Category Archives: The Bard

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)

Is this the most disturbing of Shakespeare’s plays? If it isn’t, it is close. Titus Andronicus returns from war, triumphant, but his cruelty to his captive, Tamora, queen of the Goths, sets of a spiral of increasingly horrific acts of vengeance.  The violence is copious and horrific: Titus murders one of Tamora’s son in vengeance for the death of his own on the battlefield; Titus’s daughter, Lavina, is horrifically raped and mutilated; Lavina’s fiancée is murdered;  two more of Titus’s sons are murdered; Titus’s hand is cut off; Tamora’s sons are murdered and feed to her baked into a pie; Lavina is murdered, by her father; and, finally, after having lost everything, Titus himself is killed and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover who was behind much of the treachery, is buried chest deep and left to die.

 

It is important when reading plays like Titus to remember that in his time, Shakespeare was competing against such sophisticated entertainment as bear baiting. The level of violence here is like a horror movie and it can be very rough going.  Especially tough are the scenes involving the rape of Lavinia and its aftermath the cruelty here rivals the torture porn of today’s horror movie industry. There is a strong thread of misogyny running through Shakespeare works. Woman are routinely abused or portrayed as evil and conniving. In Titus, we have both.  Lavinia is raped, abused and finally killed, while Tamora is portrayed as the conniving, evil, villain. There are those who will think I am being too harsh, bringing my contemporary feminism to a playwright working hundreds of years ago, but it is hard to look past Shakespeare’s depictions of women in these early plays – he was profoundly sexist and that need to be remembered.

 

The rape scene and Lavina’s mutilation are hard enough, but the scene later in the play where Lavinia carries away her father’s hand in her mouth is really just over the top in its cheap cruelty. Am I supposed to laugh at this? If so, then something has been lost between the Bard’s time and our own. I find nothing amusing in the scene. There is a reason this is one of the least preformed of Shakespeares works. It is offensive, bloody, and just not very good.

 

Bloom and others have championed Aaron the Moor as one of Shakespeare’s first great characters. I am not sure I agree. Though Aaron is somewhat humanized by his love for his child, in the end, he is a caricature of the villain. If any character foreshadows the Bard’s later, greater, creations it is Titus himself, a sort of horror show funhouse King Lear and perhaps for that alone, this is one worth reading if you can stomach it.

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Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

Comedy of Errors (Arden Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare

Last year I decided I was going to read the Bard’s works in chronological order, who knew that was going to be such a trying ordeal? I warn you, before you get to Lear and Hamlet you have to go through the long and turgid Richard the VI and the silly and unfunny Comedy of Errors. You have been warned, fellow readers.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies leave me cold, but the early comedies, starting with Comedy or Errors, really take the cake for unfunny. The plot here is simple  and wildly unbelievable – two sets of twins, one set of gentleman, one set of servants, are separated at birth, but come together when the twins from Syracuse visit the twins from Ephesus. Confusion and plenty of cheap jokes ensue. Putting aside the shear implausibility that a wife wouldn’t recognize her husband, the comedic slap stick of the play is just poorly done.

Shakespeare’s later comedies are filled with double entendres and clever set pieces – this one is not. It is the same joke told in variation for five acts. Antipholus of Syracuse is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Dromio of Syracuse is confused for Dromio of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Antipholus of Syracuse confuses Dromio of Ephesus with Dromio of Syracuse and Drimio says something silly… and on and on.

Perhaps I’d like the work better if I saw it performed by a competent company. Comedy of Errors is one of the early plays which is often staged, probably because the comedies are eternally popular, and this has a relatively small cast. The only production of Comedy of Errors I have ever seen was performed by a high school drama group when I was fifteen. It was not funny. I would guess the Royal Shakespeare Company does a better job.

Harold Bloom, who seems able to find something or merit in almost all of the works of the Bard, says in his enormous Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human (which I am reading in conjunction with the plays) that “Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Human. A role in a face hardly seems an arena for inwardness by genre never confined Shakespeare, even at his origins, and Antipholus of Syracuse is a sketch for the abysses of self that are to come.” Really? I just don’t see it, Harold. Perhaps there are hints of the kind of character development and articulation of the human condition that will make the later plays so great, but on first reading all I see a silly little play which uses the same trick over and over again to get cheap laughs.

– Sean

Review: Richard III

Richard the Third, William Shakespeare, Folger Edition

Richard the III is one of the most quoted of all Shakespeare’s plays (“My kingdom for a horse!), it is a title role all serious Shakespearean actors wish to play, and it is a huge step forward in the Bard’s writing from the Henry VI trilogy. This is the fourth play by the Bard I have read, and the first one I can say I actually enjoyed.

What is it about RIII that makes it so popular and so much better than the Bards earlier works? Some of the reasons are simple technical improvements in the construction. The HVI plays have enormous casts of characters and plots (such as they are) that wind this way and that r, major events happen suddenly and with little flourish, and long periods of time are spent on subplots and diversions. The HVI plays have too many battle scenes and too few insights into the motivations of the characters. RIII is slimmed down to a smaller cast, and more linear plot centered, like most of the best Shakespeare plays, on a single character. Start to finish this is the story of one thing – Richard and his rise to power.

The smaller cast and more focused plot give this play better definition, but what makes it a classic is Richard. Richard III, as created by Shakespeare, is such a captivating character that he has already overtaken my review of Henry VI Part III. As I mentioned there, the historical Richard almost surely wasn’t the maniacal, murdering, evil genius of Shakespeare’s play, but that doesn’t matter. The true nature of the historical Richard is lost to history. What we are left with is the Richard of the play, a man of almost pure evil. He seduces a widow while she accompanies the body of her dead husband, he kills children, all in the pursuit of power which he holds for a very short time.

Richard is a nasty, nasty man, and we love him for it. Or rather we love watching him behave so wickedly. In his plotting for power Richard is the Id gone wild. Richard is an exemplification of our desires for power above all else. It is disgusting and horrific and we cannot stop talking about it. My reaction to him reminds me of my reaction to Charlie Sheen. I hate him, think he is loathsome, and cannot turn away.

While audiences love seeing Richard’s rise to power through wickedness, vicariously living through a man willing to do anything to get what he wants, we love watching him met his violent end. Because while we may enjoy watching Richard be nasty or Sheen behaving like a sex crazed madman, we wouldn’t like the story unless it ended badly for the protagonist.

Henry VI Part III

Henry VI Part III (Folger Edition)
William Shakespeare

I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine the Henry the 6th plays are among the least performed in the Shakespeare cannon. Written early in Will’s career, they just aren’t very good. The first is really down right awful. It is confusing, poorly plotted and hard to get through. Joan of Arc is a character in Part I and it still sucks. The second is a little better (the middle of Part II is dominated by an alternately bloody and comedic peasant revolt which is pretty amusing) but still not worth all that much. Part III, while not rising to the typical Will standards, isn’t bad, if you like ‘em bloody. It gets especially good in the second half when the evil caricature of Richard the III really gets going.

There are a couple of things about Henry VI Part III that I want to note. First is the real cruelty on display in portions of the play. I am no Shakespeare scholar, but it seems to me that the early Shakespeare plays* are more graphically violent than the later plays. In Henry VI Part III we have the cold blooded killing of a little child by a knight, the child’s father is then taunted with a handkerchief dipped in the kid’s blood and then if that wasn’t enough, get the mass stabbing of a  Prince by a gang of nobles. It is gruesome stuff.

Critics give a lot of reasons for this brutality in Henry VI Part II. Two of the reasons often argued resonate with me. Perhaps Will wasn’t confident enough yet that his dialogue could hold the crowd’s attention so he resorted to more graphic violence. He was competing with bear baiting after all. I’ll buy this. If you write a scene where a queen puts a paper crown on a man’s head, gives him a handkerchief with his own child’s blood on it, and then has him killed, people are going to remember your name.

The second reason for the violence often given is that the plays reflect a critique of chivalry and a dislike for war that was common in England in the years after the War of the Roses and the various wars in Europe. Maybe.  I will say that there are few heroes in these plays and generally the aristocracy behaves badly. Perhaps that is because Will was attempting a critique of the nobility, or perhaps royals acting badly filled seats. Like much in Shakespeare studies, it doesn’t much matter anymore what Will intended. It matters what resonates with us.

Also of interest is how the plays represent the Tudor ruling classes perception of the War of the Roses and the houses of York and Lancaster.** There is a huge literature out there on the way that Shakespeare’s plays influenced our understanding of the historical persons he used as the basis of his characters. I’ve read some of it, but not much. What I have read says that Richard very likely wasn’t a hunchback, if he was deformed, it probably was minimal. He also probably didn’t kill the princes in the Tower. But that doesn’t stop Shakespeare from portraying him as an evil hunchback murderer. And that is how we imagine him today.

When I think of Richard the Third, I think of Olivier, sneering:


I will go into this more after I read and review Richard III, but Henry VII, the founder of Tudor England, usurped Richard so it isn’t surprising that Richard is portrayed so awfully in Henry VI. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the play isn’t just a hit piece on the house of Lancaster. The Yorks, those of the killing of the little kids, don’t get off easily either.  The Henry the VI cycle isn’t among the best Shakespeare has to offer, but it is worth the time to read both to put the other, better, works in context and to enjoy the spectacle of royalty acting badly.

* People argue ad nausea about the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays, but there is little doubt that the Henry the VI plays are among the first.

** Before I read these plays I knew jack shit about the War of the Roses. I might write something just synopsizing this skirmish. If you are reading the Henry Plays and Richard III, instead of watching them, I think you need to have some familiarity with the War or you’ll be lost.