JULIUS CAESAR · THEATRE

NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE: JULIUS CAESAR

Julius_Caesar_Fathom_National_Theatre_Production_Photo_2018_Ben Whishaw (Brutus) and Michelle Fairley (Cassius) in Julius Caesar. By Manuel Harlan_HR.jpg
Cassius (Michelle Fairley) tells Brutus (Ben Whishaw) of Caesar’s ambitious nature in the National Theatre’s 2018 production of Julius Caesar.

I promised you a ranking post, and a ranking post you shall receive, but first I want to talk about Julius Caesar. I got wind that the National Theatre’s “immersive,” 2018 production was making its rounds through the US two days ago, and I immediately found a cinema that was showing it near me. I love Julius Caesar – it is one of those great plays that I didn’t expect to fall in love with, but did. The suspense in Julius Caesar is unmatched, and I would go so far as it call it Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

The play opened with a concert on Caesar’s behalf – a rock concert. My first thought, inelegant as it was, was “ew.” As you know, I am not a fan of modern productions. I am not a Shakespeare purist by any means – I just like the feeling of being whisked away from 2018 and thrust into the past. So, yes. Usually, I am not a fan of modern productions. But, somehow, this production of Julius Caesar managed to change my mind. No easy task, given that I can be incredibly stubborn. And stubborn I shall remain: now, in my mind, Julius Caesar is the only play that can still work as a modern piece. All other plays can remain as they are.

Half an hour into the play, I found myself worried that they would be going down a very predictable path. I think painting Caesar as a villain makes this play incredibly boring. The play itself is intriguing because the reader isn’t supposed to be sure if the conspirators are actually doing the right thing. But when Caesar is painted as a pompous madman (which seems a strange interpretation to me, given that he rejects the crown three times), then the audience is being told that he had it coming. The characters go from grey to being black and white, which is boring, boring, boring. An example of this is the Shakespeare in the Park production that was put on a while ago, in which they had Caesar look exactly like our terrible 45th President. This sort of thing automatically puts the characters in boxes – suddenly you find yourself knowing who the big baddie is. And the play is ruined.

Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. I had Brutus (played absolutely brilliantly by Ben Whishaw) to thank for this. Whishaw played Brutus exactly as I think he should be played: bubbling over with nervous energy and so, so invested in doing the right thing, whatever that may be. At the beginning of the play, a plebeian handed him a book to sign, and that book was titled On Liberty, authored by Brutus himself. That told us what we needed to know. Brutus thinks Rome should be free – he believes in liberty above all else. And when Cassius (played so well by Michelle Fairley that I almost forgot about how little I care for the character in general) convinces Brutus to join her, he finds himself staying up all night, surrounded by books with titles like Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Almost as if he were trying to double and triple check that Caesar is, in fact, a dictator. Almost as if he were trying to read about the red flags that people in the past ignored. It is Brutus’ clear uncertainty that makes the audience feel uncertain too. Maybe Caesar didn’t deserve to be murdered. Maybe Brutus was reading between the lines a little too much. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Caesar (David Calder) had a lot of gravity to him, and I still did not agree with the decision to kill him. Something interesting, though: when Caesar was warned about the Ides of March, something on his face told me that the prophecy actually scared him for a moment. But then, very quickly, he tossed it aside and laughed with the crowd. How much of the prophecy did he actually believe?

In my original post about Julius Caesar, I wrote that there is something very soft about Brutus, something that is very unbecoming of a warrior. That something in this production was his nervous energy, and also the way he behaved toward his wife. Portia was played as absolutely desperate in this production – desperate to know what plagues her beloved husband so. Brutus and Portia together were a flurry of embraces, soft kisses, and desperate pleas. He so clearly loves her, and when she shows him the wounds she’s inflicted on herself, his utterance of “Oh, Portia,” was so heavy and sad that it replayed itself in my head endlessly during the car ride home.

Mark Antony (David Morrissey) was wonderful, and had a stage presence befitting the powerful man he is. But I will say that he was played a touch too emotional for me. I think Mark Antony, as a character, would benefit from having a calm, eerie edge to him. He is nothing but a snake waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and there needs to be something about him that wrongly convinces Brutus otherwise. That aside, Mark Antony truly began to shine when the war broke out. He is a character who loves the thrill of battle, and this production made sure we took note of that.

It was difficult for me to see Brutus beg so many of his friends to kill him. Difficult only because he is my favorite character in this play, even though he is wound so tightly that it makes me nervous whether I’m reading or watching the story unfold. He moved to do it himself a couple of times, but was never able to commit. Little details like that really added to Brutus as a whole. Ben Whishaw might have ruined all other interpretations of Brutus from here on out for me.

Every time I write one of these theater review posts, I wonder what we can do to make Shakespeare more accessible. I actually think this production figured it out. Julius Caesar was described as “immersive.” What that means is that the audience was very much in the thick of things. There was no solid, stationary stage. Instead, platforms rose from the ground as necessary. And the war took place throughout the entire theater. Dust and pebbles cascaded from the sky, showering the audience. Lights flashed, and the sounds of gunshots filled the entire room. The audience cheered for Caesar, gasped at Brutus’ bloody hands, turned violent at Mark Antony’s whim. There was absolutely no way for someone to be in that room and not be enthralled by the tale before them. So maybe making Shakespeare’s plays immersive is the key to making them interesting for everyone. I very desperately wanted to be in that crowd, even though they were all coated in a fine layer of debris at the end. I’m not quite sure how I would make something like that work for other plays – say, Measure for Measure – but I’m sure there’s a director out there who knows just what to do.

There isn’t much more I can say about Julius Caesar that I haven’t already said here or in my original post on the play. I love the suspense, I love the political intrigue, and I love that Brutus is so grey. I highly suggest giving it a watch if you can! Click here to find a cinema near you.

CYMBELINE

HOW CAME ‘T? WHO IS ‘T? WHAT ART THOU?

cymbeline.jpg
Imogen (Lily Rabe) and Posthumus (Hamish Linklater) tearfully part ways in The Public Theater’s 2015 production of Cymbeline.

Yesterday, I read the very last word of my very last “new” Shakespeare play. And it just so happened that that play was Cymbeline. Around nine years ago, I read my very first line of Shakespeare. I remember it clear as day: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” And yesterday, I read my last line: “Never was a war did cease, ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace.” My first line made me skeptical, and my last filled me with a bittersweet longing for more. I’ll leave the theatrics for my upcoming ranking post, though – this post is about Cymbeline.

Before we start, I just want to say that the title of this play shouldn’t be Cymbeline at all. It should be Imogen. The reasons for this will become obvious, but if you’ve already read this play, you know why.

We open in King Cymbeline’s court, where drama is brewing:

SECOND GENTLEMAN
But what’s the matter?

FIRST GENTLEMAN
His daughter, and the heir of ‘s kingdom, whom
He purposed to his wife’s sole son – a widow
That late he married – hath referred herself
Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. She’s wedded,
Her husband banished, she imprisoned. All
Is outward sorrow, though I think the King
Be touched at very heart.

You heard it here first, folks: Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, has secretly gotten married. Cymbeline wanted her to marry her stepbrother Cloten. Let’s just say that Imogen has dodged a massive bullet by going against her father’s wishes. Despite not having met her yet, I think we can all agree that Imogen is already proving to us that she is one of Shakespeare’s sharp-as-a-tack/follows-her-own-heart-and-mind heroines. Exactly the kind of heroine I like!

Cymbeline is up in arms about all of this, but that’s because Imogen is his sole heir. It’s important to note that he had two sons once, but they were kidnapped as children and never seen or heard from again. So everything sits on Imogen’s shoulders, so to speak.

Imogen has married Posthumus, a gentleman below her in rank. In a rage, Cymbeline banishes him.

CYMBELINE
O disloyal thing
That shouldst repair on my youth,  thou heap’st
A year’s age on me.

IMOGEN
I beseech you, sir,
Harm not yourself with your vexation.
I am senseless of your wrath. A touch more rare
Subdues all pangs, all fears.

CYMBELINE
Past grace? Obedience?

IMOGEN
Past hope and despair; that way past grace.

CYMBELINE
That mightst have had the sole son of my queen!

IMOGEN
O, blessèd that I might not! I chose an eagle
And did avoid a puttock.

Imogen is actually very upset here, and although she does cry later, she is very sharp when she expresses her anger. She doesn’t bend to her father for one second, and I admire that about her. But, really, this entire situation is out of her hands. She has no power, and she knows it. Her new husband is sent packing to Rome almost instantly.

And, instead of pining for his lady love, Posthumus finds himself discussing women with other Italian gentlemen. He waxes poetic about Imogen immediately, but Iachimo, an Italian gentleman, isn’t really having it:

IACHIMO
That lady is not now living, or this gentleman’s opinion by this worn out.

POSTHUMUS
She holds her virtue still, and I my mind.

I would have loved for this conversation to end here, but things take a very stupid turn.

IACHIMO
With five times so much conversation I should get ground of your fair mistress, make her go back even to the yielding, had I admittance and opportunity to friend.

POSTHUMUS
No, no.

IACHIMO
I dare thereupon pawn the moiety of my estate to your ring, which in my opinion o’ervalues it something. But I make my wager rather against your confidence than her reputation, and, to bar your offense herein too, I durst attempt it against any lady in the world.

[…]

POSTHUMUS
What lady would you choose to assail?

IACHIMO
Yours, whom in constancy you think stands so safe. I will lay you ten thousand ducats to your ring that, commend me to the court where your lady is, with no more advantage than the opportunity of a second conference, and I will bring from thence that honor of hers which you imagine so reserved.

By the end of this exchange, Iachimo convinces Posthumus to place a bet on Imogen’s virginity. If Iachimo succeeds in seducing Imogen, then he wins Posthumus’ diamond ring – a ring given to him by Imogen.

I, of course, do not like this at all.

The characters in this play speak very highly of Posthumus. Very highly. But I’m not quite sure he deserves it. He bothers me for so many reasons, but his decision to actually go along with Iachimo’s game is reason enough for me to dislike him. It’s clear to any reader that Iachimo is a terrible person, nothing more than a cad. His proposal annoyed me, yes, but what annoyed me even more is Posthumus’ agreeing to it. Iachimo isn’t some great manipulator. Neither of these men should feel entitled to talk about Imogen like this, behind her back, and about something so private. But maybe I am being too modern about this.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s Queen is creating drama of a different sort. Apparently, she’s asked her doctor Cornelius to make her some poison. Cornelius, sensing that the Queen is off her rocker, decides to make her a sleeping potion instead, à la Romeo and Juliet. He tells her that it’s poison, of course. She immediately pawns it off on Posthumus’ servant Pisanio (who is my second favorite, after Imogen), and tells him that it’s medicine. Her hope is that he’ll drink it, die, and that this will somehow make Imogen miss her husband less.

I know, I know. It’s ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, Iachimo has found himself in Britain, face-to-face with Imogen.

IACHIMO
[…] What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon the numbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so previous
‘Twist fair and foul?

IMOGEN
What makes your admiration?

Imogen is literally this play’s saving grace. Immediately, she is unimpressed, and doesn’t seem too keen on engaging with Iachimo at all. He keeps trying, though, and Imogen becomes less impressed with each passing moment. She shoos him away, offended, and Iachimo finds himself dazzled by her immunity to his charms (I use that word very, very loosely).

This should end here, but no. Iachimo asks Imogen to keep a trunk filled with valuables in his room and, being the gracious woman that she is, Imogen agrees. The thought, “What if he hides himself inside?” briefly crossed my mind, but it was quickly followed with, “No, no. That’s too silly.”

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.

Cloten, meanwhile, is busying himself by being the literal human embodiment of the devil.

SECOND LORD
It is not fit your Lordship should undertake every companion that you give offense to.

CLOTEN
No, I know that, but it is fit I should commit offense to my inferiors.

Cool. Seriously though, I was not kidding when I called Cloten the devil. He is quite literally one of the worst, most irredeemable characters Shakespeare has ever written. I literally couldn’t find a single good thing about him – me! The person who even found something nice to say about Coriolanus! About Angelo! Even about Richard III, who waltzes onto the stage in the first act of his play to tell us that he’s evil. Cloten outdoes them all, and I think it’s because there’s something about him that reminds me of a bratty child. And, honestly, that is a personality trait that I can barely stand in real life, let alone in an already subpar play like Cymbeline.

Anyway. Remember how I thought to myself that Iachimo might hide himself in his trunk?

Iachmio from the trunk.

I was right.

This entire scene was incredibly uncomfortable for me to read. As Imogen sleeps, Iachimo takes a good, long look at her body. He also takes note of the room and, finally, removes Imogen’s bracelet from her wrist. A bracelet that was given to her by Posthumus, of course.

All of this is just ridiculous. I feel terrible for Imogen. She was actually far more patient with Iachimo than I would have been, and she was gracious enough to let him keep his trunk in her room for safekeeping. But Iachimo is a terrible person – she should have just kicked his ass to the curb.

And speaking of terrible people…

CLOTEN
I would this music would come. I am advised to give her music a-mornings; they say it will penetrate.

Enter Musicians.

Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so. We’ll try with tongue, too. If none will do, let her remain, but I’ll never give o’er. First, a very excellent good-conceited thing; after, a wonderful sweet air with admirable rich words to it, and then let her consider.

First of all, ew. The sexual innuendo in Cloten’s speech gives me the creeps, and the fact that he’s trying to serenade Imogen doesn’t help things at all. In true Imogen fashion, she is unimpressed.

CLOTEN
Still I swear I love you.

IMOGEN
If you but said so, ’twere as deep with me.
If you swear still, your recompense is still
That I regard it not.

CLOTEN
This is no answer.

Sounds like an answer to me. Cloten keeps badgering Imogen, and she eventually (and rightfully) loses her temper.

IMOGEN
Profane fellow,
Wert thou the son of Jupiter and no more
But what thou art besides, thou wert too base
To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,
Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made
Comparative for your virtues to be styled
The under-hangman of his kingdom and hated
For being preferred so well.

CLOTEN
The south fog rot him!

IMOGEN
He can never meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His mean’st garment
That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men. – How now, Pisanio!

Enter Pisanio.

CLOTEN
“His garment”? Now the devil –

IMOGEN, [to Pisiano]
To Dorothy, my woman, hie thee presently.

CLOTEN
“His garment”?

This may have been the only time I actually laughed while reading this play. Imogen tears into Cloten, and leaves him spluttering. He tries to scare her by threatening to tell Cymbeline, but this is Imogen we’re talking about.

CLOTEN
You have abused me.
“His meanest garment”?

IMOGEN
Ay, I said so, sir.
If you will make ‘t an action, call witness to ‘t.

CLOTEN
I will inform your father.

IMOGEN
Your mother too.
She’s my good lady and will conceive, I hope,
But the worst of me. So I leave you, sir,
To th’ worst of discontent.

“Your mother too.” I love it! Imogen isn’t scared of Cloten, big bratty baby that he is. She is very faithful to Posthumus, but I’m not quite sure he’s worthy of her…

Because when Iachimo goes back to Rome with all of his “evidence,” Posthumus believes him. Oh, sure, he rolls his eyes at first, but he falls for Iachimo’s tricks eventually. And you may be wondering: does he decide to go confront Imogen about all of this?

POSTHUMUS
O, that I had her here, to tear her limb-meal!
I will go there and do ‘t i’ th’ court, before
Her father. I’ll do something.

Nope! I can’t tell you how much I dislike this. I understand that this is an upsetting situation, but Posthumus’ reaction is far too violent for my taste. But maybe he’s just over-exaggerating, hmm?

In other news, Britain apparently owes a tribute to Rome, and Augustus has sent over Caius Lucius to get Cymbeline to cough it up. And yes, interestingly, Cymbeline takes place in a post-Julius Caesar, post-Antony and Cleopatra world. Who would have thought?

Again, as with most of the issues in the play, this one is very solvable. If Britain promised to pay tribute to Rome, then Cymbeline should pay it.

Except he refuses.

LUCIUS
I am sorry, Cymbeline,
That I am to pronounce Augustus Caesar –
Caesar, that hath more kings his servants than
Thyself domestic officers – thine enemy.
Receive it from me, then: war and confusion
In Caesar’s name pronounce I ‘gainst thee. Look
For fury not to be resisted. Thus defied,
I thank thee for myself.

And now Britain is at war with Rome. Great! Exactly what this play needs! More plot points!

Pisanio, meanwhile, has received two letters from Posthumus. One letter is addressed to Pisanio – in it, Posthumus tells him to kill Imogen. The other letter is for Imogen. It tells her to travel to Milford Haven with Pisanio. Posthumus writes that he will be waiting for her there. Color me unimpressed. Imogen, poor Imogen, is so excited to see her husband. Look, I know that the lack of communication between Posthumus and Imogen makes for good drama, but I’m not really enjoying it. Even if Imogen had been unfaithful, what right does Posthumus have to take her life? And he isn’t even planning on doing it himself! He’s pushing it onto poor Pisanio.

Here’s another plot point (you thought we were done?): we cut to the forest, where three men exit from a cave. They are Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal. That’s right: two names each. Remember Imogen’s kidnapped brothers? Well, here they are. Belarius/Morgan was wrongfully banished by Cymbeline, so he kidnapped Cymbeline’s sons to get back at him. Oh, and just to make this play more confusing, he gave them fake names. I guess that’s one way to do it.

On the way to Milford Haven, Pisanio is all nerves. He eventually breaks down and tells Imogen the real purpose of their trip. He gives her the letter that Posthumus wrote to him.

IMOGEN
False to his bed? What is it to be false?
To lie in watch there and to think on him?
To weep ‘twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge nature,
To break it with a fearful dream of him
And cry myself awake? That’s false to ‘s bed, is it?

PISANIO
Alas, good lady!

I haven’t watched Cymbeline, on stage, TV or otherwise, so I’m not sure how this is supposed to play out. Does Imogen say these lines angrily? Or is she weeping? I think I’d lean toward an angry Imogen – I think the opportunity is there to play her as a firecracker. But, as always, just because the opportunity is there, doesn’t mean it is actually ever taken. I thought the same about Isabella while reading Measure for Measure, but goodness knows that she’s always played as a weepy mess.

Imogen takes so much offense to all of this that she asks Pisanio to stab her right then and there. I was kind of hoping that she’d want to seek revenge on Posthumus instead, or at least go tell him off a bit, but I guess not!

Pisanio, of course, refuses to stab Imogen. Instead, he encourages her to disguise herself as a boy and offer her services to Caius Lucius, who is supposedly heading toward Milford Haven himself. It looks like we’ve come back to this tried-and-true storyline – how many times have we read through it now? Before parting, Pisanio hands Imogen the “medicine,” that the Queen gave him. Looks like that plot point is back to haunt us as well.

Imogen’s disappearance is noticed pretty quickly, and Pisanio, unlucky creature that he is, finds himself face-to-face with Cloten. Pisanio is forced to tell Cloten what he knows. He shows him the letter that Posthumus wrote to Imogen instructing her to meet him at Milford Haven. Cloten reacts much as you’d expect.

CLOTEN
Meet thee at Milford Haven! – I forgot to ask him one thing; I’ll remember ‘t anon. Even there, thou villain Posthumus, will I kill thee. I would these garments were come. She said upon a time – the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart – that she held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect than my noble and natural person, together with the adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my back I will ravish her. First, kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment dined – which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so praised – to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in revenge.

I don’t know if I’m being particularly sensitive, but there are so many suggestions of violence against Imogen in this play. I really can’t stand it. Cloten, who, again, is the literal human embodiment of a demon, forces Pisanio to give him some of Posthumus’ clothing. He intends to travel to Milford Haven, murder Posthumus, rape Imogen, and drag her kicking and screaming back to court.

I’m not a fan of Posthumus, but I will say again that Imogen dodged a huge bullet by marrying him instead of Cloten.

Also, I do enjoy that he’s still upset over what she said to him earlier. Such fragility.

Speaking of Imogen, she is lost in the woods. Exhausted, she ends up in the cave where Belarius/Morgan and her two lost brothers live. She tells them her name is Fidele, and they fall in love with her instantly. Not too long after, she begins to feel unwell, so she decides to take the medicine that Pisanio gave her. Much like Juliet, she is put into a deep, death-like sleep.

Cloten, meanwhile, antagonizes the three men and swiftly has his head cut off by Guiderius/Polydor. Finally. I don’t think I could have stood another second of Cloten’s childish brand of villainy.

The men come across Imogen’s body and think her dead. They lay Cloten’s beheaded corpse beside her (?!) and leave. When she awakes, she is distraught.

IMOGEN
[…] O Posthumus, alas,
Where is thy head? Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?
Pisanio might have killed thee at the heart
And left his head on. How should this be? Pisanio?
‘Tis he and Cloten. Malice and lucre in them
Have laid this woe here. O, ’tis pregnant, pregnant!
The drug he gave me, which he said was precious
And cordial to me, have I not found it
Murd’rous to th’ senses? That confirms it home.
This is Pisanio’s deed, and Cloten. O,
Give color to my pale cheek with thy blood,
That we the horrider may seem to those
Which chance to find us. O my lord! My lord!

Believing Cloten to be Posthumus, Imogen switches between grief and anger. She believes Pisanio to be in cahoots with Cloten and, frankly, I’m a little offended for Pisanio. He has probably shown himself to be the most level-headed man in this play, and he’s very easy to love despite being a minor character.

Caius Lucius comes across the grieving Imogen and, pitying her, takes her under his wing. I shouldn’t say ‘her,’ though, because she’s still play-acting as Fidele.

Going back to the war between Britain and Rome: in the midst of the mounting tensions, Posthumus (who is fighting for the Romans) begins to regret Imogen’s murder, which he thinks actually occurred. What’s that, Posthumus? Killing Imogen was a mistake? What a revelation. Posthumus decides that the best way to punish himself is to disguise himself as a British soldier and get killed.

While disguised, he finds himself fighting Iachimo (who deserves it, the fool), and somehow finds himself helping Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal free a captured Cymbeline (though, to be honest, they should have left him). At some point, though, Posthumus realizes that his get-killed-quick plan isn’t working. He reverts back to a Roman soldier and is promptly captured and imprisoned.

And here is where things begin to take a nonsensical turn. “Really?” you ask. “Now? Everything before this wasn’t nonsense?” It wasn’t. Brace yourselves.

While in jail, Posthumus falls asleep. He is visited by the ghosts of his family who continually harass Jupiter (i.e. Zeus, for us fans of Greek mythology) to try to get him to come to Posthumus’ aid. Jupiter eventually grows tired of their pleading and materializes. He leaves a tablet for Posthumus who, upon waking, is unable to decipher it.

This is literally the only supernatural incident in this entire play, and it is so out of place. It sticks out like the worst sore thumb, and I can’t stand it. If I were to actually put on a stage production of this play, this scene would be the first to go.

Anyway. Posthumus is eventually dragged to Cymbeline’s court, and things finally begin to come to a boil. Cymbeline knights Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal for helping to save him from the Romans. Cornelius, the Queen’s doctor, enters. Apparently, the Queen is dead.

CORNELIUS
First, she confessed she never loved you, only
Affected greatness got by you, not you;
Married your royalty, was wife to your place,
Abhorred your person.

So it turns out that the Queen didn’t love Cymbeline at all. I guess it makes sense that she’d be heartless, given that she raised a demonic child like Cloten. Cymbeline takes this announcement in stride, and is more or less like, “Nah.” But Cornelius eventually exposes the Queen’s hatred for Imogen – that is enough to convince Cymbeline of her two-faced nature.

Caius Lucius is brought before Cymbeline. As the Britons have (somehow) won the war, it seems that Caius Lucius is due for an appointment with the chopping block. He has one favor to ask, though:

CAIUS LUCIUS
[…] This one thing only
I will entreat: my boy, a Briton born,
Let him be ransomed. Never master had
A page so kind, so duteous, diligent,
So tender over his occasions, true,
So feat, so nurselike. Let his virtue join
With my request, which I’ll make bold your Highness
Cannot deny. He hath done no Briton harm,
Though he have served a Roman. Save him, sir,
And spare no blood beside.

Imogen has the ability to make just about anyone fall in love with her, and Caius Lucius is no exception. He asks for his “boy,” to be spared. Cymbeline obliges because, well, there’s something strangely familiar and lovable about Fidele. He grants Imogen one wish. Perfect timing, because Imogen spots the diamond on Iachimo’s hand and demands that he tells them the story of how he obtained it.

So he does. In excruciating detail. Posthumus immediately loses his cool, upset that he believed Iachimo and had Imogen killed for something she didn’t do. Imogen, bless her, rushes over to him.

IMOGEN, [running to Posthumus]
Peace, my lord!
Hear, hear –

POSTHUMUS
Shall ‘s have a play of this? Thou scornful page,
There lie thy part.

[He pushes her away; she falls.]

Again, I am unimpressed by Posthumus’ behavior. I know Imogen is disguised as a boy, but pushing away someone who is clearly trying to comfort you is pretty terrible.

We aren’t done, though! There’s the matter of the “medicine,” that Imogen took.

CORNELIUS
O gods!
[To Pisanio.] I left out one thing which the Queen confessed,
Which must approve thee honest. “If Pisanio
Have,” said she, “given his mistress that confection
Which I gave him for cordial, she is served
As I would serve a rat.”

CYMBELINE
What’s this, Cornelius?

CORNELIUS
The Queen, sir, very oft importuned me
To temper poisons for her, still pretending
The satisfaction of her knowledge only
In killing creatures vile, as cats and dogs,
Of no esteem. I, dreading that her purpose
Was of more danger, did compound for her
A certain stuff which, being ta’en, would cease
The present power of life, but in short time
All offices of nature should again
Do their due functions. – Have you ta’en of it?

IMOGEN
Most like I did, for I was dead.

BELARIUS, [as Morgan, aside to Guiderius and Arviragus]
My boys,
There was our error.

The Queen used to ask for poison to do what? Kill cats and dogs? Who the hell did Cymbeline marry? No wonder Cloten was such a sociopath. I mean, look at his mother.

Speaking of Cloten, when it is revealed that Guiderius killed him, Cymbeline decides he has no choice but to have him executed for murder. Belarius/Morgan rushes to his aid by announcing to everybody in the room that the two young men before them are actually the missing princes.

And so everyone is reunited. Imogen is allowed to remain with Posthumus. Cymbeline is suddenly filled with love and decides to pardon Caius Lucius. Oh, and he’s fine with paying the tribute to Rome.

Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is insane. This entire war could have been avoided if he had just paid in the first place. Clearly the money wasn’t the issue. Was this a matter of pride? Was it worth the lives lost? I can’t deal with this.

Jupiter’s tablet, of course, predicted all of this.

While reading this play, I was a bit mystified at all of the negative press I’d read and heard about it. But the deeper I got into it, the most I began to understand its unpopularity. Cymbeline is far, far too long for what it is. The entire kidnapped princes subplot could have been cut out. Those pages could have been used to give the audience more time with Imogen, who is the best part of this play.

The men really leave much to be desired. Posthumus is lauded as being some kind of saint, but I could barely stand him. His refusal to actually confront Imogen about her supposed infidelity drove me nuts. It was supposed to make for good drama, but all it did was make for frustrating drama. And the fact that he even thought it was okay to bet on Imogen’s chastity is disgusting.

The other men, from Cymbeline to Cloten (don’t get me started on him!) also leave much to be desired. It was very difficult to root for anyone outside of Pisanio and Caius Lucius who, to me, came off as very honorable and sensible despite being a part of the enemy camp.

And that is Cymbeline for you. A total mess of a play that pulled me all over the place, randomly had Jupiter intervene, and left me completely unsatisfied for some reason. Not the best note to end on, but it is what it is.

Only one question remains – what’s next for me? Well, I still have to rank all of the plays, and I want to do something special for that. After that, I really do want to try to do as much for this blog as possible. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I’ve poured my heart and soul into writing these entries. So expect more theater reviews, maybe a couple of more in-depth character analysis posts, and hopefully some cool entries about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Plus, for the sake of completeness, I’d like to write entries for all the plays I had already read before starting this blog: Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, and Henry IV, Part One. I really do love some of those plays, so it’ll be fun to revisit them!

If you have read this far, thank you so much. I know I am prone to rambling, and it must be exhausting trying to follow all the webs I make for characters and stories that I love. Doing this has made me so happy but all good things must come to an end. But, hey, it’s Shakespeare. There’s always going to be something new for us to talk about, right?

 

 

HENRY VIII

BUT ALL HOODS MAKE NOT MONKS.

henry8.jpg
Queen Katherine (Tamara Hickey), Cardinal Wolsey (Robert Walsh), and Cardinal Campeius (Craig Mathers) in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s 2013 production of Henry VIII.

Ah, Henry VIII. Famed wife-murderer of England. Henry VIII is so well-known that I would consider him a part of popular culture. England capitalizes on his notoriety to the point where the Tower of London almost exclusively caters to his fans.  When I was in London in 2012, I found this to be a bit frustrating – I mean, what about all of the kings before Henry VIII? Those are the kings that I’m invested in. Reading Henry VIII hasn’t really changed that.

This isn’t a good play, and I say that as someone who adores Shakespeare’s histories. I desperately turned to The Meaning of Shakespeare, and all I found was a measly two pages pretty much saying what I already knew: that this play sucks, and Katherine is its only saving grace. Goddard even quotes Johnson, who apparently said that “the genius of Shakespeare comes in and goes out with Katherine.”

It is probably worth noting that Henry VIII wasn’t written only by Shakespeare. I suppose that means we can blame the overall weakness of this play on John Fletcher, the alleged co-playwright. This blog is exclusively about Shakespeare, but I decided to put Henry VIII on my list so I could round out the history section of this blog, and also because it is often considered part of the canon.

Before we really go into this disaster of a play, maybe we should talk about Henry himself. In reading about this play, I came across a major criticism that I want to address. There seems to be this expectation that the Henry VIII in this play is the Henry VIII we see in the popular painting we’ve all laid eyes on at some point on our lives. But it isn’t. Theaters are not casting fit, attractive actors just for fun, they’re casting Henry like that because that is who he was at the time of this particular set of incidents. Henry VIII was known to be exceptionally attractive and, due to his love for tennis, was actually very fit. A terrible jousting accident left him with a bad leg, which swiftly ended his tennis-playing days. The weight gain we associate with Henry VIII probably came about as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. That, and the fact that he allegedly used to consume around 5,000 calories a meal.

But this is before all of that. This Henry is a young, attractive Henry. This Henry was written to be charming and good at heart. Unfortunately, I could not fool myself into playing along. It’s pretty hard to pretend to like Henry when I know about his life. This play doesn’t discuss any of that, of course. For the title character, Henry isn’t really in this play very much. And the story we are told represents a blip during his reign. Both Fletcher and Shakespeare knew better than to write a gory story about the jealous, murderous, lustful Henry VIII. Although that would have been a much better play, this particular show was being put on for James I, Queen Elizabeth’s successor. As in, Queen- Elizabeth-daughter-of-Henry VIII’s successor. So, all in all, making this play incredibly boring was a smart choice.

We open in England (of course), where the Duke of Buckingham is vexed by a recent incredibly expensive and fruitless meeting between the English and the French.

BUCKINGHAM
Who did guide,
I mean who set the body and the limbs
Of this great sport together, as you guess?

NORFOLK
One, certes, that promises no element
In such a business.

BUCKINGHAM
I pray you who, my lord?

NORFOLK
All this was ordered by the good discretion
Of the right reverend Cardinal of York.

BUCKINGHAM
The devil speed him! No man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger. What had he
To do in these fierce vanities? I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ th’ beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.

Buckingham has pretty much had it with Cardinal Wolsey’s meddling and is prepared to call him out for treason. This really isn’t an overreaction – the Cardinal seems to be involved in things that shouldn’t concern him. He has far, far too much power for someone in his position.

But, unfortunately for Buckingham, the King really likes Wolsey.

BUCKINGHAM
I’ll to the King,
And from a mouth of honor quite cry down
This Ipswich fellow’s insolence, or proclaim
There’s difference in no persons.

NORFOLK
Be advised.
Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot
That it do singe yourself. We may outrun
By violent swiftness that which we run at
And lose by overrunning. Know you not
The fire that mounts the liquor till ‘t run o’er
In seeming to augment it wastes it? Be advised.
I say again there is no English soul
More stronger to direct you than yourself,
If with the sap of reason you would quench
Or but allay the fire of passion.

Buckingham takes Norfolk’s warning seriously, but is determined to expose Wolsey for who he is. But before he can act, he is arrested for treason.

SERGEANT, [to Buckingham]
My lord the Duke of Buckingham and Earl
Of Hertford, Stafford, and Northampton, I
Arrest thee of most high treason, in the name
Of our most sovereign king.

BUCKINGHAM, [to Norfolk]
Lo you, my lord,
The net has fall’n upon me. I shall perish
Under device and practice.

It looks like Wolsey is two steps ahead of poor Buckingham. But the Duke isn’t the only one who isn’t a fan of Wolsey – Queen Katherine has a problem with him too. She goes to Henry to tell him that Wolsey has been taxing the English in the king’s name. Wolsey, of course, tries to play dumb.

WOLSEY
Please you, sir,
I know but of a single part in aught
Pertains to th’ state, and front but in that file
Where others tell steps with me.

QUEEN KATHERINE
No, my lord?
You know no more than others? But you frame
Things that are known alike, which are not wholesome
To those which would not know them, and yet must
Perforce be their acquaintance. These exactions
Most pestilent to th’ hearing, and to bear ’em
The back is sacrifice to th’ load. They say
They are devised by you, or else you suffer
Too hard an exclamation.

Katherine is a force, and she is the only thing keeping this play alive. I love the firmness and confidence of her response to Wolsey. He may be powerful, but she isn’t afraid of him.

Anyway, Henry decides to pardon commoners who have refused to pay the tax. He should be much, much angrier with Wolsey than he is, but there isn’t time for that. The subject is immediately changed and they begin to discuss poor Buckingham.

Wolsey has a surveyor tell the King what exactly it was that was so treasonous about Buckingham.

BUCKINGHAM
First, it was usual with him – every day
If would infect his speech – that if the King
Should without issue die, he’ll carry it so
To make the scepter his. These very words
I’ve heard him utter to his son-in-law,
Lord Abergavenny, to whom by oath he menaced
Revenge upon the Cardinal.

WOLSEY
Please your Highness, note
This dangerous conception in this point:
Not friended by his wish to your high person,
His will is most malignant, and it stretches
Beyond you to your friends.

Give me a break! There is no way Buckingham has ever said any of this. Wolsey is just threatened by him, and is desperate to keep Henry on his side. The surveyor continues to make accusations against Buckingham – but Katherine has something to say about it.

QUEEN KATHERINE
If I know you well,
You were the Duke’s surveyor, and lost your office
On the complaint o’ th’ tenants. Take good heed
You charge not in your spleen a noble person
And spoil your nobler soul. I say, take heed –
Yes, heartily beseech you.

Katherine’s suspicion isn’t unfounded in the least. I’m sure she knows enough about Buckingham to smell a rat – and she’s sharp enough to immediately recognize that the surveyor would have reason to harbor bitter feelings toward Buckingham. Henry decides to ignore this little detail, and is incredibly shocked by the story he’s hearing.

KING
There’s his period,
To sheathe his knife in us! He is attached.
Call him to present trial. If he may
Find mercy in the law, ’tis his; if none,
Let him not seek ‘t of us. By day and night,
He’s traitor to th’ height!

So now Buckingham will be called to trial. Cardinal Wolsey has Henry wrapped around his little finger for sure.

In the evening, the Cardinal throws a fancy supper. Henry and his men show up disguised as courtiers, and Henry meets a figure who is known to us all.

[The masquers choose Ladies. The King chooses Anne Bullen.]

KING
The fairest hand I ever touched! O beauty
Till now I never knew thee.

Sounds a bit like Romeo’s declaration in Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t it? Anyway, you now know the plot of this play. We all know the story of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII may have ingrained himself in popular culture, but so has Anne. You’ve probably noticed that this play uses the unpopular spelling of ‘Bullen,’ for Anne’s last name. The Tudors didn’t know how to spell, so Anne’s family name has been spelled in a number of different ways. The more you know!

The day after the supper (presumably), Buckingham is led to execution. He declares his loyalty to Henry, which is kind of pointless given that he’s on his way to the block. But Buckingham is old news. There’s new gossip going around town.

SECOND GENTLEMAN
I am confident;
You shall, sir. Did you not of late days hear
A buzzing of a separation
Between the King and Katherine?

FIRST GENTLEMAN
Yes, but it held not;
For when the King once heard it, out of anger
He sent command to the Lord Mayor straight
To stop the rumor and allay those tongues
That durst disperse it.

It is interesting to me that Henry tries to put a stop to the rumors because, well, he knows there’s some truth to them. There is nothing surprising about the way this play pans out, because we know he divorces Katherine and marries Anne. I will say that I think this is incredibly unfair to poor Katherine, who has proven herself to be a good wife and an excellent queen.

The nobles are upset with all of this, and they blame Wolsey for the divide between Katherine and Henry. Wolsey, apparently, has plans to marry Henry to the French king’s sister. Sadly for him, Henry has other ideas. The nobles try their best to discuss this with the king, but he shoos them away. Wolsey and Campeius, the papal legate, approach him with better conversation: they tell him that his divorce proceedings can start.

Anne, meanwhile, is busy feeling sorry for Katherine. She doesn’t know what Henry has in store for her, but she probably suspects something when she is suddenly named marchioness of Pembroke. Her lady finds this pretty suspicious.

OLD LADY
With your theme, I could
O’ermount the lark. The Marchioness of Pembroke?
A thousand pounds a year for pure respect?
No other obligation? By my life,
That promises more thousands; honor’s train
Is longer than his foreskirt. By this time
I know your back will bear a duchess. Say,
Are you not stronger than you were?

Well, when she puts it like that, it does sound like a ton of bullshit. A thousand pounds a year just because he respects her? Sure.

Poor Katherine, meanwhile, refuses to have the validity of her marriage questioned.

QUEEN KATHERINE
Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me; for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions, having here
No judge indifferent nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will comfortable,
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire,
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? What friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger did I
Continue in my liking? Nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged? Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife in this obedience
Upward of twenty years, and have been blessed
With many children by you. If, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honor aught,
My bond to wedlock or my love and duty
Against your sacred person, in God’s name
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp’st kind of judgement.

She continues, but I think we get the point. Poor Katherine. There is something incredibly strong about her, sure, but she also possesses a very unique kind of fragility. She hasn’t done anything wrong – her husband is just immature and foolish. He clearly isn’t thinking in the long term here. He isn’t thinking with the right organ either, if you know what I mean.

Wolsey tries to interfere, but Katherine has none of it.

WOLSEY
Be patient yet.

QUEEN KATHERINE
I will, when you are humble; nay, before,
Or by God will punish me. I do believe,
Induced by potent circumstances, that
You are mine enemy, and make my challenge
You shall not be my judge; for it is you
Have blown this coal betwixt my lord and me –
Which God’s dew quench! Therefore I say again,
I utterly abhor, yea, from my soul
Refuse you for my judge, whom, yet once more,
I hold my most malicious foe and think not
At all a friend to truth.

Go Katherine! She knows Wolsey has some ulterior motive in all of this, and she has no problem laying it all out on the table. Nothing is decided upon by the time Katherine storms out of the room. All Henry does is deny that Wolsey had anything to do with his decision to divorce Katherine. He says it was his own decision, fueled by the fact that Katherine had not given him any sons.

If only reproductive biology had been a thing back in 1533.

In any case, Henry also decides that he’s a bit annoyed with Wolsey and Campeius, because all of this is taking much too long. The man wants a divorce, and he wants it now.

Wolsey and Campeius decide to try to talk Katherine out of contesting the divorce. She has holed herself away with her ladies.

CAMPEIUS
Put your main cause into the King’s protection.
He’s loving and most gracious. ‘Twill be much
Both for your honor better and your cause,
For if the trial of the law o’ertake you,
You’ll part away disgraced.

WOLSEY
He tells you rightly.

KATHERINE
You tell me what you wish for both: my ruin.
Is this your Christian counsel? Out upon you!
Heaven is above all yet; there sits a judge
That no king can corrupt.

Katherine’s words are bold, and I think she has every right to lash out like this. Henry’s “reason” for divorcing her is bullshit, and I think she knows it.

WOLSEY
Madam, you wander from the good we aim at.

QUEEN KATHERINE
My lord, I dare not make myself so guilty
To give up willingly that noble title
Your master wed me to. Nothing but death
Shall e’er divorce my dignities.

Katherine is very emotional and angry in this scene, and I find her to be a very sympathetic character overall. But I can’t help but wonder what King James thought about all of this. I’m assuming that Katherine wasn’t written to appeal to royalty, or even to the commoners. They probably saw her as too emotional and stubborn. There certainly is a stark contrast between her and the pure, sweet, calm qualities we see in Anne. But a modern audience wouldn’t care for Anne, I think. All of us would attach ourselves quite quickly to Katherine, and we all feel the sting of her words. Her anger is righteous, and reminds me of the anger we see from Isabella in Measure for Measure.

Katherine keeps fighting, but suddenly she decides to stop. She agrees to do whatever Wolsey and Campeius want, and goes quietly. I was very startled by this sudden change in character. Maybe she knows that all of this is a lost cause. Maybe, suddenly, she realizes that she can be without Henry and still be Katherine of Aragon. She doesn’t need him. Or maybe she knows that allowing the divorce to proceed will reveal certain things about Wolsey…

In the grand scheme of things, she gets off easy compared to his other (future) wives.

Although this trouble with Katherine has been resolved, Wolsey finds himself in a different sort of trouble. The kind of trouble Buckingham was trying to get him into in the first place.

NORFOLK
O, fear him not.
His spell in that is out. The King hath found
Matter against him that forever mars
The honey of his language. No, he’s settled.
Not to come off, in his displeasure.

SURREY
Sir, I should be glad to hear such news as this
Once every hour.

NORFOLK
Believe it, this is true.
In the divorce his contrary proceedings
Are all unfolded, wherein he appears
As I would wish mine enemy.

SURREY
How came
His practices to light?

SUFFOLK
Most strangely.

SURREY
O, how, how?

SUFFOLK
The Cardinal’s letters to the Pope miscarried
And came to th’ eye o’ th’ King, wherein was read
How that the Cardinal did entreat his Holiness
To stay the judgement o’ th’ divorce; for if
It did take place, “I do,” quoth he, “perceive
My king is tangled in affection to
A creature of the Queen’s, Lady Anne Bullen.”

I love how much the nobles love their gossip. It seems that Henry’s suspicion that the divorce was being held up wasn’t unfounded.  Henry actually knows much worse things about Wolsey – and instead of confronting him about it, he simply hands him a paper outlining all of his crimes and leaves.

The nobles are gleefully watching the entire time.

WOLSEY
‘Tis so.
This paper has undone me. ‘Tis th’ accompt
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends – indeed, to gain the popedom
And fee my friends in Rome. O, negligence,
Fit for a fool to fall by! What cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the King? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if I take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again.

[He looks at another paper.]

What’s this? “To th’ Pope”?
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to ‘s Holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touched the highest point of all my greatness,
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting. I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening
And no man see me more.

Goodbye, you meddling fool. The nobles are super excited to (a) roast Wolsey to his face, and (b) take his seal from him. Cromwell, Wolsey’s servant, is the only one who is sad about this whole thing. What can I say? Bad people don’t deserve good things, and Wolsey was nothing if not a bad egg.

He does seem remorseful, though, but it’s too little too late. He advises Cromwell on how to get into Henry’s good graces. I feel like Henry shouldn’t trust anyone related to Wolsey, but he hasn’t exactly been the brightest tool in the shed so far. The fact that it took him this long to see Wolsey for what he is is very telling.

Anne is crowned Queen, and Katherine dies shortly after. Before she does, she expresses her distaste for Wolsey once again, and sees a vision of herself being led into paradise. She is fine dying because she knows there’s something better out there than the life of disgrace Henry has forced onto her. Poor Katherine.

Since Wolsey’s seat is open, a new archbishop of Canterbury is named. He is called Cranmer – not to be confused with Cromwell, which I did constantly. After Katherine’s death, the rest of this play is pretty much Tudor propaganda. I didn’t care for it at all.

The nobles didn’t like Wolsey, but they don’t like Cranmer either. They see his views as heretical.

GARDINIER
My lord, because we have business of more moment,
We will be short with you. ‘Tis his Highness’ pleasure,
And our consent, for better trial of you
From hence you be committed to the Tower,
Where, being but a private man again,
You shall know many dare accuse you boldly –
More than, I fear, you are provided for.

It actually isn’t his Highness’ pleasure, but still. Cranmer is a bit of a whiny crybaby, and wails until Henry presents him with a ring. He is to show this to the council members so that they may know of Henry’s favor. Hilariously, the council members just choose to shut the door on Cranmer during their meeting. Henry furiously intervenes.

SURREY
May it please your Grace –

HENRY
No, sir, it does not please me.
I had thought I had men of some understanding
And wisdom of my Council, but I find none.
Was it discretion, lords, to let this man,
This good man – few of you deserve that title –
This honest man, wait like a lousy footboy
At chamber door? And one as great as you are?
Why, what a shame was this! Did my commission
Bid you so far forget yourselves? I gave you
Power as he was a councillor to try him,
Not as a groom. There’s some of you, I see,
More out of malice than integrity,
Would try him to the utmost, had you mean,
Which you shall never have while I live.

I genuinely do not trust Henry’s judgement here. I think if the nobles are suspicious of Cranmer, then there must be some reason. Henry clung onto Wolsey until things fell apart. He refuses to hear people out, and always insists on marching to the beat of his own drum. But that doesn’t make a good ruler. He should listen to the others.

During all of this ruckus, Anne gives birth.

To a girl.

What was Henry’s reason for divorcing Katherine again? Ah, irony.

The play ends nonsensically – Cranmer predicts that Elizabeth will have a spectacular reign, and that James I will have an equally magnificent one as well. Rubbish, all done to please the royalty of the time. If you’re going to shill out propaganda, at least make it good à la Richard III.

This play was incredibly disjointed, and only Katherine shone throughout it all. Something in her speech suggests (to me, at least) that Shakespeare had a heavy hand in writing her, but I may be biased. All I know is that this play, as it is, is very weak. For something that followed The Tempest, it is a massive disappointment.

Cymbeline is next! And after that, we’re done! I can’t believe I managed to get this far, especially with all that’s happened to me this past year or so. Hopefully I can squeeze enough out of Cymbeline to bring this Shakespeare extravaganza to a satisfying close. And after that, the highly anticipated (to me, obviously) ranking of all the plays…!

PERICLES

NO LIGHT, NO FIRE.

pericles
Pericles (John P. Keller) and Diana (Kimmi Johnson) in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s 2016 production of Pericles.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to finish reading Pericles, I know. But, in the spirit of being kind to myself, I did go through a terrible rough patch when I was supposed to be working through this play. It’s gotten better here at the oh for muse of fire headquarters (A.K.A. my bedroom), but I’m still not completely out of the woods yet. Also, Pericles isn’t the greatest play to pull someone out of a funk, is it?

Here’s my opinion in a nutshell: Pericles isn’t one of Shakespeare’s great works. It’s very difficult to feel anything but indifference toward it. This is because Pericles just doesn’t know what its plot is. Is it about a dramatic incestuous reveal? Is it about a young princess looking for her family? Is it about the power of divine intervention? WHO KNOWS.

We open in Antioch, where Pericles is risking his life to win the hand of the princess. The chorus really tells us everything we need to know here, but for the sake of making this post interesting, I’m going to play innocent. Basically, Pericles is in a ‘solve-this-riddle-or-else,’ kind of situation, which reminds me of a similar scene in The Merchant of Venice.

PERICLES
Like a bold champion I assume the lists,
Nor ask advice of any other thought
But faithfulness and courage.
[He reads] the Riddle:
‘I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labor
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live resolve it you.’

I honestly, genuinely feel like this isn’t even a riddle. This very clearly states that Antiochus and his daughter are engaged in an incestuous relationship with one another. All the past suitors must not have been very bright. Anyway, Pericles figures it out instantly. I could almost picture him looking pointedly into a camera, mockumentary style.

I’ll share my thoughts on Pericles as a character in a minute, but first:

ANTIOCHUS, [aside]
Heaven, that I had thy head! He has found the meaning.
But I will gloze with him. – Young Prince of Tyre,
Though by the tenor of our strict edict,
Your exposition misinterpreting,
We might proceed to cancel of your days,
Yet hope, succeeding from so fair a tree
As your fair self, doth tune us otherwise.
Forty days longer we do respite you,
If by which time our secret be undone,
This mercy shows we’ll joy in such a son.
And until then, your entertain shall be
As doth befit our honor and your worth.

Again, there was no riddle. Antiochus is shocked when Pericles politely accuses him of incest, and wishes that he had the young prince’s brains. But do you really need brains when the riddle wasn’t even a proper riddle? I’m sorry, I know I’m too hung up on this, but if I walk through the streets yelling, “You know who loves Shakespeare?! This girl!” while dramatically gesturing to myself, that would be a declaration and not a riddle. And that’s basically what Antiochus was doing by airing all of his dirty laundry out for every single suitor to read. Why not just choose a genuinely impossible riddle with no answer? I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Pericles, of course, decides to leave immediately. Antiochus was giving off too much of a ‘I’m going to murder you in your sleep tonight,’ vibe for him to want to stay in Antioch for another forty days.

And speaking of Pericles – I actually like him quite a lot. This is an obscure video game reference that has no place on a Shakespeare blog, but he reminds me of Cecil from Final Fantasy IV. Pericles has a good, genuine heart. Despite being royalty, he never comes off as arrogant or self-serving. He’s harmless. This may make him sound incredibly boring, but trust me, we don’t need a conflicted main character in a play like Pericles.

In a shocking twist (I swear, I’m going to try to quit it with the sarcasm in this post), Antiochus is already busy calling a hit on Pericles.

MESSENGER
My lord, Prince Pericles is fled.

ANTIOCHUS, [to Thaliard]
As thou wilt live, fly after, and like an arrow shot from a well-experienced archer hits the mark his eye doth level at, so thou never return unless thou say Prince Pericles is dead.

THALIARD
My lord, if I can get him within my pistol’s length, I’ll make him sure enough. So, farewell, to your Highness.

Pericles sure moves fast, doesn’t he?

At this point, I was pretty sure I had a good sense of the plot of this play. But, as usual, I was wrong. How silly of me to think that Pericles would be straightforward!

Pericles returns to Tyre, but he knows that it’s an obvious hiding place. I mean, if I were Thaliard, I’d look there first. Pericles has an interesting exchange with one of the lords of Tyre, Helicanus.

PERICLES
All leave us else; but let your cares o’erlook
What shipping and what lading’s in our haven,
And then return to us.

[The Lords exit.]

Helicanus,
Thou hast moved us. What seest thou in our looks?

HELICANUS
An angry brow, dread lord.

PERICLES
If there be such a dart in princes’ frowns,
How durst thy tongue move anger to our face?

HELICANUS
How dares the plants look up to heaven,
From whence they have their nourishment?

PERICLES
Thou knowest I have power to take thy life from thee.

HELICANUS
I have ground the ax myself;
Do but you stroke the blow.

PERICLES
Rise, prithee rise.
Sit down. Thou art no flatterer.
I thank thee for ‘t; and heaven forbid
That kings should let their ears hear their faults hid.
Fit counselor and servant for a prince,
Who by thy wisdom makes a prince thy servant.
What wouldst thou have me do?

The reason Helicanus speaks so freely with Pericles is because he knows he can. This proves to me that, in addition to just being a good person, Pericles is also an excellent king. As I mentioned, arrogance doesn’t leave him deaf to the words of others. He mentions that he could take Helicanus’ life if he wanted, but Helicanus isn’t shaken by these words. He knows Pericles too well.

Helicanus tells Pericles to travel for a while – if Antiochus can’t find him, then he can’t kill him.

Thaliard, meanwhile, arrives in Tyre only to find out that Pericles has already left. He is largely unbothered by this, and gives up on his mark. Antiochus sure knows how to pick his hitmen, doesn’t he?

Pericles arrives in Tarsus, where he saves King Cleon, Queen Dionyza, and literally every other living soul in the country from starvation with his shiploads of food. As a reader, I can appreciate his kindness, but I’m not quite sure this is the best time to be making heroic entrances into starving countries.

In any case, Pericles leaves. His ship, however, is destroyed by a storm and he is washed up on the shores of Pentapolis. It looks like we’ve moved from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night. A group of fishermen are talking among themselves before they encounter him on the beach.

THIRD FISHERMAN
[…] Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

FIRST FISHERMAN
Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.  I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: he plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on a’ the land, who never leave gaping till they swallowed the whole parish – church, steeple, bells and all.

I really enjoy coming across such passages in Shakespeare, because they hit so close to home. This could very well be commentary on our current political atmosphere, couldn’t it?

The fishermen help Pericles get dressed and agree to take him to King Simonides’ court, where a tournament for the princess’ birthday is taking place. Pericles always seems to find himself at princess-centric events, it seems. Let us hope that this one doesn’t end in all of us having to find out about a horrifying incestuous relationship between father and daughter.

At the tournament, suitors approach Princess Thaisa to present themselves and to show her their engraved shields. Pericles is the last one to approach her.

SIMONIDES
And what’s the sixth and last, the which the knight himself
With such a graceful courtesy delivered?

THAISA
He seems to be a stranger; but his present is
A withered branch that’s only green at top,
The motto: In hac spe vivo.

SIMONIDES
A pretty moral.
From the dejected state wherein he is,
He hopes by you his fortunes yet may flourish.

Pericles looks a total mess, but what princess wouldn’t be interested in a humble, mysterious, and allegedly handsome knight? Even Simonides is taken with him!

THAISA, [aside]
By Juno, that is queen of marriage,
All viands that I eat do seem unsavory,
Wishing him my meat. – Sure, he’s a gallant gentleman.

Things finally seem to be working out for Pericles – this new princess that he’s interested in seems completely normal and lovely. And she is! Finally, something good for our poor prince of Tyre. Although getting married to a princess seems like it would push him into the public eye, and Antiochus is out for his blood, right? That’s the plot of this entire play.

Or it would be, if Antiochus and his daughter hadn’t been burnt to a crisp by flames from an otherworldly source. With both these characters dead, the conflict that I believed Pericles would be challenged by has also turned into a pile of soot. Look, I don’t miss Antiochus and his daughter. Nobody does, because they were disgusting. But what is the plot of this play?

We actually find out about Antiochus from Helicanus, who is taking care of Tyre in Pericles’ absence. But what is Tyre supposed to do now that Antiochus is no longer a threat? They don’t even know where Pericles is.

FIRST LORD
Wrong not yourself, then, noble Helicane.
But if the Prince do live, let us salute him,
Or know what ground’s made happy by his breath.
If in the world he live, we’ll seek him out;
If in his grave he rest, we’ll find him there,
And be resolved he lives to govern us,
Or dead, give ‘s cause to mourn his funeral
And leave us to our free election.

I honestly love Tyre. Pericles leaves, and not a single person tries to steal the throne. There is so much respect for their prince – even Helicanus refuses to take the throne until they’ve waited a year for Pericles to return.

Back in Pentapolis, Simonides is pleased to find out that Pericles and Thaisa seem to be in love with one another. Thaisa writes him a dramatic letter insisting that she is going to marry the “stranger knight.” Simonides wants her to, but decides to freak Pericles out a little bit.

PERICLES
I am unworthy for her schoolmaster.

SIMONIDES
She thinks not so. Peruse this writing else.

PERICLES, [aside]
What’s here?
A letter that she loves the knight of Tyre?
‘Tis the King’s subtlety to have my life. –
O, seek not to entrap me, gracious lord,
A stranger and distressèd gentleman
That never aimed so high to love your daughter
But bent all offices to honor her.

SIMONIDES
Thou hast bewitched my daughter, and thou art
A villain.

PERICLES
By the gods, I have not!
Never did thought of mine levy offense;
Nor never did my actions yet commence
A deed might gain her love or your displeasure.

Poor Pericles. Of course he thinks the letter is part of an elaborate plot that will end in his murder. This happened last time – not that Simonides knows. It’s an accidental mean-spirited trick.

Thaisa enters, and Pericles begs her to tell her father that he hasn’t done anything to lead her astray. Simonides drops the act and reveals that he’s happy to give them his blessing.

There is a relatively small time-skip here: the next major scene opens with Pericles and a pregnant Thaisa on a boat, heading to Tyre. Yet another storm ravages the ship – and poor Thaisa goes into labor during it. She does not make it, leaving Pericles alone with a newborn daughter.

PERICLES
O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts
And snatch them straight away? We here below
Recall not what we give, and therein may
Use honor with you.

Pericles really does not deserve any of the terrible things that happen to him. Again, this should have been a story about his conflict with Antiochus, not about his incredibly unlucky relationship with the ocean. But now the plot is about him being a single father, I guess.

They decide to get rid of Thaisa’s body, and Pericles is distraught.

PERICLES
A terrible childbed thou had, my dear,
No light, no fire. Th’ unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly. Nor have I time
To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze,
Where, for a monument upon thy bones
And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells. – O, Lychorida,
Bid Nestor bring me spices, ink, and paper,
My casket and my jewels; and bid Nicander
Bring me the satin coffin. Lay the babe
Upon the pillow. Hie thee, whiles I say
A priestly farewell to her. Suddenly, woman!

Reading this, I am quite convinced that Pericles and Thaisa could have been one of Shakespeare’s most successful romantic couples. But not enough time was spent on them, and so we must take whatever scraps we are given. It does sound like Pericles had an incredible amount of love and respect for her – he must be so confused, dealing with loss and the joy of his new daughter at the same time.

Thaisa’s body washes onto the beaches of Ephesus. A doctor is called, and the casket is opened.

CERIMON
Shrouded in cloth of state, balmed and entreasured
With full bags of spices. A passport too!
Apollo, perfect me in the characters.
[He reads.]
‘Here I give to understand,
If e’er this coffin drives aland,
I, King Pericles, have lost
This queen, worth all our mundane cost.
Who finds her, give her burying.
She was the daughter of a king.
Besides this treasure for a fee,
The gods requite this charity.’
If thou livest, Pericles, thou hast a heart
That ever cracks for woe. This chanced tonight.

Oh, Pericles. Even his letter tugs at your heartstrings. I wish Shakespeare had written more about Pericles and Thaisa – they’re practically the only characters in this play who deserve to have poetry written about them.

The doctor manages to revive Thaisa – I know, I know. This play isn’t Twelfth Night anymore, but rather The Winter’s Tale.

On his way to Tyre, Pericles drops his daughter – named Marina, after the sea – at Tarsus. He asks Cleon and Dionyza to take care of her and to raise her well. It isn’t a huge demand, given that he saved their lives a few acts ago.

Another time-skip takes place here, and in true The Winter’s Tale fashion, we next see Marina as a teenager. Dionyza is insanely jealous at how Marina outshines her own daughter, and decides to have her murdered. It looks like some of Pericles’ bad luck rubbed off on poor Marina. She is almost killed, but is then kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel in Mytilene – I know, I know. Let’s just grin and bear it.

Marina is able to talk her way out of every single seedy situation she finds herself in at this brothel. Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, is so touched by her way with words that he gives her enough money to buy herself out of the brothel. Maybe touched isn’t the right word – I highly suspect that Marina’s eloquence shamed him. He knows that going to the brothel is wrong, and hearing sweet words tumble from a virgin’s mouth ruins him. Which, you know, good. Marina is impressive, and has the potential to be lovely just like her mother.

Pericles eventually returns to Tarsus to retrieve his daughter, only to find out that she’s died. Cleon and Dionyza lie to him about how it happened, of course. Pericles vows to spend the rest of his life in mourning. His ship finds its way to Mytilene, where Marina has found great success since her brothel days – brothel hours?

Lysimachus visits with Pericles, and decides to call upon Marina so that she can cheer the grieving king up. Pericles immediately takes note of how familiar Marina is to him.

PERICLES
I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping.
My dearest wife was like this maid, and such
A one my daughter might have been: my queen’s
Square brows, her stature to an inch;
As wandlike straight, as silver-voiced; her eyes
As jewel-like, and cased as richly; in pace
Another Juno; who starves the ears she feeds
And makes them hungry the more she gives them speech. –
Where do you live?

After all these years, Pericles still grieves for Thaisa. He must have loved her so much, and even if we didn’t get to see enough of them, it still hurts a little.

MARINA
First, sir, I pray, what is your title?

PERICLES
I am Pericles of Tyre. But tell me now
My drowned queen’s name, as in the rest you said
Thou hast been godlike perfect, the heir of kingdoms,
And another life to Pericles thy father.

MARINA
Is it no more to be your daughter than
To say my mother’s name was Thaisa?
Thaisa was my mother, who did end
The minute I began.

And so, in the sweetest scene in this entire play, Pericles and Marina are reunited. I found this to be very emotional and well-written – I am kind of a father’s girl myself, and I can’t imagine how tearfully happy a reunion like this would be.

Pericles takes a sudden nap, and is visited by the goddess Diana – I know, but we’re almost done. She tells him to go to her temple in Ephesus, but doesn’t tell him why.

Before they set sail, Lysimachus asks Pericles for Marina’s hand in marriage, and he agrees immediately. I wasn’t too happy with this, considering the circumstances under which Lysimachus and Marina met. Why would she want to marry a seedy guy she met in a brothel? A man she literally had to shame before he decided not to buy her virginity? Isn’t a princess a little too good for a governor? So many questions, and absolutely no time for answers.

Pericles enters Diana’s temple in Ephesus, and comes face to face with Thaisa, who has been there since she was revived. They recognize one another, and are also reunited. This is literally the plot of The Winter’s Tale – except Pericles deserves happiness, while Leontes did not.

THAISA
Now I know you better.

[She points to the ring on his hand.]

When we with tears parted in Pentapolis,
The king my father gave you such a ring.

PERICLES
This, this! No more, you gods! Your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well
That the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. – O, come, be buried
A second time within these arms!

I really enjoy that, after all these years, there is still a ton of chemistry between Pericles and Thaisa. I adore how emotional he is around her – there is no fake macho behavior from this king.

And they all live happily ever after. Except for Cleon and Dionyza, of course, who get murdered by their own people. But that isn’t important.

Whew! It was actually a struggle to get this post out after not writing for so long, so forgive me if it isn’t as good as some of my other ones. With Pericles out of the way, I am only left with Henry VIII and Cymbeline. I’m super excited to get into another history, but I really shouldn’t get my hopes up. It’s still an uphill climb from here, I think. Anyway – thanks for sticking with me as I’ve dealt with all of my boring life stuff! I’ll have all of these plays read and analyzed just like I promised.

 

PERSONAL · SHAKESPEARE

THE SCIENCE OF LOVING SHAKESPEARE

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As usual, I have absolutely no business showing my face around here. I was hoping to have been done with Pericles by now – heck, I should be done with Henry VIII by now. It’s just that I’ve been going through a rough patch, and I’ve been struggling to keep my spark alive. Shakespeare has been playing a role in saving me, in a sense. I was too gloomy to care about finishing Pericles, but I eventually picked it up a week or two into my sad spell and, for the first time since the beginning of this year, I felt serene.

“Every time you’re down, I always end up telling you to bring more Shakespeare into your life,” my best friend (who is decidedly not a Shakespearean) said over text. “It’s what you need.”

I have to say that I’m feeling very hesitant about writing this post. This is a blog about Shakespeare, and here I am trying to write something personal. And I’m always afraid that I’ll just sound insufferable if I talk about myself, and especially if I try to discuss my very first world problems. But, hey, at least I’m self-aware, right?

I went to a Shakespeare reading at the library a couple of weeks ago, and it was terrible. My subpar experience combined with the fact that I’m going through some kind of weird quarter life existential crisis left me sniffling pathetically in my car after I had left the library. Sadness, of course, turned into annoyance. I was annoyed that a silly experience could take away my enjoyment for Shakespeare. And, of course, annoyance turned into a stubborn determination to never let anybody or anything ruin Shakespeare for me ever again.

To say that I love Shakespeare is an understatement. I tried to describe just how much in my last post of 2016, a post I made before embarking on this adventure of mine. I remember the first time I read Shakespeare so vividly. “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” is not an exciting first line, especially since I hadn’t read Henry VI. But I kept reading because, well, I had to. I’m nothing if not a total teacher’s pet. “But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty to strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” Now that is a set of lines so intriguing that I saw the scene laid out in my mind, crystal clear. And by the time Richard declared his dedication to villainy, I was beyond hooked. Everybody knew. My father, who would drive me home every afternoon, would jokingly ask, “And how is Richard today?” At school, I was teased to no end. But, honestly, it didn’t matter. Shakespeare was something that was mine, and mine alone. Years later, when Richard III’s body was discovered under a parking lot, I woke up to multiple texts and Facebook notifications. When I say that I am everybody’s Shakespeare friend, I am not exaggerating.

After Richard, my dramatic teenage self was sure that I would never love a play with such intensity ever again. Henry IV, Part One was the Shakespeare play chosen by my school. You may be wondering what kind of nonsensical school I attended, given that I wasn’t being assigned Hamlet or Macbeth. It’s easily explained: I went to school in the United Arab Emirates, and what my school was doing was choosing the plays that they believed to be the most tame. Discussions about sexuality and homoerotic subtext had no place in our classrooms, and so the least offensive plays were chosen. So we hopped from Richard III to Henry IV, Part One. And that was how I found myself face to face (face to text?) with Hal – and you all know how I feel about Hal.

I remember a boy asking me who my favorite character was. I was very quick to answer that it was Hal – of course it was Hal. He rolled his eyes and said, “Typical girl. Your favorite would be the knight in shining armor.” I didn’t bother explaining that I loved Hal for his absolutely human messiness, that I adored the fact that he was a walking disaster, struggling to carry the weight of his duty and desperately searching for a way to reconcile his personality with his birthright. To this day, I find myself faced with professors who simply refuse to see Hal as anything other than a monster. Maybe I would feel the same if I hadn’t spent all of my lonely hours trying to figure Hal out. Lonely hours turned into years, to be honest. In 2012, I was walking across the Millennium Bridge in London, having just left a performance of Henry V at the Globe. My friend, who I have since lost touch with, walked alongside me.

“You really have Henry all figured out?” she asked, unconvinced.

“I do,” I replied immediately, confidently. “I know who he is. I think I’ve always known his story would turn out like this.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 2010, when I was applying to universities, I remember longingly looking at English under the list of majors. “Well, if you love it so much, what was stopping you?” you ask, rolling your eyes at the melodramatic tone of this post. What was stopping me was my culture. To Arabs, success comes with an engineering degree or a medical degree. English? English was for failures. My only other bookish friend was stubborn enough to major in it anyway, and I still admire that to this day. I chose biomedical engineering, and I was good at it. I’m still good at it.

Sometimes (I know how this is going to sound) I wish I were only scientifically inclined. Yes, I know, boo-hoo. How terrible it must be to be so well-rounded. It’s a non-issue, I know, and a really stupid thing to think, but I just cannot explain how difficult it was for me to throw myself into engineering when Shakespeare was being taught right across the hall. And when I did sign up to take Shakespeare classes “for fun,” I found that I never heard the siren call of engineering from across the way. There was no siren call. The fact that I was so happy in English classes and so unhappy in my other classes meant I was constantly on the phone with my parents, crying. They were vehemently against a change in major, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. And it wasn’t just them: I simply cannot abandon something once I’ve started it. It’s akin to failure to me.

But things just kept getting worse, and the only solution was Shakespeare. I didn’t ask to participate in the Shakespeare summer abroad program in London. I always ask permission, but this time, I just told my parents I was doing it. I wrote an essay about what Shakespeare meant to me and landed a scholarship that covered my airfare. And I went, and I was so incredibly happy. I hopped out of bed every day, ready to read and talk and stand in the same city where Shakespeare once stood. And when I eventually flew back to California, as I was unpacking all of my treasures from my adventure, I burst into tears. I asked my mother, “Why did you let me go?”

Engineering has never called to me, but Shakespeare always has and always will. I lived out an alternate existence that summer in 2012, and going back to my normal life was devastating.

But back to the Shakespeare group that I went to earlier this month. I took my love for Shakespeare with me, ready to share it with everybody. But most of my contributions were swiftly dismissed and, well, everybody was old. So not only am I an engineer who loves Shakespeare, I am a young engineer who loves Shakespeare.

And I feel alone. There is nothing I want more than to share my passion with everyone I meet – with the entire world, really. But my mother once told me that it’s a boring hobby that nobody understands. She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but her words caused me to button up about Shakespeare immediately and indefinitely. I feel like I can’t talk about it in my real life. And when I looked for people who might feel the same way as me, I was dismissed and made to feel like a silly little girl.

I suppose there’s no real end to this story. Luckily, because I am who I am, nothing anyone says or does will change how much I love Shakespeare. I often daydream about using my degree to make a bunch of money, and then using that money to pay to get my PhD in Shakespearean studies. In my daydreams, I am always accepted into these programs, though I do know that probably wouldn’t be the case in real life. But maybe I’ll try one day. In an ideal world, an incredibly influential Shakespearean scholar would read this and feel for me enough to become my mentor. In reality, I will probably have to navigate the mysterious world of Shakespeare by myself until I meet a kindred spirit, or until I am brave enough to leave the comfort and security of my current profession. I would love to teach Shakespeare. I know I’m not the only 25 year old Shakespeare nerd in the world – I just wish I knew how to make sure that nobody my age is lonely in their love for these often confusing but oh-so-fulfilling Elizabethan plays. I just wish I knew where to go, where to find comfort. Until then, I’ll be reading plays by the soft pink light of my salt lamp and dumping my thoughts into the void, hoping that someone will find them useful.

I feel like this post is entirely pointless, but I have to say that it was very therapeutic to write out. I shouldn’t call it pointless, though, because there’s a minuscule chance that someone in the world needs to read these words. There’s a microscopic chance that I’ll help people feel less alone, and that’s why I write.

Anyway! Enough of my melodramatic ramblings. My post on Pericles will come soon, and then I’ll only have two plays left. Then I’ll be presented with the daunting task of ranking all of the plays, and I’m agonizing over my list already. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – Pericles first, three thousand word essays on what the best plays are later.

 

 

TIMON OF ATHENS

WE HAVE SEEN BETTER DAYS.

Timon (Maurice Ralston) and a Masker (Kathryn Lawson) from the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse’s 2010 production of Timon of Athens.

Something we’re all guilty of (myself included) is the oversimplification of plays that we don’t care for. For example, my deep dislike for Macbeth prevents me from properly dissecting the play and appreciating what Shakespeare was trying to do. I’ve been trying to do this less – for example, despite not liking Coriolanus all that much, I made every effort to appreciate what Shakespeare was attempting. And now I’m here to do this with Timon of Athens, which takes the cake as one of the least enjoyable plays I have read this year. But, hey, let’s give it a chance. More specifically, let us give Timon a chance.

Lord Timon of Athens is a very popular man. And why shouldn’t he be? He is generous (perhaps overly so?) and kind to every single person he meets. His arms, house, and purse are open to all.

POET
I will unbolt to you.
You see how all conditions, how all minds,
As well of glib and slipp’ry creatures as
Of grave and austere quality, tender down
Their services to Lord Timon. His large fortune,
Upon his good and gracious nature hanging,
Subdues and properties to his love and tendance
All sorts of hearts – yea, from the glass-faced flatterer
To Apemantus, that few things loves better
Than to abhor himself; even he drops down
The knee before him and returns in peace
Most rich in Timon’s nod.

Timon is something of an angel – so good that he is able to get even the worst cynic to love him. Sadly, I immediately knew where this would lead. And I wasn’t the only one.

POET
When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents,
Which labored after him to the mountain’s top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.

Foreshadowing at its finest – I knew for a fact that Timon would be abandoned by all his admirers as soon as they were done using him. How could he not have noticed their lack of sincerity? It is as if Timon is so good that he just can’t fathom people being any other way.

And it isn’t just kindness that Timon doles out – it’s actual material goods.

SECOND LORD
He pours it out. Plutus, the god of gold,
Is but his steward. No meed but he repays
Sevenfold above itself. No gift to him
But breeds the giver a return exceeding
All use of quittance.

It’s no wonder that all of these high-ranking people like to keep his company. I appreciate generosity in people – I myself try to be as generous as I can with both my time and money. But boundaries need to be set, and for a grown man like Timon to not have any is, well, a bit depressing.

Timon invites everybody over for a lavish meal. Even Apemantus, who we can consider a professional cynic, is welcome at Timon’s table. His cynicism allows him to see right through the lords.

APEMANTUS
I scorn thy meat. ‘Twould choke me, for I should ne’er flatter thee.
[Apart.] O you gods, what a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood; and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.

More than one character wonders why Timon doesn’t notice how phony his friends are. He has such an idealistic way of looking at things, which can be as charming as it is destructive.

In true Timon fashion, he begins to give lavish gifts to all of his guests.

TIMON
The little casket bring me hither.

FLAVIUS
Yes, my lord. [Aside.] More jewels yet?
There is no crossing him in ‘s humor;
Else I should tell him well, i’ faith I should.
When all’s spent, he’d be crossed then, an he could,
‘Tis pity bounty had not eyes behind,
That man might ne’er be wretched for his mind.

I like Flavius a lot. He is one of the only people in this play who genuinely has Timon’s best interest at heart. I found his hesitance very interesting. How has Timon reacted to Flavius’ warnings before?

In any case, Flavius obeys his master’s every command. But he continues to voice his worries to the audience.

FLAVIUS, [aside]
What will this come to?
He commands us to provide, and give great gifts,
And all out of an empty coffer.
Nor will he know his purse or yield me this –
To show him what a beggar his heart is,
Being of no power to make his wishes good.
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For ev’ry word. He is so kind that he
Now pays interest for ‘t. His land ‘s put to their books.
Well, would I were gently put out of office
Before I were forced out.
Happier is he that has no friend to feed
Than such that do e’en enemies exceed.
I bleed inwardly for my lord.

Well, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Timon is all but broke, and keeps falling deeper into debt. There is a rather simplistic way for us to look at Timon’s character. That is, we can see him as this kind fool who is so generous that he can’t help but give all of his love away. And, honestly, he is. But the fact that he gives away so many material objects vexes me a little, and makes me wonder about him. What set him on this path? Did he subconsciously realize that giving away gifts brought more admirers to his doorstep? Was his kindness and love not enough for people to return his affection? I don’t know. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us enough. All we know is that Timon has dug his own grave, and Flavius can’t get him out of it.

Things would be so much better if Timon would just listen to the people around him. But he refuses.

TIMON
Now, Apemantus, if thou wert not sullen,
I would be good to thee.

APEMANTUS
No, I’ll nothing, for if I should be bribed too, there would be none left to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster. Thou giv’st so long, Timon, I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly. What needs these feasts, pomps, and vainglories?

TIMON
Nay, an you begin to rail on society once, I am sworn not to give regard to you. Farewell, and come with better music.

Apemantus is the town cynic, but there is a hint of sincerity and genuine care in what he says to Timon. What is the point of all this lavishness? Timon doesn’t have an answer, clearly.

As one would expect, debt collectors begin to appear at Timon’s door. He doesn’t seem to understand that he has no money, no land, nothing.

TIMON
To Lacedaemon did my land extend.

FLAVIUS
O my good lord, the world is but a word.
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!

Flavius speaks so well, and his words really tug at my heartstrings. I wish his love and loyalty were enough for Timon.

Anyway, Timon’s below average plan to address this issue is to send his servants to other noblemen. Apparently, he has some favors that can be cashed in. But all the nobles behave the same way – they start out very happy to see Timon’s servants because they’re expecting gifts. But when the servants ask for money, they immediately make excuses and disappear. So much for loyalty.

The servants of Timon’s creditors appear at his doorstep once more, and he loses his cool for the first time in the play.

Enter Timon in a rage.

TIMON

What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place which I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart?

LUCIUS’ MAN
Put in now, Titus.

TITUS
My lord, here is my bill.

LUCIUS’ MAN
Here’s mine.

HORTENSIUS
And mine, my lord.

VARRO’S SECOND MAN
And ours, my lord.

PHILOTUS
All our bills.

TIMON
Knock me down with ’em! Cleave me to the girdle.

I really can’t blame Timon for being so upset. None of his ‘friends’ rushed to his rescue, and now he’s being hounded by all of these annoying servants. Everything he thought he knew has turned out to be wrong – the illusion has shattered. Oh, Timon. Not everybody has a big heart and a generous soul. I am sorry he had to find this out at all.

He decides to invite all of his fake friends to a feast. The suggestion makes Flavius uncomfortable, but he does as he’s told.

And now I have to interrupt my look into Timon’s breakdown to introduce you to a
🎵 slightly unrelated subplot! 🎵

Alcibiades, an Athenian captain and also one of Timon’s non-garbage friends, stands before three Athenian senators to beg for the life of one of his soldiers. We are never explicitly told what his soldier did, but it sounds like he killed someone in self-defense. Alcibiades fights the senators for a few pages before they grow tired of him.

FIRST SENATOR
Do you dare our anger?
‘Tis in few words, but malicious in effect:
We banish thee forever.

ALCIBIADES
Banish me?
Banish your dotage, banish usury,
That makes the Senate ugly!

FIRST SENATOR
If after two days’ shine Athens contain thee,
Attend our weightier judgement.
And, not to swell our spirit,
He shall be executed presently.

Okay, back to the actual plot.

At Timon’s house, the feast is underway. “Haha,” the nobles think, “this is classic Timon. There is no way he is angry at us for rejecting all of his pleas for money.”

And they think that until Timon serves them water and stones.

TIMON
May you a better feast never behold.
You knot of mouth-friends! Smoke and lukewarm water
Is your perfection. This is Timon’s last,
Who, stuck and spangled with your flatteries,
Washes it off and sprinkles in your faces
Your reeking villainy. [He throws water in their faces.]
Live loathed and long.
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapors, and minute-jacks.
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er! [They stand.] What, dost thou go?
Soft! Take thy physic first – thou too – and thou. –
Stay. I will lend thee money, borrow none.

[He attacks them and forces them out.]

What? All in motion? Henceforth be no feast
Whereat a villain’s not a welcome guest.
Burn, house! Sink, Athens! Henceforth hated by
Of Timon man and all humanity!

First of all, that is an impressive string of insults. Second, I know that Timon’s outburst may seem like an over-exaggeration, but that’s because we are not Timon. We have to realize that Timon was an idealistic fool down to his very core. There was no sense of suspicion in him – someone like me, for example, would be immediately suspicious of these friends of his. In fact, I was like Timon once. Granted, I was a pre-teen at the time, but there was a friend who would drift away until some gift or token would return me to her good graces. I realized very quickly that this was no friendship – and, well, that situation combined with many others turned me into a bit of a cynic. So I understand Timon. You always want to believe that people are good, kind, and genuine. Most of us, when we realize that they aren’t, become slightly cynical and a bit melancholy. But then again, most of us were not as deluded as Timon. His reaction is more violent because of how deeply he believed in the sincerity and goodness of others. The longer you stay in your bubble, the more jarring the outside world is when it pops.

In a very Henry David Thoreau move, Timon ditches Athens and makes for the woods. He leaves the servants of his household behind. Flavius continues to impress, and proves himself to be as kind as Timon was just a few acts ago.

FLAVIUS
Good fellows all,
The latest of my wealth I’ll share amongst you.
Wherever we shall meet, for Timon’s sake
Let’s yet be fellows. Let’s shake our heads and say,
As ’twere a knell unto our master’s fortunes,
“We have seen better days.”

[He offers them money.]

Let each take some.
Nay, part out all your hands. Not one word more.
Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor.

[The Servants embrace and part several ways.]

The servants truly are my favorite part of this play. I am 90% sure there is a dissertation or two out there about the homoerotic subtext that can be gleaned from Flavius’ dedication to Timon. But whatever the nature of his love, it’s very pure and admirable.

Timon, meanwhile, is digging for roots. At this point, I felt that the play had really gone on for long enough. For some reason, I thought Timon of Athens was a short play – but no. Let’s stick it out.

Timon comes across some gold. A reader, at this point, might think that this would cause Timon to revert back to his old self, but it doesn’t. This is bad, because it means he’s still looking to have roots for dinner, but also good, because it means his disappointment with mankind is genuine.

Shakespeare has been known to harbor a bit of contempt for humans – or you would think so, given some of the things we’ve read in his plays. I wonder how much like Timon he was – and, as always, I wonder what sort of man could think so deeply about such things. Only Shakespeare.

Alcibiades, captain of this play’s subplot, appears. He has his two concubines in tow – I suppose they decided to join him on his banishment. Let’s not talk about what that does or does not imply about Alcibiades.

ALCIBIADES
How came the noble Timon to this change?

TIMON
As the moon does, by wanting light to give.
But then renew I could not, like the moon;
There were no suns to borrow of.

ALCIBIADES
Noble Timon, what friendship may I do thee?

It is a sincere question, which is why I would group Alcibiades with Flavius (and, to a certain degree, Apemantus) as actually caring for Timon. In any case, Timon offers him money and asks him to use it to destroy Athens. I almost typed Rome, because this is exactly what happened in Coriolanus. Good lord.

I was very unimpressed with the exchange Timon had with the concubines. Actually, I am unimpressed with the lack of women in this play. Even Coriolanus had women of substance, like Virgilia and Volumina. And before that, I was writing thousands and thousands of words about Measure for Measure‘s Isabella. Shakespeare was exceptionally good at writing women, and yet we have none to discuss at the moment.

Apemantus shows up eventually.

APEMANTUS
I was directed hither. Men report
Thou dost affect my manners and dost use them.

That line was the only time I laughed while reading this play. Apemantus is great. But whereas he is a professional cynic who revels in harassing people, Timon’s cynicism comes from genuine heartbreak over how terrible people can be. They are the same in some ways, and very different in others.

Flavius finds his master, and is very distraught about the way Timon is spiraling. But Timon realizes that Flavius genuinely cares for him, and that he is not like the other base men.

TIMON
Look thee, ’tis so. Thou singly honest man,
Here, take. [Timon offers gold.] The gods out of my misery
Has sent thee treasure. Go, live rich and happy,
But thus conditioned: thou shalt build from men;
Hate all, curse all, show charity to none,
But let the famished flesh slide from the bone
Ere thou relieve the beggar; give to dogs
What thou deniest to men; let prisons swallow ’em,
Debts wither ’em to nothing; be men like blasted woods,
And may diseases lick up their false bloods!
And so farewell and thrive.

Clearly, Flavius is not going to do any of that. But at the very least, he has been recognized for the lovely person he is.

Timon must have hidden himself in a very obvious spot, because he keeps getting visitors. He drives both the Painter and the Poet away, and eventually finds himself face to face with two Athenian senators. They hope that he can stop Alcibiades from destroying Athens.

FLAVIUS, [to Senators]
Stay not. All’s in vain.

TIMON
Why, I was writing of my epitaph.
It will be seen tomorrow. My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things. Go, live still.
Be Alcibiades your plague, you his,
And last so long enough!

Of course, I would rather Athens didn’t get destroyed. But I see why Timon refuses to budge – the senators really have some nerve showing up to his very obvious and easy to find hiding place.

TIMON
Come not to me again, but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossèd froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come
And let my gravestone be your oracle.
Lips, let four words go by and language end.
What is amiss, plague and infection mend.
Graves only be men’s works, and death their gain.
Sun, hide thy beams. Timon hath done his reign.

Such chilling last words. The Folger edition of this play wrote that Timon ‘withdraws to die,’ in their scene summary, which I found kind of funny. It’s like Timon can just die on demand whenever he pleases. In any case, I think it’s safe to assume that he takes his own life. Despite becoming a raving madman, I do feel very sorry for him. As I said before, I am sorry that he had to find out how terrible people can be.

Alcibiades is pretty much set to destroy Athens (I keep typing Rome!) when one of his soldiers brings a wax impression of Timon’s epitaph to him.

ALCIBIADES reads the epitaph.
Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicket caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.

These well express in thee thy latter spirits.
Though thou abhorred’st in us our human griefs,
Scorned’st our brains’ flow and those our droplets which
From niggard nature fall, yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. Dead
Is noble Timon, of whose memory
Hereafter more. Bring me into your city,
And I will use the olive with my sword,
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.
Let our drums strike.

And the plays ends. I have two things I want to say: one is that Alcibiades describes the corruption that Timon saw as only human griefs. And that’s really because Alcibiades was never deluded the way Timon was. We see so much of what happens in this play through Timon’s eyes, and we feel for him, but you really have to wonder how much of what he hated was worth hating to the extent that he did.

I know that this play seems pointless. It’s like Shakespeare was writing the opposite of a love letter to humankind. But, as usual, Harold C. Goddard has come to our rescue. He says: “Timon is dead. But the spirit of the rarer Timon (how mistake it? the very accent is the same) has passed into Alcibiades and, in the teeth of the mad Timon’s misanthropy, has brought peace to Athens. ‘He has almost charmed me from my profession,’ the Third Thief confessed to the living Timon. The dead Timon has the same effect, even more powerfully, on the professional warrior and revenger. Alcibiades’ ‘occupation’s gone.’ Timon in the first part of the play was a deluded and foolish man, and in the last half a wild and frenzied one. But he was a lover of truth and sincerity. And the play seems to say that such a man, though buried in the wilderness, is a better begetter of peace than all the instrumentalities of law in the hands of men who love neither truth nor justice.”

This is such a beautiful way of looking at this play and, frankly, the only way I can look at it now. Though we saw Timon as delusional, it was his kindness and generous spirit that made its way from his epitaph into Alcibiades’ soul.

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write Timon to be a fool at all then. Maybe he wrote what he considered to be the best kind of person.

Once again, I find myself a bit behind. It’s okay (I say through gritted teeth), because I know that I won’t give up until the remaining three plays are read and written about. I will take Pericles home with me, but I may be distracted by the holidays. That said, happy holidays! May 2018 bring us peace, happiness, and tons of time to talk about Shakespeare. Thank you for joining me on this journey – I know it was supposed to be over, but there isn’t any harm in it going on for a little longer.

 

 

 

CORIOLANUS

PRAY YOU, WHO DOES THE WOLF LOVE?

Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, starring Tom Hiddleston
Caius Martius (Tom Hiddleston) and Tullus Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) in the Donmar Warehouse’s 2013 production of Coriolanus.

Talk about a terrible November! First a concussion, and then a terrible flu. Throughout it all, Coriolanus sat sadly on my bedside table, gathering dust and filling me with guilt. It looks like we are going to be a month behind here on ‘oh for muse of fire,’ which really bothers me to no end. I am a perfectionist who likes to get things done well before they are due. Trust me, I tried to tough the concussion out, but that just made it worse. Turns out that a good smack to my head was the only thing that could actually prevent me from working – and from reading Shakespeare.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have been trying to read the plays in order of alleged publication date. That means I read Measure for Measure in October – and that means that Measure for Measure made Coriolanus almost impossible to read. How do you go from something so incredibly gripping and shocking to something that just…isn’t? How do you even begin to enjoy Coriolanus even if you haven’t read a handful of arguably superior plays right before it? ‘You can’t,’ you think. And as much as I want to agree, and as much as I dislike this play, I want to try. So that’s what we’re going to do: get to the root of Coriolanus and shape it into something interesting and enjoyable.

We open in Rome, where the plebeians are unhappy. They are famished, and are threatening to revolt. Also, they hate Caius Martius – later known to us as Coriolanus.

SECOND CITIZEN
Would you proceed especially against Caius Martius?

ALL
Against him first. He’s a very dog to the commonalty.

SECOND CITIZEN
Consider you what services he has done for his country?

FIRST CITIZEN
Very well, and could be content to give him good report for ‘t, but that he pays himself with being proud.

They hate Caius Martius for his pride – and his pride actually makes the play unbearable as well. Even Harold C. Goddard writes about this play’s unpopularity – and how the titular character’s personality is a huge reason why it is rarely staged or read. “One often wonders,” he writes, “how often it is read except by scholars and students.” And by bookish 24 (well, 25 on Sunday!) year old biomedical engineers, it seems.

Why should the plebeians care about what Caius Martius has done for Rome? They’re still hungry, aren’t they? Menenius, a patrician, tries to calm them down – he tells them that his fellow patricians have been trying their best to care for the plebeians.

SECOND CITIZEN
Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.

Well, here’s some modern political commentary for you. In the modern world, this citizen could be talking about Republicans and capitalism. To be completely honest, the plebeians are making some relatively reasonable requests.

MENENIUS
For corn at their own rates, whereof they say
The city is well stored.

MARTIUS
Hang ’em! They say?
They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ th’ Capitol, who’s like to rise,
Who thrives, and who declines; side factions and give out
Conjectural marriages, making parties strong
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough?
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quartered slaves as high
As I could pick my lance.

Caius Martius is so difficult to love. As a character, he stands for everything I am against. He is violent, prideful, and he hates the poor. But be patient – we can make a tragic hero out of him yet.

Martius tells Menenius that the people have been granted tribunes. We see two of them – Brutus and Sicinius – quite often in this play. They, too, see Caius Martius as having too much pride.

To top off this potential revolt, Aufidius and his Volscian army are nearby and ready to tear Rome to pieces. There is a lot of bloodshed in this play – but is it really a play about war? We’ll see.

We cut to Volumina, Martius’ mother, who is sewing with Virgilia, his wife.

VOLUMINA
I pray you, daughter, sing, or express yourself in a more comfortable sort. If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-boiled and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honor would become such a person – that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th’ wall, if renown made it not stir – was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.

Caius Martius is a terrible person, I think. In the short while we’ve known him, we’ve seen him to be hard-hearted, cruel, and prideful. And Volumina is to blame.

While Shakespeare really knows how to write lovable women – Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind from Love’s Labor’s Lost, for example – he also is fantastic at writing terrible women – and Volumina is one of them.

So let us consider this: when Caius Martius was a young boy, he was lovely both physically and in spirit. He was sensitive and impressionable. Volumina took one look at her child and knew she could mold him into whatever she pleased. She sent him off to war before he was a man, and she ruined him. She is the reason that Caius Martius is so heartless, so cruel, and so prideful. She committed the ultimate crime: she forced her child to become something he was not destined to be. So what chance did he have?

When we keep this in mind, Coriolanus becomes a totally different play. It is not so much as war as it is about a man who has been playing a role he was forced into for his entire life.

Valeria, a friend, arrives. She takes a moment to talk about Caius Martius’ son.

VALERIA
O’ my word, the father’s son! I’ll swear ’tis a very pretty boy. O’ my troth, I looked upon him o’ Wednesday half an hour together. H’as such a confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly, and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again. Or whether his fall enraged him or how ’twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it. O, I warrant how he mammocked it!

Taking this at face value, it looks like little Martius is a demonic child who tears butterflies apart. Harold C. Goddard sees it differently, though. The butterfly, he notes, symbolizes the human psyche. I was actually already aware of this, because I am also a huge lover of Greek mythology. The child’s struggle with the butterfly, then, symbolizes the struggle between his soul as it is, and Volumina’s desire to change it into something else. Because, unfortunately, Volumina sees young Martius as another opportunity to mold a child into a war hero. Like his father before him, young Martius is a beautiful child, still whimsical enough to chase butterflies – and who is also struggling against Volumina’s will. We know that Volumina is ready to see this child as another Caius Martius because right before Valeria began to speak, she spoke of his preference for swords and drums. But he’s a child, and the preference is Volumina’s.

Virgilia is a very quiet character. She seems soft and sweet and, strangely enough, she seems to love her husband. This reminds me of Richard II, because it’s so difficult to understand why Richard’s queen seems to love him so. But both these women clearly know men that we don’t – and maybe Virgilia knows who her husband is separate from who Volumina forces him to be.

Meanwhile, the Romans and Volscians are at each other’s throats in Corioles. ‘Hey,’ you think, ‘that sounds suspiciously like the title of this play.’ It does, and soon I’ll be able to call Caius Martius by his second name.

Martius, despite being the worst person in the universe, is an excellent soldier. He beats the Volscians back into the gates of Corioles. He follows after them, shuts the gate, and fights them alone. He emerges bloody and victorious, and allows his fellow Romans to enter.

The others, of course, are dazzled by this display. But Martius doesn’t seem to want their praise:

MARTIUS
Sir, praise me not.
My work hath yet not warmed me. Fare you well.
The blood I drop is rather physical
Than dangerous to me. To Aufidius thus
I will appear and fight.

Caius Martius rejects praise quite a lot, and you have to wonder why. Is he just being annoying? Maybe – but maybe he does this because he is constantly being praised for being something that he wasn’t meant to be. I really do not think that Martius’ soul is as invested in being a hard warrior as Volumina would like it to be. Praise reminds him of what he is doing, so he pushes it away. He would rather mindlessly push onward instead of think about who he has become.

To add to all of this, Martius also defeats Aufidius, who is his greatest rival. To honor him for all of this, he is given the name Coriolanus. You know, because he wasn’t full of himself enough before all of this.

ALL
Martius Caius Coriolanus!

CORIOLANUS
I will go wash;
And when my face is fair, you shall perceive
Whether I blush or no. Howbeit, I thank you.
I mean to stride your steed and at all times
To undercrest your good addition
To th’ fairness of my power.

I don’t know if Coriolanus acts humble for show, or because he actually has the capacity to be modest. Who knows? If Volumina hadn’t preyed upon him, who would Coriolanus be? Would he be humble?

What’s important, though, is that the commoners still hate Coriolanus. I mean, they’re still hungry. A few tribunes and a successful siege doesn’t change that.

Some people (read: patricians) are actually quite happy to see Coriolanus come home. They expect that he will be elected consul.

SICINIUS
On the sudden
I warrant him consul.

BRUTUS
Then our office may,
During his power, go sleep.

I don’t blame the tribunes for being uneasy – Coriolanus would be a terrible consul. None of this is meant for him.

The Senate intends to nominate Coriolanus for consul, but more than one person knows that his personality makes him a questionable choice.

SECOND OFFICER
‘Faith, there hath been many great men that have flattered people who ne’er loved them; and there be many that they have loved they know not wherefore; so that, if they love they know not why, they hate upon no better a ground. Therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge he has in their disposition and, out of his noble carelessness, lets them plainly see ‘t.

FIRST OFFICER
If he did not care whether he had their love or no, he waved indifferently ‘twixt doing them neither good nor harm; but he seeks their hate with greater devotion than they can render it him and leaves nothing undone that may fully discover him their opposite. Now, to seem to affect the malice and displeasure of the people is as bad as that which he dislikes, to flatter them for their love.

Coriolanus’ hatred of the common people is one of the things I just can’t stand about him. I don’t think it’s ever really clear why he hates them – he just does. Perhaps Coriolanus seeks their hatred because he hates himself. He doesn’t want to be loved as he is – as the person Volumina has forced him to become.

The Senate, meanwhile, is trying to praise Coriolanus. As usual, he is having none of it.

CORIOLANUS
Your Honors, pardon.
I had rather have my wounds to heal again
Than hear say how I got them.

BRUTUS
Sir, I hope
My words disbenched you not?

CORIOLANUS
No, sir. Yet oft,
When blows have made me stay, I fled from words.
You soothed not, therefore hurt not; but your people,
I love them as they weigh.

This isn’t a good enough excuse for me, which is why I can pretend that Coriolanus must have some deep-rooted hatred for himself.

Here’s the problem with this whole consul business though: Coriolanus needs votes from a number of plebeians. And he hates plebeians. He is encouraged to remind them of all he’s done for Rome, but he isn’t into that. Funny, for someone so prideful he doesn’t seem interested in boasting:

CORIOLANUS
To brag unto them “Thus I did, and thus!”
Show them th’ unaching scars, which I should hide,
As if I had received them for the hire
Of their breath only!

However, the commoners are willing to hear him out. They know that Coriolanus has done a lot for Rome, even if he is awful. And they don’t want to seem ungrateful.

THIRD CITIZEN
[…] Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude, of the which, we being members, should bring ourselves to monstrous members.

Coriolanus is still struggling with what he has to do, however. He has a habit of going on and on about one thing for ages, and it’s a bit annoying. He does this because he’s stubborn, and his mind isn’t easily changed by the people around him.

CORIOLANUS
What must I say?
“I pray, sir?” – plague upon ‘t! I cannot bring
My tongue to such a pace. “Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country’s service when
Some certain of your brethren roared and ran
From th’ noise of our own drums.”

MENENIUS
O me, the gods!
You must not speak of that. You must desire them
To think upon you.

Here, Coriolanus is boasting. Perhaps he hates the commoners for being lazy and for being below average soldiers. Or perhaps he relishes their hate, as I mentioned before. Who knows?

Shockingly, even though Coriolanus openly mocks them, the plebeians agree to vote for him.

CORIOLANUS
Most sweet voices!
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick that does appear
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to ‘t.
What custom wills, in all things should we do ‘t?
The dust on antique time would lie unswept
And mountainous error be too highly heaped
For truth to o’erpeer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honor go
To one that would do thus. I am half through;
The one part suffered, the other will I do.

This reminds me a lot of Hal’s speech about ceremony in Henry V. If I could ask Coriolanus one question, I’d ask him this: what Volumina wills, in all things should he do it? I think, much like Hamlet is unaware of how his ghostly father has influenced him, Coriolanus is unaware of how much of Volumina is in him.

The tribunes (exasperatedly, I’m sure) tell the plebeians that Coriolanus was mocking them. They choose not to vote for him, in a very shocking McCain-saying-nay-to-the-healthcare-bill twist.

Coriolanus, of course, loses his temper when he finds out that the commoners have turned against him.

CORIOLANUS
How? No more?
As for my country I have shed my blood,
Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs.
Coin words till their decay against those measles
Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought
The very way to catch them.

BRUTUS
You speak o’ th’ people
As if you were a god to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.

SICINIUS
‘Twere well
We let the people know it.

Brutus is right – the reason people find Coriolanus to be so prideful is because he is constantly trashing the plebeians. It has nothing to do with him talking about his own heroism, and everything to do with how he treats those who are below him in class.

Coriolanus lets his temper get the better of him, and attacks the law that gave the people tribunes. This results in a massive uproar, and the tribunes accuse him of treason and try to have him executed. But his fellow patricians rush to his rescue. I can’t help but wonder why they are so loyal to Coriolanus – it’s as if they see him as above and below them at the same time. It is a weird dynamic that they have, I will say.

MENENIUS
Consider this: he has been bred i’ th’ wars
Since he could draw a sword, and is ill schooled
In bolted language; meal and bran together
He throws without distinction. Give me leave,
I’ll go to him and undertake to bring him
Where he shall answer by a lawful form,
In peace, to his utmost peril.

Whose fault is all of that, Menenius? Why is Volumina never mentioned? She sent Coriolanus to the wars – he didn’t do it to himself. This isn’t who he was destined to be.

Meanwhile, Coriolanus continues to stubbornly refuse to appeal to the plebeians.

CORIOLANUS
I muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them woolen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats, to show bare heads
In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder
When one but of my ordinance stood up
To speak of peace or war.

Enter Volumina.

I talk of you.
Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am.

It appears that Volumina taught Coriolanus to hate plebeians. Of course! It is a learned behavior – I would still argue that he actively seeks their hate on purpose, though.

Again, it seems that Coriolanus has no idea how much of an affect his upbringing had on him. He asks Volumina if she would have him be false to his nature – but what is his nature? Does he even know who he is outside of what his mother has taught him?

Volumina convinces Coriolanus to pretend to tolerate the commoners. He promises to do so (of course, it takes like a hundred lines to convince him) – but I instantly doubted that he could do it.

My doubts were not unfounded, because Coriolanus immediately loses his temper when he is called a traitor. In response to his lashing out, he is sentenced to death. The commoners and patricians ends up with a compromise though: banishment.

CORIOLANUS
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty;
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts;
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance – which finds not till it feels,
Making but reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes – deliver you
As most abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.

And then he leaves. I keep saying that Coriolanus was not meant to be this way, and you may be wondering why he hasn’t shown his true colors yet. He is the product of a lifetime of manipulation, and there is a chance that he is too far gone to ever change his ways. I’d say banishment might be a relief to him, but that would be wrong considering what he chooses to do next. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The scene in which Coriolanus says goodbye to his family was surprisingly touching.

CORIOLANUS
Come, leave your tears. A brief farewell. The beast
With many heads butts me away. Nay, mother,
Where is your ancient courage? You were used
To say extremities was the trier of spirits;
That common chances common men could bear;
That when the sea was calm, all boats alike
Showed mastership in floating; fortune’s blows
When most struck home, being gentle wounded craves
A noble cunning. You were used to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conned them.

VIRGILIA
O heavens! O heavens!

CORIOLANUS
Nay, I prithee, woman –

Virgilia cannot be consoled. I’m telling you, there has got to be something to Coriolanus. Yes, this is Rome, and she needs her husband for protection. But something tells me that Virgilia doesn’t merely tolerate her husband – she loves him.

I truly thought I knew where this play was going when I reached Coriolanus’ banishment. I thought he would learn what it was like to be a commoner, to be poor and unwanted. I thought he would undergo a personal change, especially since he would be far away from Volumina.

But, no. Instead of finding himself, Coriolanus dons a disguise and seeks Aufidius out.

CORIOLANUS, [removing his muffler]
If, Tullus,
Not yet thou know’st me, and seeing me, dost not
Think me for the man I am, necessity
Commands me name myself.

AUFIDIUS
What is thy name?

CORIOLANUS
A name unmusical to Volscians’ ears
And harsh in sound to thine.

AUFIDIUS
Say, what’s thy name?
Thou hast a grim appearance and thy face
Bears a command in ‘t. Though thy tackle’s torn,
Thou show’st a noble vessel. What’s thy name?

This was actually pretty hilarious to me. Coriolanus spent most of this play acting like he and Aufidius had some grand rivalry between them, but Aufidius doesn’t even recognize him off the battlefield. What a blow to Coriolanus’ ego!

Why did Coriolanus seek Aufidius out, you ask?

MESSENGER
It is spoke freely out of many mouths –
How probably I do not know – that Martius,
Joined with Aufidius, leads a power ‘gainst Rome
And vows revenge as spacious as between
The young’st and oldest thing.

That’s right. Instead of finding himself, Coriolanus decides that his best bet is to burn Rome to the ground. Which means you’re thinking that my theory about his sensitive past is can’t be true. But consider this: Coriolanus is facing something incredibly terrifying right now. He does not have his mother or the patricians to direct him. And he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. So he retaliates in the only way he knows how: with violence.

Coriolanus, shockingly, is incredibly popular among the Volscians. Aufidius doesn’t like this, and immediately begins plotting against him. What a shocker! It’s almost like joining up with your literal enemy was a terrible idea.

The last act of this play is, quite frankly, the most annoying. Coriolanus is so stubborn that it takes multiple characters over multiple scenes to shake him out of his violent rage. Coriolanus turns the patricians away – he even turns Menenius away, and Menenius (against his better judgement, I’m sure) loves Coriolanus like a son.

The women approach him with young Martius in tow.

CORIOLANUS
[…] My wife comes foremost, then the honored mold
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.

[Virgilia curtsies.]

What is that curtsy worth? Or those doves’ eyes,
Which can make gods forsworn? I melt and am not
Of stronger earth than others.

[Volumina bows.]

My mother bows,
As if Olympus to a molehill should
In supplication nod; and my young boy
Hath an aspect of intercession which
Great Nature cries “Deny not!” Let the Volsces
Plow Rome and harrow Italy, I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.

VIRGILIA
My lord and husband.

CORIOLANUS
These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome.

VIRGILIA
The sorrow that delivers us thus changed
Makes you think so.

CORIOLANUS
Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace. Best of my flesh,
Forgive my tyranny, but do not say
For that “Forgive the Romans.”

[They kiss.]

This, frankly, is the most interesting passage in the play. Coriolanus sees Virgilia, in all her sweetness, and is undone. I wish we had seen more of their relationship. I also find it interesting that Coriolanus mentions that he has forgotten his part – it really comes together with what I was saying about him playing a part that he was not meant to play in life.

Volumina begs with Coriolanus, and seems annoyed that there is no mercy in him. But why should she be so shocked at this? She’s the reason Coriolanus is merciless. Eventually, however, he breaks.

[He holds her by the hand, silent.]

CORIOLANUS
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O, my mother, mother, O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome.
But, for your son – believe it, O, believe it! –
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come. –
Aufidius, though I cannot make true wars,
I’ll frame convenient peace. Now, good Aufidius,
Were you in my stead, would you have heard
A mother less? Or granted less, Aufidius?

I think this is the most emotion we have seen from Coriolanus this entire play. Act five may be incredibly annoying, but it also shows us what this play could have been.

Coriolanus blames his change of heart on his mother, but I truly believe that this is the one thing she wasn’t able to manipulate him to do. I think Coriolanus, with his loved ones in front of him, felt warmth that Volumina had tried so hard to stamp out of him his whole life. I think this decision was his own, but he is unaware of that because every other decision in his life has been because of his mother’s intervention. I think this is the person Coriolanus could have been, if he hadn’t been forced into his current life.

I want to point out that Volumina is praised for convincing Coriolanus to abandon his siege on Rome. But she is being praised for doing something completely out of character: for kneeling down before her son and begging. I wonder how she feels about this, or if she even noticed it at all.

It doesn’t take long for Aufidius to decide that he isn’t impressed by all of this.

AUFIDIUS
There was it
For which my sinews shall be stretched upon him.
At a few drops of women’s rheum, which are
As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labor
Of our great action. Therefore shall he die,
And I’ll renew me in his fall.

Aufidius kills Coriolanus with everybody watching – and claims to feel sorrow over it only a moment after. Did Coriolanus know that this was going to happen? How couldn’t he have? Did he think his abandonment of the Volscians was going to be easy?

Is this what he wanted?

Coriolanus is, objectively, not a great play. There isn’t a lot of pretty poetry in it, and the titular character is unbearable. It’s so hard to root for him, unless you insist on giving him some sort of tragic backstory that is never fully confirmed in the actual play. But if that’s what it takes, so be it. Coriolanus’ own worst enemy isn’t himself, but rather his mother.

It looks like Timon of Athens is next, but I’ll start it next week. I don’t think Shakespeare would want me to read something so cynical on my birthday weekend!