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review 2016-10-03 19:04
Shakespeare's Henry VI Part I
Henry VI, Part 1 - Stephen Orgel,A.R. Braunmuller,William Shakespeare

I am slowly moving my way into the most obscure bits of Shakespeare.  Is Henry VI a great bit of art.  Nope.  It's most interesting as a work in Shakespeare's oeuvre.  It deals with a complex and contradictory bit of history and covers the period of time that Joan of Arc was active.  However, the Joan of Arc story is only one of those stories in this complex and contradictory piece of history.  This period of time is more suited to the soap opera than the discrete narrative arc and perhaps that is why Shakespeare wrote three plays on the subject, but it's still not a promising one.  Shakespeare as everyone knows did not write plots very often but instead stole them from history and from other artists for the most art.  Here he does not have stealing down quite yet.


The story has some good scenes and no bad scenes.  The main popular criticisms are that it is misogynistic in its treatment of Joan of Arc.  I feel really done with these kind of criticisms of the writings of other times and other cultures, because they strike me as just a way for people to make themselves feel superior and add nothing. The lack of shape of the play is its main problem.  The writing of the play is robust but not beautiful, so its good writing but not great writing.


In other words, Henry VI is a play to read for those who have read most of Shakespeare and is interesting in its development of his artistry and for this reason its worth reading.  It is in no ways a bad play, but it lasts because of its author and its interest is because of its author.

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review 2016-06-12 13:34
Shakespeare's Bitter Comedy
All's Well That Ends Well - Paul Werstine,Barbara A. Mowat,William Shakespeare

All's Well that Ends Well is a startling play and Shakespeare at close to his most experimental.  It is closely related to Measure for Measure, but I think it is a better and more complex play than that.  It is another example, one of many, of Shakespeare undermining the conventions of comedy and while it seems light and breezy on the surface it is a bitter little pill in the end.


The play has Helena a virtuous and lovely woman but of a middle class background fall in love with Bertram a shallow, womanizing, warmongering cad.  By saving the King's life Helena gets her wish of being married to Bertram but he immediately runs away and the rest of the play concerns Helena's trick to get him back, while Bertram is busy trying to take the maidenhead of virgins.  Like Measure for Measure the politics of virginity are never far away.  However, unlike Measure for Measure the "happy" ending is even more radically undermined while strictly adhering to the conventions of comedy.  Bertram and Helena end up together, but Bertram has proved himself so worthless that one cannot see it as happy.  Shakespeare even goes so far as to put the title of the play in Helena's mouth twice emphasizing its ironic aspect.  Like As You Like It the play has many funny moments and is within the conventions of a comedy while satirizing it.  Unlike As You Like It he gives the play an unstable ending.


I haven't mentioned Parolles who is the conventional scoundrel friend of the hero that we find so often in Shakespeare.  He's one of the better ones being a complete scoundrel and when we laugh at him we are uncomfortable because his villainy is more concrete.

All's Well That Ends Well is often now considered one of the "Problem" plays because it does not fit neatly into the conventions of comedy.  I have a bit of a problem with that label, because I think there are more of the Comedies that either undermine the conventions of comedy or that hijack them for a more complex purpose.  Basically, Shakespeare wrote a straight ahead comedy in The Comedy of Errors and spent the rest of his time playing with or undermining the genre.


I also think that the play is also an attack on social class.  It has a speech assaulting class roles put into the King of France's mouth of all people.  That aspect is very surprising.  Those kinds of topics were always things that I thought that Shakespeare had no interest in.


All's Well That End's Well is better than its reputation would suggest.  Its a play with great dialogue but designed to lull the audience in and then unsettle them while making them laugh.  I would certainly put it in the top half of Shakespeare's plays, bitter little pill that it is.

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review 2016-06-07 16:46
Shakespeare's War Story
Henry V - William Shakespeare,Barbara A. Mowat,Paul Werstine

Henry V is Shakespeare's war play.  While he often has wars in plays this plays focus is on war and also on Kingship.  Shakespeare has always been interested in Kingship and is primarily interested in the character of Kings and what makes a good and bad King.  To the extent that he has any political opinion, it is that usurpers are bad, which is not unreasonable given that they tend to trigger civil wars. 


In Henry V, King Henry is represented as an ideal King, but that representation happens within the context of war.  The civil duties of Kingship are not much touched upon.  Further, while Shakespeare does talk about the horrors war, his focus is on the glory.  It feels less deep than most Shakespearean treatments.  While he captures perfectly the camaraderie of soldiers, which is why it has become the most referenced source of quotations on this.  It none-the-less in the end feels one sided.  There are apparently deconstructionist readings that focus on finding tensions in the heroism and personality of King Harry, but I think that those are illegitimate readings.


The King Harry of King Henry V, betrays the rascals of his youth, and while Shakespeare may well be right that a King should not tolerate that kind of behaviour, it sits uneasily because Shakespeare spent the two King Henry IV plays making those rascals adorable.  In short what is bad about King Henry V is that it is considerably shallower than one would expect.  Furthermore, unlike the two King Henry IVs the comedy and the serious scenes jar against one another and are not well integrated.


Having pointed to King Henry V's weaknesses which are surprising, I now want to point out its strengths.  The language is Shakespeare and the actual construction of that language is as least as good as average for Shakespeare which means of course that it is amazing, brilliant and beautiful.  Furthermore, the play contains many excellent scenes.  I thought that I had never read or seen King Henry V, but in fact I had seen a production as a child and as I read the play many of those scenes emerged from my memory vividly as I saw them almost forty years ago.  In particular, the scene with King Henry wandering the army camp before the battle of Agincourt, the scene mostly in French with Katherine and her lady in waiting and the Leek eating scene (which apparently made a great impression on my childhood self) are outstanding.


I'm left then with strongly mixed feelings about King Henry V and cannot put it amongst the best of Shakespeare's plays.  It is clearly inferior to the King Henry IVs, but it contains many elements of genius.  It is a play where the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  That might seem harsh for what is still clearly a work of genius, but because it's Shakespeare my expectations were raised a bit.

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review 2016-04-19 18:16
Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors - William Shakespeare

This is very, very early Shakespeare and it shows.  The plot is that two pairs of twins have been separated at birth, with one being the master and one being the servant from each pair.  Each twin has the same name as the other, so we have two servants named Dromio and two masters named Antipholus.  Hilarious hijinks ensue when they end up in the same time and everyone constantly mistakes each twin for the other.


The play is out and out farce and entirely rests upon the mistaken identity gag.  Its really got no subtlety to it at all and is a standard farce.   The plot could come straight out of an episode of Three's Company because it is all mistakes.  Its the most unsophisticated thing that I have read by Shakespeare.  The language is quite pretty and the gags are good enough.  However, even compared to something like Two Gentlemen of Verona it is straight-forward and relies a lot on slapstick humor.  While, its perfectly fine, I certainly feel that I have read and seen things that are better.  One can imagine it as an Elizabethan Fawlty Towers and that is a good comparison, because Fawlty Towers is both cleverer and funnier.   This kind of thing is not really Shakespeare's forte and when he indulges in this kind of humor in later works, it is always a bit more than this and works on multiple levels.  Its fine and fun, but Shakespeare at his fluffiest, safest and least original.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-03-12 17:05
The Winter's Tale: Shakespeare's Weird Fairy Tale
The Winter's Tale (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare



This is a very strange play.  While Shakespeare stayed within the bare conventions of his time in writing plays he is fundamentally an experimental author and this play is one of his more experimental works.  The play is nominally a comedy but the first three acts read like tragedy and then the comedy breaks out in earnest for the last two acts.  The play also contains pastoral themes, but it has a plot that is essentially a folk tale.  The plot is that a King becomes jealous of his wife who then dies with her son of the shame more or less and the daughter who the King believes his daughter is illegitimate exiles her.  She becomes lost and is raised by a simple shepherd when a handsome prince falls in love with her.  They then flee for love before the mystery is solved and everything works out fine.


The tone of the play dramatically changes at the conclusion of the third act.  Up until that time the play is primarily a sort of Sophoclean tragedy and then it becomes Shakespeare at his silliest.  The last two acts are as silly as As You Like It, up until the weird denouement of the play.  Its clearly Shakespeare trying to experiment and the influence of fairy tales is very plain.  The psychological realism is not there and the characters act as archetypes.  Too me the whole thing prefigures something similar in the Tempest, but here it does not really come off.  The play fails to cohere and the shifts and characters don't quite work.  However, it was probably a necessary experiment that allowed the Tempest to be written later.  The Tempest does something similar, but it works.  It reminds me of Timon of Athens which is also a noble experimental failure and that play in my opinion prefigures King Lear.  The play is very weird, including an unnecessary bear attack, which is quite confusing.  The characters don't quite gel either.


I don't begrudge Shakespeare's failed experiment, because Shakespeare failing is better than most authors succeeding.  That being said the only play that I have read by Shakespeare that I think is worse is Timon of Athens.  Weird and strange.

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