockery. This is a play where the main characters discover one of their enemies expiring on the battlefield and spend an uncomfortably long time hurling insults and abuses at the corpse. Against such a backdrop, it's not until Richard heads off to knife the only unmistakeably decent person in the whole play that we feel he's crossed a line. Until then, he's simply one among many anti-heroes, and by far the most engaging and colourful one.

Would You Trust This Man?
By now you can probably tell that I absolutely loved this play, and I did. That said, this one is definitely not as strong as Henry VI, Part 2. The first half of the play is absolutely as terrific as anything Shakespeare ever wrote, and it all scrambles back together again for the end. But much of the second half had weirdly rushed pacing, and there were a number of things that fell flat in consequence. The three battles more or less blur into each other, and a number of plot developments don't get the time they need. George's return to his brother's cause, for instance, is abrupt and unexplained. Warwick's death feels like it really should have been made more of. It's as if everything suddenly fast-forwards until we get to the capture of Queen Margaret and Prince Edward.

This is a serious letdown in an otherwise intense and memorable play, but it's salvaged well by the knockout ending. With Lancaster out of the way, Richard is now poised to scythe his way through the entire House of York until it's just him left atop a pile of corpses. I already know how that pans out, but I'm looking forward to reliving it all, this time with a much better idea of what happened in the backstory.

I watched the Hollow Crown production of Henry VI, Part 3 which actually they called "Part 2", even though the majority of the content is from Part 3. Anyway, of course Benedict Cumberbatch makes a mesmerising Richard of Gloucester, consuming the scenery with evident glee. As usual, the adaptation is a good bit looser than usual with Shakespeare on film. While some of the edits in the second half did a good job of adjusting the original play's pacing problems, a surprisingly large number of scenes are altered, some even with lines added or changed, in order to intensify or modify the story. The result works well as television, but is getting pretty far removed from Shakespeare's original. Also, a warning--it's gratuitously, pervasively gory. Not recommended for the young or squeamish.

Find Henry VI, Part 3 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

After the plodding, uninspired mess that was Henry VI, Part 1, I wasn't quite expecting Henry VI, Part 2 to be so great.

This play begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou, Henry's new queen. Margaret is a fantastic character, by the way--young and penniless, but coldly ambitious and willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. What she wants is to rule England by ousting Duke Humphrey of Gloucester as Henry VI's protector and taking up his influence over the young, devout, and impressionable king. Her conspiracy to destroy Humphrey quickly gains support not only from her own self-interested Lancaster supporters, but also from the Yorkist faction, led by Duke Richard of York, who secretly hopes that Humphrey's removal will smooth his own way to the throne which he believes is rightfully his...

First of all, Henry VI, Part 2 is not quite Shakespeare at the top of his form, but it's Shakespeare operating at an unprecedentedly epic scope. You name it, this play has it: pirates? villainous forbidden love? assassination? intrigue? witchcraft? battles? satire? catfights? trial by ordeal? Henry VI, Part 2 is a sprawling tale covering years of history, all social strata and dozens of characters. While Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V are known to history as the "Major Tetralogy" and this one gets stuck with "Minor", I can't help feeling that the scope of this play is on a whole different level.

Without a sharp focus on specific characters, and with a plot that encompasses so many different subplots (including fun appearances from the young future Richard III!), this play is a lot to take in, and Shakespeare would for the rest of his career confine himself to a smaller scope. Personally, though, I found it a thrilling and satisfying historical epic. The currents of intrigue that started running in Part 1 now threaten to sweep England into a full-blown civil war, and the sheer scope of the play helps to underline the drama of what's happening.

Piety

If this play is difficult to like, it's because of the characters. The only genuinely heroic character is Duke Humphrey, who spends the whole first half of the story being disgraced and then brutally murdered with the connivance of almost every single other prominent character. The notable exception is Henry VI himself, and the great irony of the play is that Henry is a fat lot of help.

In this instalment of the story, more so than in Henry VI, Part 1, Henry's most notable character trait is his devout goodness. A pious and gentle young man, you'd be pardoned for expecting that England would be peaceful and happy under his reign. But it isn't. Henry makes a terrible king, and he's helpless in the hands of his ruthless and cunning nobles.

"Here is the central irony of the play: Henry's Christian goodness produces evil." So says director Peter Hall, arguing that Henry's adherence to Christian ethics puts him at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the ambition, ruthlessness, and hunger for power of the nobles around him. This is, of course, the Game of Thrones school of ethics: goodness simply can't compete with evil because evil is willing to fight dirty. It's a natural modernist interpretation of the play, but I can't believe that the author of The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter's Tale, or Macbeth would seriously promote such a worldview. Macbeth is the ultimate picture of an unscrupulous tyrant laying the foundations of his own destruction, while in Measure for Measure, it's the devout Isabella and the just Duke who easily overcome the self-interested Angelo. No, Shakespeare didn't really believe that goodness is incompetent by definition.

So, no, Henry VI Part 2 is not about a king whose devout piety renders him incapable of resisting evil. Henry's kingly flaws are of course bound up in his piety, but it's the specific kind of piety that he represents which makes him weak. Shakespeare would have been familiar with the passage in Matthew 10:16 where Christ tells his disciples: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Our Lord knew very well that evil men are willing to fight dirty, and he specifically told us not to be naive about this. Shakespeare's Duke in Measure for Measure is a terrific picture of a Christian ruler who aces the wise as serpents part: perceiving and dealing with the corruption in his realm. Henry VI, on the other hand, not only fails to perceive the corruption surrounding him (whether in a mere charlatan pretending to have been cured of blindness, or in his own queen, Margaret), but also repeatedly fails to take action to address it. When things go wrong, Henry complains or faints or calls it the will of God. His primary failure is not his piety. It's his failure to express that piety by means of active justice.

Oddly enough, I read all about the Duchess of Gloucester's case in Charles Williams's book on Witchcraft.

Justice

In Act 2, Shakespeare uses a minor subplot to hit this point home. An armourer accused of treason and the servant who accused him undergo a trial by combat. There is a good deal of satire surrounding the trial: this is not a knightly confrontation between noblemen, but a clash between two drunk and frightened men. It's an unedifying struggle of might between might, when it should actually have been a dispute of truth against truth, ably adjudicated by the king himself. (Romans 13:4 designates civil authorities as God's ministers for justice). Throughout the play, repeatedly we see Henry VI fail to minister divine justice. Meanwhile his powerful nobles subvert justice, turning it into a realpolitik contest of might against might.

To give him his due, Henry recognises (as his nobles do not), that justice is ultimately done in history by a watchful and concerned personal God (this is one of the distinctives of Christianity). When the trial by combat comes to its close, Henry observes:
For by his death we do perceive his guilt.
And God in justice hath revealed to us
The truth and innocence of this poor fellow,
Which he had thought to have murdered wrongfully.
Henry puts his trust in God to see justice done: its "righteous cause prevails." Of course, by the end of the play, hopelessly outmaneuvered, he's fleeing the triumphant Duke of York who is hell-bent on taking his throne. Duke Humphrey puts his trust in justice and innocence too: "All these could not procure me any scathe/So long as I am loyal, true and crimeless." The equally ill-fated Lord Say states, "The trust I have is in my innocence/And therefore I am bold and resolute." These three men are the most just men in the play, and all of them believe they will get justice because they are just. What all three of these men fail to recognise is that however steadfast divine justice may be, earthly justice is, at the moment, hopelessly corrupt (at least partly because the Lancastrian succession actually does have its roots in usurpation).

And as God's ministers of justice, it's their job to fix this.

Again, the trial by combat is the perfect expression of what's wrong with England in this play. The armourer goes into battle confidently, a skilled swordsman, while his accuser is not just hopelessly outclassed but also petrified. To everyone's shock, the accuser triumphs and the armourer confesses his treason as he dies.

This scene struck me when I was reading it as being rather irrelevant to the rest of the plot, but thinking back, I realise how incredibly pivotal it is in a thematic sense.

First, the play is full of good and just men being disgraced and defeated. If Shakespeare believed in divine justice at all, we should expect him to include one small exception as foreshadowing of the ultimate truth and reality of divine justice. That, in this scene, is exactly what we find. The armourer loses, and the servant wins, not because he is powerful but because he is right. It's a hint that no matter how bad things may be in the rest of the play, evil will ultimately fail.

Second, however, this scene is only a small exception to the injustice running rampant in the rest of the play. In this scene God dispenses divine justice by means of something close to a miracle, and it's pretty obvious that for Shakespeare this is a bad thing. If justice was being properly done in England by means of the ministers appointed for it, then trial by combat, war, and insurrection - in a word, raw power struggles - would not be deciding the fate of anyone, let alone thousands.



An Underappreciated Masterpiece?

There is a lot in this play, and this review has run a bit longer than I expected. (I should acknowledge that on first reading, most of the thematic richness of this play passed me by, and I turned to the helpful discussion on Wikipedia for some jumping-off points for my analysis.) Apparently, however, critics consider this the best of the Henry VI plays, and I can see why.

In that case, I have a question: why on earth is it so hard to find a decent production? I've now seen two adaptations of this play, and both lopped out most of the content in order to graft it onto a similarly truncated version of Part 1. Along the way, most of the action and the thematic richness was lost. Henry VI Part 2 is a sprawling, epic play with a thought-provoking point to it, well and truly deserving of a full adaptation. I think it's my second favourite play in either tetralogy so far.

I saw the Hollow Crown production of Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2 which condenses both plays into about two hours (boo!). With gorgeous production values and excellent acting (I was initially unconvinced by the decision to cast Sophie Okonedo as Margaret, but quickly won over by her energetic performance), it was compelling watching. I skipped two scenes and would recommend checking out a parental advisory if you like to be warned about content. A couple of historical inaccuracies made me laugh (I'm pretty sure they didn't use voodoo dolls in medieval England, and a noblewoman like the Duchess of Gloucester would never have been brought to trial looking like a scarecrow!), and like I mentioned, a lot of the action got cut out. Alternate recommendations welcomed!

Find Henry VI, Part 2 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

The time has finally come to dig into Shakespeare's Lesser Tetralogy--four history plays comprising three parts of Henry VI and then Richard III. While Richard III is familiar to me through having seen a couple of films of the play, I'd never really heard of or been interested in Henry VI, so I didn't really know what to expect.

Henry VI Part 1 begins with Henry V's funeral, then skips forward in time to the last throes of the Hundred Years' War. While the young King's nobles clash over who will control the kingdom, the heroic Lord Talbot has his hands full dealing with an insurrection in France headed by the Dauphin (the same one that appears in Henry V, making him Henry VI's uncle, for those trying to keep track) together with the strange and magnetic personality of La Pucelle, Joan of Arc.

As usual, I began by watching a production of the play, this one a rather truncated stage performance which I found on Youtube. Shakespeare is always, always better performed, and I enjoyed the quick volley of battlefield scenes and the heavy, tragic irony that pervades this play, as Henry's nobles inevitably tear down the accomplishments of his father.

However, apart from a couple of scenes, the play seemed a little flat and dead, and I was astonished to crack open the source material, the play itself, and find that the faults were if anything magnified here. That's right: Henry VI, Part 1 is actually a bad play.

Opinion seems to be divided as to whether Henry VI, Part 1 was Shakespeare's very first play, or just a very early one written as a rather unnecessary prequel to Parts 2 and 3. From the play itself I would tend to lean toward the first theory, as it's clumsy on a purely verbal level. Within a disgustingly short time, Shakespeare would be writing things like Richard III, which is full of things like the opening speech or the courtship scene with Anne Neville--speeches that soar, scenes that glitter with wit. Very little of that is evident here. There are very few memorable lines. Long speeches plod and limp. Whole subplots fall flat on their faces (like the weird scene where the Countess of Auvergne makes a half-hearted attempt to seduce Talbot). Scenes and characters with marvellous potential, that almost come alive on the stage - like the capture of Margaret of Anjou by Suffolk, which touches off a relationship almost as skin-crawlingly wrong as Richard III and Anne's, or John Talbot's refusal to leave his father - seem, when read, to have been written by someone with ten thumbs, salvageable only through judicious editing and careful acting. But most of the play could have been terrific, and is merely forgettable, like the scene where the factions of York and Lancaster adopt the red and white roses as their emblems, which shows a neat piece of historical mythmaking--if only the dialogue had measured up to it.

It was actually a fascinating experience, reading this play. It's Shakespeare before he became Shakespeare. Later, he would learn how to deliver dense historical exposition without constantly having characters come on to do the dreaded As You Know. A typical scene begins, rather painfully:
MASTER-GUNNER: Sirrah, thou know'st how Orleans is besieg'd,
And how the English have the suburbs won.
SON: Father, I know; and of have shot at them,
Howe'er, unfortunate, I missed my aim.
Even on the rare occasions that Shakespeare does ascend into the flights of wordplay that will mark his great plays, something just seems a little...off!
SIR WILLIAM LUCY: Is Talbot slain—the Frenchmen's only scourge,
Your kingdom's terror and black Nemesis?
O, were mine eye-balls into bullets turn'd,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!
The stage directions in this play are unusually detailed (for Shakespeare), and come with plenty of action, which when well-handled on stage actually give the plot a sense of momentum. There's even a duel between Joan of Arc and the Dauphin. She beats him, thereby proving either that she truly comes from God, or more likely that the French are major wimps. 

Actually, Joan of Arc is one of the most controversial things about this play, since Shakespeare paints her as a thorough villain about half the time--calling on fiends, deriding her father, lying desperately to save her life. But the other half of the time, she seems to believe her own claims to be sent by heaven, and even acts like it (especially as she confronts the Duke of Burgundy about his loyalties). I said in my review of Henry V that the word that continually comes to mind as I've been reading these history plays is ambiguity, but Henry VI's La Pucelle doesn't attain the wonderful paradoxical yet unified ambiguity of the title characters of Henry V or Richard II. I don't know if Shakespeare was hamfistedly attempting this kind of ambiguity (settling only for contradictoriness), or whether he was simply an inexperienced writer being dragged off course by a larger-than-life historical figure. Either way, all we can do is look at the subtleties Shakespeare would achieve as a mature author and imagine how terrific his Joan of Arc might have been, written later in his career.

Of course, not everything in this play is bad, and although the characters and writing are unconvincing, the plot and theme are actually quite good. Henry VI, Part 1 finds its thematic material in the contrast of Henry's selfish, ambitious nobles with the desperate heroism of Lord Talbot's attempts to keep hold of France. There's dramatic irony in buckets here. Self-interested cowards like Sir John Fastolfe (not to be confused with Henry IV's Falstaff!) save their lives by fleeing the battlefield at the drop of a hat. Self-interested nobles like Somerset, York, and dark-horse contender Suffolk either let their personal ambitions get in the way of assisting the war, or use it to achieve their own ulterior goals. And the immature King Henry is willing to trade his father's conquests based on a sight-unseen infatuation for Margaret of Anjou. All of them in different ways betray the heritage of Henry V, and the efforts of Talbot and his men to retain that honour and power. While York and Somerset exchange hissy emails, the heroic Talbot line is perishing on the battlefield.

This play only sets the scene for the upcoming Wars of the Roses. As England lurches closer to civil war, her best and brightest are thrown away in France. It's a sombre tale that could have been brilliant in the hands of a better dramatist--like Shakespeare himself would become just a couple of years later. 

Find Henry VI, Part 1 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Yes, yes, I really do mean to get back into Shakespeare's history plays next week, this time with Henry VI, Part 1. But...all the time I was reading my way through Shakespeare's Henriad, and enjoying the antics of Sir John Falstaff, I couldn't help remembering how long it'd been since I'd read The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Yes, I had read it, all those years ago while my brother and I were working our way through our massive Complete Works of Shakespeare, ticking off each play as we came to it. I remembered thinking it was hilarious, and thought that this might be the right time to revisit this purely comedic spin-off to what I'm affectionately calling the English-History Theatrical Universe.

That's right, Sir John Falstaff was such a hit in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 that Shakespeare decided to capitalise on him with a spin-off comedy. No civil strife, battle scenes, or doom-laden meditations on kingship here: The Merry Wives of Windsor is pure farce, containing some of the wackiest humour you'll find in a Shakespeare play outside Love's Labour's Lost or The Taming of the Shrew

As always, Sir John Falstaff is short on money and willing to do anything, no matter how low, in order to get it. In this play he decides to get at the coffers of wealthy Windsor gentlemen Ford and Page, by seducing their wives. Mistress Ford (whose husband is insanely jealous) and Mistress Page (whose husband is oblivious) are highly amused to receive matching love letters from the corpulent old reprobate, and decide the opportunity for a bit of revenge is too good to miss. 

Meanwhile, Falstaff's old drinking-companion Justice Shallow is in town with comedy Welsh priest Sir Hugh Evans and his nephew Slender, who Shallow and Evans encourage to marry the Pages' pretty and wealthy young daughter Anne. Unfortunately for the diffident Slender, Anne has other suitors - Dr Caius, the comedy French doctor, and the reformed playboy Fenton. Maybe one of them would have a chance with her - if only the doctor's quick-witted maid Mistress Quickly could decide which of them to help.

The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't seen as one of Shakespeare's stronger efforts. Critics point out, rather justly, the fact that the subplot (although it has at least two hilarious punchlines, like the scene where the doctor and the priest attempt to fight a duel over Anne Page - as other characters note, one is a healer of bodies and the other is a healer of souls) has very little to do with the main plot. Perhaps the most serious shortcoming is that the Sir John Falstaff in this play is not quite what he was in Henry IV Part 1 and 2 - fat, yes, cunning, yes, but somehow toothless. Falstaff does not seem quite himself without doom hanging over his unvenerable old head, or if he's not attacking honourable corpses in a bald-faced attempt to get credit for killing them, or meditating on honour's inability to keep him fed or clothed. Shifted into a pure farce, Falstaff has become a purely comedic character, but that undercurrent of tragedy was part of what made him such a memorable character. 

But despite this play's shortcomings, I have to admit I loved it just as much as ever this time around. It may not be a great Falstaff play, but it's a) legitimately hilarious and b) rather unique among Shakespeare's plays.

Yes, the play really is this zany. Go watch it. Now.
The most memorable character in this play isn't Falstaff: it's Master Ford. Shakespeare has enormous fun with all the characters in this play, and the effect is like nothing so much as an episode of Fawlty Towers, with Basil Fawlty himself played by Master Ford. Ford is manic, irrational, and obsessive - basically, comedy gold. I suspect that this comedy might have also had something of the same cringe factor for Elizabethans that Fawlty Towers has, though time has softened its effect - although Ford winds up redeeming himself and keeping more of his dignity than Basil ever does.

But let's take a moment to appreciate possibly my favourite thing in this play, which is the central characters of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. These ladies are the best ever. When was the last time you read a story with two such attractive middle-aged female protagonists? The Merry Wives themselves are the smartest, funniest, most joyous people in this play and possibly even the whole Complete Works (with the possible exception of the French ladies in Love's Labours Lost). Unlike just about any other Shakespeare protagonists, or any protagonists at all from the time period, they're just ordinary middle-class matrons, neither noble enough nor young enough to be obvious heroines. And then, unlike just about any middle-class matron protagonist in twentieth-century lit, they're clearly contented, fulfilled, and utterly on top of things. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play in which virtue triumphs over villainy, and does it while being smarter, funnier, and more adorable than anyone else. With features like that, I don't really care if it has shortcomings elsewhere!

I read The Merry Wives of Windsor along with an excellent performance recording from YouTube. Take two hours to listen to it--it's a delight! 

Find The Merry Wives of Windsor on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

I'll be digging back into Shakespeare's history plays in a couple of weeks, but by way of a break I decided to read Booth Tarkington's classic American novel The Magnificent Ambersons.

I'd heard a lot about The Magnificent Ambersons before getting around to reading it, but I was under the impression that it was an unpretentious comedy. I had no idea that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and having read it, I can see why. Though it comes with plenty of gleams of humour, this novel is an earnest drama with an ambitious scope. 

When we meet them, the Amberson family is a prominent, wealthy, and aristocratic founding family of a small midwest-American town. They live in the biggest, fanciest house in the town, and everyone knows their name. Everyone also knows the only grandson, George Amberson Minafer, an engaging but spoiled child whom everyone agrees needs a sharp comeuppance. Time rolls by and the town expands, threatening the Ambersons' pre-eminence, but George (now a young man) continues to believe that his family is the centre of the universe. Will George get his comeuppance in time? Or will he sacrifice everything and everyone he loves to his own sense of self-importance?

There were a few things that I really liked about this novel, and a few that I really didn't. The main thing I didn't like was George himself. For most of the novel, I found him completely unbearable. I also got the impression that the author wanted me to find him charming despite his evident faults, which only compounded my exasperation with this character. At one stage I decided he was completely unredeemable. I'll try not to give away too much of the ending, except that Tarkington managed to surprise me - but not enough to obliterate the unbearableness.

George's mother, Isabel, was also a character I bore little sympathy for. Tarkington treats her with tiresome Victorian sentimentality - oh, what a noble saintly mother she is for bearing with him and loving him tenderly despite all his flaws. In fact, Isabel starts out by spoiling her son rotten and winds up letting him domineer over her and the people she loves to tragic consequences. She's actually culpable for her actions, and Tarkington wants us to feel sentimentally fuzzy about her. Well, I didn't. 

This, and the novel's rather loose plot structure, made the novel feel a little dated to me. That said, there were a number of things I actually did like in this story.

I thought that Fanny Minafer, George's rather pathetic old maid aunt, was probably the most human and realistic character in the whole book. You didn't like her, but you felt sorry for her. You realised that she probably didn't deserve anything better than what she got, but you sympathised with her desire for something better. Fanny becomes a pivotal character in George's character arc toward the end of the book, and I really loved what Tarkington did with her.

I loved the historical background to this story. Tarkington covers several decades in this book, his focus being on the changes wrought by the passing of time, on a personal scale with the fall of the Ambersons and on a grand scale with the rise of the city itself. I loved how these two threads compared and contrasted to each other. Using just a few repeated motifs - the automobiles, the town gossips, the Neptune fountain, and so on - Tarkington easily tracks the fortunes of new blood and old money, conveying information to us that the viewpoint characters themselves barely notice. Clearly this story isn't just about a selfish young man, it's primarily about an era in American history, and Tarkington does a terrific job of evoking this.

Finally, despite my impatience with some of the novel's most prominent characters, the second half of this book had me completely hooked. Tarkington pours on the drama, and it's oodles of melodramatic fun. 

I didn't love The Magnificent Ambersons. But I can appreciate why it would have made such a hit in its own day, as well as its enduring appeal. I imagine that the things I didn't like could easily be fixed by a good film or TV adaptation, and I might actually sniff one out.

Find The Magnificent Ambersons on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Henry V by William Shakespeare

I'd never actually read Shakespeare's Henry V all the way through before. I'd read a couple of the scenes, for sure, and had seen the Kenneth Branagh film two or three times. So reading the whole play was rather an eye-opener.

Following the accession of hellraising Prince Hal to his father's throne as Henry V, he's shocked everyone by reforming himself into a competent, smart, and vigorous king. As his old companion Sir John Falstaff dies slowly of a broken heart, the new King Harry gets permission from church authorities to invade France, the crown of which he claims in right of his descent from the French princess Isabella. Once in France, however, the English find themselves dramatically outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Will they survive the looming battle at Agincourt? Of course they will, with the help of the most rousing speech ever given in the history of the world. Bask in the awesome:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember├Ęd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, he'd already written most of his other history plays. He'd begun with one four-play cycle on the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III, and then went back through Richard II and Henry IV. Henry V is the last and probably the most beloved of these eight plays, and just as Richard III made a villain everyone already loved to hate, Henry V made a hero everyone already loved to love. This play is about a desperate foreign war, but it comes as a rather bright spot amidst a long and exhausting series about civil war. It's a bright, youthful, valiant play about a heroic young king on adventures in France.

Or is it?

Ambiguity is the word that has come to mind every single time I've sat down to write a review of these Shakespearean history plays, and lo, here it is again.

On the one hand, Shakespeare makes King Henry a thoroughly likeable character. Where Richard II was verbose, Henry V is simply inspiring. You wished Richard would shut up; you want Henry to go on. Richard had an over-inflated sense of his quasi-divine entitlement to the throne, Henry takes every opportunity to remind his men that he loves them and considers them his brothers. Richard treated his nobles like peasants, but Henry treats his peasants like nobles. Whether it's the rousing Harfleur or St Crispin's Day speeches, or whether it's Henry's conversations with his men in disguise the night before Agincourt where he argue's that "every man's soul's his own", or his soliliquy on how the only thing that makes a difference between himself and an ordinary person is ceremony, at times this play seems almost anachronistically democratic for Elizabethan tastes. Indeed, these English democratic ethics are implicitly contrasted with the French, who come around after the battle to bewail their dead knights and lords who are all jumbled up on the battlefield with peasants and commoners.

You like Henry in this play. How can you fail to like someone who treats his men so well, someone as adorably awkward around the French Princess Katharine as he is, someone who knows so well how to inspire others, someone who at times seems to act so nobly toward his enemies?

But you don't even have to look very closely to feel uncomfortable about Henry V.

One thing that began to bug me the second or third time I saw the film, and that became very clear as I read the play, was how constantly Henry shifts the blame for the war onto others. He clearly understands the cost in human lives, suffering, and resources that war exacts. In fact, he's constantly talking about it, sometimes in uncomfortably graphic terms. He warns the church officials not to sanction his invasion of France unless they're willing to bear the guilt for this. Later in the very same scene he blames the war on the Dauphin for insulting him. At Harfleur he intimidates the garrison into surrender by threatening a ghastly sack of the town, which he has the nerve to say will be their fault. Henry seems to be roughly on the same moral level as the schoolyard bully who (slap) wants you (slap) to stop hitting yourself (slap).

By the time of the night before Agincourt, when the king in disguise states, "I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company, - his cause being just and his quarrel honourable", and the soldier William responds, "That's more than we know", the line hits us between the eyes. It's more than we know, too. And we know much more than William does.

We know, for instance, that Henry IV's dying advice to his son in the previous play was to avoid civil war by busying his nobles with a foreign war. We know that corrupt church officials have offered Henry a huge bribe plus permission to go to war in France if he'll help them politically. We know that Henry is a foreign aggressor invading a peaceful country without any provocation whatsoever. We know that before Harfleur, Henry turns down the opportunity to make peace by taking Katharine's hand and a number of French dukedoms.

But this isn't the only dark side to Henry V. There's also a dark side to him personally. In my reviews of the Henry IV plays, I said that I thought Shakespeare didn't mean audiences to see Henry as treacherous for planning to abandon Sir John Falstaff and his other lowlife friends. I still think Shakespeare was trying to show that Henry needed to mature past Falstaff, but in this play he hints that Henry has treated Falstaff badly. The scene in Act 2, for instance, where Henry righteously unmasks and condemns three friends who have betrayed him to the French ("Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,/That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,/That almost mightst have coin'd me into gold") is bookended by scenes at Eastcheap in which Falstaff is dying: "the king has killed his heart." Henry has been betrayed, but he has also betrayed his own friends.

This is underlined, rather chiastically, in Act 4 when the Welsh Captain Fluellan compares Henry with Alexander "the Pig" (or the Great, misunderstood and comedically mispronounced). Fluellan gives us a list of completely irrelevant comparisons--both of them were born at places beginning with an M!--but finishes by saying that Alexander killed his best friend. Just like Henry turned away "the fat knight with the great pelly-doublet."

So in Henry V, is Shakespeare depicting a hero or a villain? I tend to suspect that he attempted, with surprising skill, to do both. Henry V is a genuinely charming character, with many genuinely heroic qualities, but he's also got a very decent helping of the villain in him. One feels keenly that he would not be half as taken by Princess Katharine if she didn't come with France thrown in, but one feels equally certain that having married her, he'll do his best to make her happy for the rest of his (perhaps deservedly) short life.

Henry V is a great play, containing some of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote, but it's not by any means a simple read.

I've seen two productions of Henry V. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version is definitely the one to go for. Despite its rather low-budget production values, it's wonderfully hammy in all the right places, with Branagh himself, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Ian Holm all providing great performances. This version plays the story fairly straight, with Henry as a hero, although the ambiguity is well and truly still present in the dialogue.

The Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Henry has a similarly low budget, but clearly tries to bring out a bit more of the ambiguity inherent in the play, although I fail to grasp the logic behind some of the directorial decisions (why include the slaughter of the French prisoners but not of the English baggage-train?). Hiddleston's performance is lower-key than Branagh's; he seems more self-aware, more doubtful of his own rhetoric. Which, actually, I don't think was the best decision for the play. Henry V can be portrayed as villainous or heroic and probably should be, but I feel that he only has power if he does believe what he's saying. I actually would have liked to see Hiddleston in full Loki mode as a charismatic tyrant; that might have been iconoclastic, but oh so much fun. Maybe someone else will do that one day...

Find Henry V on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

OUTREMER update!

Today, I'm really excited to bring you the latest news on OUTREMER!

As you know if you've been following me for a while, OUTREMER is the giant project that has been taking up the lion's share of my time for the last three years, an epic saga spanning the 200-year history of the medieval crusader states. Since committing to the project at the end of 2014, I've read more than 25 books on the history and geography involved, and written well over 400,000 words' worth of first-draft material.

I haven't given you an update on this project for nearly a year. A few weeks ago I realised that it's been nearly a year since I finished the OUTREMER first draft, and the realisation freaked me out a bit. Eleven months? What have I been doing?

But of course, I've been doing plenty. I've actually spent the majority of the last six months working on this baby of mine. It's been slow, and it's been the kind of planning, plotting, and sitting-still-and-thinking work that doesn't always look like work. In January and February, I undertook an evaluation of the characters and themes in the first draft. After a short break from research in the last few months of 2016, I returned to that and have burned my way through some very important research reads, including The Templar of Tyre, a primary source on the late thirteenth century which was worth every penny of its significant cost. In April I spent a lot of time thinking about the history itself, trying to crunch it through a Christian worldview to come up with some judgement calls for how I needed to handle various ethical questions. I then spent an exhausting month in May re-reading the first draft and doing some very intense brainstorming for new ideas, which included systematising the magic and coming up with some overarching symbols to express some of the themes I was seeing in the history. I took a couple of weeks in June to study each of my eighteen major characters, firming up their character arcs and motivations. Finally, in July, I found myself sorting through thousands of words' worth of notes, both handwritten and typed, in order to compile my decisions into a master plan for each level of the plot: the overall story, each protagonists' story, and finally, each book.

Yes, you heard that right: I have abandoned my fond and naive hope to tell this story within one volume. There's no way I can fit it into one book. That was a rather easy decision, but I had no idea whether to split the thing into two, three, or more books. At the beginning of this year, however, I was able to make this decision--a rather daunting one, but one which I'm confident is the right choice.

OUTREMER will be a series of nine books.

This is the most natural way to tell the story. As it is, the first draft was always structured in nine parts, as a sort of interwoven trilogy of trilogies following three different protagonists: John, Lukas, and Marta Bishara. So, nine books is really the easiest and most powerful way to tell this story.

Oh, and I've changed the protagonists' surname, for linguistic reasons that would be too tedious to explain here. Say goodbye to the Bisharas, and hello to the Bessarions!

Anyway, all this is really small beans compared to the big news I am here to share with you. Last month, I started work on the second draft of Book 1. My goal is to have that finished and hopefully ready for first-round beta reading by the end of this year, preparatory to publication, likely late in 2018. DV.

Book 1 is currently titled A Wind from the Wilderness, and it's set during the early stages of the First Crusade. It's coming along slowly, but steadily, and I'm already much happier with it than I was with the first draft.

Once that's finished, I also hope to move quickly on to Book 2, currently titled The Lady of Kingdoms.

Obviously I can't be more excited at how this story is coming together. The second draft--or second drafts, since I'll be writing each book separately--will bear surprisingly little resemblance to the first. I've barely even been consulting the first draft as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness. But I've gained an immense benefit in getting to know my characters, their history, the setting in which they interact, and the themes that will drive their plots. With all this planning under my belt, I couldn't be more excited to dig in and burn through this story. And I can't wait to share it with you!

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