I certainly have some nerve showing my face around here, don’t I? I have my excuses! I started working in September of 2018, and that was a big shift for someone who had only ever been in school. In January of 2019, my entire department (and 75% of the company, really) was axed, leaving me jobless once more. In April, we found out that my mother had stage zero cancer in her remaining biological breast. So I have been very tired, both physically and emotionally. Shakespeare’s birthday came and went, and I did not feel my customary enthusiasm and energy about it. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t.
But the coals in my chest never really stopped burning. The fire was just reduced to something of a smoulder. And things get better, don’t they? I found a better job, and my mother is on the path to recovery. Summer is here, full of promise, and my dreams of returning to England to sit in the quiet with Shakespeare’s ghost seem likelier by the day.
Speaking of Shakespeare (I say, while writing my Shakespeare-centric blog), I went to a talk about his ‘enduring allure,’ while at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Lucky for us all, I took some notes in my tiny orange Moleskine. I only mention the Moleskine because my friend bought a pack of two, kept the black one for herself, and donated the orange one to her token color-loving friend: me. So thanks, Noor! We would have no notes without the combined powers of your generosity and my inability to clean out my purse.
The panel I went to was full of real life Shakespearean scholars, which was fun for me. They discussed the fact that Shakespeare was popularized only by virtue of adaptation. Also, without the first Shakespeare festival (c. 1769), there was a good chance for our favorite bard to have faded into obscurity.
There is also the belief that Shakespeare is alluring because of his extensive vocabulary (~40K words) and the fact that he made up so many new words. They did note, however, that some word are incorrectly credited to Shakespeare. ‘Addiction,’ for example, came from Puritan pamphlets distributed in the 1530s. But, and I say this as someone who adores Shakespeare, there is nothing that comes more naturally to people than giving credit to your local white man.
The panelists also discussed the fact that Shakespeare is quite literally invincible. He survives poking and prodding, and his plays still work even when we mess around with the setting. An incredible feat, to be sure.
When we read Shakespeare, because it is Shakespeare, we are primed to look for genius. We feel this urge to look deeper because the text deserves it. And so it forces us to slow down, it teaches us how to think in this visual age, and, inevitably, students who spend time with Shakespeare fall in love with him. But time must be spent.
You may be wondering why I am just rattling off the things I heard in this panel. I was pretty happy to be listening to people talk about Shakespeare, especially in a classroom setting. But the more they spoke, the more I wondered: is Shakespeare’s allure really all that enduring? Nothing they were saying was wrong, but I kept thinking, ‘Well, of course you think that. Shakespeare is your life.’
Look, Shakespeare has his allure. After all, I was pulled into his orbit very, very easily. And I always argue that the experience can be universal if people find the play that is right for them. But there is effort involved in that, isn’t there? The necessity of slowing down, of searching for genius, of looking deeper – is all of that alluring? Or is it just a promise of frustration and exhaustion?
And there is something else they do not understand, and that is the isolation of loving Shakespeare. I do not think Shakespeare is surviving the digital age. Reading his plays is a very gratifying experience, but the gratification is nowhere near instant. I’m not saying this in a ‘kids-these-days,’ way. I’m only 26, part of the millennial generation that gets dragged for seeking out instant gratification on the daily. But, really, if it’s available, why not go for it? Suffering for gratification is not alluring, and I certainly don’t think it’s smart.
Amateur Shakespeareans are isolated, especially if they are in my age group or younger. The community is not easily breached, and I personally do not find it very welcoming. The panel criticized modern translations. In Richard III, ‘wanton ambling nymph’ is translated to ‘pretty slut.’ But Richard is mad at this imaginary woman for her ability to move, they say.
And I say they are making it very hard for somebody to love Shakespeare. Who cares why Richard hates the non-existent woman he is grumbling about? If his hatred comes across, then the job is done. Of course Richard is jealous of able-bodied individuals. Of course he hates pretty women and handsome men. I don’t need that one specific line to pick up on his feelings. The idea that you can only enjoy Shakespeare via his raw words is just ridiculous.
If Shakespeare’s allure is weak at best, who is to blame? We can’t blame Shakespeare. After all, he was your everyday Englishman. He was a person’s person, able to think and feel like someone untouched by the privilege of aristocracy and a university education.
I blame the scholars and the gatekeepers. The very idea that we must work to love Shakespeare kills his allure instantly. Instead, we should be trying our absolute hardest to make it easy. And, yes, that does mean modern translations that crush ‘wanton ambling nymph,’ into ‘pretty slut.’ It also means modernized productions. I don’t like those very much, but they deserve their place in the community. Shakespeare means something different to everybody. Some of us are inexplicably touched by Hamlet asking, ‘To be, or not to be?’ And some of us are equally touched by the modernized version where he asks, ‘The question is: is it better to be alive or dead?’
Shakespeare is alluring because he promises feeling. He promises a glimpse into what it is to be human. He offers you a mirror for you to examine yourself in. You don’t need remarkable language to tell a good story, and remarkable language does not make an already existing story better. If the language of Shakespeare is not universally appealing, then that is a consequence of when it was written. But the stories? We can make those appealing ourselves.
The panelists said that Shakespeare has survived poking and prodding, and he is able to fluidly move from setting to setting. All of that is true, but we need more. We need to make Shakespeare commonplace, we need to make him a source of easy and instant gratification. His stories matter, and it is up to us to tell them. You know what is alluring? The promise of community. I have put my plays aside to dabble in the romance genre because the community is thriving. There is no judgement, no pre-requisites. It is so easy and it’s fun!
Most importantly, it isn’t lonely. I will always, always believe in Shakespeare’s allure. But to assume it comes naturally, to pretend that it will never die, is ignoring the very glaring issues we have with teaching and with the lack of community surrounding him.
And, if we think about Shakespeare, really think about him, it’s very easy to see that these issues would feel foreign to him. Because his plays were for us all, and they were meant to bring us all together. If that has died then, well, it’s time for us to fix it.
This post isn’t 100% about Shakespeare, and it probably doesn’t belong on this blog. I wanted to write about books and, in a way, write about myself. My paper journal has seen far too much of this nonsense, so I thought I’d write everything out here instead. I’ve never been very good at suffocating my urge to write. And, as you’ll find out, I’ve never been able to suffocate my love for reading, either.
ACT I. EARLY CHILDHOOD
One of my earliest memories features me sitting in a classroom filled with colorful plastic chairs. In the memory, I am sitting on one of these hard chairs. My teacher is by my side, and my classmates are sitting on the carpeted ground before me.
And I’m reading to them.
It’s a cardboard book about a white bunny who loves to garden. I remember feeling especially pleased about being able to read the word vegetable with no trouble. The book was short, the print was massive, but I was the only child in the classroom who could read properly. And, naturally, I wanted to tell everybody about this white bunny and his garden. It was so important that I share the story. My life depended on it.
At home, I had a book called The Story of the Tooth Fairy. It was a small, flimsy thing. A Little Golden Book, but not the sturdy kind. I was fascinated by it. The illustrations were done in watercolors, and the aesthetic was positively dreamy. Pastels blended into each other seamlessly, and everything glowed in shades of powder pink and daffodil yellow. Now, the book didn’t glow, obviously, but I could see the pages shine nonetheless. I daydreamed endlessly about lounging on fluffy blue clouds and dipping my small hands in sparkling lavender-colored brooks. I dreamed about being a fairy in a pink flower petal dress with big, pearly wings. When Shakespeare wrote about fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I pictured similar things. In my mind, the entire story played out in watercolors, and I felt immediately drawn to the simple idea of fairies. All because of The Story of the Tooth Fairy. In my every day life, I still see myself drawn to the aesthetic of that book. I pick out pastel dresses and try to surround myself with the same dreaminess that that book enveloped me in. How I present myself to the world, partially informed by a Little Golden Book.
When I wasn’t daydreaming about being a fairy, I was reading other things. I remember A Kiss for Little Bear – I loved Little Bear to pieces. I remember laughing over the hen finding kisses disgusting. And, oh, those Little Critter books. Just Grandma and Me was a constant companion of mine. The bright colors from that book now mix in with the dreamy colors from The Story of the Tooth Fairy in my adult life. And I still remember the first sentence: “We went to the beach, just Grandma and me.”
ACT II. CHILDHOOD
In the third grade, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My teacher, Miss Hannah, wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. That book was the sixth grade reader. She told me as much, and I told her it was fine, because I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Roald Dahl took over my life at this point, with his dark and funny stories of triumphant children. I read The Witches, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, Matilda, Boy, and so many others. My favorite was The Witches, despite being a little Matilda myself.
It was in third grade that I began to write stories of my own. We were asked to write stories during class one day, so I did. I wrote a story about a neglected little girl who made friends with (brace yourself) the ghosts that haunted her swimming pool. Looking back, I think I was a bit lonely, with all my daydreaming and reading. I had a best friend, but I think a part of me wanted to fit in better. But instead of actually being a social butterfly, I decided to write a story about befriending ghosts. Swimming pool ghosts.
My teacher, who I’m sure was baffled by me, took it around and read it to the other classes. I felt very shy about the whole thing, but happy with the scratch-and-sniff sticker I received for it.
You know what’s funny? That story was more than one page long. It was long, and it had paragraph breaks, and to this day I still don’t know how to be succinct.
I also unknowingly met one of my first loves in third grade. I was in a British primary school in Abu Dhabi, so we weren’t taught about the colors of the rainbow via Roy G. Biv. A big painted rhyme was pinned onto the board on the left side of the classroom. It read: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. I remember idly wondering two things: who Richard was, and what the word ‘vain,’ meant.
Richard, of course, was Richard III of the House of York. The dictionary told me what vain meant.
ACT III. EARLY ADOLESCENCE
Every year, at my British primary school, we were assigned ‘topics.’ We focused on each topic for half a year. They consisted of things like space, the rainforest, and Greek mythology.
Greek mythology was an absolute goldmine for me. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be reading these stories. While my classmates played outside, I huddled up on a bench and read endlessly. My mother had bought a book for my sister and I on the very topic, probably because she wanted to supplement our schoolwork. I remember seeking it out – The Greek Gods by Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes. I loved all the stories, but I loved the chapter on Demeter most of all. In the story, Demeter’s daughter Persephone pulls at a berry bush, which causes a great chasm to appear in the earth. “Out of the hole leaped six black horses, dragging behind them a golden chariot. In the chariot stood a tall figure in a flowing black cape. On his head was a black crown. She had no time to scream. He reached out his long arm, snatched her into the chariot, and lashed his horses. They curvetted in the air, and plunged into the hole again.”
I was obsessed. The story of Hades and Persephone has haunted me from that point onward. As it turned out, The Greek Gods was highly inaccurate, but it didn’t matter. It was the first time I met Persephone, and I related to her with a vengeance. She didn’t have very much freedom until she became Queen of the Underworld. I wondered when my time would come to ascend the throne.
And, you know what? Some things stay with you forever. Persephone has stayed with me, and I’ve hunted down every scrap of her story to the best of my ability. I have a nostalgic fondness for pomegranates, I was delighted when I found out that scholars compare Perdita to Persephone in The Winter’s Tale, the dress I’m wearing in the picture above was purchased just because it reminded me of her myth. Recently, I began to read a webcomic retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone. The artist decided to make Persephone very small, and with a pixie cut.
“Just like me,” I thought, giddy.
I didn’t think seeing a Persephone that looked like me mattered anymore. Oh, it used to. Very much. Every depiction showed an absolutely lovely Persephone, with long, flowing hair dotted with flowers. I was (and still am, to a degree), a gawky little thing, all bones and sharp edges. There was something soothing about seeing a Persephone with short hair. Some things never stop mattering, I suppose.
Greek mythology is a great love of mine, but I’ve always been able to love a great many things at once. While I dealt with the onslaught of passion for it, I was introduced to yet another love: Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was no longer the sixth grade reader. Instead, we were supposed to read Kensuke’s Kingdom and Dakota of the White Flats by Philip Ridley. My class adored Dakota. Kensuke’s Kingdom was labeled boring – boring, and yet there I was, violently clinging to it. The writing was so hushed, so lyrical. I couldn’t believe that someone was writing for me – for a kid – in such a way. It influenced my writing in a way I can’t describe, and even if I do struggle to write lyrically, I still feel the desire to. I took the book home to my mother and begged her to read it too. She did, despite being in her 40s. She told me she loved it, and I felt validated.
ACT IV. ADOLESCENCE
I switched schools for the seventh grade, but only because my primary school stopped at sixth. I found myself torn away from a cozy library and from teachers who loved my attachment to books, and tossed into a concrete jungle where English classes were a big joke. I wasn’t outwardly devastated, but I’m sure a part of me felt a bit deflated. We read these awful books published by the school – to this day, I’m not sure why. Maybe because they wanted to give us the most bland material possible, devoid of any and all suggestions of the erotic or obscene.
There weren’t very many bookstores in Abu Dhabi, and I doubt there are very many now. Book Corner sat unnoticed in the mall, and I remember the dusty scent of it to this day. It was never crowded, never. While my friends spent money elsewhere, I would wander into Book Corner. If school wasn’t giving me good books, then I was going to find them myself.
What I found was the entire genre of historical romance. Book Corner sold these anthologies of historical romances – each book had four novels to them. They were huge, and I loved them. One thing that irked me was that the heroines were never like me. They were all very pretty and soft, and I wasn’t either of those things at that age. Softness, in particular, escaped me. I know I jokingly say that I have Beatrice’s sharp tongue, but it’s not exactly a joke. I’d find heroines like me later, but it drove me up the wall at the time.
As a teenager, I took a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker from my sister’s bookshelf. Yet another book that changed me. I developed a fondness for telling stories through letters, and an intense desire to seek out stories about women overcoming injustice. I wonder what injustices I was feeling that I needed these stories so much. I don’t re-read books very often, but I re-read The Color Purple. Nothing in the world gave me more peace than the very last line: “I think this is the youngest us ever felt. Amen.”
I also discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald around this time, and yet another passionate love affair began. This Side of Paradise ruined me, and nothing could fix it. The last line seeped into my bones. I know myself, but that is all. I felt the same as a teenager. I thought I knew myself, but that was all I knew. Everything else slipped through my fingertips.
For all my love affairs with writers, nothing could have prepared me for my love affair with William Shakespeare. My entire life turned upside down when I was handed RichardIII. School was finally prepping me for external exams, which meant that their own books wouldn’t do. Baby’s first Shakespeare, except I wasn’t a baby at all. I was in the tenth grade, and I should have been reading Shakespeare for ages before Richard III. For once, I had a teacher who cared. I can’t tell you how much of a difference that made. Yes, I was reading at home, but I needed someone to tell me that it was normal to love Shakespeare. It was weird, dusty, incomprehensible, but it became my life.
Richard became my life. I was an expert on the Wars of the Roses. Everybody teased me endlessly, but I didn’t care. Shakespeare and I had finally met, and it was explosive. I’d always been a very thoughtful, reflective person. Really, I was an oddball. I didn’t fit in at all, despite being an Arab girl living in an Arab country. I was always thinking, always scribbling things down in my journal. Shakespeare showed up and asked the same questions that plagued me. Oh, validation.
After Richard III came Henry IV, Part One. I’m pretty sure my school thought they were being clever, avoiding ‘raunchy’ plays like Romeo and Juliet. I was unsure – what if Richard III was meant to be my only love?
I was, of course, wrong. Henry IV, Part One quickly became my other love. Hal was everything to me, and I defended him in class with every breath I took. Try harder to understand. He’s struggling. He doesn’t know who he is, he only knows what people want him to be. Maybe I related to him then – I certainly relate to him now. As I grew older, Amory Blaine’s last words about knowing himself became less relatable. As I became more lost, I thought about Hal. He was lost, too.
We read Jane Eyre along with Henry IV, Part One. I remember my teacher secretly telling me about the symbolism of Mr. Rochester’s bed being on fire. She knew I wouldn’t blab. She knew I needed to learn how to pick out symbols and motifs, even if they were a bit scandalous. I didn’t find a kindred spirit in Jane, though I should have. I felt her loneliness keenly, I understood why she felt so odd. The boys teased me when we read Jane Eyre, telling me repeatedly that if Jane looked like anybody, it would be me. I couldn’t help but think about how often Jane was called plain. I forgot about Mr. Rochester comparing her to fae-folk, a compliment that would delight me now. All I heard was: you’re a plain oddball, just like Jane.
I couldn’t let anybody have the satisfaction of calling me plain, so I simply told them that I’d be happy to trade spots with Jane. At least she didn’t have to suffer idiots like them.
ACT V. ADULTHOOD
What am I doing here? I thought, sitting in an engineering class. I was a freshman, newly moved to California from the depths of the Middle East. What the hell was MATLAB? I didn’t care about programming.
It took time, but I eventually found a small used bookstore in my town. I picked up Pride and Prejudice, probably encouraged by all of the historical romance novels I had read as a teenager. Remember how badly I wanted to see someone like me in a historical romance novel? I finally recognized myself in Elizabeth Bennet. I should have seen pieces of myself in Jane Eyre, but I had been too preoccupied with protecting myself from jabbing remarks about the plainness we allegedly shared. As for Elizabeth, well, I know she’s a very popular character to relate to. I was sure that my connection to her was different, though. Maybe it was wishful thinking. I knew the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but it didn’t lose its magic. I remember sitting in a biomaterials class with the book open flat on my lap. I wasn’t listening to the professor, of course. What I was doing, however, was biting down on my hand, trying very hard not to vocalize the excitement I felt when Mr. Darcy professed his love to Elizabeth. And when she rejected him? I was ecstatic. Definitely not something I could express in a hot, crowded classroom.
There was one quarter where I desperately needed a single unit. Seminars at UC Davis were one unit each, and I remember going through the list. There was one about dinosaurs, another about witches. Near the bottom of the list was one called Shakespeare and Religion. I hadn’t read a play in ages. I had tried after Henry IV, Part One, but my own feelings of fear and inadequacy stopped me dead in my tracks. I signed up, remembering that I had an affinity for Shakespeare. I stubbornly refused to acknowledge just how much he meant to me.
So I walk into Shakespeare and Religion, and find out that we’re reading Antony and Cleopatra. And I felt like I had been hit by a train, but in a good way. In my engineering classes, I was silent. In this class, I spoke and spoke and spoke until I couldn’t speak anymore. Every week, we had to give a summary of a scene, and every week my group would beg me to do ours.
“It sounds so good when you talk about it,” I remember a girl saying. “Like it means something.”
Shakespeare meant everything. But the seminar came and went. I was still scared of reading outside of a classroom environment. Instead, I had my first taste of Hemingway. I read A Moveable Feast, and found myself deeply in love with simple writing. I went back to Roald Dahl, picking up his adult novel My Uncle Oswald. I loved that book to pieces. I used to read it during my electrical systems class, pushing it flat in my lap just like I had done with Pride and Prejudice. It was a huge challenge, trying to stifle my laughter. Once, on my way to school, I became so engrossed in it that I found myself on an idle, empty bus on campus. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there, just reading. I hadn’t noticed any activity around me, any movement. Nothing. Just Shereen and another one of her books.
I started taking summer classes, just so I could get everything done in time. With every engineering class, I would take something “fun.” I told everyone it was for balance, but I was desperate not to lose what little spark I had left. Oh, I was so miserable in my major classes. Literally anything else brought me to life – religious studies, Ancient Roman history, you name it. I took comparative literature one summer, despite being warned against it.
That was the first time I read Crime and Punishment. That novel took over my life, and I felt it become apart of me. Every book I’ve ever loved is somewhere inside of me. They make up my bones, my vessels. It’s never instantaneous – when I read Crime and Punishment, I felt it sink into my being when Raskolnikov asked his mother if she’d still love him even if he had done something bad. I was shaken when she told him she would, she always would. Tears pricked my eyes right in the middle of a coffee shop. I chastised myself quickly – I don’t get choked up in public (as a general rule), and they were just words.
We also read Faust in that class, and I was reminded of how much I loved plays. Mephistopheles reminded me of Richard, in a way. Scheming, manipulative, downright hilarious. One day, while leaving my comparative literature class, I saw a board of flyers advertising summer abroad programs. One of them was called Shakespeare – Live! I looked at it very doubtfully. Me? In London? Studying Shakespeare? Standing where he once stood, acting like I knew what I was talking about?
The fine print talked about a scholarship, so I decided I would try to go for that. I wrote a short, sharp piece about what Shakespeare meant to me. It was very dry, definitely not an emotional mess like this post is coming out to be. But I got the scholarship. I went to London. I read Henry V for the first time, and I saw Hal again. It felt like coming home, even if I was in the middle of a brand new place. Standing in the Globe, I felt like myself. I’m always such a mess of doubts, of worries and hangups. Everything was quiet that summer in 2012. I was just a girl who loved Shakespeare and, strangely, I felt loved right back.
After that, nothing. I felt like Persephone, leaving an open field of flowers and finding myself in the Underworld. But she took command of that situation, so I did the same. I got my Bachelor’s degree, I moved on to a Master’s program. Everything would be okay, I thought, as long as I had a bookshelf to come home to.
But, of course, I got frustrated. I sat down in an undergraduate Shakespeare class two years ago and refused to budge. The professor didn’t know what to do with me, at first. He had a class of sleepy kids, most of them jocks, and me, in the front, squirming in my seat over Henry V. We’d sit on the floor outside of the classroom and talk about Shakespeare’s women. I am immediately anxious when talking to fellow scientists, but I had no problem sharing all of my thoughts with this old man, even if he did have decades of Shakespeare under his belt. When that class ended, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I went home, and made a decision.
I was going to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, because I loved him and I knew I would do anything to understand his stories. My small studio apartment began to fill with plays. I drag my Henry V poster with me wherever I go, but it belonged in that studio more than anywhere else. I belonged there too, reading Shakespeare by the light of my pink salt lamp.
My whole life, reading has brought me peace. It has helped me answer questions about myself. And while I was doing all this reading, I was out making friends, surrounding myself with trustworthy people. And I loved being around my friends as much as I loved reading. A problem arose, though. I wanted to be a social butterfly, and I wanted to quit with the books altogether. And, it may shock you to read this, but this happened while I was trying to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I was close to graduating, and I felt instability creep up on me. I was angry at myself for sitting in my bed and reading. What had books ever done for me other than make me sad and fill me with longing for a different life? When will you get your head out of your books and daydreams and finally live? I wrote in my journal.
My therapist tapped her pen across her notebook and regarded me thoughtfully. I was sitting across from her, wringing my hands together and trying not to cry. I felt stupid, having told her about my book-related dilemma, but it had been on my mind. She’d interrupted me with questions like, “Do you relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, without hesitation.
Now, she was looking at me as I tried not to dissolve in her office.
“If all of this made you an outcast as a child, why didn’t you just conform?”
I had no idea what to say, so I said, “It…was the books.”
That didn’t make any sense, obviously. But I tried to explain. I couldn’t leave the books behind. The stories, the characters, they were everything to me. They had made me feel alive in a way I couldn’t describe. How could I leave them? And my favorite characters had never conformed. Books taught me that it wasn’t right, betraying yourself like that.
And my dilemma wasn’t their fault, really. There were other things that were preventing me from feeling completely free. I just chose to blame books because a book had been in my hand when I’d reached my breaking point.
“You know,” my therapist said, “you really light up when you talk about Shakespeare. I think you need it in your life.”
“I know,” I said, feeling broken up about it. “Why couldn’t I have a normal hobby? Why does it have to be this?”
You’re rolling your eyes now, I’m sure. I know I’m not the only bookworm in the world. But I live and work among scientist and engineers. It’s so hard to find people like me, people who value emotion over logic and words over equations. There are people out there, I’ve found, who actually love engineering.
“I’d love engineering if…I wish I were bad at it,” I said desperately. “Bad at Shakespeare, bad at reading books.”
She looked at me pointedly.
“No, I don’t,” I admitted, crumpling under her knowing gaze.
I had to learn how to let myself love books again. I never stopped loving them, obviously. I just got angry at myself every time I spent an evening in with one in my hand. The only solution was to keep reading.
Now, as I apply frantically for jobs, I fill my spare hours with reading. The genre? Historical romance, of course.
Well, this has been a long time coming. I really wanted to do something fun and new for my ranking post, and then life happened. I finally had some time to myself today, so here we are. Surprise! It’s an unscripted, podcast-esque 58 minute disaster for your ears (complete with super chill Elizabethan lute music)! Perfect to help you pass the time while you do your chores.
“But you don’t have a voice for radio at all, Shereen,” you think, immediately clicking pause 41 seconds in. I can acknowledge that, so here’s my list for those of you who just want to get down to the nitty gritty of it:
Measure for Measure
Much Ado About Nothing
Love’s Labor’s Lost
The Merry Wives of Windsor
As You Like It
The Winter’s Tale
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
All’s Well That Ends Well
The Taming of the Shrew
The Merchant of Venice
The Comedy of Errors
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Romeo and Juliet
Antony and Cleopatra
Troilus and Cressida
Timon of Athens
Henry IV, Part One
Henry IV, Part Two
Henry VI, Part Three
Henry VI, Part Two
Henry VI, Part One
NOT IN THE FIRST FOLIO – and therefore gets to be #1 in its own category!
Now all that’s left for me is to make posts about the remaining plays, write about fiction based on Shakespeare’s plays, and – well, you’ll see.
I promised you a ranking post, and a ranking post you shall receive, but first I want to talk about Julius Caesar. I got wind that the National Theatre’s “immersive,” 2018 production was making its rounds through the US two days ago, and I immediately found a cinema that was showing it near me. I love Julius Caesar – it is one of those great plays that I didn’t expect to fall in love with, but did. The suspense in Julius Caesar is unmatched, and I would go so far as it call it Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
The play opened with a concert on Caesar’s behalf – a rock concert. My first thought, inelegant as it was, was “ew.” As you know, I am not a fan of modern productions. I am not a Shakespeare purist by any means – I just like the feeling of being whisked away from 2018 and thrust into the past. So, yes. Usually, I am not a fan of modern productions. But, somehow, this production of Julius Caesar managed to change my mind. No easy task, given that I can be incredibly stubborn. And stubborn I shall remain: now, in my mind, Julius Caesar is the only play that can still work as a modern piece. All other plays can remain as they are.
Half an hour into the play, I found myself worried that they would be going down a very predictable path. I think painting Caesar as a villain makes this play incredibly boring. The play itself is intriguing because the reader isn’t supposed to be sure if the conspirators are actually doing the right thing. But when Caesar is painted as a pompous madman (which seems a strange interpretation to me, given that he rejects the crown three times), then the audience is being told that he had it coming. The characters go from grey to being black and white, which is boring, boring, boring. An example of this is the Shakespeare in the Park production that was put on a while ago, in which they had Caesar look exactly like our terrible 45th President. This sort of thing automatically puts the characters in boxes – suddenly you find yourself knowing who the big baddie is. And the play is ruined.
Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. I had Brutus (played absolutely brilliantly by Ben Whishaw) to thank for this. Whishaw played Brutus exactly as I think he should be played: bubbling over with nervous energy and so, so invested in doing the right thing, whatever that may be. At the beginning of the play, a plebeian handed him a book to sign, and that book was titled On Liberty, authored by Brutus himself. That told us what we needed to know. Brutus thinks Rome should be free – he believes in liberty above all else. And when Cassius (played so well by Michelle Fairley that I almost forgot about how little I care for the character in general) convinces Brutus to join her, he finds himself staying up all night, surrounded by books with titles like Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Almost as if he were trying to double and triple check that Caesar is, in fact, a dictator. Almost as if he were trying to read about the red flags that people in the past ignored. It is Brutus’ clear uncertainty that makes the audience feel uncertain too. Maybe Caesar didn’t deserve to be murdered. Maybe Brutus was reading between the lines a little too much. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Caesar (David Calder) had a lot of gravity to him, and I still did not agree with the decision to kill him. Something interesting, though: when Caesar was warned about the Ides of March, something on his face told me that the prophecy actually scared him for a moment. But then, very quickly, he tossed it aside and laughed with the crowd. How much of the prophecy did he actually believe?
In my original post about Julius Caesar, I wrote that there is something very soft about Brutus, something that is very unbecoming of a warrior. That something in this production was his nervous energy, and also the way he behaved toward his wife. Portia was played as absolutely desperate in this production – desperate to know what plagues her beloved husband so. Brutus and Portia together were a flurry of embraces, soft kisses, and desperate pleas. He so clearly loves her, and when she shows him the wounds she’s inflicted on herself, his utterance of “Oh, Portia,” was so heavy and sad that it replayed itself in my head endlessly during the car ride home.
Mark Antony (David Morrissey) was wonderful, and had a stage presence befitting the powerful man he is. But I will say that he was played a touch too emotional for me. I think Mark Antony, as a character, would benefit from having a calm, eerie edge to him. He is nothing but a snake waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and there needs to be something about him that wrongly convinces Brutus otherwise. That aside, Mark Antony truly began to shine when the war broke out. He is a character who loves the thrill of battle, and this production made sure we took note of that.
It was difficult for me to see Brutus beg so many of his friends to kill him. Difficult only because he is my favorite character in this play, even though he is wound so tightly that it makes me nervous whether I’m reading or watching the story unfold. He moved to do it himself a couple of times, but was never able to commit. Little details like that really added to Brutus as a whole. Ben Whishaw might have ruined all other interpretations of Brutus from here on out for me.
Every time I write one of these theater review posts, I wonder what we can do to make Shakespeare more accessible. I actually think this production figured it out. Julius Caesar was described as “immersive.” What that means is that the audience was very much in the thick of things. There was no solid, stationary stage. Instead, platforms rose from the ground as necessary. And the war took place throughout the entire theater. Dust and pebbles cascaded from the sky, showering the audience. Lights flashed, and the sounds of gunshots filled the entire room. The audience cheered for Caesar, gasped at Brutus’ bloody hands, turned violent at Mark Antony’s whim. There was absolutely no way for someone to be in that room and not be enthralled by the tale before them. So maybe making Shakespeare’s plays immersive is the key to making them interesting for everyone. I very desperately wanted to be in that crowd, even though they were all coated in a fine layer of debris at the end. I’m not quite sure how I would make something like that work for other plays – say, Measure for Measure – but I’m sure there’s a director out there who knows just what to do.
There isn’t much more I can say about Julius Caesar that I haven’t already said here or in my original post on the play. I love the suspense, I love the political intrigue, and I love that Brutus is so grey. I highly suggest giving it a watch if you can! Click here to find a cinema near you.
Yesterday, I read the very last word of my very last “new” Shakespeare play. And it just so happened that that play was Cymbeline. Around nine years ago, I read my very first line of Shakespeare. I remember it clear as day: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” And yesterday, I read my last line: “Never was a war did cease, ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace.” My first line made me skeptical, and my last filled me with a bittersweet longing for more. I’ll leave the theatrics for my upcoming ranking post, though – this post is about Cymbeline.
Before we start, I just want to say that the title of this play shouldn’t be Cymbeline at all. It should be Imogen. The reasons for this will become obvious, but if you’ve already read this play, you know why.
We open in King Cymbeline’s court, where drama is brewing:
SECOND GENTLEMAN But what’s the matter?
FIRST GENTLEMAN His daughter, and the heir of ‘s kingdom, whom
He purposed to his wife’s sole son – a widow
That late he married – hath referred herself
Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. She’s wedded,
Her husband banished, she imprisoned. All
Is outward sorrow, though I think the King
Be touched at very heart.
You heard it here first, folks: Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, has secretly gotten married. Cymbeline wanted her to marry her stepbrother Cloten. Let’s just say that Imogen has dodged a massive bullet by going against her father’s wishes. Despite not having met her yet, I think we can all agree that Imogen is already proving to us that she is one of Shakespeare’s sharp-as-a-tack/follows-her-own-heart-and-mind heroines. Exactly the kind of heroine I like!
Cymbeline is up in arms about all of this, but that’s because Imogen is his sole heir. It’s important to note that he had two sons once, but they were kidnapped as children and never seen or heard from again. So everything sits on Imogen’s shoulders, so to speak.
Imogen has married Posthumus, a gentleman below her in rank. In a rage, Cymbeline banishes him.
CYMBELINE O disloyal thing
That shouldst repair on my youth, thou heap’st
A year’s age on me.
IMOGEN I beseech you, sir,
Harm not yourself with your vexation.
I am senseless of your wrath. A touch more rare
Subdues all pangs, all fears.
CYMBELINE Past grace? Obedience?
IMOGEN Past hope and despair; that way past grace.
CYMBELINE That mightst have had the sole son of my queen!
IMOGEN O, blessèd that I might not! I chose an eagle
And did avoid a puttock.
Imogen is actually very upset here, and although she does cry later, she is very sharp when she expresses her anger. She doesn’t bend to her father for one second, and I admire that about her. But, really, this entire situation is out of her hands. She has no power, and she knows it. Her new husband is sent packing to Rome almost instantly.
And, instead of pining for his lady love, Posthumus finds himself discussing women with other Italian gentlemen. He waxes poetic about Imogen immediately, but Iachimo, an Italian gentleman, isn’t really having it:
IACHIMO That lady is not now living, or this gentleman’s opinion by this worn out.
POSTHUMUS She holds her virtue still, and I my mind.
I would have loved for this conversation to end here, but things take a very stupid turn.
IACHIMO With five times so much conversation I should get ground of your fair mistress, make her go back even to the yielding, had I admittance and opportunity to friend.
POSTHUMUS No, no.
IACHIMO I dare thereupon pawn the moiety of my estate to your ring, which in my opinion o’ervalues it something. But I make my wager rather against your confidence than her reputation, and, to bar your offense herein too, I durst attempt it against any lady in the world.
POSTHUMUS What lady would you choose to assail?
IACHIMO Yours, whom in constancy you think stands so safe. I will lay you ten thousand ducats to your ring that, commend me to the court where your lady is, with no more advantage than the opportunity of a second conference, and I will bring from thence that honor of hers which you imagine so reserved.
By the end of this exchange, Iachimo convinces Posthumus to place a bet on Imogen’s virginity. If Iachimo succeeds in seducing Imogen, then he wins Posthumus’ diamond ring – a ring given to him by Imogen.
I, of course, do not like this at all.
The characters in this play speak very highly of Posthumus. Very highly. But I’m not quite sure he deserves it. He bothers me for so many reasons, but his decision to actually go along with Iachimo’s game is reason enough for me to dislike him. It’s clear to any reader that Iachimo is a terrible person, nothing more than a cad. His proposal annoyed me, yes, but what annoyed me even more is Posthumus’ agreeing to it. Iachimo isn’t some great manipulator. Neither of these men should feel entitled to talk about Imogen like this, behind her back, and about something so private. But maybe I am being too modern about this.
Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s Queen is creating drama of a different sort. Apparently, she’s asked her doctor Cornelius to make her some poison. Cornelius, sensing that the Queen is off her rocker, decides to make her a sleeping potion instead, à la Romeo and Juliet. He tells her that it’s poison, of course. She immediately pawns it off on Posthumus’ servant Pisanio (who is my second favorite, after Imogen), and tells him that it’s medicine. Her hope is that he’ll drink it, die, and that this will somehow make Imogen miss her husband less.
I know, I know. It’s ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, Iachimo has found himself in Britain, face-to-face with Imogen.
IACHIMO […] What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon the numbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so previous
‘Twist fair and foul?
IMOGEN What makes your admiration?
Imogen is literally this play’s saving grace. Immediately, she is unimpressed, and doesn’t seem too keen on engaging with Iachimo at all. He keeps trying, though, and Imogen becomes less impressed with each passing moment. She shoos him away, offended, and Iachimo finds himself dazzled by her immunity to his charms (I use that word very, very loosely).
This should end here, but no. Iachimo asks Imogen to keep a trunk filled with valuables in his room and, being the gracious woman that she is, Imogen agrees. The thought, “What if he hides himself inside?” briefly crossed my mind, but it was quickly followed with, “No, no. That’s too silly.”
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.
Cloten, meanwhile, is busying himself by being the literal human embodiment of the devil.
SECOND LORD It is not fit your Lordship should undertake every companion that you give offense to.
CLOTEN No, I know that, but it is fit I should commit offense to my inferiors.
Cool. Seriously though, I was not kidding when I called Cloten the devil. He is quite literally one of the worst, most irredeemable characters Shakespeare has ever written. I literally couldn’t find a single good thing about him – me! The person who even found something nice to say about Coriolanus! About Angelo! Even about Richard III, who waltzes onto the stage in the first act of his play to tell us that he’s evil. Cloten outdoes them all, and I think it’s because there’s something about him that reminds me of a bratty child. And, honestly, that is a personality trait that I can barely stand in real life, let alone in an already subpar play like Cymbeline.
Anyway. Remember how I thought to myself that Iachimo might hide himself in his trunk?
Iachmio from the trunk.
I was right.
This entire scene was incredibly uncomfortable for me to read. As Imogen sleeps, Iachimo takes a good, long look at her body. He also takes note of the room and, finally, removes Imogen’s bracelet from her wrist. A bracelet that was given to her by Posthumus, of course.
All of this is just ridiculous. I feel terrible for Imogen. She was actually far more patient with Iachimo than I would have been, and she was gracious enough to let him keep his trunk in her room for safekeeping. But Iachimo is a terrible person – she should have just kicked his ass to the curb.
And speaking of terrible people…
CLOTEN I would this music would come. I am advised to give her music a-mornings; they say it will penetrate.
Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so. We’ll try with tongue, too. If none will do, let her remain, but I’ll never give o’er. First, a very excellent good-conceited thing; after, a wonderful sweet air with admirable rich words to it, and then let her consider.
First of all, ew. The sexual innuendo in Cloten’s speech gives me the creeps, and the fact that he’s trying to serenade Imogen doesn’t help things at all. In true Imogen fashion, she is unimpressed.
CLOTEN Still I swear I love you.
IMOGEN If you but said so, ’twere as deep with me.
If you swear still, your recompense is still
That I regard it not.
CLOTEN This is no answer.
Sounds like an answer to me. Cloten keeps badgering Imogen, and she eventually (and rightfully) loses her temper.
IMOGEN Profane fellow,
Wert thou the son of Jupiter and no more
But what thou art besides, thou wert too base
To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,
Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made
Comparative for your virtues to be styled
The under-hangman of his kingdom and hated
For being preferred so well.
CLOTEN The south fog rot him!
IMOGEN He can never meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His mean’st garment
That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men. – How now, Pisanio!
CLOTEN “His garment”? Now the devil –
IMOGEN, [to Pisiano]
To Dorothy, my woman, hie thee presently.
CLOTEN “His garment”?
This may have been the only time I actually laughed while reading this play. Imogen tears into Cloten, and leaves him spluttering. He tries to scare her by threatening to tell Cymbeline, but this is Imogen we’re talking about.
CLOTEN You have abused me.
“His meanest garment”?
IMOGEN Ay, I said so, sir.
If you will make ‘t an action, call witness to ‘t.
CLOTEN I will inform your father.
IMOGEN Your mother too.
She’s my good lady and will conceive, I hope,
But the worst of me. So I leave you, sir,
To th’ worst of discontent.
“Your mother too.” I love it! Imogen isn’t scared of Cloten, big bratty baby that he is. She is very faithful to Posthumus, but I’m not quite sure he’s worthy of her…
Because when Iachimo goes back to Rome with all of his “evidence,” Posthumus believes him. Oh, sure, he rolls his eyes at first, but he falls for Iachimo’s tricks eventually. And you may be wondering: does he decide to go confront Imogen about all of this?
POSTHUMUS O, that I had her here, to tear her limb-meal!
I will go there and do ‘t i’ th’ court, before
Her father. I’ll do something.
Nope! I can’t tell you how much I dislike this. I understand that this is an upsetting situation, but Posthumus’ reaction is far too violent for my taste. But maybe he’s just over-exaggerating, hmm?
In other news, Britain apparently owes a tribute to Rome, and Augustus has sent over Caius Lucius to get Cymbeline to cough it up. And yes, interestingly, Cymbeline takes place in a post-Julius Caesar, post-Antony and Cleopatra world. Who would have thought?
Again, as with most of the issues in the play, this one is very solvable. If Britain promised to pay tribute to Rome, then Cymbeline should pay it.
Except he refuses.
LUCIUS I am sorry, Cymbeline,
That I am to pronounce Augustus Caesar –
Caesar, that hath more kings his servants than
Thyself domestic officers – thine enemy.
Receive it from me, then: war and confusion
In Caesar’s name pronounce I ‘gainst thee. Look
For fury not to be resisted. Thus defied,
I thank thee for myself.
And now Britain is at war with Rome. Great! Exactly what this play needs! More plot points!
Pisanio, meanwhile, has received two letters from Posthumus. One letter is addressed to Pisanio – in it, Posthumus tells him to kill Imogen. The other letter is for Imogen. It tells her to travel to Milford Haven with Pisanio. Posthumus writes that he will be waiting for her there. Color me unimpressed. Imogen, poor Imogen, is so excited to see her husband. Look, I know that the lack of communication between Posthumus and Imogen makes for good drama, but I’m not really enjoying it. Even if Imogen had been unfaithful, what right does Posthumus have to take her life? And he isn’t even planning on doing it himself! He’s pushing it onto poor Pisanio.
Here’s another plot point (you thought we were done?): we cut to the forest, where three men exit from a cave. They are Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal. That’s right: two names each. Remember Imogen’s kidnapped brothers? Well, here they are. Belarius/Morgan was wrongfully banished by Cymbeline, so he kidnapped Cymbeline’s sons to get back at him. Oh, and just to make this play more confusing, he gave them fake names. I guess that’s one way to do it.
On the way to Milford Haven, Pisanio is all nerves. He eventually breaks down and tells Imogen the real purpose of their trip. He gives her the letter that Posthumus wrote to him.
IMOGEN False to his bed? What is it to be false?
To lie in watch there and to think on him?
To weep ‘twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge nature,
To break it with a fearful dream of him
And cry myself awake? That’s false to ‘s bed, is it?
PISANIO Alas, good lady!
I haven’t watched Cymbeline, on stage, TV or otherwise, so I’m not sure how this is supposed to play out. Does Imogen say these lines angrily? Or is she weeping? I think I’d lean toward an angry Imogen – I think the opportunity is there to play her as a firecracker. But, as always, just because the opportunity is there, doesn’t mean it is actually ever taken. I thought the same about Isabella while reading Measure for Measure, but goodness knows that she’s always played as a weepy mess.
Imogen takes so much offense to all of this that she asks Pisanio to stab her right then and there. I was kind of hoping that she’d want to seek revenge on Posthumus instead, or at least go tell him off a bit, but I guess not!
Pisanio, of course, refuses to stab Imogen. Instead, he encourages her to disguise herself as a boy and offer her services to Caius Lucius, who is supposedly heading toward Milford Haven himself. It looks like we’ve come back to this tried-and-true storyline – how many times have we read through it now? Before parting, Pisanio hands Imogen the “medicine,” that the Queen gave him. Looks like that plot point is back to haunt us as well.
Imogen’s disappearance is noticed pretty quickly, and Pisanio, unlucky creature that he is, finds himself face-to-face with Cloten. Pisanio is forced to tell Cloten what he knows. He shows him the letter that Posthumus wrote to Imogen instructing her to meet him at Milford Haven. Cloten reacts much as you’d expect.
CLOTEN Meet thee at Milford Haven! – I forgot to ask him one thing; I’ll remember ‘t anon. Even there, thou villain Posthumus, will I kill thee. I would these garments were come. She said upon a time – the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart – that she held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect than my noble and natural person, together with the adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my back I will ravish her. First, kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment dined – which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so praised – to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in revenge.
I don’t know if I’m being particularly sensitive, but there are so many suggestions of violence against Imogen in this play. I really can’t stand it. Cloten, who, again, is the literal human embodiment of a demon, forces Pisanio to give him some of Posthumus’ clothing. He intends to travel to Milford Haven, murder Posthumus, rape Imogen, and drag her kicking and screaming back to court.
I’m not a fan of Posthumus, but I will say again that Imogen dodged a huge bullet by marrying him instead of Cloten.
Also, I do enjoy that he’s still upset over what she said to him earlier. Such fragility.
Speaking of Imogen, she is lost in the woods. Exhausted, she ends up in the cave where Belarius/Morgan and her two lost brothers live. She tells them her name is Fidele, and they fall in love with her instantly. Not too long after, she begins to feel unwell, so she decides to take the medicine that Pisanio gave her. Much like Juliet, she is put into a deep, death-like sleep.
Cloten, meanwhile, antagonizes the three men and swiftly has his head cut off by Guiderius/Polydor. Finally. I don’t think I could have stood another second of Cloten’s childish brand of villainy.
The men come across Imogen’s body and think her dead. They lay Cloten’s beheaded corpse beside her (?!) and leave. When she awakes, she is distraught.
IMOGEN […] O Posthumus, alas,
Where is thy head? Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?
Pisanio might have killed thee at the heart
And left his head on. How should this be? Pisanio?
‘Tis he and Cloten. Malice and lucre in them
Have laid this woe here. O, ’tis pregnant, pregnant!
The drug he gave me, which he said was precious
And cordial to me, have I not found it
Murd’rous to th’ senses? That confirms it home.
This is Pisanio’s deed, and Cloten. O,
Give color to my pale cheek with thy blood,
That we the horrider may seem to those
Which chance to find us. O my lord! My lord!
Believing Cloten to be Posthumus, Imogen switches between grief and anger. She believes Pisanio to be in cahoots with Cloten and, frankly, I’m a little offended for Pisanio. He has probably shown himself to be the most level-headed man in this play, and he’s very easy to love despite being a minor character.
Caius Lucius comes across the grieving Imogen and, pitying her, takes her under his wing. I shouldn’t say ‘her,’ though, because she’s still play-acting as Fidele.
Going back to the war between Britain and Rome: in the midst of the mounting tensions, Posthumus (who is fighting for the Romans) begins to regret Imogen’s murder, which he thinks actually occurred. What’s that, Posthumus? Killing Imogen was a mistake? What a revelation. Posthumus decides that the best way to punish himself is to disguise himself as a British soldier and get killed.
While disguised, he finds himself fighting Iachimo (who deserves it, the fool), and somehow finds himself helping Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal free a captured Cymbeline (though, to be honest, they should have left him). At some point, though, Posthumus realizes that his get-killed-quick plan isn’t working. He reverts back to a Roman soldier and is promptly captured and imprisoned.
And here is where things begin to take a nonsensical turn. “Really?” you ask. “Now? Everything before this wasn’t nonsense?” It wasn’t. Brace yourselves.
While in jail, Posthumus falls asleep. He is visited by the ghosts of his family who continually harass Jupiter (i.e. Zeus, for us fans of Greek mythology) to try to get him to come to Posthumus’ aid. Jupiter eventually grows tired of their pleading and materializes. He leaves a tablet for Posthumus who, upon waking, is unable to decipher it.
This is literally the only supernatural incident in this entire play, and it is so out of place. It sticks out like the worst sore thumb, and I can’t stand it. If I were to actually put on a stage production of this play, this scene would be the first to go.
Anyway. Posthumus is eventually dragged to Cymbeline’s court, and things finally begin to come to a boil. Cymbeline knights Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal for helping to save him from the Romans. Cornelius, the Queen’s doctor, enters. Apparently, the Queen is dead.
CORNELIUS First, she confessed she never loved you, only
Affected greatness got by you, not you;
Married your royalty, was wife to your place,
Abhorred your person.
So it turns out that the Queen didn’t love Cymbeline at all. I guess it makes sense that she’d be heartless, given that she raised a demonic child like Cloten. Cymbeline takes this announcement in stride, and is more or less like, “Nah.” But Cornelius eventually exposes the Queen’s hatred for Imogen – that is enough to convince Cymbeline of her two-faced nature.
Caius Lucius is brought before Cymbeline. As the Britons have (somehow) won the war, it seems that Caius Lucius is due for an appointment with the chopping block. He has one favor to ask, though:
CAIUS LUCIUS […] This one thing only
I will entreat: my boy, a Briton born,
Let him be ransomed. Never master had
A page so kind, so duteous, diligent,
So tender over his occasions, true,
So feat, so nurselike. Let his virtue join
With my request, which I’ll make bold your Highness
Cannot deny. He hath done no Briton harm,
Though he have served a Roman. Save him, sir,
And spare no blood beside.
Imogen has the ability to make just about anyone fall in love with her, and Caius Lucius is no exception. He asks for his “boy,” to be spared. Cymbeline obliges because, well, there’s something strangely familiar and lovable about Fidele. He grants Imogen one wish. Perfect timing, because Imogen spots the diamond on Iachimo’s hand and demands that he tells them the story of how he obtained it.
So he does. In excruciating detail. Posthumus immediately loses his cool, upset that he believed Iachimo and had Imogen killed for something she didn’t do. Imogen, bless her, rushes over to him.
IMOGEN, [running to Posthumus]
Peace, my lord!
Hear, hear –
POSTHUMUS Shall ‘s have a play of this? Thou scornful page,
There lie thy part.
[He pushes her away; she falls.]
Again, I am unimpressed by Posthumus’ behavior. I know Imogen is disguised as a boy, but pushing away someone who is clearly trying to comfort you is pretty terrible.
We aren’t done, though! There’s the matter of the “medicine,” that Imogen took.
CORNELIUS O gods!
[To Pisanio.] I left out one thing which the Queen confessed,
Which must approve thee honest. “If Pisanio
Have,” said she, “given his mistress that confection
Which I gave him for cordial, she is served
As I would serve a rat.”
CYMBELINE What’s this, Cornelius?
CORNELIUS The Queen, sir, very oft importuned me
To temper poisons for her, still pretending
The satisfaction of her knowledge only
In killing creatures vile, as cats and dogs,
Of no esteem. I, dreading that her purpose
Was of more danger, did compound for her
A certain stuff which, being ta’en, would cease
The present power of life, but in short time
All offices of nature should again
Do their due functions. – Have you ta’en of it?
IMOGEN Most like I did, for I was dead.
BELARIUS, [as Morgan, aside to Guiderius and Arviragus]
There was our error.
The Queen used to ask for poison to do what? Kill cats and dogs? Who the hell did Cymbeline marry? No wonder Cloten was such a sociopath. I mean, look at his mother.
Speaking of Cloten, when it is revealed that Guiderius killed him, Cymbeline decides he has no choice but to have him executed for murder. Belarius/Morgan rushes to his aid by announcing to everybody in the room that the two young men before them are actually the missing princes.
And so everyone is reunited. Imogen is allowed to remain with Posthumus. Cymbeline is suddenly filled with love and decides to pardon Caius Lucius. Oh, and he’s fine with paying the tribute to Rome.
Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is insane. This entire war could have been avoided if he had just paid in the first place. Clearly the money wasn’t the issue. Was this a matter of pride? Was it worth the lives lost? I can’t deal with this.
Jupiter’s tablet, of course, predicted all of this.
While reading this play, I was a bit mystified at all of the negative press I’d read and heard about it. But the deeper I got into it, the most I began to understand its unpopularity. Cymbeline is far, far too long for what it is. The entire kidnapped princes subplot could have been cut out. Those pages could have been used to give the audience more time with Imogen, who is the best part of this play.
The men really leave much to be desired. Posthumus is lauded as being some kind of saint, but I could barely stand him. His refusal to actually confront Imogen about her supposed infidelity drove me nuts. It was supposed to make for good drama, but all it did was make for frustrating drama. And the fact that he even thought it was okay to bet on Imogen’s chastity is disgusting.
The other men, from Cymbeline to Cloten (don’t get me started on him!) also leave much to be desired. It was very difficult to root for anyone outside of Pisanio and Caius Lucius who, to me, came off as very honorable and sensible despite being a part of the enemy camp.
And that is Cymbeline for you. A total mess of a play that pulled me all over the place, randomly had Jupiter intervene, and left me completely unsatisfied for some reason. Not the best note to end on, but it is what it is.
Only one question remains – what’s next for me? Well, I still have to rank all of the plays, and I want to do something special for that. After that, I really do want to try to do as much for this blog as possible. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I’ve poured my heart and soul into writing these entries. So expect more theater reviews, maybe a couple of more in-depth character analysis posts, and hopefully some cool entries about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Plus, for the sake of completeness, I’d like to write entries for all the plays I had already read before starting this blog: Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, and Henry IV, Part One. I really do love some of those plays, so it’ll be fun to revisit them!
If you have read this far, thank you so much. I know I am prone to rambling, and it must be exhausting trying to follow all the webs I make for characters and stories that I love. Doing this has made me so happy but all good things must come to an end. But, hey, it’s Shakespeare. There’s always going to be something new for us to talk about, right?
Ah, Henry VIII. Famed wife-murderer of England. Henry VIII is so well-known that I would consider him a part of popular culture. England capitalizes on his notoriety to the point where the Tower of London almost exclusively caters to his fans. When I was in London in 2012, I found this to be a bit frustrating – I mean, what about all of the kings before Henry VIII? Those are the kings that I’m invested in. Reading Henry VIII hasn’t really changed that.
This isn’t a good play, and I say that as someone who adores Shakespeare’s histories. I desperately turned to The Meaning of Shakespeare, and all I found was a measly two pages pretty much saying what I already knew: that this play sucks, and Katherine is its only saving grace. Goddard even quotes Johnson, who apparently said that “the genius of Shakespeare comes in and goes out with Katherine.”
It is probably worth noting that Henry VIII wasn’t written only by Shakespeare. I suppose that means we can blame the overall weakness of this play on John Fletcher, the alleged co-playwright. This blog is exclusively about Shakespeare, but I decided to put Henry VIII on my list so I could round out the history section of this blog, and also because it is often considered part of the canon.
Before we really go into this disaster of a play, maybe we should talk about Henry himself. In reading about this play, I came across a major criticism that I want to address. There seems to be this expectation that the Henry VIII in this play is the Henry VIII we see in the popular painting we’ve all laid eyes on at some point on our lives. But it isn’t. Theaters are not casting fit, attractive actors just for fun, they’re casting Henry like that because that is who he was at the time of this particular set of incidents. Henry VIII was known to be exceptionally attractive and, due to his love for tennis, was actually very fit. A terrible jousting accident left him with a bad leg, which swiftly ended his tennis-playing days. The weight gain we associate with Henry VIII probably came about as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. That, and the fact that he allegedly used to consume around 5,000 calories a meal.
But this is before all of that. This Henry is a young, attractive Henry. This Henry was written to be charming and good at heart. Unfortunately, I could not fool myself into playing along. It’s pretty hard to pretend to like Henry when I know about his life. This play doesn’t discuss any of that, of course. For the title character, Henry isn’t really in this play very much. And the story we are told represents a blip during his reign. Both Fletcher and Shakespeare knew better than to write a gory story about the jealous, murderous, lustful Henry VIII. Although that would have been a much better play, this particular show was being put on for James I, Queen Elizabeth’s successor. As in, Queen- Elizabeth-daughter-of-Henry VIII’s successor. So, all in all, making this play incredibly boring was a smart choice.
We open in England (of course), where the Duke of Buckingham is vexed by a recent incredibly expensive and fruitless meeting between the English and the French.
BUCKINGHAM Who did guide,
I mean who set the body and the limbs
Of this great sport together, as you guess?
NORFOLK One, certes, that promises no element
In such a business.
BUCKINGHAM I pray you who, my lord?
NORFOLK All this was ordered by the good discretion
Of the right reverend Cardinal of York.
BUCKINGHAM The devil speed him! No man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger. What had he
To do in these fierce vanities? I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ th’ beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.
Buckingham has pretty much had it with Cardinal Wolsey’s meddling and is prepared to call him out for treason. This really isn’t an overreaction – the Cardinal seems to be involved in things that shouldn’t concern him. He has far, far too much power for someone in his position.
But, unfortunately for Buckingham, the King really likes Wolsey.
BUCKINGHAM I’ll to the King,
And from a mouth of honor quite cry down
This Ipswich fellow’s insolence, or proclaim
There’s difference in no persons.
NORFOLK Be advised.
Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot
That it do singe yourself. We may outrun
By violent swiftness that which we run at
And lose by overrunning. Know you not
The fire that mounts the liquor till ‘t run o’er
In seeming to augment it wastes it? Be advised.
I say again there is no English soul
More stronger to direct you than yourself,
If with the sap of reason you would quench
Or but allay the fire of passion.
Buckingham takes Norfolk’s warning seriously, but is determined to expose Wolsey for who he is. But before he can act, he is arrested for treason.
SERGEANT, [to Buckingham]
My lord the Duke of Buckingham and Earl
Of Hertford, Stafford, and Northampton, I
Arrest thee of most high treason, in the name
Of our most sovereign king.
BUCKINGHAM, [to Norfolk]
Lo you, my lord,
The net has fall’n upon me. I shall perish
Under device and practice.
It looks like Wolsey is two steps ahead of poor Buckingham. But the Duke isn’t the only one who isn’t a fan of Wolsey – Queen Katherine has a problem with him too. She goes to Henry to tell him that Wolsey has been taxing the English in the king’s name. Wolsey, of course, tries to play dumb.
WOLSEY Please you, sir,
I know but of a single part in aught
Pertains to th’ state, and front but in that file
Where others tell steps with me.
QUEEN KATHERINE No, my lord?
You know no more than others? But you frame
Things that are known alike, which are not wholesome
To those which would not know them, and yet must
Perforce be their acquaintance. These exactions
Most pestilent to th’ hearing, and to bear ’em
The back is sacrifice to th’ load. They say
They are devised by you, or else you suffer
Too hard an exclamation.
Katherine is a force, and she is the only thing keeping this play alive. I love the firmness and confidence of her response to Wolsey. He may be powerful, but she isn’t afraid of him.
Anyway, Henry decides to pardon commoners who have refused to pay the tax. He should be much, much angrier with Wolsey than he is, but there isn’t time for that. The subject is immediately changed and they begin to discuss poor Buckingham.
Wolsey has a surveyor tell the King what exactly it was that was so treasonous about Buckingham.
BUCKINGHAM First, it was usual with him – every day
If would infect his speech – that if the King
Should without issue die, he’ll carry it so
To make the scepter his. These very words
I’ve heard him utter to his son-in-law,
Lord Abergavenny, to whom by oath he menaced
Revenge upon the Cardinal.
WOLSEY Please your Highness, note
This dangerous conception in this point:
Not friended by his wish to your high person,
His will is most malignant, and it stretches
Beyond you to your friends.
Give me a break! There is no way Buckingham has ever said any of this. Wolsey is just threatened by him, and is desperate to keep Henry on his side. The surveyor continues to make accusations against Buckingham – but Katherine has something to say about it.
QUEEN KATHERINE If I know you well,
You were the Duke’s surveyor, and lost your office
On the complaint o’ th’ tenants. Take good heed
You charge not in your spleen a noble person
And spoil your nobler soul. I say, take heed –
Yes, heartily beseech you.
Katherine’s suspicion isn’t unfounded in the least. I’m sure she knows enough about Buckingham to smell a rat – and she’s sharp enough to immediately recognize that the surveyor would have reason to harbor bitter feelings toward Buckingham. Henry decides to ignore this little detail, and is incredibly shocked by the story he’s hearing.
KING There’s his period,
To sheathe his knife in us! He is attached.
Call him to present trial. If he may
Find mercy in the law, ’tis his; if none,
Let him not seek ‘t of us. By day and night,
He’s traitor to th’ height!
So now Buckingham will be called to trial. Cardinal Wolsey has Henry wrapped around his little finger for sure.
In the evening, the Cardinal throws a fancy supper. Henry and his men show up disguised as courtiers, and Henry meets a figure who is known to us all.
[The masquers choose Ladies. The King chooses Anne Bullen.]
KING The fairest hand I ever touched! O beauty
Till now I never knew thee.
Sounds a bit like Romeo’s declaration in Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t it? Anyway, you now know the plot of this play. We all know the story of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII may have ingrained himself in popular culture, but so has Anne. You’ve probably noticed that this play uses the unpopular spelling of ‘Bullen,’ for Anne’s last name. The Tudors didn’t know how to spell, so Anne’s family name has been spelled in a number of different ways. The more you know!
The day after the supper (presumably), Buckingham is led to execution. He declares his loyalty to Henry, which is kind of pointless given that he’s on his way to the block. But Buckingham is old news. There’s new gossip going around town.
SECOND GENTLEMAN I am confident;
You shall, sir. Did you not of late days hear
A buzzing of a separation
Between the King and Katherine?
FIRST GENTLEMAN Yes, but it held not;
For when the King once heard it, out of anger
He sent command to the Lord Mayor straight
To stop the rumor and allay those tongues
That durst disperse it.
It is interesting to me that Henry tries to put a stop to the rumors because, well, he knows there’s some truth to them. There is nothing surprising about the way this play pans out, because we know he divorces Katherine and marries Anne. I will say that I think this is incredibly unfair to poor Katherine, who has proven herself to be a good wife and an excellent queen.
The nobles are upset with all of this, and they blame Wolsey for the divide between Katherine and Henry. Wolsey, apparently, has plans to marry Henry to the French king’s sister. Sadly for him, Henry has other ideas. The nobles try their best to discuss this with the king, but he shoos them away. Wolsey and Campeius, the papal legate, approach him with better conversation: they tell him that his divorce proceedings can start.
Anne, meanwhile, is busy feeling sorry for Katherine. She doesn’t know what Henry has in store for her, but she probably suspects something when she is suddenly named marchioness of Pembroke. Her lady finds this pretty suspicious.
OLD LADY With your theme, I could
O’ermount the lark. The Marchioness of Pembroke?
A thousand pounds a year for pure respect?
No other obligation? By my life,
That promises more thousands; honor’s train
Is longer than his foreskirt. By this time
I know your back will bear a duchess. Say,
Are you not stronger than you were?
Well, when she puts it like that, it does sound like a ton of bullshit. A thousand pounds a year just because he respects her? Sure.
Poor Katherine, meanwhile, refuses to have the validity of her marriage questioned.
QUEEN KATHERINE Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me; for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions, having here
No judge indifferent nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will comfortable,
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire,
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? What friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger did I
Continue in my liking? Nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged? Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife in this obedience
Upward of twenty years, and have been blessed
With many children by you. If, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honor aught,
My bond to wedlock or my love and duty
Against your sacred person, in God’s name
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp’st kind of judgement.
She continues, but I think we get the point. Poor Katherine. There is something incredibly strong about her, sure, but she also possesses a very unique kind of fragility. She hasn’t done anything wrong – her husband is just immature and foolish. He clearly isn’t thinking in the long term here. He isn’t thinking with the right organ either, if you know what I mean.
Wolsey tries to interfere, but Katherine has none of it.
WOLSEY Be patient yet.
QUEEN KATHERINE I will, when you are humble; nay, before,
Or by God will punish me. I do believe,
Induced by potent circumstances, that
You are mine enemy, and make my challenge
You shall not be my judge; for it is you
Have blown this coal betwixt my lord and me –
Which God’s dew quench! Therefore I say again,
I utterly abhor, yea, from my soul
Refuse you for my judge, whom, yet once more,
I hold my most malicious foe and think not
At all a friend to truth.
Go Katherine! She knows Wolsey has some ulterior motive in all of this, and she has no problem laying it all out on the table. Nothing is decided upon by the time Katherine storms out of the room. All Henry does is deny that Wolsey had anything to do with his decision to divorce Katherine. He says it was his own decision, fueled by the fact that Katherine had not given him any sons.
If only reproductive biology had been a thing back in 1533.
In any case, Henry also decides that he’s a bit annoyed with Wolsey and Campeius, because all of this is taking much too long. The man wants a divorce, and he wants it now.
Wolsey and Campeius decide to try to talk Katherine out of contesting the divorce. She has holed herself away with her ladies.
CAMPEIUS Put your main cause into the King’s protection.
He’s loving and most gracious. ‘Twill be much
Both for your honor better and your cause,
For if the trial of the law o’ertake you,
You’ll part away disgraced.
WOLSEY He tells you rightly.
KATHERINE You tell me what you wish for both: my ruin.
Is this your Christian counsel? Out upon you!
Heaven is above all yet; there sits a judge
That no king can corrupt.
Katherine’s words are bold, and I think she has every right to lash out like this. Henry’s “reason” for divorcing her is bullshit, and I think she knows it.
WOLSEY Madam, you wander from the good we aim at.
QUEEN KATHERINE My lord, I dare not make myself so guilty
To give up willingly that noble title
Your master wed me to. Nothing but death
Shall e’er divorce my dignities.
Katherine is very emotional and angry in this scene, and I find her to be a very sympathetic character overall. But I can’t help but wonder what King James thought about all of this. I’m assuming that Katherine wasn’t written to appeal to royalty, or even to the commoners. They probably saw her as too emotional and stubborn. There certainly is a stark contrast between her and the pure, sweet, calm qualities we see in Anne. But a modern audience wouldn’t care for Anne, I think. All of us would attach ourselves quite quickly to Katherine, and we all feel the sting of her words. Her anger is righteous, and reminds me of the anger we see from Isabella in Measure for Measure.
Katherine keeps fighting, but suddenly she decides to stop. She agrees to do whatever Wolsey and Campeius want, and goes quietly. I was very startled by this sudden change in character. Maybe she knows that all of this is a lost cause. Maybe, suddenly, she realizes that she can be without Henry and still be Katherine of Aragon. She doesn’t need him. Or maybe she knows that allowing the divorce to proceed will reveal certain things about Wolsey…
In the grand scheme of things, she gets off easy compared to his other (future) wives.
Although this trouble with Katherine has been resolved, Wolsey finds himself in a different sort of trouble. The kind of trouble Buckingham was trying to get him into in the first place.
NORFOLK O, fear him not.
His spell in that is out. The King hath found
Matter against him that forever mars
The honey of his language. No, he’s settled.
Not to come off, in his displeasure.
SURREY Sir, I should be glad to hear such news as this
Once every hour.
NORFOLK Believe it, this is true.
In the divorce his contrary proceedings
Are all unfolded, wherein he appears
As I would wish mine enemy.
SURREY How came
His practices to light?
SUFFOLK Most strangely.
SURREY O, how, how?
SUFFOLK The Cardinal’s letters to the Pope miscarried
And came to th’ eye o’ th’ King, wherein was read
How that the Cardinal did entreat his Holiness
To stay the judgement o’ th’ divorce; for if
It did take place, “I do,” quoth he, “perceive
My king is tangled in affection to
A creature of the Queen’s, Lady Anne Bullen.”
I love how much the nobles love their gossip. It seems that Henry’s suspicion that the divorce was being held up wasn’t unfounded. Henry actually knows much worse things about Wolsey – and instead of confronting him about it, he simply hands him a paper outlining all of his crimes and leaves.
The nobles are gleefully watching the entire time.
WOLSEY ‘Tis so.
This paper has undone me. ‘Tis th’ accompt
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends – indeed, to gain the popedom
And fee my friends in Rome. O, negligence,
Fit for a fool to fall by! What cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the King? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if I take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again.
[He looks at another paper.]
What’s this? “To th’ Pope”?
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to ‘s Holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touched the highest point of all my greatness,
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting. I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening
And no man see me more.
Goodbye, you meddling fool. The nobles are super excited to (a) roast Wolsey to his face, and (b) take his seal from him. Cromwell, Wolsey’s servant, is the only one who is sad about this whole thing. What can I say? Bad people don’t deserve good things, and Wolsey was nothing if not a bad egg.
He does seem remorseful, though, but it’s too little too late. He advises Cromwell on how to get into Henry’s good graces. I feel like Henry shouldn’t trust anyone related to Wolsey, but he hasn’t exactly been the brightest tool in the shed so far. The fact that it took him this long to see Wolsey for what he is is very telling.
Anne is crowned Queen, and Katherine dies shortly after. Before she does, she expresses her distaste for Wolsey once again, and sees a vision of herself being led into paradise. She is fine dying because she knows there’s something better out there than the life of disgrace Henry has forced onto her. Poor Katherine.
Since Wolsey’s seat is open, a new archbishop of Canterbury is named. He is called Cranmer – not to be confused with Cromwell, which I did constantly. After Katherine’s death, the rest of this play is pretty much Tudor propaganda. I didn’t care for it at all.
The nobles didn’t like Wolsey, but they don’t like Cranmer either. They see his views as heretical.
GARDINIER My lord, because we have business of more moment,
We will be short with you. ‘Tis his Highness’ pleasure,
And our consent, for better trial of you
From hence you be committed to the Tower,
Where, being but a private man again,
You shall know many dare accuse you boldly –
More than, I fear, you are provided for.
It actually isn’t his Highness’ pleasure, but still. Cranmer is a bit of a whiny crybaby, and wails until Henry presents him with a ring. He is to show this to the council members so that they may know of Henry’s favor. Hilariously, the council members just choose to shut the door on Cranmer during their meeting. Henry furiously intervenes.
SURREY May it please your Grace –
HENRY No, sir, it does not please me.
I had thought I had men of some understanding
And wisdom of my Council, but I find none.
Was it discretion, lords, to let this man,
This good man – few of you deserve that title –
This honest man, wait like a lousy footboy
At chamber door? And one as great as you are?
Why, what a shame was this! Did my commission
Bid you so far forget yourselves? I gave you
Power as he was a councillor to try him,
Not as a groom. There’s some of you, I see,
More out of malice than integrity,
Would try him to the utmost, had you mean,
Which you shall never have while I live.
I genuinely do not trust Henry’s judgement here. I think if the nobles are suspicious of Cranmer, then there must be some reason. Henry clung onto Wolsey until things fell apart. He refuses to hear people out, and always insists on marching to the beat of his own drum. But that doesn’t make a good ruler. He should listen to the others.
During all of this ruckus, Anne gives birth.
To a girl.
What was Henry’s reason for divorcing Katherine again? Ah, irony.
The play ends nonsensically – Cranmer predicts that Elizabeth will have a spectacular reign, and that James I will have an equally magnificent one as well. Rubbish, all done to please the royalty of the time. If you’re going to shill out propaganda, at least make it good à la Richard III.
This play was incredibly disjointed, and only Katherine shone throughout it all. Something in her speech suggests (to me, at least) that Shakespeare had a heavy hand in writing her, but I may be biased. All I know is that this play, as it is, is very weak. For something that followed The Tempest, it is a massive disappointment.
Cymbeline is next! And after that, we’re done! I can’t believe I managed to get this far, especially with all that’s happened to me this past year or so. Hopefully I can squeeze enough out of Cymbeline to bring this Shakespeare extravaganza to a satisfying close. And after that, the highly anticipated (to me, obviously) ranking of all the plays…!
It took me an embarrassingly long time to finish reading Pericles, I know. But, in the spirit of being kind to myself, I did go through a terrible rough patch when I was supposed to be working through this play. It’s gotten better here at the oh for muse of fire headquarters (A.K.A. my bedroom), but I’m still not completely out of the woods yet. Also, Pericles isn’t the greatest play to pull someone out of a funk, is it?
Here’s my opinion in a nutshell: Pericles isn’t one of Shakespeare’s great works. It’s very difficult to feel anything but indifference toward it. This is because Pericles just doesn’t know what its plot is. Is it about a dramatic incestuous reveal? Is it about a young princess looking for her family? Is it about the power of divine intervention? WHO KNOWS.
We open in Antioch, where Pericles is risking his life to win the hand of the princess. The chorus really tells us everything we need to know here, but for the sake of making this post interesting, I’m going to play innocent. Basically, Pericles is in a ‘solve-this-riddle-or-else,’ kind of situation, which reminds me of a similar scene in The Merchant of Venice.
PERICLES Like a bold champion I assume the lists,
Nor ask advice of any other thought
But faithfulness and courage.
[He reads] the Riddle:
‘I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labor
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live resolve it you.’
I honestly, genuinely feel like this isn’t even a riddle. This very clearly states that Antiochus and his daughter are engaged in an incestuous relationship with one another. All the past suitors must not have been very bright. Anyway, Pericles figures it out instantly. I could almost picture him looking pointedly into a camera, mockumentary style.
I’ll share my thoughts on Pericles as a character in a minute, but first:
Heaven, that I had thy head! He has found the meaning.
But I will gloze with him. – Young Prince of Tyre,
Though by the tenor of our strict edict,
Your exposition misinterpreting,
We might proceed to cancel of your days,
Yet hope, succeeding from so fair a tree
As your fair self, doth tune us otherwise.
Forty days longer we do respite you,
If by which time our secret be undone,
This mercy shows we’ll joy in such a son.
And until then, your entertain shall be
As doth befit our honor and your worth.
Again, there was no riddle. Antiochus is shocked when Pericles politely accuses him of incest, and wishes that he had the young prince’s brains. But do you really need brains when the riddle wasn’t even a proper riddle? I’m sorry, I know I’m too hung up on this, but if I walk through the streets yelling, “You know who loves Shakespeare?! This girl!” while dramatically gesturing to myself, that would be a declaration and not a riddle. And that’s basically what Antiochus was doing by airing all of his dirty laundry out for every single suitor to read. Why not just choose a genuinely impossible riddle with no answer? I just can’t wrap my head around it.
Pericles, of course, decides to leave immediately. Antiochus was giving off too much of a ‘I’m going to murder you in your sleep tonight,’ vibe for him to want to stay in Antioch for another forty days.
And speaking of Pericles – I actually like him quite a lot. This is an obscure video game reference that has no place on a Shakespeare blog, but he reminds me of Cecil from Final Fantasy IV. Pericles has a good, genuine heart. Despite being royalty, he never comes off as arrogant or self-serving. He’s harmless. This may make him sound incredibly boring, but trust me, we don’t need a conflicted main character in a play like Pericles.
In a shocking twist (I swear, I’m going to try to quit it with the sarcasm in this post), Antiochus is already busy calling a hit on Pericles.
MESSENGER My lord, Prince Pericles is fled.
ANTIOCHUS, [to Thaliard]
As thou wilt live, fly after, and like an arrow shot from a well-experienced archer hits the mark his eye doth level at, so thou never return unless thou say Prince Pericles is dead.
My lord, if I can get him within my pistol’s length, I’ll make him sure enough. So, farewell, to your Highness.
Pericles sure moves fast, doesn’t he?
At this point, I was pretty sure I had a good sense of the plot of this play. But, as usual, I was wrong. How silly of me to think that Pericles would be straightforward!
Pericles returns to Tyre, but he knows that it’s an obvious hiding place. I mean, if I were Thaliard, I’d look there first. Pericles has an interesting exchange with one of the lords of Tyre, Helicanus.
PERICLES All leave us else; but let your cares o’erlook
What shipping and what lading’s in our haven,
And then return to us.
[The Lords exit.]
Thou hast moved us. What seest thou in our looks?
HELICANUS An angry brow, dread lord.
PERICLES If there be such a dart in princes’ frowns,
How durst thy tongue move anger to our face?
HELICANUS How dares the plants look up to heaven,
From whence they have their nourishment?
PERICLES Thou knowest I have power to take thy life from thee.
HELICANUS I have ground the ax myself;
Do but you stroke the blow.
PERICLES Rise, prithee rise.
Sit down. Thou art no flatterer.
I thank thee for ‘t; and heaven forbid
That kings should let their ears hear their faults hid.
Fit counselor and servant for a prince,
Who by thy wisdom makes a prince thy servant.
What wouldst thou have me do?
The reason Helicanus speaks so freely with Pericles is because he knows he can. This proves to me that, in addition to just being a good person, Pericles is also an excellent king. As I mentioned, arrogance doesn’t leave him deaf to the words of others. He mentions that he could take Helicanus’ life if he wanted, but Helicanus isn’t shaken by these words. He knows Pericles too well.
Helicanus tells Pericles to travel for a while – if Antiochus can’t find him, then he can’t kill him.
Thaliard, meanwhile, arrives in Tyre only to find out that Pericles has already left. He is largely unbothered by this, and gives up on his mark. Antiochus sure knows how to pick his hitmen, doesn’t he?
Pericles arrives in Tarsus, where he saves King Cleon, Queen Dionyza, and literally every other living soul in the country from starvation with his shiploads of food. As a reader, I can appreciate his kindness, but I’m not quite sure this is the best time to be making heroic entrances into starving countries.
In any case, Pericles leaves. His ship, however, is destroyed by a storm and he is washed up on the shores of Pentapolis. It looks like we’ve moved from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night. A group of fishermen are talking among themselves before they encounter him on the beach.
THIRD FISHERMAN […] Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
FIRST FISHERMAN Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: he plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on a’ the land, who never leave gaping till they swallowed the whole parish – church, steeple, bells and all.
I really enjoy coming across such passages in Shakespeare, because they hit so close to home. This could very well be commentary on our current political atmosphere, couldn’t it?
The fishermen help Pericles get dressed and agree to take him to King Simonides’ court, where a tournament for the princess’ birthday is taking place. Pericles always seems to find himself at princess-centric events, it seems. Let us hope that this one doesn’t end in all of us having to find out about a horrifying incestuous relationship between father and daughter.
At the tournament, suitors approach Princess Thaisa to present themselves and to show her their engraved shields. Pericles is the last one to approach her.
SIMONIDES And what’s the sixth and last, the which the knight himself
With such a graceful courtesy delivered?
THAISA He seems to be a stranger; but his present is
A withered branch that’s only green at top,
The motto: In hac spe vivo.
SIMONIDES A pretty moral.
From the dejected state wherein he is,
He hopes by you his fortunes yet may flourish.
Pericles looks a total mess, but what princess wouldn’t be interested in a humble, mysterious, and allegedly handsome knight? Even Simonides is taken with him!
By Juno, that is queen of marriage,
All viands that I eat do seem unsavory,
Wishing him my meat. – Sure, he’s a gallant gentleman.
Things finally seem to be working out for Pericles – this new princess that he’s interested in seems completely normal and lovely. And she is! Finally, something good for our poor prince of Tyre. Although getting married to a princess seems like it would push him into the public eye, and Antiochus is out for his blood, right? That’s the plot of this entire play.
Or it would be, if Antiochus and his daughter hadn’t been burnt to a crisp by flames from an otherworldly source. With both these characters dead, the conflict that I believed Pericles would be challenged by has also turned into a pile of soot. Look, I don’t miss Antiochus and his daughter. Nobody does, because they were disgusting. But what is the plot of this play?
We actually find out about Antiochus from Helicanus, who is taking care of Tyre in Pericles’ absence. But what is Tyre supposed to do now that Antiochus is no longer a threat? They don’t even know where Pericles is.
FIRST LORD Wrong not yourself, then, noble Helicane.
But if the Prince do live, let us salute him,
Or know what ground’s made happy by his breath.
If in the world he live, we’ll seek him out;
If in his grave he rest, we’ll find him there,
And be resolved he lives to govern us,
Or dead, give ‘s cause to mourn his funeral
And leave us to our free election.
I honestly love Tyre. Pericles leaves, and not a single person tries to steal the throne. There is so much respect for their prince – even Helicanus refuses to take the throne until they’ve waited a year for Pericles to return.
Back in Pentapolis, Simonides is pleased to find out that Pericles and Thaisa seem to be in love with one another. Thaisa writes him a dramatic letter insisting that she is going to marry the “stranger knight.” Simonides wants her to, but decides to freak Pericles out a little bit.
PERICLES I am unworthy for her schoolmaster.
SIMONIDES She thinks not so. Peruse this writing else.
A letter that she loves the knight of Tyre?
‘Tis the King’s subtlety to have my life. –
O, seek not to entrap me, gracious lord,
A stranger and distressèd gentleman
That never aimed so high to love your daughter
But bent all offices to honor her.
SIMONIDES Thou hast bewitched my daughter, and thou art
PERICLES By the gods, I have not!
Never did thought of mine levy offense;
Nor never did my actions yet commence
A deed might gain her love or your displeasure.
Poor Pericles. Of course he thinks the letter is part of an elaborate plot that will end in his murder. This happened last time – not that Simonides knows. It’s an accidental mean-spirited trick.
Thaisa enters, and Pericles begs her to tell her father that he hasn’t done anything to lead her astray. Simonides drops the act and reveals that he’s happy to give them his blessing.
There is a relatively small time-skip here: the next major scene opens with Pericles and a pregnant Thaisa on a boat, heading to Tyre. Yet another storm ravages the ship – and poor Thaisa goes into labor during it. She does not make it, leaving Pericles alone with a newborn daughter.
PERICLES O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts
And snatch them straight away? We here below
Recall not what we give, and therein may
Use honor with you.
Pericles really does not deserve any of the terrible things that happen to him. Again, this should have been a story about his conflict with Antiochus, not about his incredibly unlucky relationship with the ocean. But now the plot is about him being a single father, I guess.
They decide to get rid of Thaisa’s body, and Pericles is distraught.
PERICLES A terrible childbed thou had, my dear,
No light, no fire. Th’ unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly. Nor have I time
To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze,
Where, for a monument upon thy bones
And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells. – O, Lychorida,
Bid Nestor bring me spices, ink, and paper,
My casket and my jewels; and bid Nicander
Bring me the satin coffin. Lay the babe
Upon the pillow. Hie thee, whiles I say
A priestly farewell to her. Suddenly, woman!
Reading this, I am quite convinced that Pericles and Thaisa could have been one of Shakespeare’s most successful romantic couples. But not enough time was spent on them, and so we must take whatever scraps we are given. It does sound like Pericles had an incredible amount of love and respect for her – he must be so confused, dealing with loss and the joy of his new daughter at the same time.
Thaisa’s body washes onto the beaches of Ephesus. A doctor is called, and the casket is opened.
CERIMON Shrouded in cloth of state, balmed and entreasured
With full bags of spices. A passport too!
Apollo, perfect me in the characters.
‘Here I give to understand,
If e’er this coffin drives aland,
I, King Pericles, have lost
This queen, worth all our mundane cost.
Who finds her, give her burying.
She was the daughter of a king.
Besides this treasure for a fee,
The gods requite this charity.’
If thou livest, Pericles, thou hast a heart
That ever cracks for woe. This chanced tonight.
Oh, Pericles. Even his letter tugs at your heartstrings. I wish Shakespeare had written more about Pericles and Thaisa – they’re practically the only characters in this play who deserve to have poetry written about them.
The doctor manages to revive Thaisa – I know, I know. This play isn’t Twelfth Night anymore, but rather The Winter’s Tale.
On his way to Tyre, Pericles drops his daughter – named Marina, after the sea – at Tarsus. He asks Cleon and Dionyza to take care of her and to raise her well. It isn’t a huge demand, given that he saved their lives a few acts ago.
Another time-skip takes place here, and in true The Winter’s Tale fashion, we next see Marina as a teenager. Dionyza is insanely jealous at how Marina outshines her own daughter, and decides to have her murdered. It looks like some of Pericles’ bad luck rubbed off on poor Marina. She is almost killed, but is then kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel in Mytilene – I know, I know. Let’s just grin and bear it.
Marina is able to talk her way out of every single seedy situation she finds herself in at this brothel. Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, is so touched by her way with words that he gives her enough money to buy herself out of the brothel. Maybe touched isn’t the right word – I highly suspect that Marina’s eloquence shamed him. He knows that going to the brothel is wrong, and hearing sweet words tumble from a virgin’s mouth ruins him. Which, you know, good. Marina is impressive, and has the potential to be lovely just like her mother.
Pericles eventually returns to Tarsus to retrieve his daughter, only to find out that she’s died. Cleon and Dionyza lie to him about how it happened, of course. Pericles vows to spend the rest of his life in mourning. His ship finds its way to Mytilene, where Marina has found great success since her brothel days – brothel hours?
Lysimachus visits with Pericles, and decides to call upon Marina so that she can cheer the grieving king up. Pericles immediately takes note of how familiar Marina is to him.
PERICLES I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping.
My dearest wife was like this maid, and such
A one my daughter might have been: my queen’s
Square brows, her stature to an inch;
As wandlike straight, as silver-voiced; her eyes
As jewel-like, and cased as richly; in pace
Another Juno; who starves the ears she feeds
And makes them hungry the more she gives them speech. –
Where do you live?
After all these years, Pericles still grieves for Thaisa. He must have loved her so much, and even if we didn’t get to see enough of them, it still hurts a little.
MARINA First, sir, I pray, what is your title?
PERICLES I am Pericles of Tyre. But tell me now
My drowned queen’s name, as in the rest you said
Thou hast been godlike perfect, the heir of kingdoms,
And another life to Pericles thy father.
MARINA Is it no more to be your daughter than
To say my mother’s name was Thaisa?
Thaisa was my mother, who did end
The minute I began.
And so, in the sweetest scene in this entire play, Pericles and Marina are reunited. I found this to be very emotional and well-written – I am kind of a father’s girl myself, and I can’t imagine how tearfully happy a reunion like this would be.
Pericles takes a sudden nap, and is visited by the goddess Diana – I know, but we’re almost done. She tells him to go to her temple in Ephesus, but doesn’t tell him why.
Before they set sail, Lysimachus asks Pericles for Marina’s hand in marriage, and he agrees immediately. I wasn’t too happy with this, considering the circumstances under which Lysimachus and Marina met. Why would she want to marry a seedy guy she met in a brothel? A man she literally had to shame before he decided not to buy her virginity? Isn’t a princess a little too good for a governor? So many questions, and absolutely no time for answers.
Pericles enters Diana’s temple in Ephesus, and comes face to face with Thaisa, who has been there since she was revived. They recognize one another, and are also reunited. This is literally the plot of The Winter’s Tale – except Pericles deserves happiness, while Leontes did not.
THAISA Now I know you better.
[She points to the ring on his hand.]
When we with tears parted in Pentapolis,
The king my father gave you such a ring.
PERICLES This, this! No more, you gods! Your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well
That the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. – O, come, be buried
A second time within these arms!
I really enjoy that, after all these years, there is still a ton of chemistry between Pericles and Thaisa. I adore how emotional he is around her – there is no fake macho behavior from this king.
And they all live happily ever after. Except for Cleon and Dionyza, of course, who get murdered by their own people. But that isn’t important.
Whew! It was actually a struggle to get this post out after not writing for so long, so forgive me if it isn’t as good as some of my other ones. With Pericles out of the way, I am only left with Henry VIII and Cymbeline. I’m super excited to get into another history, but I really shouldn’t get my hopes up. It’s still an uphill climb from here, I think. Anyway – thanks for sticking with me as I’ve dealt with all of my boring life stuff! I’ll have all of these plays read and analyzed just like I promised.