Category Archives: William Shakespeare

Edward III (William Shakespeare?)

51rKJu4sGELBack to Big Bill, though, who I’ve been neglecting for longer than I should’ve (that “read ALL the Shakespeare!” project is looking a bit shaky, if you’ll excuse the choice of word, as far as completing it this year goes). Is this his handiwork, though? While a few WS plays have question marks over them as to just how much he wrote them, they’re still accepted as his. Edward III, though, is still debated, mostly because it never appeared in the First Folio, and it wasn’t attributed to him until much later… the Oxford editors do acknowledge that of all the WS “apocrypha”, this is probably the most likely to actually be by him, though even then they reckon he’s responsible only for three or four scenes at most. Interestingly, they reckon he probably did the business where Edward pursues his somewhat futile romance with the Countess of Salisbury, which I thought were much the weakest parts of the whole work… I actually quite enjoyed reading the play on the whole, but that part of it frankly did nothing for me, especially after a rather good introduction; whoever wrote the rest of it (some of which might also have been Bill’s work) did rather a better job with the story of Edward striding forth to conquer France, thereby kicking off the Hundred Years War which various of his descendants would continue in various other Shakespeare plays. I gather it plays a bit fast and loose with actual history—the Wiki page observes how some characters were actually already dead or not even alive, and the French king in the play was actually a different one entirely—but that’s not exactly uncommon with Shakespeare, is it, nor some of his much lesser successors in Hollywood now… Good read either way.

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Richard III (William Shakespeare)

51rKJu4sGELWell, if this really does come as early in Shakespeare’s career as it’s said to do, it represents a sudden and very marked leap ahead of everything he’d done to that point (certainly miles ahead of the Henry VI series, to which this was the logical continuation). Also his longest play except for one he later wrote about some Danish fellow (though that’s not why it’s taken me so long to finish it, that was just me being a bit slack and doing other things). Anyway, goddamn. The king whose remains were recently found underneath a car park—a twist I don’t suppose Shakespeare envisaged—clearly inspired our playwright to come up with something more advanced than he’d produced thus far, and he delivers remarkably… and, to be sure, delivers on the propaganda side, too, solidifying the villainous hunchback image of him in popular imagination, whether or not that image was actually fair or historically accurate (and at this point in time the answer to that question is almost certainly unknowable). Hitherto Richard III has been one of those Shakespeare plays I’ve only known in a filmed version, namely that of Laurence Olivier, which I liked but it’s been so many years since I last saw it (I do have the Criterion DVD of it, but haven’t got around to watching it yet) that I don’t really recall much of it; actually reading it for the first time over the last few days has been terrific. If reading the complete works so far has been kind of trying at times, this finally feels like a bit of good payoff…

Titus Andronicus (William Shakespeare)

51rKJu4sGELPoor, unloved Titus Andronicus… both the character, unloved by the Roman empire in whose service he spent his life, and the play, unloved by, well, generations of critics. Even the BBC, when they undertook to adapt all of Shakespeare’s plays for TV, left it until the very end of that series. A play generally considered so poor that many have said (and have said so since the 1600s, indeed) that Big Bill couldn’t possibly have written it; after all, the greatest English writer couldn’t possibly have had an apprentice period where he wasn’t producing masterworks on the order of Hamlet. Even the Oxford edition ascribes at least part of the thing to George Peele. It’s like some critics think Shakespeare needs to be rescued from association with his own work.

Personally I’ve liked Titus for as long as I can remember—I was hugely delighted to discover it had been filmed in 1999 by Julie Taymor, and happily not disappointed by the end result—and I still do even though I’m probably more sensible of how ludicrous it is. Basically it’s set in a late Roman empire that never existed (I suppose you could almost call it an alternate history play), with elements borrowed from Ovid and a climax knocked off from Seneca, and death and dismembered scattered liberally throughout. I was in my mid to late teens when I first read it—no idea why, just that my folks got me a cheap complete Shakespeare around then cos we’d done some at school, and for no discernible reason that I can remember I chose to read this one off my own bat—at which age this sort of thing is fucking GREAT. I mean, I’ve always had a soft spot for a good bloodbath, I suppose, but at 15 or 16 or however old I was it just seemed to really click for me. I have a fondness for it I can’t really defend—it is, after all, a demonstrably early work, and the only really good monologue is Aaron’s, revelling in his own vileness and lamenting that he hadn’t been worse—but too bad, I like it anyway. Some fond feelings have no rational basis, and I happily accept this is one of those…

Henry VI (William Shakespeare)

51rKJu4sGELNow we know the adventures of “Harey the Vj” came pretty much at the start of Shakespeare’s career, and as such it’s probably difficult if not impossible to read these three plays accordingly. In any case, it was this series (along with Richard III, their successor) that seems to have established Shakespeare as a playwright, although, again, I found them somewhat plodding as reading experiences (but, again, will also concede they may work better on stage than on the page). That said, at least 2H6 and 3H6—both presented by the Oxford team under their apparent original titles, The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York—weren’t too bad, albeit possessed of certain oddities and problems… 2H6 struck me as having a certain shapelessness, and with it being only half a story I found it awfully hard to appraise in its own right (plus the demon-raising scene is a peculiar addition to an otherwise realist work), but more pleasurable to read than the previous two comedies in this edition. 3H6 seemed to show more of a sense of dramatic shaping of the historical material, though the scene where Henry encounters the two soldiers, one who’s killed his son and the other his father, is just weird, a really odd bit of melodrama.

But the main feeling I got from both plays was just how little Henry himself—a man who was clearly unsuited to be king and who clearly knew it, wherein lies his tragedy—has to actually do in his own plays, and that feeling was only amplified by 1H6, their prequel, in which he doesn’t even appear until the start of the third act and then, well, doesn’t do much. 1H6 is, of course, the problem play in the trilogy, being probably actually mostly the work of others (Oxford editor Gary Taylor ascribes all of Act I to Thomas Nashe and less than a fifth of the whole work to Big Bill himself). Or maybe it was all his work, as others think (the Wiki article enumerates various theories). Clearly we’ll never know for sure… and in any case I’m not sure it matters, cos either way it’s pretty unsatisfactory, reading very much like an afterthought and incomplete in itself. Anyway, I’m over the hump now with the really early stuff; my next Shakespeare read will be one I’ve had great fondness for over the years, even if many critics would say I shouldn’t…

The Taming of the Shrew (William Shakespeare)

51rKJu4sGELOf a somewhat higher order than the Veronese play, but still kind of difficult to fully process… some of that difficulty boils down to matters of textual history (i.e. how it does or doesn’t relate to another play called The Taming of *a* Shrew) which I’m not particularly concerned with, and some of it is to do with the “induction” business, the framework with Christopher Sly whereby the rest of the play technically becomes a play-within-a-play; much of it, however, is to do with the play’s overall theme as expressed in its title… i.e. the “romantic” “adventures” of Petruccio, who marries Katherina, a ghastly, froward creature whose father has insisted must marry before he will permit his other, milder daughter to do the same. So Petruccio seems to kind of take one for the team, in a way, since his marrying Katherina thereby makes Bianca available to her various suitors (and opens up the play’s other main plot); but he’s quite happy to do so, as he thinks bringing her under control will be fun and easy. This, of course, is where the play poses difficulties for your modern reader in this supposedly more enlightened era… you know, to what extent is, well, misogyny written into the fabric of the thing and how do we react to that now, particularly Kate’s big speech about wifely duty at the end. And this, apparently, is a matter which the induction is seen as complicating, cos if you do accept that framework, the rest of the play is kind of distanced as a result, and if you don’t you’ve then got the question of whether or not Katherina’s end speech is sincere or ironic. I really don’t know where I land, cos I didn’t feel the play actually gave me that much to work with; I was surprised by just how little of the story is actually taken up with the “taming”, and most of that just seems to be Petruccio being a wilfully contrary dick. Does the knowledge that female parts in English drama of that age were played by men make it harder to think about? I don’t know.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (William Shakespeare)

51rKJu4sGELSo, the Big Bill project finally kicks off. As you may observe, I’m using the Oxford edition, which means I’m also using their chronology; dating Shakespeare’s plays tends to be an inexact science at times, and this is one of those ones that can only really be dated “before 1598”. However, there are apparently good arguments for considering this one an early work, and indeed quite a few folk—including the Oxford editors, obviously—seem to consider it his very first (which theory has apparently been offered since the early 1800s), possibly written as early as the late 1580s. Now, I’m not even remotely a Shakespeare scholar, so I’ll defer to the judgements of others on that front; taking it as a reader, though… yeah, not too hard to see why it’s thought to be an early work, cos frankly it feels like one. Plot seems to have been taken from a Spanish prose romance, of all things; the titular two gentlemen, Valentine and Proteus, are best friends until they both fall in love with the same woman, the Duke of Milan’s daughter. Proteus contrives to have his old friend banished, but still has to contend with the wealthy fop the Duke wants his daughter to marry, while a mild complication ensues when the girl Proteus left behind in Verona comes after him disguised as a boy. It’s really not up to much in a lot of ways, which is apparently at least one of the reasons TGoV is considered one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, if not the earliest; the fact that the weak comedy relief provided by Proteus’ servant Lance seems to be considered the highlight of the thing by some critics kind of sums it up. It didn’t see print until the First Folio in 1623, so perhaps Big Bill himself had no great fondness for it. Still, even Shakespeare had to start somewhere, and it may well be more entertaining on stage than on the page…