SHAKESPEARE

WILL? WILL WHO?

Shakespeare’s will, written in secretary hand.

In the name of God Amen. I William Shackspeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwickshire gent., in perfect health & memory God be praised, do make & ordain this my last will & testament in manner & form following. That is to say first, I commend my Soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping & assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting. And my body to the earth whereof it is made.

For someone who is fully aware that we know very little about Shakespeare, I sure do spend a lot of time thinking about him…and thinking about how annoying it is that we know so little. Who was he? What were his worldviews? Was he a kind man?

I should preface this post by saying that I personally believe that Shakespeare was a bit of a forward-thinker for his time. You could think otherwise – and that’s fair. I came to my conclusion through reading his plays, and analyses of his work are always up for debate.

Whenever I suggest that Shakespeare was something of a modern thinker, I always have somebody mention how his female characters are treated. And that person is almost always thinking about The Taming of the Shrew. And, hey, they aren’t wrong. The Taming of the Shrew was written by a man who truly believed that Petruchio’s taming of Kate (achieved through endless abuse and gas-lighting) was a happy ending. But, like most people in this world, he experienced some personal growth. And we see his perspective on women shift as he moves forward – and shift in a way that is not what you would expect of a man living in Elizabethan England.

The way women are treated as characters has always been very important to me. And stumbling upon work by your favorite playwright that suggests that he didn’t understand women can be a hard pill to swallow. I started writing this post a few days ago, but stopped and went out to pick up Tina Packer’s Women of Will: The Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare’s Female Characters. She writes:

Shakespeare broke a mold. After about five years of writing, he saw women as women, including the bind they had been put into. No other playwright, writing before Shakespeare or at the same time as Shakespeare, had ever seen women as women.

[…] Whether he was writing as Romeo or Benedick or Antony, the fact is that Shakespeare himself was brave enough to change, to undergo an internal journey that means his heroes have the capacity of self-reflection as well as for fighting a battle or giving pleasure to others. And the women are full partners with the men. The artist Shakespeare inhabited the women’s world with as much depth as he did the men’s.

Expecting your favorite ancient playwright to understand what was popularly accepted as the lesser sex is ridiculous. But for whatever reason, Shakespeare did begin to understand. And we see traces of modern thought in him as he explores his female characters, what they can be, and what sort of power they can wield. Packer suggests that Shakespeare began to understand women once he fell in love with The Dark Lady, who is referenced in Sonnet 130. And maybe that’s true. But regardless of whether or not it is, Shakespeare opened his own mind to different viewpoints and allowed himself to grow and change even as the times remained largely the same. And if he did fall in love, well, it’s nice to know that his brand of passion included fully understanding his partner – body, soul, and mind.

The Merchant of Venice is an uncomfortable play for many reasons. Our main heroes are blatantly antisemitic, and it becomes difficult to root for them. And you can’t help but ask yourself if Shakespeare feels that way himself. Again, expecting your favorite dinosaur of a playwright to be anything other than a product of the times he lived in is ridiculous and a bit naive. And yet –

SHYLOCK
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my grains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

This, of course, does not prove anything. But I can’t help but wonder why Shakespeare decided to include these sentiments at all. Why not have Shylock just be the Jewish antagonist the audience would love to hate? Why give us a reason to pity him at all?

When I was a freshman in college, I took a seminar where we explored Shakespeare and religion. We spent the whole quarter on Antony and Cleopatra, and we tried to come to a conclusion about Shakespeare: was he Catholic, or Protestant? I came up with wild theories about how Antony represented Catholicism and Octavian Protestantism, and we went quite far with my theory. But when the quarter ended, my answer about Shakespeare himself had remained unchanged – he was neither Catholic or Protestant. He was just Shakespeare.

Having come from a mixed Catholic/Protestant family, and having felt the tensions between both religious groups outside of his home, I had doubts that Shakespeare would have been too invested or interested in religion. I still have those doubts, six years after taking the seminar. And perhaps it was his non-relationship with religion that allowed him to write Shylock, a Jew, as a human rather than as a tired stereotype. Again, Shakespeare impresses by trying to view lives different from his from all angles. I find this ability to be one of someone interested in intellectual and emotional growth – and I find that interest to be a modern and enlightened one.

Now that the year is ending, I wanted to write about my personal feelings about Shakespeare. Every time I’ve tried to, I’ve come up short. I can easily say things like, “I really love Hemingway’s work,” or “John Keats writes the best poetry I’ve ever read,” but I’ve never been able to properly articulate what Shakespeare means to me. I’m going to try now, for the sake of tying up 2016 with a neat little bow, but it probably won’t be pretty, so brace yourself.

Shakespeare has a bad rep among high school students. I was indifferent toward him in that I didn’t care. And, yes, perhaps I did feel a little bit of dread when we were assigned Richard III in eleventh grade. But in the middle of the first act, I was absolutely smitten.

I could very easily just tell people that I love Shakespeare, but the statement seems too simple. When I read Richard III, I was falling in love with characters, and I was getting emotionally invested in the predicaments they were in. But, in a way, I was also meeting Shakespeare for the first time. It was as if I was reaching out into a dark, uncertain void of the English language, and grasping at the hand of somebody who had the same intense curiosity about humans, and what humanity is. And the more I read, the more desperate I became to understand Shakespeare in the same way I was understanding his characters. An impossible task, obviously, but it’s that same desperation that left me enrolling in college-level Shakespeare classes years later.

Reading The Tempest in London was something close to a religious experience. This was Shakespeare – he was trying to communicate with us through Prospero, laying his magical staff down and leaving the isle. And I have no doubt that I will feel that same excitement when I read Love’s Labor’s Lost, another play that is allegedly something of a self-insert story. I have never in my life been so curious to know a writer in the way I’ve been curious to know Shakespeare. It is difficult to tell people that I disliked a play, because they always doubt how much I really love Shakespeare. But I do. I could read a thousand bad plays and my dedication to him would remain untouched. He is as curious as I am, and as a result he has become an extension of myself.

It’s funny – for all my effort to write posts on this blog using academia appropriate language, I can’t help but dissolve into a mess of strange emotions by year’s end. But nothing I wrote is exaggerated – I mean every word. Maybe I love too much, maybe I cling to something that is not worth clinging to – but that is the way I am, and the way I’ll always be. Shakespeare was the same, feeling every emotion at an unnatural intensity and throughout every facet of his being.

And, you know what? I don’t think I’m special for loving Shakespeare this way. I think every single person in this world can love Shakespeare the way I do, because we are all curious about each other as humans in the way Shakespeare was. It only takes a play to tap into that dormant curiosity.

There are 24 of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t read. In 2017, I will be reading two of them a month, and I hope you’ll join me! Have a safe New Year’s, and I’ll see you soon with Henry VI in hand.

THE WINTER'S TALE

A SAD TALE’S BEST FOR WINTER

Image result for judi dench perdita
Dame Judi Dench as Perdita in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale, 1970.

We concluded the quarter with The Winter’s Tale, which is a strange, unpopular play. I do not mean unpopular in that it is disliked, I mean unpopular in that it is rarely taught, and rarely staged. It finds itself overshadowed by more popular plays, like Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. But I liked The Winter’s Tale, and I think there is so much more to it than the fact that poor Antigonus follows the unintentionally hilarious stage direction [Exit, pursued by a bear.]

The Winter’s Tale is the only play I’ve read so far that has a very dramatic time skip – sixteen years! And although time moves in the play, it did not move as quickly for me, so I found myself having no sympathy for King Leontes.

Remember how merciless I was toward King Lear? I find myself just as merciless toward King Leontes – perhaps even more. His sudden insistence that Hermione is cheating on him with Polixenes is so difficult to explain. But, surprisingly, a small difference that I noted between the folio and quarto versions could help to clarify things.

The copy of the play that I own is the Dover Thrift Edition version. Side note: I do not recommend Dover’s Shakespeare publications. I find the annotations to be very poor, and more confusing than they are useful. I learned this quarter that it is best to stick to the Folger Shakespeare Library, Pelican, and Oxford publications of Shakespeare’s plays. In any case, the Dover edition takes its text directly from the folio. Most modern publications of Shakespeare’s plays are synthesis editions, that combine both quarto and folio texts to improve the experience of the reader. A line that typically goes to Leontes goes to Hermione in the folio:

HERMIONE
‘Tis grace indeed.
Why, lo you now, I have spoke to the purpose twice:
The one for ever earn’d a royal husband;
The other for some while a friend.
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.

KING LEONTES
[Aside.] Too hot, too hot!
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be padding palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort ‘o the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?

It is easy to overlook, but the underlined “To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods,” actually goes to Leontes in the quarto text. In synthesis editions, it remains a line of Leontes’. I honestly do not mind who the line goes to, but if you have the folio text in hand, you might be able to make an argument for Leontes’ jealousy.

Perhaps Leontes has been misinterpreting Hermione and Polixenes’ friendship for a few months now – but he never had any concrete evidence to form an accusation against them. But the line, if given to Hermione, could be a damning one that could result in Leontes’ descent into insane jealousy.

But whatever Leontes’ reason, he’s an over-dramatic, egotistical fool. I do not care for him as a character at all, and I am incredibly happy that Paulina yelled at him for sixteen years straight.

Paulina is by far the best character in this play. She never feels any fear, and only she has the guts to tell Leontes that his actions have ruined them all. What kind of man refuses his newborn daughter? Disregards the oracle’s decree that said that Hermione was true to him, and only really shakes out of his jealous stupor when he his wife and young son both die from grief and shock? And while the other aristocrats handle King Leontes with kid gloves, Paulina lashes out at him and lets him know just what kind of person he is.

The time skip is important to this play, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have had anywhere to go with this tale otherwise. Time is a benevolent power in this play who speaks sweetly of Perdita, now a beautiful shepherdess in Bohemia. And as for Leontes, he still feels the pain that his actions caused sixteen years ago. Good.

When we find ourselves in Bohemia post-time skip, we see that Perdita is a beautiful, pure maiden who has Florizel, Polixenes’ son, desperate to marry her. What are the chances? Well, because this is a Shakespeare play, very high.

We meet Autolycus in Bohemia around this time, and despite the fact that he insists that he’s a terrible con, he’s really just a silly man who “accidentally” finds himself performing a lot of good deeds. I was surprised by his loyalty to Florizel, because it really did sound like he had been fired or banished from the court. But in any case, Autolycus, despite being obsessed with causing trouble, is equally as obsessed with getting back into Florizel’s good graces.

Through a series of hilarious mishaps, Leontes ends up reunited with Perdita. He makes up with Polixenes, and Perdita and Florizel are finally able to marry one another.

The Winter’s Tale begins with Sicilia plunged into winter – but when Perdita returns, it is springtime.

PERDITA
Out, alas!
You’d be so lean, that blasts of January
Would blow you through and through.
Now, my fair’st friend,
I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might
Become your time of day; and yours, and yours,
That wear upon your virgin branches yet
Your maidenheads growing: O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let’st fall
From Dis’s wagon! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!

The Greek myth of Hades and Persephone is my favorite, and I was just tickled to see that a parallel could be formed between Perdita and Persephone. Even before she calls on Persephone, and references Hades’ chariot, it is clear that Perdita has a lot of the ‘beautiful maiden of flowers’ aura that Persephone is often characterized by. You can imagine her tending to flowers, dressed in white with a crown of leaves and petals on her head – and you can imagine Persephone doing the same.

If you aren’t familiar with the myth of Hades and Persephone, I highly recommend reading Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. But, in short: Persephone, goddess of springtime and daughter to Demeter, goddess of the harvest, is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld. In her grief, Demeter brings winter to the people, destroying all their crops. However, when she is reunited with Persephone, springtime comes. As Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, she finds herself going back and forth between earth and her husband’s realm. And so, the seasons cycle. Demeter’s grief results in the coming of winter, and her happiness at her daughter’s return results its subsequent transition into springtime.

When Perdita is born, it is winter in Sicilia. Misery and ruin stain the kingdom for years, as Leontes suffers from guilt and regret. When Perdita returns, spring has come. She brings joy and promise. She is very much like Persephone in how her presence changes things. I suppose, if we were to further develop this parallel, Leontes is Demeter. But, then, to compare Florizel to Hades would be laughable. So it isn’t an airtight parallel, but the similarities are certainly there.

The Winter’s Tale has the most bizarre ending of any play I have ever read. Everybody gathers at a chapel in Paulina’s house to view a statue of Hermione, which looks a little too life-like.

PAULINA
Either forbear,
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement. If you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think –
Which I protest against – I am assisted
By wicked powers.

KING LEONTES
What you can make her do,
I am content to look on; what to speak,
I am content to hear; for ’tis as easy
To make her speak as move.

PAULINA
It is required
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;
On: those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.

KING LEONTES
Proceed:
No foot shall stir.

PAULINA
Music, awake her; strike!
[Music.]
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:
[HERMIONE comes down.]
Start not; her actions shall be as holy as
You hear my spell is lawful: do not shun her
Until you see her die again; for then
You kill her double. Nay, present your hand:
When she was young you woo’d her; now in age
Is she become the suitor?

What on earth? The impossibility of Hermione being resurrected caused my immune system to collapse, and I caught a cold not too soon after finishing this play. But how does this nonsense fit into a play with almost zero references to the supernatural?

It doesn’t – because this isn’t a resurrection at all. When I was overcoming my cold (thanks, Shakespeare), I began to reason that Hermione hadn’t died at all. She faints in front of Leontes, and we never actually see her body. Now, I have no idea who or what they buried, but it sure as hell wasn’t Hermione. After she faints and is taken to another room, she and Paulina hatch a plan to make Leontes pay for his foolishness. Nothing can shake him out of his jealous rage – so perhaps it is in his best interest if Hermione ‘die.’ After all, he doesn’t deserve her in his current state, so why should she stay?

So Paulina keeps Hermione at her home. This is not difficult to believe, because Paulina’s adoration for Hermione is obvious. As the years pass, Paulina makes sure Leontes knows what he lost. They wait until the prophecy is fulfilled: when Perdita finally returns to them, Hermione returns as well. Leontes now knows that he needs to be better to his Queen, and a ‘happily ever after’ ending doesn’t seem so impossible.

This is all ridiculous, of course, but The Winter’s Tale is a ridiculous play. Leontes is so happy with Hermione’s return that he tells Paulina to marry Camillo which is just…yet another stupid decision on his part. Nothing about Camillo implies that he is worthy of the fierce and intelligent Paulina, but oh well. We know how Shakespeare loves his weddings.

You’ll note, however, that Mamillius actually did die. And nobody really seems to care about him. Poor Mamillius – I’ll remember you fondly.

KING LEAR

OUT, VILE JELLY! WHERE IS THY LUSTRE NOW?

Joseph Marcell as King Lear – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company

Well, I’m back. I never did stop sitting in on my beloved Shakespeare class, but I did lose the desire to write. I lost the desire to do a lot of things after November 8th. But I just can’t let the foolishness and utter stupidity of people prevent me from doing the thing I love most, so let’s talk about King Lear.

Overall, I liked this play a lot. However, I found that the acts were far too long, and that way too much happened in them. This doesn’t really mean anything if you’re seeing the play unfold before you, but if you’re a student in a class like I was, it’s a bit hard to keep track.

But here’s the big question: do you pity King Lear?

Because I am a hard-hearted no-nonsense person, I don’t. “But Shereen,” you say, your voice filled with sympathy for Lear, “he changes!”

Characters change so often in Shakespeare’s plays. And I do appreciate that many of them decide to stop being awful, but I really don’t think that their previous actions deserve to be overlooked just because of that. King Lear’s silliness and ego drove his kingdom to ruin. I am capable of overlooking small errors in judgement, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

The play opens in the most ridiculous way:

KING LEAR
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.
Our son of Cornwall
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this house a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.
The two great princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn
And here are to be answered. Tell me, my daughters –
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state –
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest born, speak first.

For heaven’s sake, Lear, a test of love? The sensible thing to do would be to split the kingdom evenly between Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia – but no. King Lear wants to know who is willing to stroke his ego the most, so that he may give them the rewards they deserve. Such nonsense!

Cordelia is having none of this:

KING LEAR
– Now, our joy,
Although our last and least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interessed, what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’? Speak.

CORDELIA
Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR
Nothing?

CORDELIA
Nothing.

Cordelia is the only child of Lear’s that genuinely loves him. She tells him she loves him as a daughter should love her father, no more and no less. Lear is not impressed by this. The King of France, who ends up being very sensible, whisks Cordelia off to France to be his Queen – because, as he rightfully notes, this entire situation is incredibly ridiculous.

But I want to talk about Cordelia’s response for a second here, because it sparked a bit of a discussion in class. An overwhelming majority of students wanted to know why Cordelia was so terse in her response to her father – is she unable to read a room? Why not embellish her language a little? Tell her father what he wants to hear?

I spoke up in defense of Cordelia. She is who she is, and she makes a decision in that moment that she will not pretend to be anything but herself. She speaks honestly because she is a fundamentally honest person. Although it results in her undeserved banishment, you have to love Cordelia simply because of her insistence to stay true to herself.

It’s funny, because the entire class expressed admiration toward Edmund for being so unabashedly unashamed of who he is. Why is it okay for Edmund, and not Cordelia? It seems that even when analyzing a play published in the 1600s, people are unable to shake their internalized standards for women.

But speaking of Edmund…I love him. He reminds me a lot of Richard, who also had the habit of divulging all of his sinister plans to the audience. He screws Edgar and Gloucester over so completely – it really is a sight to behold.

I found Goneril and Regan’s sudden infatuation with him to be both hysterical and unexpected. When I read these lines:

GONERIL
My most dear Gloucester!
O, the difference of man and man!
To thee a woman’s services are due;
My fool usurps my body.

I immediately began to choke on the food I was eating, because this was just too much. Where did it come from? How did this happen?

I don’t have a proper answer for you. All I can say is that, much like Richard III, Edmund’s brand of evil is incredibly charming. Even I couldn’t help being a bit taken with him, despite the fact that he was wreaking havoc.

But by play’s end, he seems to have changed his tune:

EDMUND
I pant for life. Some good I mean to do
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send –
Be brief in it – to th’ castle, for my writ
Is on the life of Lear, and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.

ALBANY
Run, run, O, run!

EDGAR
To who, my lord? [To Edmund.] Who has the office?
Send thy token of reprieve.

EDMUND
Well thought on. Take my sword. Give it the Captain.

EDGAR
[To a Soldier.] Haste thee for thy life.

EDMUND
[To Albany.] He hath commission from thy wife and me
To hang Cordelia in the prison, and
To lay the blame upon her own despair,
That she fordid herself.

I have to say that for someone who has been severely injured, Edmund sure takes a long time to die.

There are two ways of seeing this sudden change in Edmund. Either he’s actually feeling awful for ruining everybody’s lives, or he’s just trying to cause one last bit of drama to make the most out of his last moments. I would agree with either, honestly, but I love the second analysis. Edmund is a terrible person – and perhaps it’s best to just leave him as such rather than try to make an angel out of him at the very last minute. He pipes up about Cordelia and Lear’s fates, and that immediately causes a frenzy. Just how he likes it, no?

King Lear is a tragedy, and so it ends the way you’d expect. I felt terribly for Cordelia.

KING LEAR
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never –
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

[He dies.]

Ah, Lear, you poor fool. I love the repetition of the word ‘never.’ Shakespeare is masterful with language, that much is true – even I, King Lear’s biggest critic, could feel the depths of his grief as he held Cordelia’s dead body in his arms.

But, even then, a small voice piped up in the back of my mind: he did this to himself. If you can trust Shakespeare to do anything, it’s to show you what ruin foolish behavior can result in.

And, unfortunately, that sentiment is far too relevant to current events. What on earth would Shakespeare think of us now?