I am incredibly lucky to have been able to attend tonight’s production of Richard II at the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park. This was my first visit to the Old Globe, and although the actual Globe in London will always have my heart, I can see myself becoming a regular patron of the Old Globe – especially once I move to San Diego come August.
A few years ago, I would have bought the cheapest seats in the house. But I’ve come to learn that theatre is worth splurging on. That is how I found myself sitting in the second row, right in the middle of the open air Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. A perfect seat for an almost perfect production.
You’ll recall that I don’t like Richard II – the character, not the play. But Robert Sean Leonard’s portrayal even managed to pull at my heartstrings. Goodness knows how everybody else in the theatre felt. I can only compare Robert Sean Leonard to Ben Whishaw, because I’ve only ever seen the BBC’s adaptation of Richard II. To be clear, both portrayals impressed me beyond belief. Ben Whishaw’s Richard was all trembling hands, shaky voice – that Richard was weak, and we could see that. Robert Sean Leonard’s Richard was wry, prone to dramatics, but also had the ability to be self-aware every now and again. He played him as almost indifferent to the things going on around him, but cracks began to form in the facade soon enough and Richard began to crumble. When I read Richard II in April, I was more or less untouched by pity. But I felt pity, even sadness when Richard’s demanding tone dissolved as the line, “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” was breathed out into the chilly San Diego night. Was I cold, or was I finally beginning to feel for Richard? Guess we’ll never know!
The Duke of York, played by Patrick Kerr, was a surprising favorite of mine in this production. The role was played with the perfect amount of exasperation and helplessness. York was still too by-the-book, as he should be. His interactions with the Duchess of York (Lizbeth Mackay) made the crowd laugh, but I couldn’t help but think how disappointed the Duchess must have been in York for wanting to turn Aumerle in to Henry IV. Lizbeth Mackay floored me with her raw display of a mother’s grief, of her desperation to save her only son. She played a minor role, but it was a stand out one nonetheless.
Henry IV, played by Tory Kittles, was incredibly regal and well put together. Richard slaps him across the face during the deposition scene, and Henry IV raises his shaking hands as if to choke his cousin…but instead pulls him into a hug. Richard is unresponsive to this gesture, as he keeps his hands by his side. The hug is drawn out, and when they part, Richard’s face is streaked with tears. I loved this so, so much. This was the Henry IV they were trying to sell, and I was buying it without shame.
Hotspur doesn’t play a huge role in this play (his time to shine comes in Henry IV, Part One), but I must comment on his costume. His doublet was constantly unbuttoned, and he had a disheveled look about him that was so uniquely Hotspur. What a lovely touch, something for those of us that know what Hotspur is about.
I suppose I can’t mention Hotspur without talking about Hal. I know, I know, Hal isn’t in this play. But Henry IV mentions him in passing, asking where his son has been. Lines were cut from this, much to my disappointment. I suppose it doesn’t matter because they aren’t putting on the entirety of the Henriad, but I view Henry IV mostly through the lens of his turbulent relationship with his son. His moment of clarity about his son’s potential really touched me when I read Richard II, but it apparently did not have a place in this production. But, hey, if you were wondering, Hal was messing around in a tavern the entire time. Shocker!
Nora Carroll played Queen Isabel, and she breathed so much life into this small role. She was absolutely gorgeous, almost angelic in her white gown. I stayed after the play for the post-show forum, and Ms Carroll mentioned that although Isabel is regal, she is also human. Through her, we are given scraps of another side of Richard – a side we never see. I love this interpretation so much. Who hasn’t been mystified by Isabel’s unwavering love and dedication to her sub-par husband? But he must have been treating her well, must have shown her love. We don’t know that Richard, but he must exist.
I have a very minor criticism that I want to throw in here. When Richard and Isabel were being separated, trash was thrown on them from up above. I knew that, but I’m not sure if it was well communicated, because it just seemed like leaves were being tossed out of buckets and onto their heads. The Duke and Duchess of York discuss it later, but still.
I was also incredibly shocked at who killed Richard. Brace yourselves, because it wasn’t Exton. It was Aumerle. It was a very “Et tu, Brute?” moment, because the production made a big show of the love between Richard and Aumerle. I suppose it was to increase the impact of Richard’s death. Also, it might have been because this play has more than enough characters.
During the post-show forum, someone wondered if Henry IV’s grief over Richard was genuine, because they didn’t think so. Luckily, Charles Janasz, who played a magnificent John of Gaunt, answered by saying he did believe that Henry IV’s grief was genuine because it is something that eats away at him during the rest of the Henriad. I loved that the actors knew so much about the Henriad – I mean, why wouldn’t they? – but it just spoke to me because I love the Henriad so much.
Overall, the Old Globe’s production of Richard II was incredibly enjoyable. I gasped, I laughed, and I even felt a twinge of pity for poor old Richard. I am so glad I was able to attend. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare live.
I’m making slow progress with Much Ado About Nothing – not because I’m not enjoying it, but because I’m on a two week break. Here’s hoping that I’ll be able to finish it before the month is over. Until then, you can probably catch me at your local Shakespeare festival, because there’s no other place for me to be.
When I was in the 12th grade, I was taught Henry IV, Part One in my English class. I was a bit disinterested by it at first. After all, it was only my second play ever, and what could possibly top Richard III? But my first taste of the Henriad quickly bloomed into an intense love that I carry around with me even today. Absolutely nothing can change the way I feel about it – not bad theater productions, not poorly written analyses, nothing. I feel so incredibly privileged to have been able to read the Henriad. I feel privileged to have had a fantastic English teacher in high school, and to have been taught Henry V in London in 2012 with a professor who let me gush about it nonstop.
So, as you can imagine, I was just giddy with excitement when I picked up Henry IV, Part Two. I am going to try to be as coherent as possible. It may help if you go back and read my post about Prince Hal, because I have a very specific idea of who he is that I will be carrying into this post. So let’s get started!
Rumors around England have been painting the rebels as the winners of the intense battle that occurred at the end of Henry IV, Part One. But, as we know, this isn’t true. Hotspur is dead, and Hal dealt the final blow.
I do love Hotspur dearly – I think he is a wonderful character, and although I was technically rooting for Henry IV, I was sad that things ended the way they did. But nothing made me sadder than reading Northumberland’s reaction to his son’s death:
NORTHUMBERLAND Yet, for all this, say not that Percy’s dead.
I see a strange confession in thine eye.
Thou shak’st thy head and hold’st it fear or sin
To speak a truth. If he be slain, say so.
The tongue offends not that reports his death;
And he doth sin that doth belie the dead,
Not he which says the dead is not alive.
Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell
Remembered tolling a departing friend.
If there’s one thing Shakespeare knows how to do well, it’s how to write grief. Losing Hotspur shatters Northumberland’s heart to pieces. Morton recounts how badly the loss affected the rebels as well:
MORTON [to Northumberland]
[…] In few, his death, whose spirit lent a fire
Even to the dullest peasant in his camp,
Being bruited once, took fire and heat away
From the best-tempered courage in his troops;
For from his mettle was his party steeled,
Which, once in him abated, all the rest
Turned on themselves, like dull and heavy lead.
I absolutely believe this happened. Hotspur, despite his temper and occasional attitude problems, was a very passionate and ferocious man. I can see why his death would cause things to spiral downward. In Henry V, we see how Hal’s words and presence help morale – and although Hal and Hotspur are two very different people, they are both equipped to inspire and lead people.
The tone of this play changes suddenly as we cut to Falstaff, who is in trouble with the law. A quick word on Falstaff: I like him, and there are times I pity him. I believe he loves Hal, no matter what he likes to say. He has been a father figure to the young Prince for so long now – a terrible father figure, but a father figure nonetheless. I do not, however, harbor the same obsession with Falstaff that a lot of Shakespeare’s fans do. As you all know by now, I don’t suffer fools gladly. Falstaff isn’t your typical Shakespearean fool, and I can see his appeal, but this blog post won’t be a love letter to him. Although, after all the gushing I’ve done about Hal, I don’t know why anybody would expect that of me.
In any case, as usual, Falstaff is in trouble.
CHIEF JUSTICE […] Call him back again.
SERVANT Sir John Falstaff!
FALSTAFF Boy, tell him I am deaf.
PAGE You must speak louder. My master is deaf.
CHIEF JUSTICE I am sure he is, to the hearing of anything good. – Go pluck him by the elbow. I must speak with him.
The Chief Justice is annoyed that Falstaff hasn’t faced any consequences after the hilarious Gad’s Hill robbery. Fortunately, Falstaff’s service (if you can even call it that) at Shrewsbury is keeping the Chief Justice from tossing him in the clinker.
CHIEF JUSTICE You have misled the youthful prince.
FALSTAFF The young prince hath misled me. I am the fellow with the great belly, and he my dog.
CHIEF JUSTICE Well, I am loath to gall a new-healed wound. Your day’s service at Shrewsbury hath a little gilded over your night’s exploit on Gad’s Hill. You may thank th’ unquiet time for your quiet o’erposting that action.
It was rather interesting to me, hearing the Chief Justice make excuses for Hal. I’ll go into this a little later, but Hal is an incredibly complex character – but only if we want to see him that way. I don’t think that every irresponsible action has been a direct result of his hanging out with Falstaff. I think he has a very complicated and strained relationship with his father that results in a lot of acting out and rebellion, no matter what he or other characters like to say and think. Falstaff, of course, would never admit to leading the prince astray.
At York, rebels are talking through their chances of actually beating Henry IV’s forces in battle. If Northumberland doesn’t show up, their chances won’t look too good:
LORD BARDOLPH Yea, marry, there’s the point.
But if without him we be thought too feeble,
My judgement is we should not step too far
Till we had his assistance by the hand.
For in a theme so bloody-faced as this,
Conjecture, expectation, and surmise
Of aids incertain should not be admitted.
ARCHBISHOP ‘Tis very true, Lord Bardolph, for indeed
It was young Hotspur’s cause at Shrewsbury.
LORD BARDOLPH It was, my lord; who lined himself with hope,
Eating the air and promise of supply,
Flatt’ring himself in the project of a power
Much smaller than the smallest of his thoughts,
And so, with great imagination
Proper to madmen, led his powers to death
And, winking, leapt into destruction.
I understand their hesitation. In fact, it’s amazing that they are still willing to fight after Shrewsbury. They need Northumberland, but they don’t seem to trust him that much. Eventually, the fact that the King’s forces are split up will give them a sense of security.
We finally see the infamous Prince of Wales in Act 2. Post-Shrewsbury, and he is spending his time with Poins – old habits die hard, I suppose. But his father is sick!
PRINCE Marry, I tell thee it is not meet that I should be sad, now my father is sick – albeit I could tell to thee, as to one it pleases me, for fault of a better, to call my friend, I could be sad, and sad indeed too.
POINS Very hardly, upon such a subject.
PRINCE By this hand, thou thinkest me as far in the devil’s book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency. Let the end try the man. But I tell thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick; and keeping such vile company as thou art hath in reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.
POINS The reason?
PRINCE What wouldst thou think of me if I should weep?
POINS I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
And here, my friends, is the root of the problem. The way we see Hal, the way we analyze him, is entirely up to us. We can see him as completely rebellious and irresponsible (the way Poins is implying people do), or we can see him as someone who is truly royal and kingly, playing commoner for his own purposes (which Warwick suggests to be the case later on). Or, we can see him as a mixture of both – as someone who is fully capable of being royal and well-behaved, but simultaneously has a streak of rascal in him. I know it sounds like I’m complicating things just for the sake of it, but bear with me.
So if we see Hal as a human, someone who is multi-faceted, then this conversation is painful. Hal has the capacity to feel grief about his father. People around him refuse to see that – to them, he is a one dimensional disgrace of a prince. The things he’s done haunt him to the point where he finds himself unable to tell people how distraught he is. They’d see him as a hypocrite, and nothing else. Poor Hal.
But, as I said, Hal is multi-faceted. He feels grief for his father, and is dealing with some very complex emotions, but is still able to make the time to disguise himself as a waiter to spy on Falstaff. It’s like I said: old habits die hard. Hal can’t force himself to be one thing or another – instead, he’s going to have to figure out how to reconcile who he is and who people want him to be. But that’s a journey for Henry V, mostly.
Northumberland, meanwhile, is being encouraged to abandon the rebels by Hotspur’s wife.
LADY PERCY O yet, for God’s sake, go not to these wars.
The time was, father, that you broke your word
When you were more endeared to it than now,
When your own Percy, when my heart’s dear Harry,
Threw many a northward look to see his father
Bring up his powers; but he did long in vain.
Who then persuaded you to stay at home?
There were two honors lost, yours and your son’s.
For yours, the God of heaven brighten it.
For his, it stuck upon him as the sun
In the gray vault of heaven, and by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts. He was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.
He had no legs that practiced not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those that could speak low and tardily
Would turn their own perfection to abuse
To seem like him. So that in speech, in gait,
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humors of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book,
That fashioned others. And him – O wondrous him!
O miracle of men! – him did you leave,
Second to none, unseconded by you,
To look upon the hideous god of war
In disadvantage, to abide a field
Where nothing but the sound of Hotspur’s name
Did seem defensible. So you left him.
Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong
To hold your honor more precise and nice
With others than with him. Let them alone.
The Marshal and the Archbishop are strong.
Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,
Today might I, hanging on Hotspur’s neck,
Have talked of Monmouth’s grave.
I find Lady Percy to be remarkably brave in this scene. She lays all of Northumberland’s wrongs out in front of him, clearly unafraid of a bad reaction. And yet, she is being torn apart by grief. You can see how much she loved Hotspur, how passionate she was about him. She even thinks fondly on his manner of speaking (apparently a flaw of his) – I’ve always imaging Hotspur speaking very fiercely and passionately, no matter the subject. Poor Lady Percy – she’s been made a widow, and now stands bravely in Northumberland’s way so that she and Lady Northumberland do not suffer another loss.
Northumberland is quite moved by Lady Percy’s speech – he decides to hold off on leaving.
Meanwhile, at a filthy tavern in Eastcheap, Hal and Poins are spying on Falstaff, who is spending his time with Doll Tearsheet. She asks about Poins.
DOLL Why does the Prince love him so then?
FALSTAFF Because their legs are both of a bigness, and he plays at quoits well, and eats conger and fennel, and drinks off candles’ ends for flap-dragons, and rides the wild mare with the boys, and jumps upon joint stools, and swears with a good grace, and wears his boots very smooth like unto the sign of the Leg, and breeds no bate with telling of discreet stories, and such other gambol faculties he has that show a weak mind and an able body, for the which the Prince admits him; for the Prince himself is such another. The weight of a hair will turn the scales between their avoirdupois.
PRINCE, [aside to Poins]
Would not this nave of a wheel have his ears cut off?
There is something of a gap growing between Falstaff and Hal at this point, and it’s quite sad to see. I would say that Falstaff is a bit jealous of Poins, that he misses Hal. I think he does. I think he misses him very much.
But to Hal, all of this just sounds like he’s being spoken ill of. He makes himself known to confront Falstaff.
PRINCE Why, thou globe of sinful continents, what a life dost thou lead?
FALSTAFF A better than thou. I am a gentleman. Thou art a drawer.
PRINCE Very true, sir, and I come to draw you out by the ears.
HOSTESS O, the Lord preserve thy good Grace! By my troth, welcome to London. Now the Lord bless that sweet face of thine. O Jesu, are you come from Wales?
FALSTAFF, [to Prince]
Thou whoreson mad compound of majesty, by this light flesh and corrupt blood, thou art welcome.
DOLL How? You fat fool, I scorn you.
POINS My lord, he will drive you out of your revenge and turn all to a merriment if you take not the heat.
I got a bit annoyed with Poins for that last line. It’s almost like he wants to make things worse – possibly because he feels the need to compete with Falstaff for Hal’s favor. And, to be honest, I find Poins to be a very poor replacement for Falstaff.
Peto enters, and new of the coming war brings Hal back to reality. He feels a bit guilty for messing around.
PRINCE By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame
So idly to profane the precious time
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapor, doth begin to melt
Give me my sword and cloak. – Falstaff, good night.
There is such a sense of finality to Hal’s “good night” to Falstaff. There is something incredibly sad about it. Well – if you want to read it that way.
Henry IV, meanwhile, can’t sleep. There are so many things on his mind. And –
KING […] Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Truer words have never been spoken. I am indifferent toward Henry IV as a character, but I do feel sorry for him here. He’s sick, he can’t sleep, and he’s worried. He almost reminds me of Hal in Henry V here, musing about all the suffering the crown brings. Henry IV feels the crushing weight of his responsibilities here – a quality that he and Hal will end up sharing.
While Falstaff gathers troops for the upcoming war, Prince John is dealing with the rebels in his own particular way. He sends Westmoreland to listen to the rebels’ grievances:
ARCHBISHOP […] When we are wronged and would unfold our griefs,
We are denied access unto his person
Even by those men that have most done us wrong.
They feel that Henry IV does not care to listen to their issues. But here’s John, willing to take all their grievances to heart and to make things right.
WESTMORELAND Pleaseth your Grace to answer them directly
How far forth you do like their articles.
JOHN OF LANCASTER I like them all, and do allow them well,
And swear here by the honor of my blood
My father’s purposes have been mistook,
And some about him have too lavishly
Wrested his meaning and authority. [To the Archbishop.] My lord, these griefs shall be
with speed redressed;
Upon my soul, they shall. If this may please you,
Discharge your powers unto their several counties,
As we will ours, and here, between the armies,
Let’s drink together friendly and embrace,
That all their eyes may bear those tokens home
Of our restorèd love and amity.
I have to say, John really had me fooled there for a second. I was beginning to think that talking things through was his strong suit. Imagine my surprise when the rebels were charged with treason and taken to the block – and by then, all of their troops had dispersed. John is brutal, that’s for sure. What kind of king would he have been, if Hal hadn’t been the firstborn?
4.3 is the most important scene in this entire play to me. Henry IV is in a chair, surrounded by Warwick, and by his sons, Thomas and Humphrey.
KING Humphrey, my son of Gloucester, where is the
Prince your brother?
HUMPHREY OF GLOUCESTER I think he’s gone to hunt, my lord, at Windsor.
KING And how accompanied?
HUMPHREY OF GLOUCESTER I do not know, my lord.
KING Is not his brother Thomas of Clarence with him?
HUMPHREY OF GLOUCESTER No, my good lord, he is in presence here.
THOMAS OF CLARENCE, [coming forward]
What would my lord and father?
I wonder if Humphrey knows where Hal is, and is simply trying to steer the conversation away from the truth. In fact, I am almost certain that Henry IV knows where Hal is. Look, we all know where Hal is, so Henry IV may as well hear it.
Henry IV is particularly skilled at letting everybody know just how he feels about his disgraceful son. But he sings a different tune here:
KING, [to Thomas]
How chance thou art not with the Prince thy brother?
He loves thee, and thou dost neglect him, Thomas.
Thou hast a better place in his affection
Than all thy brothers. Cherish it, my boy,
And noble offices thou mayst effect
Of mediation, after I am dead,
Between his greatness and thy other brethren.
Therefore omit him not, blunt not his love,
Nor lose the good advantage of his grace
By seeming cold or careless of his will.
For he is gracious if he be observed;
He hath a tear for pity, and a hand
Open as day for melting charity;
Yet notwithstanding, being incensed he is flint,
As humorous as winter, as as sudden
As flaws congealèd in the spring of day.
His temper, therefore must be well observed.
Chide him for his faults, and do it reverently,
When you perceive his blood inclined to mirth;
But, being moody, give him time and scope
Till that his passions, like a whale on the ground,
Confound themselves with working. Learn this, Thomas,
And thou shalt prove a shelter to thy friends,
A hoop of gold to bind thy brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood
Mingled with venom of suggestion
As, force perforce, the age will pour it in,
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong
As aconitum or rash gunpowder.
There are times when Henry IV’s clarity surprises me. What he says about Hal is completely and utterly true: he is willing to be kind if he’s humored and treated with respect, and he is compassionate and generous. But he also has a temper, and needs room to work through his own feelings before he is able to calm himself. Regardless of the accuracy of this assessment, Henry IV’s original question remains unanswered:
KING Why art thou not at Windsor with him, Thomas?
THOMAS OF CLARENCE He is not there today; he dines in London.
KING And how accompanied? Canst thou tell that?
THOMAS OF CLARENCE With Poins and other his continual followers.
KING Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them; therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,
In forms imaginary, th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
For when his headstrong riot hath no curb,
When rage and hot blood are his counsellors,
When means and lavish manners meet together,
O, with what wings shall his affections fly
Towards fronting peril and opposed decay!
Ah, there’s the Henry IV that we all know and love. He voices his frustration with Hal for the umpteenth time, and worries what will happen when headstrong, wild Hal takes the throne.
If we look at Henry IV’s words, we have a somewhat complete picture of Hal: he has the capacity to be kind, compassionate and generous. But along with those qualities, he can be stubborn and unpredictably mischievous. Warwick doesn’t think so.
WARWICK My gracious lord, you look beyond him quite.
The Prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,
‘Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learned; which, once attained,
Your Highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
The Prince will, in the perfectness of time,
Cast off his followers, and their memory
Shall as a pattern or a measure live,
By which his Grace must mete the lives of others,
Turning past evils into advantages.
You know I disagree with this. This is one of my least favorite interpretations of Hal. It makes him an awful character, impossible to root for. Hal is a complex, and rather conflicted creature. His father said it himself: he has good qualities in him (qualities fit for royalty), but he has a wild streak. He’s young, he’ll learn. And, oh Warwick. If only things were that simple. Hal will cast his friends away when he feels he needs to, but his past will haunt him well into his own reign.
When the good news about John’s success with the rebels comes, Henry IV collapses. And, speak of the devil, Hal shows up.
PRINCE Who saw the Duke of Clarence?
THOMAS OF CLARENCE, [weeping]
I am here, brother, full of heaviness.
PRINCE How now, rain within doors, and none abroad?
How doth the King?
Thomas is allegedly Hal’s favorite, and we can see that in the way he speaks to him. I thought the line “How now, rain within doors, and none abroad?” was quite sweet. Hal’s mood changes quickly once he realizes how grave the situation is. He is left alone with his father, who has the crown by his head. Henry IV appears rather dead, and Hal is overflowing with emotions. He takes the crown, the object that caused his father’s death, and leaves the room.
Henry IV is incredibly upset by this. He demands to know where Hal is, and is angry even though Warwick tells him that Hal is having an emotional breakdown in the next room.
PRINCE I never thought to hear you speak again.
KING Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.
I stay too long by thee; I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honors
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth,
Thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.
Stay but a little, for my cloud of dignity
Is held from falling with so weak a wind
That it will quickly drop. My day is dim.
Thou hast stol’n that which after some few hours
Were thine without offense, and at my death
Thou hast sealed up my expectation.
Thy life did manifest thou loved’st me not,
And thou wilt have me die assured of it.
Thou hid’st a thousand daggers in thy thoughts,
Whom thou hast whetted on thy stony heart
To stab at half an hour of my life.
What, canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone, and dig my grave thyself,
And bid the merry bells ring to thine ear
That thou art crownèd, not that I am dead.
Let all the tears that should bedew my hearse
Be drops of balm to sanctify thy head;
Only compound me with forgotten dust.
Give that which gave thee life unto the worms.
Pluck down my officers, break my decrees,
For now a time is come to mock at form.
Henry the Fifth is crowned. Up, vanity,
Down, royal state, all your sage councillors, hence,
And to the English court assemble now,
From every region, apes of idleness.
He continues, but we get the idea. When this happened, I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally. The tension between father and son had to reach its boiling point. Otherwise, reconciliation would have been impossible. How wrong Henry IV is, though. His son loves him and wants nothing more than his father’s approval. They have butted heads for so long that it may seem impossible, but Hal does love him.
PRINCE God witness with me, when I here came in
And found no course of breath within your Majesty,
How cold it struck my heart! If I do feign,
O, let me in my present wildness die,
And never live to show th’ incredulous world
The noble change that I have purposèd.
Coming to look on you, thinking you dead,
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were,
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: “The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore thou best of gold art worst of gold.
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in med’cine potable;
But thou, most fine, most honored, most renowned
Hast eat thy bearer up.” Thus, my royal liege,
Accusing it, I put it on my head
To try with it, as with an enemy
That had before my face murdered my father.
Oh, Hal. He talks of this noble change he’s been planning on, something that he once tried to explain to the audience in Henry IV, Part One. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never bought a word Hal has said on the subject of his wildness, because it all sounds a little like he’s trying to justify his actions to himself. Deep inside of Hal, there is a deep-rooted hatred for himself and who he is. If he has truly been playing at being wild this entire time because he thinks that a sudden transformation will impress the nobles, then he’s an idiot. I’d like to give Hal more credit than that, and I like to think that Shakespeare intended for him to be an interesting character, so I’ll have none of that.
Hal also has a very interesting view of the crown – it’s an enemy, something that sucks the life out of everybody that wears it. There is such negativity tied to it, that it makes you wonder what sort of terror and dread he felt at his own coronation.
In any case, his words touch Henry IV, and they are finally able to reconcile. Henry IV counsels him (which Hal takes very seriously). All that mattered to me was that Henry IV was saying things like “O my son,” and “my Harry.” Finally. This is what Hal has needed his whole life. This, if anything, is what causes him to sober up enough to be be a good ruler in Henry V. His father having faith in him is so significant. None of this it-was-planned-all-along nonsense. Hal needed to come to peace with his father.
Henry IV dies – long live Henry V of England. The Chief Justice is shaking in his boots – after all, how many times had he gotten Henry IV’s unruly son into trouble? After comforting his brothers (good Lord, nobody has any faith in poor Hal), Hal turns to the Chief Justice.
PRINCE You all look strangely on me. [To the Chief Justice.] And you most.
You are, I think, assured I love you not.
CHIEF JUSTICE I am assured, if I be measured rightly,
Your Majesty hath no just cause to hate me.
PRINCE No? How might a prince of my great hopes forget
So great indignities you laid upon me?
What, rate, rebuke, and roughly send to prison
Th’ immediate heir of England? Was this easy?
May this be washed in Lethe and forgotten?
The Chief Justice has a good explanation for all of this: he was acting on behalf of Henry IV. And what would Hal do if he had a son that made a mockery of the law? A good point, really, and I would loved to see Hal be a father instead of seeing Henry VI be crushed the way he was. But I digress.
I’ve said this a thousand times, but Hal knows exactly what people expect of him, and what they think a proper ruler should do. Those two things don’t exactly align: here, the Chief Justice expects to have his position stripped from him. But a proper ruler should find his past actions reasonable. Hal is a proper king now, so he lets the Chief Justice keep his position while speaking very highly of him.
Look, I don’t think for a second that Hal would have kicked the Chief Justice to the curb, no matter how often he was thrown in prison for being a nuisance. But I wanted to point out the pressure he feels because it follows him no matter what he does, now that the crown is on his head. And speaking of that exact pressure…
FALSTAFF, [to the King]
My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!
KING I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing. Know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not to me that I am the thing I was.
For God doth know – so shall the world perceive –
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.
I know my love for Hal sometimes leaves me a little blind, but even I can see how incredibly harsh and hurtful this is. Hal is in a very difficult situation – he needs the nobles to see that he is worthy of the crown that is now sitting on his head. In Henry IV, Part One, the line “I do, I will,” can be spoken coldly – in which case, we’d be expecting this. But it should be said brokenly. Hal knows it had to come to this, that this was bound to happen at some point. In this moment, he reminds me of a boy in one of those depressing dog-centric movies. You know the type. There’s always a scene where the young protagonist tells his dog to leave, but the loyal dog stays. So the protagonist almost always shoos him away with violence or with harsh words – but only because it’s for the dog’s own good. I’m not calling Falstaff a dog, but you get my point. This has to be done, or Hal will never be able to win the respect of the others. If played convincingly, if the idea is to get the audience to still care for Hal after all of this, then we should get a sense of veiled sadness from the new king. Things have to change.
Henry IV, Part Two ends on that rather depressing note, and we get an epilogue that has Shakespeare begging us not to hate him too much. But how can I hate him? Henry V is one of my favorite plays!
A last word about Hal (but not really, because I’m sure I’ll find other ways to talk about him): in Richard II, Hotspur mentions having seen Hal. The newly crowned Henry IV finds out that his son has quite the disgraceful response to his father’s triumphs at Oxford. You see, Hal has always been a bit wild. And no, it’s not because he wants to impress the nobles by doing a complete 180 when he becomes king – how was he know his father would even succeed in taking the crown from Richard II? This has always been a part of who he is, and we see him grapple with every aspect of his personality in the final part of the Henriad.
Much Ado About Nothing is next – another play that I love dearly, but have never actually read. You’ll be hearing from me at the end of the month, because I’m going to be knee-deep in work until then. Actually, I am knee-deep in work now, but even my responsibilities as a student couldn’t stop me from writing 5,000 words about how complicated and fascinating Hal can be if we let him.
Have a good June! And if I don’t see you before June 24th, have a good midsummer! And for God’s sake, don’t wander into any woods.
Every so often, I take the time to proofread my posts on this blog. I scour them looking for spelling and grammar mistakes, and I become embarrassed when I spot them. When I don’t find anything to correct, I instead sigh over the fact that this blog makes me sound like a terribly stuck-up person – certainly not the kind of person you’d want to be discussing Shakespeare with. I’m not sure how to fix that. I have a number of writing styles, but for some reason or another, I can’t shake myself out of the one I’m using for this blog. So I thought I could tell a quick story to humanize myself.
Two Thursdays ago, I was sitting in my faculty advisor’s office. We were talking about my upcoming research. One of my project partners was there as well, and we were both offered chocolate. I obviously accepted, because I’ll take all the free snacks I can get. This particular piece of chocolate was a small Reese’s peanut butter cup. I always, always forget that these cups sit in paper. So, being the genius that I am, I put the entire thing in my mouth (it was small, alright?). After chewing for a few seconds, I realized I was also chewing on paper. I didn’t react, choosing instead to just nod along with what my project partner and faculty advisor were talking about. I could have gotten up under the guise of needing the restroom. Instead, to save myself any embarrassment, I swallowed the piece of paper. But this blog post isn’t exclusively about the lengths I go to to avoid humiliation. It’s actually about King John.
King John was delivered to me in an envelope with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, I obviously had heard of the latter, but who the hell was King John? I figured I could do some pre-reading research, but my huge end-of-year workload stopped me from doing that. Instead, I started reading King John at 1am on a Monday by the light of my pink lamp.
I enjoyed this play despite its apparent unpopularity. In fact, I have a hard time understanding why it’s so unpopular. Then again, I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s histories. So perhaps I’m biased.
The play opens the way most histories do: with the unmistakable promise of a fine, bloody war. John is King of England, but a lot of people believe that the crown belongs to his nephew, Arthur. This is a classic Lion King situation. Anyway, the French Dauphin believes very strongly that John’s territories should be Arthur’s. John isn’t having this, and threatens to attack France first.
Then we’re introduced to the Faulconbridge brothers. They are bickering over their inheritance. Philip claims to be the elder, and Robert claims to be the heir.
KING JOHN Is that the elder, and art thou the heir?
You came not of one mother then, it seems.
A fair assumption, but not quite right.
PHILIP FAULCONBRIDGE Most certain of one mother, mighty king –
That is well known – and, as I think, one father.
But for the certain knowledge of that truth
I put you o’er to heaven and to my mother.
Of that I doubt, as all men’s children may.
QUEEN ELEANOR Out on thee, rude man! Thou dost shame thy mother
And would her honor with this diffidence.
All this drama, and it’s only the first act. Both John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, take note of the way Philip looks. How does he look, you ask? Why, like John’s brother, Richard the Lionheart. As it turns out, Lady Faulconbridge had a little tryst with Coeur de Lion. Philip isn’t too bothered by this – he gives up his claim to the Faulconbridge inheritance, and is knighted as Sir Richard Plantagenet. We don’t know what happens to Robert, but I’m assuming he took his whiny self back home to enjoy his Philip-free life.
Philip/Richard is now known to us exclusively as the Bastard. He is my favorite character in this play. His personality shines through this ancient text, and he is almost too big a presence for this story. The Bastard seemed like the kind of character who would be right up Harold Bloom’s alley, so I looked the play up in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. And, sure enough: “[The Bastard] is the first character in Shakespeare who can fully charm and arouse us, particularly because no one before in a Shakespearean play is so persuasive a representation of a person. It is not too much to say that the Bastard in King John inaugurates Shakespeare’s invention of the human.” According to Bloom, the Bastard is effective to us because he is the product of Shakespeare breaking away from his desire to imitate Marlowe. The Bastard is theatrical in nature, and is downright hilarious at the strangest times. It feels nice to finally agree with Bloom – I made the mistake of reading his chapter on Henry V one night, but I won’t bore you with that. Well, I will, but not today.
In the second act, we move to Angiers. The King of France and the Duke of Austria mean to lay siege on the city on Arthur’s behalf. For some reason, I was under the impression that Arthur was a young man. It took me half the play before I realized that he’s nothing but a little kid. Actually, this should have tipped me off:
QUEEN ELEANOR Come to thy grandam, child.
CONSTANCE Do, child, go to it grandam, child.
Give grandam a kingdom, and it grandam will
Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig.
There’s a good grandam.
Good my mother, peace.
I would that I were low laid in my grave.
I am not worth this coil that’s made for me.
Constance is almost universally hated in this play. I understand her desire to see her son take his rightful place on the throne, but she needs to calm down. Her little son is brought to tears by her scathing words.
King John shows up, and the struggle for the crown begins. King John and King Philip both want the citizens of Angiers to allow England’s rightful King into the city. The citizens are not sure who that is, and decide they want proof before they just start letting people in willy-nilly.
KING JOHN Doth not the crown of England prove the King?
And if not that, I bring you witnesses,
Twice fifteen thousand hearts of England’s breed –
BASTARD Bastards and else.
KING JOHN To verify our title with their lives.
KING PHILIP As many and as wellborn bloods as those –
BASTARD Some bastards too.
KING PHILIP Stand in his face to contradict his claim.
The Bastard’s little quips throughout this play really make him shine. He has no shame in being a bastard, and is almost gleefully owning it. He stands out from the other nobles, and it’s clear that he’s only recently joined their ranks.
The citizens of Angiers are unconvinced, and decide to keep their gates locked until the legitimacy of both John and Arthur’s claims can be proven.
BASTARD By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on these battlements
As in a theater, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.
The Bastard isn’t wrong, although he does have a penchant for dramatics. Even I was shocked that the citizens had the guts to keep their gates locked. The Bastard convinces John and Philip to join forces against Angiers.
KING JOHN Now by the sky that hands above our heads,
I like it well. France, shall we knit our powers
And lay this Angiers even with the ground,
Then after fight who shall be king of it?
Women are always described as incredibly changeable creatures in Shakespeare’s plays, but I’d like to argue that we see some of this nature in the men as well. Also, please read over the above quote and tell me that that isn’t the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard. “Let’s teach those commoners a lesson! And when we’re done, we can go back to kicking each other’s asses.” Charming.
The citizens aren’t too pleased with this idea, and propose that England and France become allies through marriage. The Dauphin, apparently, is the perfect match for King John’s niece Blanche. To calm things down further, John decides to give up his provinces, and makes Arthur the Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond. With that said and done, the King of France just…stops being passionate about helping Arthur out.
As you can imagine, Constance is not happy about this. Arthur asks for her contentment, to which she replies:
CONSTANCE If thou bidd’st me be content wert grim,
Ugly, and sland’rous to thy mother’s womb,
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, and prodigious,
Patched with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care; I then would be content,
For then I should not love thee; no, nor thou
Become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown.
But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and Fortune joined to make thee great.
Of Nature’s gifts thou mayst with lilies boast,
And with the half-blown rose. But Fortune, O,
She is corrupted, changed, and won from thee;
Sh’ adulterates hourly with thine Uncle John,
And with her golden hand hath plucked on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty,
And made his majesty the bawd to theirs.
Constance, as usual, could stand to take it down a notch or two. Salisbury, a supporter of King John, asks her to come with him to the Kings. Constance is incredibly dramatic, so she refuses, sits on the ground, and refuses to budge. So the two Kings come to her – hilariously, they are hand in hand. Constance loses it almost immediately. She delivers an incredible insult to the Duke of Austria, and we are gifted with this hilarious exchange:
CONSTANCE […] Thou wear a lion’s hide! Doff it off for shame,
And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.
AUSTRIA O, that a man should speak those words to me!
BASTARD “And hang a calfskin off on those recreant limbs.”
AUSTRIA Thou dar’st not say so, villain, for thy life!
BASTARD “And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”
KING JOHN We like not this. Thou dost forget thyself.
Maybe the reason I enjoyed this play was because the Bastard forgets himself so often. I’m a big fan of political dramas, but the Bastard elevates this play from good to fantastic more times than I can count.
Constance isn’t the only person in this play who has beef with John. Pope Innocent III, of all people, also has a problem with him.
Pandulph, a holy legate, speaks on Pope Innocent’s behalf in this play. He approaches John about a conflict he has with the Pope. John refuses to back down, so Pandulph decides to get a bit nasty:
PANDULPH Philip of France, on peril of a curse,
Let go the hand of that arch-heretic,
And raise the power of France upon his head
Unless he do submit himself to Rome.
QUEEN ELEANOR Look’st thou pale, France? Do not let go thy hand.
CONSTANCE Look to that, devil, lest that France repent
And by disjoining hands, hell lose a soul.
AUSTRIA King Philip, listen to the Cardinal.
BASTARD And hang a calfskin on his recreant limbs.
AUSTRIA Well, ruffian, I must pocket up these wrongs,
This back and forth between all the characters present ends with John being excommunicated from the church. What’s worse, Philip decides to side with the Pope (does he have any choice, really?) and mount an attack against John.
John is suddenly feeling the heat, so he decides to take some drastic measures. He asks Hubert to deal with Arthur.
KING JOHN Death.
HUBERT My lord?
KING JOHN A grave.
John is incredibly relieved when Hubert agrees to carry out the deed. Once Hubert has Arthur in his clutches, he decides to poke his eyes out with hot irons. Arthur says something of interest here:
ARTHUR Methinks nobody should be sad but I.
Yet I remember, when I was in France,
Young gentlemen would be as sad as night
Only for wantonness. By my christendom,
So I were out of prison and kept sheep,
I should be as merry as the day is long.
And so I would be here but that I doubt
My uncle practices more harm to me.
He is afraid of me, and I of him.
Is it my fault that I was Geoffrey’s son?
No, indeed, is ‘t not. And I would to heaven
I were your son, so you would love me, Hubert.
This struck me as being very Henry VI-esque. Arthur is a child, but both he and Henry have this deep-rooted innocence that sets them apart from other nobles. They both wish they didn’t have to deal with the violence that comes with being a royal. Can you blame them?
Anyway, Arthur’s purity and love brings Hubert to tears. He decides against killing Arthur. He tells him to stay put, and prepares to lie to King John.
Speaking of King John, he is having a second coronation. The nobles are not impressed by this in the slightest. They’d rather he just chill out for a second and let Arthur go free. Unfortunately, Hubert chooses this exact moment to show up and declare Arthur dead. In front of all the nobles. Who are all fond of Arthur.
So it’s really no surprise when they all turn against John. Even more terrible news arrives: the Dauphin has just landed in England, Eleanor is dead, and Constance wasn’t far behind her (though I’m not sure that this is bad news). In a panic, John sends the Bastard to go bring the nobles back to court. Then, he decides to turn on Hubert:
KING JOHN Why seek’st thou to possess me with these fears?
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him.
What? Hubert, thankfully, doesn’t take this lying down.
HUBERT No had, my lord! Why, did you not provoke me?
KING JOHN Is it the curse of kings to be attended
By slaves that take their humors for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life,
And on the winking of authority
To understand a law, to know the meaning
Of dangerous majesty, when perchance it frowns
More upon humor than advised respect.
HUBERT [showing a paper]
Here is your hand and seal for what I did.
John really has some nerve, pretending that Hubert wasn’t following his direct orders. He refuses to take the blame in any way, shape, or form. He’s just a terrible person all around, incredibly selfish, and unfit for the crown. But, unlike Henry VI and (in some respects) Richard II, he wants to keep it on his head.
Hubert tells John that Arthur was never killed. John’s mood changes immediately, and he happily sends Hubert to tell the nobles. Selfish, selfish, selfish. John wanted Arthur dead – and he only cares about Arthur being alive because it helps keep him on the throne.
Arthur, meanwhile, decides that he’ll escape the prison. He may be pure of heart, but, boy, this kid is not smart.
ARTHUR The wall is high, and yet I will leap down.
Good ground, be pitiful and hurt me not.
There’s few or none do know me. If they did,
This shipboy’s semblance hath disguised me quite.
I am afraid, and yet I’ll venture it.
If I get down and do not break my limbs,
I’ll find a thousand shifts to get away.
As good to die and go as die and stay.
O me, my uncle’s spirit is in these stones.
Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones.
For God’s sake, has this child never fallen down and hurt himself? The nobles come across Arthur’s dead body – clearly John’s doing, if you ask them. Hubert finds them, and they immediately turn on him.
SALISBURY Thou art a murderer.
HUBERT Do not prove me so.
Yet I am none. Whose tongue soe’er speaks false,
Not truly speaks. Who speaks not truly, lies.
PEMBROKE [drawing his sword]
Cut him to pieces.
BASTARD [drawing his sword]
Keep the peace, I say.
SALISBURY Stand by, or I shall gall you, Faulconbridge.
BASTARD Thou wert better gall the devil, Salisbury.
If thou wert but frown on me, or stir thy foot,
OR teach thy hasty spleen to do me shame,
I’ll strike thee dead. Put up thy sword betime,
Or I’ll so maul you and your toasting-iron
That you shall think the devil is come from hell.
The Bastard is not playing around. The nobles decide to go join the Dauphin, leaving the Bastard and Hubert behind. Even the Bastard isn’t sure that Hubert is telling the truth, but he is finally convinced.
King John is still in the frying pan, so to speak. The French forces are destroying England, and John finds himself handing his crown to the Pope in an effort to get the Church to intervene in the battle. Pandulph goes to the Dauphin, but it’s too late.
DAUPHIN Your Grace shall pardon me; I will not back.
I am too high-born to be propertied,
To be a secondary at control,
Or useful servingman and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world.
Your breath first kindled the dead coal of wars
Between this chastised kingdom and myself
And brought in matter that should feed this fire;
And now ’tis far too huge to be blown out
With that same weak wind which enkindled it.
You taught me how to know the face of the right,
Acquainted me with interest to this land,
Yea, thrust this enterprise into my heart.
And come you now to tell me John hat made
His peace with Rome? What is that peace to me?
I can see where the Dauphin is coming from, honestly. This is Pandulph’s fault. Why should he back down now, after they’ve come so far?
John, in an effort to create as much drama as possible, develops a fever and is shooed from the battle by the Bastard.
More drama: the English nobles that turned their back on John find out from a wounded Frenchman that the Dauphin means to behead them whether or not they win the battle. For shame! They realize the error of their ways and rush back to John. The Dauphin gets a bit of (deserved) bad news himself: his supply ships have sunk.
King John, who just can’t quit making enemies, has been poisoned by some random monk. The monk, who is so dramatic that he can only belong in this play, drank some of the poison himself, which led to his intestines bursting. Fun.
We see Prince Henry for the first time. He asks his dying father to spare the traitorous nobles, who are now sweating nervously around John’s deathbed. They are pardoned. The Bastard shows up with some bad news – his men have been devoured by the water. Instead of dealing with this, King John just up and dies. With nothing left to do, the nobles and the Bastard swear their loyalty to Prince Henry, now King Henry III of England.
In all fairness, I can understand why people might not like this play. There are instances of murkiness, and it can be quite a chore to get through the longer passages. But, overall, I think it’s quite good. It has everything a good history needs: attempted murders, war, betrayal, and an entertaining bastard.
That’s it from me for this month. Next month I’ll be reading Henry IV, Part Two (!!!) and Much Ado About Nothing. Again, if you don’t see me, just assume that I’ve decided to crawl into my lab’s incubator and live with the cells in an effort to avoid all the work I have to do.
If I do show up next month, prepare yourself to suffer through yet another novella about Prince Hal. Also, expect a review of the Old Globe’s production of Richard II – I scored tickets for June 20th!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a short play, but it took me such a long time to get through it. Not because I found it difficult or boring, but because I (a) tore three ligaments in my ankle and am sporting a very Richard III-esque limp, and (b) I had to tend to the endless responsibilities that come with being a graduate student. In any case, I finished it last night, and I am here to talk about it.
The last time I came into contact with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was 2012. I was sitting in an open-air theatre in Regent’s Park in London, and this particular production was set in a trailer park. I was horrified, of course, because I like my Shakespeare pure. But that wasn’t what forced me into an overpriced cab two acts in. It was something else entirely: rain clouds took over the sky, and the production was cancelled for fear that the actors would slip and hurt themselves. I was left looking like a drenched rat, and I had a cold for the rest of that week. So that is what I associate with this play: rain, a trailer park, and the most awful costumes.
But I’ve come to find A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be very whimsical and lovely. Parts of it are very genuinely funny, though the opening is a bit concerning:
EGEUS […] – And, my gracious duke,
Be it so she will not here before your Grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.
Hermia, headstrong and lovely girl that she is, is outright refusing to marry Demetrius. She is in love with Lysander – and rightfully so. But her father is having none of this: either she’ll marry Demetrius, or she’ll be put to death. Charming.
Theseus agrees with this ultimatum, and they leave Hermia and Lysander to it. As funny as this play is, it really does open on a bittersweet note as Hermia and Lysander lament their situation:
LYSANDER Or, if there ever were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and Earth,
And, ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.
Ah, Lysander. I actually like him quite a lot, and he reminds me of Romeo in a lot of ways. He’s such a hopeless romantic, despite knowing that being in love comes with an infinite number of obstacles. He loves Hermia with his entire soul, and so he proposes that they run away together.
Then, Helena shows up. I got the impression that Helena is a bit of a silly girl, but what really stood out to be was the fact that her self-esteem is as non-existent as it gets. She thinks very highly of Hermia, but not highly of herself at all. And, for whatever reason, she thinks highly of Demetrius. Hermia is fed up with Demetrius’ advances:
HERMIA I give him curses, yet he gives me love.
HELENA O, that my prayers could such affection move!
HERMIA The more I hate, the more he follows me.
HELENA The more I love, the more he hateth me.
HERMIA His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you how much I dislike Demetrius. Helena is a bit silly, yes, but he did pursue her before hopping aboard the S.S. Hermia. How else is Helena supposed to react? She feels abandoned and heartbroken. She loves Hermia, but she can’t help but resent her. So who can blame Helena for telling Demetrius about Hermia’s plan to elope with Lysander? I don’t think her decision to do so means she harbors any genuine ill feelings toward Hermia – she’s just desperate, and absolutely lovesick.
We finally move to the fairy-ridden woods of Athens, where Oberon is obsessed with getting his hands on Titania’s changeling boy. He asks Robin Goodfellow, known as Puck in popular culture, to fetch a flower that will make Titania fall in love with a beast so that he may snatch the changeling from right under her nose. One wonders why Oberon is so obsessed with having this boy for his own, but it is never really addressed. Robin leaves, but Oberon is distracted by Demetrius and Helena, who have now come to the wood in search of Hermia and Lysander. Oberon notices Demetrius’ attitude toward Helena, as well as her unwavering love.
DEMETRIUS Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I note in plainest truth
Tell you I do not, nor I cannot love you?
HELENA And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel: spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave
(Unworthy as I am) to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be usèd as you use your dog?
Helena, girl. Demetrius’ terrible abuse does not deter her. What sweet nothings did he whisper in her ear for her to find herself so deeply in love? I felt the indescribable urge to fight Demetrius throughout this play – I may be 5’0″ and under a hundred pounds, but I’m sure the force of my hatred could take him out. But I digress.
Oberon feels for Helena (don’t we all?) and he tells the returned Robin to use some of the flower’s juice on Demetrius so that he may love Helena back. He isn’t specific enough, however, because the flower’s juice ends up on Lysander’s sleeping eyes.
So when Helena wakes him up…
LYSANDER And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream undoubtedly gave the concept of a love square its place in popular culture. It’s a tale that we all know – and a lot of us know it from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even if a lot of people haven’t read or seen the play.
Helena is flabbergasted. Lysander is pursuing Helena with fiery passion in his soul. Hermia is sleeping, unaware. Demetrius is annoying me personally. And a fool named Bottom is talking about putting on a play with his silly friends.
Bottom and company mean to put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe, to be performed at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Each man in this particular troupe is more brainless than the next. I, as you all know, detest clownish characters. To be specific, I detest the clowns that speak in riddles and make witty observations about other characters. Clowns like Bottom? I can stand clowns like Bottom. I especially stand Bottom because he seems to have a very laid-back and friendly nature. But give me King Lear‘s Fool, or As You Like It‘s Touchstone, and I will lose my temper a few pages in. But that’s neither here nor there.
Before we know it, Bottom’s head becomes that of an ass, and Titania is head-over-heels for him. Oberon’s silly plan has come to fruition.
Seeing as how a terrible mistake has been made, Oberon has Robin use the flower on Demetrius for real this time. But now both men are in love with Helena (and we can no longer tell the difference between them with all their flowery language – commentary on lovesick young people, perhaps?), Hermia is feeling rather abandoned, and Helena thinks all of this is a mean trick.
HELENA O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment.
Oh, Helena. I felt rather bad for her. I expected her to be pleased with this turn of events, but instead she felt deeply betrayed. It is as if she can’t envision anybody chasing after her with such fervor.
More importantly, this is a disaster. Oberon has Robin remedy the situation by luring the foursome deep into the wood, where they fall asleep. Robin fixes his mistake by applying an antidote to the sleeping Lysander’s eyes, and Oberon decides to pull Titania out of her senseless infatuation as well. Essentially, everything is set right, and Helena finally has Demetrius’ love.
Hermia’s father is prepared to have a meltdown, but is basically told to shut up by Theseus. And so, our four lovers marry one another. Their wedding day ends on the most ridiculous note possible: Bottom and company’s terrible production of Pyramus and Thisbe.
This act in particular was absolutely hysterical. I loved the fact that somebody was playing a literal wall, as well as the fact that the lantern was the moon, and the player holding the lantern was the man on the moon (prompting the question: “Shouldn’t he be in the lantern then?”)
When the newly married couples are offered an epilogue, they quickly decide against it. They retire to their bedchambers, and their unions are blessed by the fairy king and queen.
I recently purchased a copy of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Upon reading the chapter about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was notified that most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream boil the play down to sexual violence and bestiality. For shame! What a terrible thing to do to this play, which at its core is innocent and whimsical. Bottom, as Bloom points out, shows no sexual interest in Titania. We are given no indication that they engage in any sexual acts at all. I think it would benefit everybody if we just take A Midsummer Night’s Dream for what it is. Too often do we have productions try to add in some kind of shock value to pull audiences in. But this play can get by on its own merit, I think. And to think that I might have been subjected to this if it hadn’t rained on me that fateful day in Regent’s Park.
One final question remains: whose dream is this? Is it Bottom’s? Hermia and Lysander’s? Helena and Demetrius’? Perhaps it is ours, as Robin asks us to consider it as one. Maybe it is everybody’s dream – in any case, it’s such a shame to wake up from it.
I will be reading King John next. I have no idea who he is or what he’s going to get up to, so I’m looking forward to it! If you don’t see me around these parts in the next two weeks, feel free to assume that school has sucked all life out of me.
Richard II marks the beginning of my beloved Henriad, and it is a wonderful, mesmerizing play. It isn’t the titular character that makes this play so irresistible, though – it’s everything else.
In the Henry VI plays, it becomes obvious quite quickly that Henry VI isn’t a very good king. He’s weak, he’s passive, and the other aristocrats knock him down with very little effort. But you pity him – while completely useless, Henry VI also comes across as very gentle and kind. Richard II is another useless king – he is easily won over by flattery, is implied to have been involved in the murder of his uncle Gloucester, and is as weak as they come. But there is something in him that is lacking, because I found it very difficult to pity him at all. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t care for Henry IV’s character either.
I was absolutely baffled by Richard’s decision to suddenly call off the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in 1.3. He decides quite suddenly to exile them both – Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for a good six years. I was saddened by John of Gaunt’s reaction to the sentence:
GAUNT Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
You urged me as a judge, but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild.
A partial slander sought I to avoid,
And in the sentence my own life destroyed.
Alas, I looked when some of you should say
I was too strict, to make mine own away.
But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.
John of Gaunt, of course, was involved in this decision. But nobody stopped him! And he knew he couldn’t show bias toward his own son. I wonder if he thought that his pleading and regretful words would sway Richard. It doesn’t matter, though, because Richard appears to be unaffected by Gaunt. He immediately turns to Bolingbroke and bids him farewell.
If I had been brave enough to pursue degrees in English, I probably would have spent a lot of time writing and thinking about the father/son relationships in Shakespeare’s histories. Gaunt, despite not fighting for his son outright, very obviously loves him. This contrasts sharply with York and Aumerle later in the play. And although Hal isn’t in this play, the way Henry IV speaks about him implies a tumultuous relationship (that is luckily explored in the Henry IV plays). We also have Northumberland and Hotspur (Hotspur! I was thrilled to see him in this play), a relationship that I would also argue is quite stable and based on mutual respect.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t love Henry IV (or Bolingbroke, or whatever you’d like to call him), but it appears that the people do:
KING RICHARD He is our cousin, cousin, but ’tis doubt,
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green,
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oysterwench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With “Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends,”
As were our England in reversion his
As he our subjects’ next degree in hope.
Look, if I were a commoner living under Richard II, I would probably secretly prefer Bolingbroke as well. There is something to be said about Bolingbroke’s ability to charm the commoners. Richard is incredibly prideful, and believes himself to be an almost divine being, anointed by God himself – it’s no wonder that the commoners prefer his cousin to him.
On his deathbed, John of Gaunt very bravely tells Richard exactly what he thinks of him. When Gaunt eventually dies, York is distraught. Richard, meanwhile, is completely heartless in his reaction:
KING RICHARD The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rugheaded kern,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have the privilege to live.
And, for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed.
Oh, right, I forgot that Richard has also dragged England into debt with his frivolous spending. See, although Richard is weak and passive, he also has moments of very clear hardheartedness. It would be unfair to group him with the weak Henry VI, who would never have said such awful things. York, much like myself, cannot believe what he’s hearing. He argues that Gaunt’s rights should be given to Bolingbroke.
YORK […] If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patents that he hath
By his attorneys general to sue
His livery, and deny his offered homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honor and allegiance cannot think.
Richard is a fool who only listens to people who flatter him and stroke his ego. A bit like our current president, no? In any case, he ignores York’s wise warning. Don’t say you weren’t warned, Richard.
York is understandably fed-up with Richard, but he’s a man who plays by the books. He tells Bolingbroke off for coming back to England as soon as they meet. He acknowledges that he is powerless to stop Bolingbroke on his crusade:
YORK Well, well. I see the issue of these arms.
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill-left.
But if I could, by Him that gave me life,
I would attach you all and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the King.
But since I cannot, be it known unto you
I do remain as neuter. So fare you well –
Unless you please to enter in the castle
And there repose you for this night.
I suppose I can respect York’s refusal to bend the rules, but there is such a thing as being too by the book. Richard may have royal blood, but England is crumbling underneath him.
Before York’s decision to remain neutral in this struggle, we meet Hotspur. As always, he is wonderfully flippant.
NORTHUMBERLAND Have you forgot the Duke of Hereford, boy?
PERCY No, my good lord, for that is not forgot
Which ne’er I did remember. To my knowledge
I never in my life did look on him.
He is eventually introduced, and Bolingbroke gives Hotspur his hand. Unfortunately, such actions aren’t indicative of anything, as we all come to see in Henry IV, Part One.
Richard returns to England, only to discover that his supporters have been executed, and that everybody else has joined Bolingbroke. Richard’s reaction is incredibly dramatic. I performed his reaction to this discovery in 2012 as part of my immersive Shakespeare class. It is fantastically written, and is some of Shakespeare’s best writing. I particularly like the end, even though it didn’t change my mind about Richard in the slightest:
KING RICHARD […] Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all the while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
No pity from me, of course. Richard all but did this to himself, didn’t he? He is now beginning the long, rocky descent from anointed royalty to hated prisoner.
Annoyingly, Richard very easily bends to Bolingbroke’s demands. He resigns the crown, and Bolingbroke ascends the throne, now the newly crowned Henry IV of England. But things are not as simple as they seem, as there is a plot to get rid of Henry IV already.
Richard, meanwhile, is being separated from his Queen. While I dislike Richard immensely, I feel incredibly sorry for his poor Queen. For some reason or another, she seems to love him, and I thought their farewell scene was very sad. Richard is sent to Pomfret, and his Queen is whisked off to France.
York is now incredibly loyal to Henry IV, but his son Aumerle isn’t so sure. A very dramatic scene erupts when York finds out that his son is involved in a plot against the newly crowned king. He makes the decision to go tell the king immediately. The Duchess is rightfully horrified:
DUCHESS Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? Or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine age
And rob me of a happy mother’s name?
Is he not like thee? Is he not thine own?
Poor Duchess! As I said, there is such a thing as playing by the book too much. I very much respected York before this, but I immediately changed my mind after his decision to go tell Henry IV. And he asks for his son to be executed! Remember what I said about father/son relationships earlier? We might have easily painted Aumerle and York’s relationship as a normal one at the beginning of this play, but we now see that York puts his loyalty to the king above everything else. His son, apparently, comes second. Knowing this, both Aumerle and the Duchess rush to reach Henry IV first.
While they ride off in desperation, Henry IV is doing what he does best: trash talking his son.
KING HENRY Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
‘Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, ’tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, ‘mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent
With unrestrainèd loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers,
While he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.
Ah, my favorite of all the father/son relationships: the rocky one between Henry IV and Hal. I am a bit baffled at how Henry hasn’t seen Hal in three months. Did he not think to look for him before this? In any case, we see why all the nobles think very poorly of Hal, don’t we? His own father highlights his every fault to everybody in the room.
Hilariously, it’s Hotspur who saw Hal last:
PERCY My lord, some two days since I saw the Prince,
And told him of those triumphs held at Oxford.
KING HENRY And what said the gallant?
PERCY His answer was, he would unto the stews,
And from the common’st creature pluck a glove
And wear it as a favor; and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.
KING HENRY As dissolute as desperate. Yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth. But who comes here?
Not to turn this into an entry about Hal, but…well, who am I kidding? Let’s talk about this. Hal is the very picture of a reluctant prince/king. His absence during this play is very telling of both his relationship with his father, and possibly about how he feels about this entire endeavor. When the crown was lowered onto Henry IV’s head, a whole new set of responsibilities was dumped onto Hal. He gives Hotspur an incredibly disrespectful reply, and doesn’t show his face for the entirety of the play. And although Henry IV quickly backtracks and says he feels a glimmer of hope about his son, it isn’t nearly enough. Hal is going to have to deal with the fact that everybody expects him to fail for a long, long time, and it is largely due to how vocal Henry IV is about his feelings. And despite being hopeful, Henry IV later scathingly tells Hal that he would rather have Hotspur as a son. What I’m saying is, these two sentences make no difference. The damage has already been done.
Aumerle enters, and begs Henry IV for his forgiveness. Henry IV grants it without knowing what is going on. The scene that follows is absolutely wild: York insists his son be executed (?!), the Duchess begs for Aumerle’s life, and Aumerle himself expresses his regret. Henry IV ignores York and spares Aumerle, much to the Duchess’ delight.
It seems we’ve forgotten about Richard all together. He’s been wasting away at Pomfret. A former groom of his enters to tell him that Richard’s old horse very proudly paraded Henry IV through the streets. Ouch! And worse yet, Exton and his men enter with the intention of murdering Richard. Shockingly, wimpy Richard manages to fight a few of them off before being killed. Exton, who is very obviously insane, happily runs off to tell Henry IV about what he’s done.
In a hilarious twist, Henry IV immediately banishes him. I don’t blame him – you really don’t want somebody who takes everything literally anywhere near your court. And suddenly, Henry finds himself full of regret. He decides to go to the Holy Land to was his hands of all this blood.
The play ends very abruptly with that. The story continues in Henry IV, Part One, which I spent all of the twelfth grade obsessing over. Peace doesn’t seem to last in England, does it? The story continues with more rebellion (hello again, Hotspur!), even more father/son dramatics, and a ton of bloodshed. But, hey, it’s all worth it in the end, isn’t it? In the end, England gets Henry V, and we get the best depiction of a stressed out king there ever was.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is next! Time to shift gears and move from the throne room of England to the fairy-ridden woods of Athens. See you next month!
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The Folger Shakespeare Library (i.e., the library that owns my soul because I can’t stop buying their wonderfully annotated plays) is celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday by asking his readers why we love him! That’s me up there, recalling when I first connected with Shakespeare. You should participate too – the library will be keeping all of our reflections in their archives!
I only answered one question, but I do want to type up my other responses.
What does Shakespeare mean to you?
Shakespeare means discovering what it is to be human. It means finding comfort and peace in only dialogue. It means laughter, bloodshed, and tears. And for me, it means happiness.
Which words and lines from Shakespeare do you love the most and why?
I love this exchange between Berowne and Rosaline from Love’s Labor’s Lost:
BEROWNE Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
ROSALINE Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
BEROWNE I know you did.
ROSALINE How needless was it then
To ask the question.
I like my Shakespearean ladies to be witty and sharp-tongued, and Rosaline certainly delivers!
Here’s another one: in Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice’s uncle says he hopes to see her married one day. This is her response:
BEATRICE Not till God make men of some other metal
This is 100% something that I would say myself.
And, finally, you all know how I feel about the final scene of Henry V. Not the most popular wooing scene in Shakespeare, but definitely the one that’s closest to my heart.
Share your favorite Shakespeare quote.
KING HENRY Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that private men have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
I love this passage in particular because we really get to see how vulnerable Hal is. You know how much I love Henry V – and it’s mostly for Henry himself. My six posts on the matter will tell you as much!
Tell us about your favorite play and why it is your favorite.
My favorite play is, and always will be, Richard III. It was my very first taste of Shakespeare, so there’s that. But I also love how skillfully Shakespeare manages to have the audience be manipulated by Richard as well. I am not easily manipulated, so it was thrilling to read a play that could affect me as both a reader and audience member.
Which Shakespeare character speaks to you and why?
I’m going to say Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. She and I are one and the same. I love her wit, her sharp tongue, and I adore how much she loves and supports Hero. I seem to be missing my Benedick though, hmm.
What is the most memorable production of Shakespeare that you’ve seen?
Unsurprisingly, it was a production of Richard III. I was at the Globe in the summer of 2012, and I was a groundling. It just started pouring in the middle of the theatre, and I couldn’t hear anything but the roaring of the rain. I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, it’s a good thing I have most of this play memorized!”
When did you first see or read Shakespeare?
I answer this in my Instagram video, but it was 10th grade. I will never, ever forget the opening to Richard III for as long as I live because of that classroom experience. The first time I actually saw Shakespeare was when I still lived in Abu Dhabi – I saw a modern production of Richard III. It was in Arabic, but luckily they had screens with English subtitles! Shameful for an Arab girl such as myself to have to use them, but even I can’t keep up with all the dialects people speak in the Middle East. Catesby was Iraqi, I remember, so I understood him, at least.
How would you answer these questions? I’d love to hear your thoughts! I am almost done with Richard II, so I’ll be seeing you around these parts very soon! Have a good World Book Day this Sunday, and remember to spare a thought for our favorite playwright.
You’ve heard of writer’s block, but have any of you ever experienced reader’s block? It sounds completely fake, but boy did I feel it this month. I received my plays in the mail and set them on my desk. I had zero motivation to read – me! But I said I’d finish going through the canon this year, and I’m the sort of girl that always keeps her word. So I (very listlessly) began to read Love’s Labor’s Lost, a play I had only ever heard of in passing. I felt nothing while I trudged through the first act. The next day, however, I found myself wondering what hijinks the men and women would get up to – and now, well, I’m in love with this play. There is just something incredibly whimsical about Love’s Labor’s Lost, and I will freely admit that I laughed out loud more than once. It’s clever, it’s silly, it’s charming, but the ending is strange. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, so let’s take it from the top.
The King of Navarre has a genius plan: to stay cooped up in his court for three years accompanied by books and his three loyal friends Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville. The purpose, of course, is to become learned men. But this declaration comes with a price: women will no longer be allowed in the court, and the men are forbidden from fraternizing with women. Dumaine and Longaville excitedly sign this edict. Berowne, meanwhile, seems a bit hesitant:
BEROWNE So much, dear liege, I have already sworn,
That is, to live and study here three years.
But there are other strict observances:
As not to see a woman in that term,
Which I hope well is not enrollèd there;
And one day in a week to touch no food,
And but one meal on every day besides,
The which I hope is not enrollèd there;
And then to sleep but three hours in the night,
And not be seen to wink of all the day –
When I was wont to think no harm all night,
And make a dark night too of half the day –
Which I hope well is not enrollèd here.
O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.
Berowne certainly isn’t wrong to be hesitant. Forget women, how are they supposed to survive on only one meal a day and three hours of sleep for three years? The King manages to convince Berowne to sign off, even after he reads through all the ridiculous terms of this edict.
BEROWNE So to the laws at large I write my name,
And he that breaks them in the least degree
Stands in attainder of eternal shame.
Suggestions are to other as to me,
But I believe, although I seem so loath,
I am the last that will last keep his oath.
[He signs his name.]
You’ll notice, of course, that the last two lines are an equivocation. Berowne is ambiguous in his words – we can either read this as him insisting that he will keep this oath the longest (despite signing off on it last), or as him implying that he will be the least likely to keep it.
It is perhaps worth mentioning here that it is largely believed that Berowne is Shakespeare’s self-insert character. Love’s Labor’s Lost is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that is 100% his – it is not based on historical events, or even on tales of old. This is pure Shakespeare, and that means he can write himself in if he wants to.
For some reason, Navarre believes that women will somehow pose a danger to his educational pursuits. Although Berowne signs the oath, it can be said that he doesn’t quite agree.
In any case, the oath is sworn. But wait! The Princess of France is on her way to settle matters regarding Aquitaine – and she brings her three sharp-tongued ladies with her. If you haven’t read this play, you may be smugly thinking to yourself that you already know how it will end. But I’d hold your horses if I were you.
As the Princess makes her way to court, we find out that her ladies know the King’s men – Maria speaks of Longaville, Katherine recalls the last time she saw Dumaine, and Rosaline remembers Berowne. Shakespeare leaves us no room for guessing: here are our three couples. The Princess and the King make four!
Because the King is determined to keep his oath, he refuses to receive the Princess and her ladies. Instead, he forces them to stay in tents out in the field.
KING Fair Princess, welcome to the court of Navarre.
PRINCESS “Fair” I give you back again, and “welcome” I have not yet. The roof of this court is too high to be yours, and welcome to the wide fields too base to be mine.
KING You shall be welcome, madam, to my court.
PRINCESS I will be welcome, then. Conduct me thither.
KING Hear me, dear lady. I have sworn an oath.
PRINCESS Our Lady help my lord! He’ll be forsworn.
As it turns out, the Princess is as sharp as a tack. Her quick wit has Navarre in the palm of her hand almost immediately – but an oath is an oath. It’ll take a bit more for him to break out of his self-inflicted shackles. While the King handles the Princess’ business, Berowne approaches Rosaline (who, I’d argue, has the sharpest tongue of them all):
BEROWNE Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
ROSALINE Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
BEROWNE I know you did.
ROSALINE How needless was it then
To ask the question.
Berowne tells her not to be so abrasive, but you can tell he’s already smitten. The men descend on Boyet, the Princess’ attendant, asking after each of the ladies. Boyet, who is incredibly amused throughout this entire play, supplies them with what they need to know. And as they leave for their tents, he tells the Princess that he believes Navarre is in love. The Princess laughs and says that Boyet seems to be in a joking mood.
Meanwhile, in the background, Costard the clown seems to have gotten himself into a spot of trouble: he was caught fraternizing with Jaquenetta. Luckily for him, his warden Armado – an over-the-top, dramatic figure – finds himself in love with Jaquenetta, and frees Costard from his prison – but only if he’ll deliver a letter. As Costard leaves to carry out his task, he is stopped by Berowne.
BEROWNE Stay, slave, I must employ thee.
As thou wilt win my favor, good my knave,
Do one thing for me that I shall entreat.
COSTARD When would you have it done, sir?
BEROWNE This afternoon.
COSTARD Well, I will do it, sir. Fare you well.
BEROWNE Thou knowest not what it is.
COSTARD I shall know, sir, when I have done it.
Berowne finally manages to convince Costard to deliver a letter to Rosaline. Tsk, tsk! Breaking the oath already, I see. With two letters in hand, Costard is doomed to mess up. This is a comedy, after all.
Costard delivers Armado’s letter to the Princess – who gleefully makes fun of it. Berowne’s oath-breaking letter finds its way into the hands of Jaquenetta, who gives it to the Pedant Holofernes. Both Holofernes and Nathaniel the Curate catch on quite quickly that the words in this letter – addressed to Rosaline, of course – are against the King’s new rules. So they tell Jaquenetta and Costard to deliver the letter to the King.
This leads us into 4.3, my favorite act in this entire play. I was incredibly charmed and delighted while reading it. It’s genuinely hilarious, too. Berowne is dramatically lamenting the fact that he’s in love. Just as he wishes aloud that the others were in his situation, the King enters with a piece of paper. Berowne hides out of sight.
The King, believing he is alone, confesses that he is in love with the Princess. When Longaville enters to declare his love for Maria, the King hides. Longaville finds himself pressed to find a hiding spot when – you guessed it! – Dumaine comes in confessing his love.
As the men find each other out, they begin to bicker. Realizing that they’re in quite the pickle, the King exclaims:
KING […] What will Berowne say when he that shall hear
Faith infringed, which such zeal did swear?
How will he scorn, how will he spend his wit!
How will he triumph, leap, and laugh at it!
For all the wealth that ever I did see,
I would not have him know so much by me.
Berowne, sensing an opportunity to mock his friends, immediately makes his presence known. He hilariously pretends to be betrayed – until Jaquenetta and Costard arrive to hand his letter to the King.
JAQUENETTA I beseech your Grace, let this letter be read.
Our person misdoubts it. ‘Twas treason, he said.
KING Berowne, read it over.
[To Jaquenetta.] Where hadst thou it?
JAQUENETTA Of Costard.
KING [To Costard.] Where hadst thou it?
COSTARD Of Dun Aramadio, Dun Adramadio.
[Berowne tears the paper.]
Berowne tearing the letter up had me in absolute tears. He is found out almost immediately, and together they all make a pact to woo their lady loves.
The fifth act is the longest in the play – and it makes the flow seem a little strange. Each lady has received a favor, and upon hearing that the men are coming to greet them disguised as Russians, they trade favors, don masks, and make a huge game of it. They do not take the men seriously at all – and why should they? The men have not been pursuing them seriously. Everything has been one big game.
The men then later return dressed as themselves, and the ladies mock them once again (to my utter delight, of course). Rosaline innocently asks Berowne which of the masks it was that he wore when he was pretending to be a Russian:
BEROWNE Where? When? What vizard? Why demand you this?
ROSALINE There; then; that vizard; that superfluous case
That hid the worse and showed the better face.
KING, [aside to Dumaine.]
They’ll mock us now downright.
DUMAINE, [aside, to King.]
Let us confess and turn it to a jest.
PRINCESS, [to King.]
Amazed, my lord? Why looks your Highness sad?
The men just can’t win. They still insist that they’re in love – but the Princess and her ladies are not so easily won.
Everything continues to be fun and games until sombre news arrives: the King of France is dead. The Princess means to leave immediately – but the King loves her. A deal is struck: if the King is still passionately in love after a year has passed, then he is welcome to the Princess, who will be mourning in the meantime. Rosaline strikes a similar deal with Berowne: he is to go to a hospital for a year and use his wit to make the sick laugh. After the passing of one year, he is welcome to come to Rosaline again.
BEROWNE Our wooing doth not end like an old play.
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
KING Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ’twill end.
BEROWNE That’s too long for a play.
The play ends on this rather depressing note – the consequences of the King of France’s death cannot be avoided. I will say that despite scoffing at the plot initially, I was a bit sad that the play didn’t end on a cliche note. I wanted everybody to get married! Especially Berowne and Rosaline – those two were very clearly made for one another.
It goes without saying that something was going on with Shakespeare. Love’s Labor’s Lost was intended to be a typical Shakespearean comedy. Unsurprisingly, it was initially titled Love’s Labor’s Won – and it ended with a series of happy weddings. A handful of scholars believe that Shakespeare underwent a personal change – one that resulted in him changing the ending and title of his play. And we can blame this change on Sonnet 130’s Dark Lady. Who was she? Why did she inspire Shakespeare to change the ending of this play? What was it about her that forced Shakespeare to undergo something of an awakening? We just don’t know – and yes, I know, that’s frustrating, but that’s the way it is. I will say, though, that if Berowne is Shakespeare, perhaps Rosaline was based off of this Dark Lady. And if she was, well, I love her already.
To round off this whimsical and strangely sad journey, I watched Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 adaptation of Love’s Labor’s Lost. The film was set in the 1930s, and was essentially a musical. I’m something of a Shakespeare purist – I love seeing plays and films littered with the correct costumes and backdrops. So I was surprised to find myself laughing while watching this movie – it wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t too terrible. I think I’m too much in love with this play right now to hate anything based off of it. But I’d definitely jump at the opportunity to see it live one day.
Richard II is my next play for this month. Fortunately, Love’s Labor’s Lost has helped me overcome my reader’s block, and I’m excited to keep moving forward. I’ll see you next time, and we’ll sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…
11:45PM on a Saturday night edit: where is my romantic comedy continuation of Love’s Labor’s Lost? Is somebody writing it? If not, can somebody please get started?