Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

And now for my very favourite Shakespeare play--a play I've read and re-read, studied and enjoyed for many years now: The Taming of the Shrew. This may surprise you, of course. I know the various opinions of this play: that it's outdated and chauvinistic. That it's about a strong independent woman who is subjected to severe psychological torture until she's been battered into outward submission to a cruel and insensitive patriarchy. I've heard people say that there could be no way Kate's famous speech at the end could have been given by any woman without irony, sarcasm, or brainwashing. But I think such interpretations miss both the point and the fun of the play.

Here's the story. Signior Baptista of Padua is a wealthy man with two beautiful daughters--but alas! Katherina, the elder, could be said to have a serious temper problem. She is wild, angry, and verbally abusive of everyone she comes into contact with. Her barbed wit sends everyone scrambling for cover, her father is universally commiserated on his ill-fortune in having such a diabolical daughter, and the ugliness of her temper ensures that she remains unloved and lonely. On the other hand, Bianca, the younger daughter, can't move without tripping over sighing suitors of every rank; because she knows how to act meek and obedient, she gets to do what she likes, and Signior Baptista makes no secret of the fact that he favours her. But, driven to despair by Katherina's behaviour, Baptista tells Bianca's three suitors (Gremio, a wealthy old man; Hortensio, a gentleman of Padua, and Lucentio, the son of a rich man who has just arrived in Padua to study) that he cannot allow any of them to have Bianca until Katherine has been married.

Fortunately for Bianca's suitors, an old friend of Hortensio's soon arrives in Padua. Bursting onto the stage in full cry, seeming nearly as mad as Katherina herself, comes Petruchio, a man in need of a wealthy wife and determined to get one however old, ugly, or unpleasant she might be. Understandably, he needs no added incentive when he hears about Katherine, who is wealthy (as required) and beautiful (excellent!), if shrewd (that can be fixed). He gets to the point briskly, wooing her in a storm of words, getting her father's consent for her marriage, and setting the date within half an hour of their first meeting. But Katherine is determined not be made a fool of by anyone. While Lucentio and Hortensio, in disguise, try to woo the yielding Bianca, Petruchio and Katherine engage in a series of titanic confrontations which she soon finds, to her surprise, that she is incapable of winning. Mocked, starved, and deprived of sleep, Katherine begins to bend under the strain.

No wonder this is the one Shakespeare play that makes feminists break out in a cold sweat and raise the cry of Abuse! But let me explain what is really going on here--what makes this play my favourite.

First, to set the scene. There are two things you must understand for this play to make any sense. The first thing is that it is not meant to be taken too seriously. This is a comedy, for heaven's sake, of the broadest possible nature--
Petruchio: Where is the foolish knave I sent before?
Grumio: Here, sir; as foolish as I was before.
--in which one of the few stage directions is
[Throws the meat, &c., about the stage.]
The word, I fancy, should be "slapstick". Many commentators have remarked that the play is firmly in the style of the original slapstick theatre--the Italian commedia dell'arte. Too many readers, appalled by the exaggerated comic tactics that Petruchio uses on Kate, treat the play like a tragedy. Banish this thought from your mind; think of The Taming of the Shrew as a kind of live-action cartoon.

The second thing to understand is that both Petruchio and Kate, throughout the play, are attracted to each other. Peter Leithart says:
We will misunderstand Kate completely if we do not see that she is falling in love with Petruchio. We will misunderstand Petruchio completely if we do not see a progression in his feelings toward Katherina: from seeing her as a means to wealth, to seeing her as a challenge to his masculine powers, to seeing her through eyes of admiration and love.
Just hold that thought. There are a few more things to mention here at the beginning before I begin to analyse the play in more depth.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb and Other Resources

Tomorrow I shall come back with a review of my #1 Favourite Shakespeare Play of All Time to close off Shakespeare Week, but today is busy and I thought it might be a good moment to review a handful of Shakespeare-related resources.

The first thing you need, of course, is a Complete Works of William Shakespeare, but the second thing you need is Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. This book contains retellings of 21 of Shakespeare's plays for children. Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, and histories; Tales from Shakespeare contains all the most famous comedies and tragedies. In the Preface, the authors explain:
[Shakespeare's] words are used whenever it seemed possible to bring them in; and in whatever has been added to give them the regular form of a connected story, diligent care has been taken to select such words as might least interrupt the effect of the beautiful English tongue in which he wrote: therefore, words introduced into our language since his time have been as far as possible avoided.
Tales from Shakespeare is well-written and simply the best introduction to Shakespeare's plays for children. Knowing the basic plot of a play helps immensely when young readers move on to the real thing, whether performed or read. If the students never are intended to move on to the real thing, Tales from Shakespeare will help with cultural references they may stumble over--they will, for example, understand the allusion to Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Tales from Shakespeare helped me enormously as I was dipping into the wide world of Shakespeare, and I recommend it to anyone who is trying to give their children a good education.

Illustrated etext
Librivox recording

The next essential Shakespeare resource is Peter J Leithart's book Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. Peter Leithart is a minister, philosopher, and accomplished literary critic, and this is the most able, in-depth, and scholarly work I have read on Shakespeare. The six plays he deals with are two histories (Julius Caesar and Henry V), two tragedies (Hamlet and Macbeth), and two comedies (Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew). Leithart delves deep into the themes and literary construction of the plays and provides excellent study questions throughout, together with brief reviews of available film adaptations.
Shakespeare was, as Caesar says of Cassius, "a great observer," able to see and depict patterns of events and character. He understood how politics is shaped by the clash of men with various colorings of self-interest and idealism, how violence breeds violence, how fragile human beings create masks and disguises for protection, how schemers do the same for advancement, how love can grow out of hate and hate out of love.
[...]
  Literature abstracts from the complex events of life (just as we all do in everyday life) and can reveal patterns that are like the patterns of events in the real world. Studying literature can give us sensitivity to those patterns. This sensitivity to the rhythm of life is closely connected with what the Bible calls wisdom.
This book is the place to start in studying Shakespeare. It's suitable for secondary students and up--anyone who wants to study Shakespeare. Leithart critiques the plays from an unapologetically Christian standpoint, which I believe is the only way to engage with Shakespeare, "the bard of the Bible." For example, obviously the only way to really understand The Taming of the Shrew is through a complementarian rather than an egalitarian-feminist lens: read by a complementarian, it's an amusingly exaggerated tale of a war of the sexes; read by an egalitarian or feminist, it's a deeply disturbing, humiliatingly sexist chronicle of patriarchal domination.

Leithart allows Shakespeare's true intentions to shine out, in scholarly critiques refreshingly free from current-day fads like Freudian analysis.

Amazon page for Brightest Heaven of Invention

Finally, I have to recommend The BBC Shakespeare Collection: filmed stage or TV productions of all Shakespeare's plays. There is no doubt that the best way to experience Shakespeare is through seeing him performed: the language comes alive, the stories begin to really dazzle. There are some worthwhile Shakespeare movies out there, which may outshine many of these productions (Branagh made a lovely Much Ado; his epic five-hour Hamlet and charming little As You Like It are also worth investigating, while Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew are well-loved, though I have reservations about the quantity of text he cut out, especially from the last; Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night is also worth mentioning, though he plays up the subtext so far that it ceases to become subtext and turns into Actual Text). However, for a complete collection of generally well-done productions, it's impossible to beat the BBC Shakespeare Collection. Where else will you find an excellent Measure for Measure and a really good Comedy of Errors?

I hope this helps you with your forays into Shakespeare, and will be back tomorrow with my favourite Shakespeare play of all!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Othello by William Shakespeare

While Macbeth or Hamlet may be the usual high-school-Shakespeare fare (and for good reason, of course) I'd prefer to focus on some of the less-discussed plays this week. As far as Shakespeare's tragedies go, I admit to a soft spot for Othello, a work of incredible and satisfying grand-opera-tragic melodrama.

Othello was written only thirty years after the great sea-battle of Lepanto, fought to defend the Venetian territory of Cyprus against the overwhelming might of the Turkish fleet, and it is set in the post-Lepanto Mediterranean.

Stop me if you've already heard this one, but there's a Moor (North African), see, who after many adventures ends up a general of the Venetian forces, and the Duke and Senate of Venice send him to protect Cyprus. Othello is newly married, to the young and beautiful Desdemona, a gentle girl who fell in love with him while hearing the terrifying adventures of his life; and who has just run away from her father to marry him. She accompanies him to Cyprus, along with various others of the cast: Cassio, Othello's young, handsome lieutenant; Emilia, Desdemona's world-weary attendant; Roderigo, a former suitor of Desdemona's who still hasn't given up hope; and last but certainly not least, Iago--Emilia's husband, Othello's ensign, and a consummate villain who conceals his intention to cause death, destruction, and ruin to Othello and everyone he comes in contact with beneath a facade of loyal honesty and love.

Iago's motives never become perfectly clear--it may be that he is jealous and offended over Cassio's being appointed Othello's lieutenant ahead of himself, or it may be that he suspects his wife of cheating on him with Othello, or it may be that he just enjoys wreaking havoc--but one thing is certain: he intends to destroy Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio all three. First, he maneuvers Cassio out of Othello's favour; then, he advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead his cause with her husband; finally, he begins to play on Othello's mind with a cunning mixture of half-truths and falsehoods, suggesting that Desdemona cannot possibly love a old, grim black soldier and has been having an affair with Cassio instead. A cunning plan by a master schemer, but can it really succeed?

This is a Shakespeare tragedy, and so the language is brilliant, the story is melodramatic, the characters are compelling, the niffy jokes are plenteous, and the stage is covered with bodies at the end. Peculiar to this play is the character of Iago, who's gained a well-earned reputation as one of the most evil villains of all time: Shakespeare has constructed a villain whose peculiar hallmark is the uncertainty of his motives apart from the simple delight in evil--and he makes it work. (Shakespeare could do this. Very few writers can).

The thing, however, that amazed audiences when Othello first appeared was that the plot was constructed like a farce but executed like a tragedy. The lost handkerchief and partially-overheard conversations lead not to hilarious misunderstandings but to a swath of bodies littering Othello's bedroom.

I have not spent a great deal of time thinking over the themes of this particular Shakespeare play as it's one to which I've come fairly recently. But I have a few observations. The first is to do with the nature of tragedy. Greek tragedies saw the tragic hero as a good man pursued by blind Fate. Christian tragedy should see him as a man justly punished for sin. While Macbeth is probably the best example of this, Othello has a similar theme. In the beginning, we hear that Desdemona has just snuck off in a gondola to secretly marry Othello, against her father's wishes. Although she proves to be a chaste and submissive wife, the ominous words of her wronged father in Act 1 hang over the play and are used skilfully by Iago to bring about the cataclysmic ending:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceiv'd her father and may thee.
A few minutes previously in the same scene, the Duke of Venice has given the couple his blessing and the one piece of wisdom he considers most necessary to them. This too proves to be an immensely important passage, as I shall hope to show:
When remedies are past the griefs are ended
By seeing the worst which late on hopes depended.
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone
Is the best way to draw new mischief on.
What cannot be preserv'd when fortune takes,
Patience her injury a mockery makes.
The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief;
He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.
This passage is somewhat cryptic to those of us that aren't familiar with Elizabethan idiom, but according to the footnotes in my edition, what the Duke is advising them is that, when hard times come, the only remedy is to be patient and contented beneath the trial. This hit me with some force as it is, personally, a thing which I have had occasion to learn.

Contentment has been defined as a deep satisfaction with the will of God, even in the most terrible circumstances. It is the opposite of idolatry, which makes the beloved object the sole foundation of earthly happiness. And it is just this kind of idolatry which both Othello and Desdemona confess to:
Othello: Think on thy sins.
Desdemona: They are loves I bear to you.
And later, in Othello's closing words:
Then must you speak
Of one that lov'd not wisely, but too well.
This makes Othello and Desdemona, on a certain level, another textbook case of the Foolish Lovers. As I read the play recently, I found myself wondering what would have prevented the tragedy despite Iago's schemes, and had to conclude that if Othello showed patience--if, in fact, he had followed the Duke's advice at all--the whole thing would have unravelled. And so from the very first Act we have both the seed of the tragedy and the cure for it.

There's more lurking beneath the surface of this play than I've touched on--constant wordplay on, for example, honesty and reputation (Iago is reputed to be honest and is not; Desdemona is reputed to be dishonest, and is not). This is, in fact, the most obvious theme of the play; it would be fascinating to delve deeper, but that will have to wait until I am better acquainted with the work. For now, a brief blog post from Peter Leithart will suffice:
In his recent book, Honor: A History, James Bowman suggests that Iago was motivated by concerns of honor. He elevates "good name" above riches, and his stated motive for hating Othello is his suspicion that the Moor slept with his wife is consistent with traditional honor codes: "Iago's appeal to honor ('good name') is also a disguised appeal against the new and more inward standard that would regard not the appearance of infidelity but its moral reality as the only relevant consideration. Iago stands for the same insistence on the sole reality of the public face that motivates those those who today murder rape victims to save their own honor." Iago knows that the rumored liaison may never have happened, but that doesn't matter: It "happened" in the world of public repute, which is the only reality relevant to the man of honor.
Othello, like all Shakespeare plays, is a ripping yarn in haunting and unforgettable language. I enjoyed it lots.

Wikisource etext

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare

Not one of Shakespeare's most popular plays these days, Love's Labour's Lost is the one play that suffers from being too smart for its own good. It's littered all over with extremely academic jokes and gratuitous Latin tags and goodness knows what--all aimed at the bright young things of Shakespeare's day, the rigourous nature of whose educations would make most modern-day Ph.Ds feel tired and inadequate. And yet, the advantage to diving into Shakespeare at an extremely early and ignorant age is that one skims over everything one doesn't understand, and heartily enjoys what one does understand.

So I have always had a fondness for this play. When asked what fictional world she would most like to live in, Dorothy Sayers said it was this play:"all the gentlemen are courteous ... the ladies still more so ... and everyone falls in love with the most suitable person."

In the little kingdom of Navarre (a medieval and Reformation-era kingdom located in the Pyrenees Mountains) the King of Navarre and his best friends Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville shut themselves away from the world to devote themselves to study. For three years, no women shall be admitted to the court of Navarre. This throws a spanner in the rival attempts of Costard (a country bumpkin who is nevertheless able to correctly pronounce the word "honorificabilitudinitatibus") and Don Armado (a miles gloriosus--there's some Latin for you--with a comically overdone Spanish accent) to woo Jacquinetta, a simple, if fickle, country girl. Worse still, it very soon threatens to totally wreck diplomatic relations between the King of France and the King of Navarre: the former sends a delegation headed by his beautiful and charming daughter the Princess of France and her beautiful and charming attendants, the Ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.

And for your chamber, Your Highness, a cozy spinney.
The ambassadorial ladies are surprised to be lodged outside the Court of Navarre, in a tent in the meadow, and instantly plot their revenge. This, it turns out, is all too easy to accomplish. In a series of hilarious encounters involving attempted diplomacy, attempted disguise, hurricanes of puns, and some well and truly mistaken identities, everyone falls soundly in love with everyone else--a perplexing situation for four sworn bachelor students to be in!

The whole thing is impossibly charming. Miss Sayers again:
And why anyone should say that Love's Labour's Lost is a bad play, the Lord He knoweth; for to my mind it is one of the most reussi [successful] things of its kind ever made ... it is all pure fairy-tale; and some of the loveliest lines in the lyrical-witty mode ever written
I think "pure fairy-tale" describes it exactly. As for me, the best description I can make is to say that it's exactly what PG Wodehouse would have written if he had been writing in the sixteenth century. It has the same joyously comic tone.

While the ending of this play is unusual--as you will see for yourself when you read it; the title drops a hint--the most unusual thing about it is the fact that apart from The Tempest, this is the only play of Shakespeare's which he did not pinch off someone else. As PG Wodehouse himself said in Louder and Funnier,
In [Shakespeare's] early youth he seems to have had the idea that there was a good living to be made out of stealing rabbits from the preserves of the local squires, and it was only when approaching years of discretion that it suddenly occurred to him that a man could do much better for himself stealing plots. In the year 1591 he began to write plays, and from then onward anybody who had a good plot put it in a steel-bound box and sat on the lid when he saw Shakespeare coming.
As a result Love's Labour's Lost, with The Tempest, may provide a tantalising glimpse at Shakespeare's own plotting skills, to say nothing of the sort of story he liked. The thing is a fanciful and amusing exercise in wit and pedantry, the kind of thing that lends heft to the Oxfordian arguments.

If you've never read Love's Labour's Lost, I recommend that you try it! Footnotes should be able to explain the more obscure jokes, and the pleasure you'll get from the story and the more accessible humour will make it worth the effort.

Gutenberg etext

Kenneth Branagh, who is single-handedly responsible for most of the Shakespeare films that have been made in the last 15 years or so, chose to film Love's Labour's Lost in 2000 as a musical, with most of the script cut out and replaced with vintage jazz standards such as "I Get a Kick Out Of You" or "Cheek to Cheek." Sounds wonderful, doesn't it; I really, really wish I could recommend it...but I can't; despite some pretty dance numbers and song renditions and hello, the fact that it's the remains of a delicious Shakespeare play...the sensuality is a bit much and even with that discounted it's just not a great version of the play. I'll be investigating the BBC version next.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare, most famous for his tragedies, also (of course) wrote comedies. While many of these were comedies in the ordinary modern sense--funny and entertaining--it's worth remembering that "comedy" simply means a story that ends not with a death but with a wedding. As a result, if you read or watch Measure for Measure hoping for something as cheerful and batty as, say, Much Ado About Nothing, or A Comedy of Errors, you will be disappointed.

A dark drama of hypocrisy, true goodness compared with true evil, sin and forgiveness--Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna, where the Duke Vincentio makes it known that he is leaving the city in the hands of the strict and incorruptible Angelo while he undertakes a diplomatic mission. In reality, he's disguising himself as a friar in order to mix with the citizens, gauge public opinion, and test Angelo's true character.

Angelo begins his rule by taking a zero-tolerance approach to the city's fornication law, sentencing to death a young gentleman named Claudio, in spite of the fact that Claudio's betrothal to his co-offender Juliet was only a few technicalities short of marriage. When Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice nun, goes to plead with Angelo for her brother's life, her beauty and purity cause Angelo to show his true colours: he'll spare Claudio's life if Isabella will break the same law--with him. Isabella, no moral pushover, declares that Claudio will just have to die; but the mysterious newcomer Friar Ludovico, who knows about Angelo's abandoned fiancee Mariana, has a better idea...

But Isabella, my feet are cold...
Winding with sombre sensationalism towards its happy ending, Measure for Measure is another example of what Shakespeare did best: a good story, told very well. While nowhere near as well-known these days as some of his other plays, it was at one point rather popular: Tennyson's Mariana in the South is based on the character of Mariana in the play, and the Pre-Raphaelite painters painted various scenes (pictured: Claudio and Isabella by William Holman Hunt). I think the reason this play strikes such a chord is because, among the many unlikeable and sordid characters, the character of Isabella retains such invincible and indomitable purity. The play's ending is also satisfying, with the villains' attempts to conceal their wrong-doing being utterly thwarted--and the transcendent mercy shown by the heroes.

Gutenberg etext

I have seen and can recommend the BBC version of Measure for Measure with Kenneth Colley as the Duke, Tim Pigott-Smith as Angelo, and Kate Nelligan as a very convincing Isabella.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

I made my first dip into Shakespeare when Mum was reading Huck Finn to us, and the Romeo-and-Juliet references piqued my curiosity. I had heard the names before, I had no idea to what they referred, and I just wanted to know.

All these years later, I'm tolerably familiar with the play. But the reason to include it here is less that I like it and more that I have come to believe it's one of the most misunderstood of Shakespeare's plays.

Here's the scenario:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona (where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life...
Yes, it's the Montague family over here on the left, and the Capulet family over there on the right. As traditional in Renaissance Italy, the two great families are embroiled in a deadly feud. Young Romeo Montague hangs aloof from the ancestral grudge--preferring to mope around after the lady he loves with unrequited passion, Rosaline. That is, until his cousin Benvolio and their very strange friend Mercutio talk him into a hare-brained scheme in an attempt to cheer him up. There's a feast at the Capulet mansion--and of course the three Montagues should attend, heavily disguised.

Here Romeo catches sight of Juliet Capulet, the thirteen-year-old daughter of his family's enemy, whose marriage to a nobleman named Paris is already being arranged. All thoughts of Rosaline driven out of his head, Romeo engages in a whirlwind courtship. By the next day, he's won Juliet's heart and persuaded her to marry him secretly. But as the feud leads to duels in the streets of Verona between the young Montagues and Capulets, and as Juliet finds herself hurried towards a marriage with Paris, the play takes a sharp turn into tragedy. Soon, in typical tragic Shakespeare fashion, the stage is littered with the bodies of the dead and the fatally misunderstood.

Over the centuries, Romeo and Juliet--an old story even when Shakespeare wrote this famous version of it--has attained a sort of aura of reverent romanticism: these are the world's most famous lovers and as a result it's easy to see the play as a celebration of secret and suicidal teen romance.

To dispel this effect one only has to look at the play a little more closely. Juliet is not yet fourteen years old; Romeo can't be much older. Only a few days elapse between the first meeting and the oh-so-avoidable tragic ending. Is this really something Shakespeare intended to depict with approval? Are Romeo and Juliet the most romantic tragic star-crossed lovers ever...or are they immature teenagers in the grip of a shallow infatuation, desperate to have their own way at the cost of everything, even their own lives?

I argue for the latter.

Shakespeare's source for the story was Arthur Brooke, who wrote a long poem telling the story. Like Shakespeare, Brooke milked the sensational, romantic plot for all its worth; unlike Shakespeare, Brooke left a note, containing his opinion of Romeo and Juliet:
[A] couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends, conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips ... attempting all adventures of peril for the attaining of their wished lust ... abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage ...
This is good evidence for Brooke's view of the story, if not for Shakespeare's (yet in a more responsible and uninfatuated age, it is likely that Shakespeare might have shared this view). Yet though Shakespeare is sympathetic to his young hero and heroine's plight, I believe there is strong evidence that he did not consider Romeo and Juliet to be good role models at all.

The key to his view lies in Much Ado About Nothing, another of Shakespeare's romantic stories. This play contains a couple of young lovers, Claudio and Hero, who see each other once or twice and immediately fall in love (sound familiar?). Immediately they arrange to marry, but the night before the wedding the villains trick Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful. Because his love for her was so shallow and selfish, he immediately turns upon her, choosing their wedding as the ideal venue to publicly 'expose' and humiliate her. Claudio's behaviour is compared, in this play, to another couple who start out with a prickly relationship full of barbed wit. While Claudio and Hero were blind to each other's faults, Benedick and Beatrice are wise enough to see each other quite clearly, warts and all. "We are too wise to woo peaceably," says Beatrice at one point, underscoring the fact that although they are in love, they still have their wits about them and have made a balanced, rational decision. By contrast, in Shakespeare, those who love rashly and insanely, idolising each other, head straight into tragedy. Othello, for example, is very similar to Claudio: he loves Desdemona "not wisely but too well", as she says, and he too is quick to believe her false, and savage in his revenge.

While Romeo and Juliet do not have to cope with disillusionment and revenge, their idolising of each other is still what leads them so quickly to destruction. When Claudio believes that his idol is fallen, he destroys her with his words; when Romeo believes that his idol is put beyond his reach, he destroys himself. Shakespeare's Foolish Lovers always come to a bad end, even if they get what they want, like Lucentio from The Taming of the Shrew--who finds out at the end that Bianca is a bit of a shrew herself. By contrast, the Wise Lovers, who are fully conscious of each other's faults, who do not idolise each other, are the ones that end happily: Benedick and Beatrice, and Petruchio and Kate, to begin with.

But Shakespeare is not completely disapproving of Romeo and Juliet, although they are clearly foolish lovers. They have a great deal of his sympathy, and they live in a world that has been turned upside down. Each of the spheres of sovereignty has broken down. The state is ineffective in preventing the feud between the Montagues and Capulets: although the Prince of Verona tries hard to keep the peace, the Prologue (quoted above) clearly states that he has had to shed blood to try to do so ("civil blood makes civil hands unclean"). Within the families of the main characters, the patriarchs are either ineffective at curbing the bloodlust of the younger ones, or actively egging them on. And the church, represented by Friar Lawrence, in trying to patch up the feud by assisting the lovers' marriage, only ends up muddling things far worse. At the end of the play, it is perfectly clear why the whole tragedy has come about. As the Prince says:
Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague?
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.

Romeo and Juliet is a great story told with great vigour by one of the greatest of poets at the zenith of his abilities. Although it rather revels in all the sensational twists of its plot, it retains some excellent themes of wisdom and foolishness, providence and judgement. I always enjoy it.

Librivox recording
Gutenberg etext

If you like footnotes, we use and recommend the "Oxford School Shakespeare" or the "New Penguin Shakespeare" editions.

I have seen two movie versions of Romeo and Juliet. Franco Zeffirelli's version from the 1960s was the youth event of a generation. Baz Luhrmann's version from the 1990s tried hard to be the same kind of thing for the MTV generation. However the two versions are radically different. I found Zeffirelli's movie somewhat too reverent in tone and extremely slow-paced. I felt there were also significant cuts to the source material. Also Certain Body Parts are briefly shown. Baz Luhrmann's movie is, by contrast, completely insane: Updated to the incredibly-trendy "Verona Beach" where everyone's handgun is called a "Sword 9000" or a "Dagger .51" or something to avoid having to change the dialogue. There are some pretty tasteless things in this one as well (at least Zeffirelli's, with a little editing, would be fine for a younger audience. Not this one). However I have to say I like it better--as a Romeo and Juliet adaptation. While quite a lot is cut from the very end, generally there's a lot more of the script in there than in the Zeffirelli version; plus a real attempt has been made to capture the sensational, fast-paced, ultra-witty nature of the original.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Feature Week: Shakespeare

Our next feature week is an author for whom I have a great fondness...which I share with most of western civilisation. Unlike most people, I started reading Shakespeare because I wanted to know, once and for all, who these "Romeo and Juliet" people I kept hearing about were. I got tangled up in the language pretty quickly (I was nine) but after a couple more false starts and a lot of help from picture books and Charles and Mary Lamb's classic book Tales from Shakespeare I was off.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Poems for Children


A friend of mine has once again requested a Useful List—this time of poetry for children. I can’t approve enough of the urge to read poetry to children. The traditional view in Christendom has been that prose is a pale and inferior form of poetry. Thus most of the great literary works of Christendom, especially medieval Christendom, were originally poetic; it might not be going too far to say that you could claim literacy if you had only ever read poetry, but not if you had only ever read prose. This state of affairs has changed today, so that poetry is hardly an important or influential part of human affairs in the same way that it was in the past--I blame modernism, of course, but that might be too much to get into right now.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Secret of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

I think the Father Brown story The Blue Cross was one of the very first of Chesterton's things that I read. This was in a collection published by Wordsworth, containing just a handful of the stories, and I think the editor had a particular liking for the more grotesque and borderline disturbing of the stories, because I came away thinking that they were strange and a bit icky. Later we got a Complete Father Brown and I made the acquaintance of some of the more congenial stories (The Sins of Prince Saradine is a favourite, and I love The Scandal of Father Brown), but Father Brown remained my least favourite of Chesterton's strange detectives.

And although Father Brown is by far the most famous (the paperback cover of my mother's Complete Father Brown calls him THE HIGH PRIEST OF CRIME!), he is very much in the tradition of Chesterton's other detectives - Basil Grant, Gabriel Gale, and Mr Pond. I think I have mentioned what each of these characters is intended to represent: Basil Grant, the anti-Sherlock Holmes, demonstrates that facts never point to a single solution; Mr Pond, that life is full of startling paradoxes; Gabriel Gale, that sanity means seizing with gratitude the gifts of heaven and that madness means ingratitude, autonomy, and self-determination; and as for Father Brown, he demonstrates the advantage that Christian faith and poetry gives to the student of human nature.

This is well demonstrated in the volume titled The Secret of Father Brown. As the book begins, Father Brown--quiet, apparently idiotic, yet somehow so keenly in tune with human nature that he is able to solve dozens of baffling crimes when he's not carrying out his duties as a Roman priest--attempts to explain the secret of his success to an acquaintance. As he does so, his mind roams back to eight of the cases that he's solved. A revolutionary poet prosecuted by a respectable barrister for the murder of a well-known judge. The uncanny disappearance of a priceless curio, apparently through Eastern magic. A blackmail attempt quite unlike any other, and an attempted revenge with deadly consequences...

The story I found most interesting, however, was The Actor and the Alibi. A beautiful intellectual actress married to a director of pantomimes and vaudeville bears her trials uncomplainingly. The conclusion isn't too difficult to see coming (I'm trying not to give it away), but things aren't what they seem in this miniature study of the politics of the sexes.

This was an excellent read--like all of Chesterton's works--built around the truth that all men are evil, and that there is redemption.

Wikilivres etext



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Louder and Funnier by PG Wodehouse


This slim book of essays, dedicated to a chap named George Blake (A Splendid Fellow, and Very Sound on Pekes*) was, I think, the very first thing of Wodehouse's that I ever read, more than ten years ago now. Which is strange; because it is not a Jeeves novel, it is not a Blandings novel...to tell the sad truth, it is not a novel at all. It is a collection of essays.

The topics are varied, and range from The Hollywood Scandal, a searing expose on the infamous writing-cages of Hollywood, through Fashionable Weddings and Smart Divorces to Photographs and Photographers. I don't know that I can comment on how loud these essays are, but certainly they are funny.

My favourite, of course, is the essay on Thrillers.
There seems to be some virus in the human system just now which causes the best of writers to turn out thrillers. This would not matter so much, only, unfortunately, it causes the worst of writers to turn them out, too.
This joyous essay then goes on to discuss Heroines, Villains, and Heroes with some vivacity.
Who ever first got the idea that any one wants a beastly girl messing about and getting in the way when the automatics are popping I am at a loss to imagine. […] Apart from anything else, Woman seems to me to lose her queenly dignity when she is being shoved into cupboards with a bag over her head.
From there Wodehouse rollicks on to the Theatre, including a hilarious proposal for a kind of Audience Union to ensure fair play, and thence to Sports and Pastimes, with a close look at the prospects for the Men's Singles at the Lawn Tennis Championships at Wambledon—a tiny seaside village:
We who love Wambledon-on-Sea yield to none in our appreciation of its ozone-filled breezes, its water-supply, its Esplanade, and the inspiring architecture of its new Assembly Hall, but I should have through myself that its tennis was scarcely of a calibre to excite nation-wide interest.
Fasionable Weddings and Smart Divorces takes a look at marriage in modern society—but under the sometimes irreverent wit, Wodehouse has a few serious things to say.
Divorce, which may be either an occasional experiment, as in the case of the ordinary citizen, or a hobby, as with Hollywood film stars, is best described as an ingenious device whereby a resolute man with lots of time on his hands may enjoy all the advantages of being a Mormon elder without having to grow a beard and live in Salt Lake City.
Thoughts on the Income Tax, along the same lines, has something serious to say under all the froth about Revenue authorities singing their demands (“We're needing stack of income tax!”) in the snow.
Not that I should grudge the money if only I had not the feeling that I was simply chucking it away. Where does it go? What do they do with it? One gets the feeling sometimes that the whole thing is purely malevolent, done in a sort of “You would have an income, would you? All right!” spirit.
From there Wodehouse passes to Butler and the Buttled, an indispensable article for anyone interested in the Wodehouse oevre, and on to ocean liners, gambling, and amusement parks. But I will stop here, and let you all rush out and get a copy. I have lost count of the number of times I've gone back to sample the delights of this slim volume of essays, but they continue to amuse me just the same. A delight for any Wodehouse fan, from the seasoned connoisseur to the pigtailed eleven-year-old with freckles and no dress sense.

*But he should guard against the tendency to claim that his Peke fights Alsatians. Mine is the only one that does this.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge

For many children, this is the classic introduction to the people and history of Holland--as indeed it was meant to be by its American author. Hans Brinker became a bestseller upon its publication in 1865 and is to the Netherlands what Heidi is to Switzerland.

As the story opens we meet Hans, a main character of the novel, and his sister Gretel. Both of them are so poor that they can't afford their own ice-skates, getting by instead on the slow wooden skates Hans carves for them, but both of them still dream of winning the next ice race. Hans has nearly saved up enough money for his own skates, but then he hears of a famous doctor who could cure his father--a witless invalid since an accident on the dike.

Meanwhile, a group of boys from the village of Broek, where the Brinkers live, decide to undertake a skating trip to the Hague with Ben Dobbs, the visiting English cousin of Jacob Poot. Under the leadership of Peter van Holp the boys travel through Amsterdam, Leiden, and Haarlem on their way, telling and hearing many of the wonderful stories of the history of the Dutch Republic, and even manage to catch a dangerous thief. But who will win the silver skates, and what is the secret that has been lost since Raff Brinker's accident?

Hans Brinker is a great story on its own account, but I think my favourite thing about it was all the history it contains, as well as its vivid portrayal of Dutch life in the 1800s. Its author drew heavily on Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic, and so the story is punctuated with many stories of the Dutch fight for independence. Like many other nineteenth century books, this one also attempts to hold up an example for young men in its main characters--they are characters you enjoy reading about on account of their sense of responsibility. The only tiresome thing is that like so many lady novelists, Mary Mapes Dodge can't resist throwing in a number of embryo romances among the teenage cast.

But these are understated and the book remains an enjoyable story and a treasury of information on the history, geography, and customs of the Netherlands.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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