Musing on Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

I’ve started to read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and instead of writing one book report at the end, since this could take years, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on each play as I finish it. Of course, it will still only count as one book on my annual reading count in 2020 because I’m silly that way.

It took me quite some time to get through this play. Originally, I thought I would do a couple acts of a play a night, which would mean I could finish a play in a couple of days. This is not me at my peak Middle English consumption–that was in college, when I read five Ben Jonson plays in five nights to catch up on the semester’s reading ahead of the final. But it would mean I was progressing steadily through the collection. Then the reading tailed off to maybe an act a night. Then, maybe a scene. Then maybe a scene a week. Which is where we got to with this play.

The setup: The Duke places his second in command in charge of the town while he travels because he’s been lax in enforcing some of the laws, and he knows that the second will vigorously enforce them, cleaning up the city and allowing the Duke to return and lessen the hand of government. The Duke, though, stays in town in disguise of a friar. The second behaves as expected, and as part of his sweep catches up a young man who has impregnated his fiance before the marriage, which is punishable by death. The young man’s sister is just a couple vows short of becoming a nun, but she goes to implore the subduke to spare her brother, and he is taken with her and promises to release her brother if she will sleep with him (the subduke, not the brother). That is the crux of the play: Whether she will give in and save her brother through carnal means or not.

We get some good theorizing about mercy versus justice, but eventually the play breaks down a bit with a number of characters that don’t do much but keep sixteenth century actors busy and provide a bit of convenience to wrap the play up happily. It’s not as tight as some of the better-known plays, and it really has put me off a bit on reading more in the canon–although the next one is Much Ado About Nothing which I remember most as Keanu Reeves’ Shakespearean turn. So one of these days I’ll get into it.

Musing on Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

I’ve started to read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and instead of writing one book report at the end, since this could take years, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on each play as I finish it. Of course, it will still only count as one book on my annual reading count in 2020 because I’m silly that way.

This play brings a number of the Shakespearean tropes into high relief, and we can see how he swapped the parts into his plays. The high level plot is that a duke likes a lady who is in mourning for her brother’s loss, and she’s not into the duke. A young lady is separated from her brother in a shipwreck, falls in love with the duke, and dresses like a man to be his embassy to the woman the duke loves. The woman falls in love with the lady posing as a man. We’ve got a subplot about a relative of the lady and his friends who trick a servant into thinking the lady is in love with him; and the brother lost in the shipwreck shows up just in time to take the sister’s place as the woman’s husband.

I mean, it’s an amusing scramble, but you can see the shipwreck motif; the woman dressing as a man as helping the man she loves pitch woo to another; and so on. I’m pretty sure if I studied more deeply into sixteenth and seventeenth century drama, I’d really see how often these same themes were mashed up. What, I’m not already that big of a student of this era? Hey, man, I’m a reader, not an academic.

It does make me want to break up the comedies with a tragedy or two, but one of the things I do is read books in the order in which they’re presented. I don’t read the last page first, and I don’t read the prophets before the chronicles of the kings. Which is why it often takes me a long time to get through things.

Musing on Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

I’ve started to read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and instead of writing one book report at the end, since this could take years, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on each play as I finish it. Of course, it will still only count as one book on my annual reading count in 2020 because I’m silly that way.

The story of the composition of the play is that Queen Elizabeth wanted to see another play with John Falstaff, the character from the Henry IV plays. So Shakespeare did some fan service with this play, and banged out a play where the scoundrel pitches woo to two wealthy married women, who see through his game and play with him a bit. Two of Falstaff’s retainers refuse to participate, so he fires them. They reveal to the plot to the women’s husbands, and one of them meets Falstaff under an alias to see if he really is pursuing the women. Falstaff reveals his plans, and the jealous husband tries to catch him in the act, but the merry wives hide Falstaff in humorous ways so they can continue to have their fun leading him on. A subplot deals with the daughter of one of the wives wanting a different match for her husband than either the mother or the father prefers, and her parents’ preferred rivals rival each other.

The subplot of this particular play sticks out as a rather grafted on bit that fulfills the requirement of a promised wedding at the end. Also, everyone forgives Falstaff at the very end, which is also stock for the time.

The mainline scenes are amusing enough, but it’s the least of the plays I’ve read so far. I hope Queen Elizabeth liked it.

Musing on Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

I’ve started to read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and instead of writing one book report at the end, since this could take years, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on each play as I finish it. Of course, it will still only count as one book on my annual reading count in 2020 because I’m silly that way.

This play is the second in the compendium I have, and reading it, I can see how heavily Shakespeare and Ben Jonson influenced my play The Courtship of Barbara Holt. I see similar structure and situations in the development of the plot in each, but not so much Middle English in mine.

At any rate, the title gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine. Valentine is going off to Milan, but Proteus wants to stay in Verona and moon over his girl Julia. His father, though, decides to send him to Milan anyway. In Milan, Valentine is in love with Silvia, the daughter of the Duke. The Duke kind of wants Silvia to marry Thurio, but Silvia is set on Valentine. When Proteus gets to Milan, he is smitten with Silvia himself and proceeds to stab Valentine in the back by ratting out an elopement attempt. So Proteus tries to pitch woo to Silvia, who’s having none of it. Julia comes to Milan disguised as a boy, and when she is heartbroken that Proteus has forgotten her, tries to help Proteus woo Silvia because she wants him to be happy. Valentine, banished from Milan, falls in and becomes leader of a band of outlaws.

It’s a great bunch of setup, but we get to Act V, and it suddenly resolves too quickly. Silvia runs away from Milan to find Valentine, and is captured by outlaws. The Duke and his men follow Silvia out into the woods, and they get captured by outlaws. In the very last scene, Valentine, the king of the outlaws, brings everyone together and discovers Proteus’s treachery; Proteus asks for (and receives) forgiveness from Valentine and Julia; the Duke forgives Valentine and allows him to marry his daughter; and allows the banished outlaws to return to Milan.

As such, it ends very abruptly. It has a lot going on, good and interesting developments fraught with dramatic and comedic potential, and then Proteus asks forgiveness, and all is forgiven. The end.

This might have been Shakespeare’s first play, and as such, it’s a pretty good outing but for the quick end.

Musing on Shakespeare: The Tempest

I’ve started to read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and instead of writing one book report at the end, since this could take years, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on each play as I finish it. Of course, it will still only count as one book on my annual reading count in 2020 because I’m silly that way.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare starts off with this play, one of his more familiar comedies. The book actually runs all of his comedies before all of his tragedies, which might make reading slower in the middle of the book than in the beginning or the end, but time will tell.

In it, a deposed ruler of an Italian city-state and his daughter live on a deserted island with only the son of a native witch and some spirits, including Ariel, which is a male spirit in this book (which is hard to remember because of the The Little Mermaid thing). After years, Prospero, the deposed ruler, uses his magic to seperate a fleet and bring his brother (his deposer), the duke of another city-state, and the duke’s son to the island where he hopes to get his revenge. But it’s not a bloody revenge; he just wants justice and his position back.

So the new arrivals are separated and they spend time pondering their fates while Prospero plans a little show for them using the fairies and spirits to tell his story. At the end, the duke’s son and Prospero’s daughter fall in love, and their marriage is that that appears in the final act.

The play gets its knocks because the current interpreters of fiction can fixate on the slave and link him to American slavery and to blacks, but that’s not really supported in the text. And Shakespeare comedies are more amusing to us now than laugh-out-loud funny, but while a trained reader can recognize the jokes within, they don’t necessarily prompt the laugh response. Unless, perhaps, one is a professor of literature and is steeped in it.

For the most part, it hangs together pretty well. The play has some subplots–the romance of the son and daughter, the duke lamenting his lost son, a couple of shipmates who plan with the slave to depose Prospero as ruler of the island–but given the conceit that the people are separated, it works. The subplots fit in.

At any rate, that’s what I thought of it. It’s an amusing read, coupled with the umami of it being fine literature that I can be proud of reading (as opposed to the men’s adventure paperbacks, which I only take pride in how many of them I have read which alludes to my high literary pain threshold). I hope you weren’t expecting a more reasoned, thoughtful comment on the play, but I left college a long time ago and don’t have a grade riding on my rehashed novel academic insights.