Pericles, Prince of Tyre

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people are capable of revelatory thoughts while bathing.  A few weeks ago, I was musing on the nature of Shakespeare’s romances while washing my hair.  I mean, who doesn’t do that on the regular?  I started to make connections between the three I’ve covered for this project already and the concept of forgiveness that pervades the romances.  But of course, my fledgling idea could be stronger if I actually read the other two romances to see if there are further connections.  So here we are, jumping right in!

Pericles is certainly a strange little fairy tale.  I loved the steadfast Marina, how she works at retaining her innocence despite all the evil circumstances that are thrown her way.  She still seeks to be good and to find and promote goodness in others.  This play got me wondering: is forgiveness a part of the process when we keep someone from doing us harm…and something that we know they’ll later regret?  We all need a conscience, after all.

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Sonnet 10

Last February, I posted a video of me reading a sonnet for a cool project.  To recap, the online antique book retailer, Buzz Bookstore, called for volunteers, just everyday people (not necessarily scholars or actors), to create short videos performing/reading each of the 154 total Shakespearean sonnets: the Buzz 154 Project.  Well, over a year later, he revisited the project as some volunteers had backed out.  To help reach completion, I recorded another one!  Sonnet 10, for your pleasure.  Be sure to check out all of them at the above link!

All's Well That Ends Well

I’ve got just a few plays to go to the finish line!  So I put up a Twitter survey to see what should come next, and this was the front-runner.  I was surprised, as I’ve yet to come across anyone who actively enjoys this play.  Wondering if some non-literary friends voted and based it entirely on the title...?  I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this strange problem play. 

By all means, I didn’t think I would be so taken with a tale of a steadfast girl who loves a boy who does everything he can to avoid her.  The love story central to the plot is supremely annoying, the tale of a girl who undervalues herself and a snobbish boy who’s hardly worth her while.  But the women in this play utterly turned me around!  They are loyal, courageous, and so supportive of one another.  It’s all too easy to find tales of women in constant competition – this play made me think warmly on the beautiful ladies in my life who have given so much of themselves.  Women are amazing!

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Titus Andronicus

I originally planned on covering this play last October – something fitting about reading Shakespeare’s bloodiest play during the Halloween season.  I read one act and then abandoned it.  The US presidential election happened in the middle of my reading.  My news feed, my friends, my own head, were all filled with such dread, quoting so many voices of violence and anger as well as despair…I just couldn’t take the evil revenge fantasy of this play at the same time (I picked up a copy of the sonnets instead). 

Ugh, this play, y’all.  Titus Andronicus can be pretty revolting (it’s especially hard to watch/read Lavinia’s arc), even for a lover of horror films like me. Not to mention, it’s downright clunky.  It is considered one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, one that tends to be viewed through a lens of knowledge on his later plays.  The younger Shakespeare gives us a shocking, gory, thrill-ride plot with juvenile characters that focus on action rather than self-analysis.  The mature playwright dove inward with his characters as his writing progressed, sometimes to the degree that analysis outweighed action.  It makes sense that his writing would grow and become more refined and nuanced as the man himself sharpened his skills…and just grew older and lived more life.  As we all get older and gain more experience, don’t we do the exact same thing?

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Twelfth Night (or What You Will)

I firmly believe in exposing my kids to theatre.  And testing the waters with a little free Shakespeare?  Culture + my personal interests + FREE = yes please.  It’s not Shakespeare in the Park season, but there is a group in my region that tours slimmed-down, hour-long versions of Shakespeare ( with a 5 person cast, no less!) each fall/winter around local libraries and community centers.  [The world would be a better place if everyone had access to this.]  I’ve certainly dragged my daughter to her fair share of theatre, including the Bard.  This month, I tried an experiment that had failure written all over it: I invited my kid’s Daisy Scout troop to attend as well.  That’s right – 12 first-graders, many with parents and siblings in tow, actually took me up on this event.  I was utterly surprised to find that this simple outing would push me out of my safety zone, just by sharing an interest with some casual acquaintances.  As a result, I feel like I'm the one who ended up in the fun-land that is Illyria.  

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The Merchant of Venice

Right now, the first months of 2017, is the strangest time in politics and government that I have ever witnessed.  I know, I know.  I already did a Trump comparison of a Shakespeare play.  I promise this isn’t going to focus on a specific person in power…more the idea of power itself. 

The Merchant of Venice is a love story, a friendship story.  But it’s equally a tale of power, prejudice, commerce (both monetary and emotional), and negotiation.  The plot hinges on laws and how to interpret them.  Oppressed Shylock tries to use the law to his advantage and fails.  As many laws are up for reinterpretation or change here in the States under a new administration, I wondered how fair Venice’s laws were to its people.  What happens when the law doesn’t exactly protect or serve the citizens?  What are we supposed to do then (i.e. now)? 

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Henry VI, Part III

This play (and this episode) is squarely centered on the concept of revenge.  Most of the players are less motivated by which monarch they feel is truly ordained by God, and more by getting vengeance for any deceased or disgraced relatives who are collateral in the Wars of Roses.  Getting even at any cost is upheld as the marker of honor.  Any time Henry does the opposite and refuses to act out against his enemies, his supporters and family rebuff him.  Retaliation doesn’t lead to anything good in this play, only death and civil war.  It’s hard to feel righteous about fighting back if your head is displayed on a pike, you know?  Our own acts of retribution for the hurts and wrongs we have suffered tend to be less extreme today (less vigilante king-crowning and murdering), but I wonder if they really do make us feel any better.  When is it best to blaze up in righteous indignation, and when is it best to attempt to forgive and forget?

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Henry VI, Parts I & II

Why yes, this is my first (only?) combo post!  Two for the price of one and all that.

The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses has finally come States-side!  PBS aired the first part just before Christmas, which was a mash-up of the first two Henry VI plays.  I’ve spent the past weeks reading both plays so I can jump into the mini-series head on.  Big hello and how-ya-doing to all my UK pals (and any North American friends with workarounds for streaming the BBC) who saw this over the summer and have practically forgotten all about it by now! 

I wasn’t taken with the themes of the Henry VI plays as much as the process of slimming them down for performance.  I wondered a lot about what makes history, about facts versus perspective and what parts we decide to remember rather than leave behind.  After a year that had the world reeling, it made me consider how I want to treat the history of my 2016.

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The Sonnets

I started a new reading while on a mini-vacation with some old girlfriends.  I rarely take time away from my family.  And I wanted to travel light.  So my Folger paperback copy of the sonnets got to accompany me.  It was a lovely break from the plays.  I decided to read them as a singular work (realizing full well that may not have been how they were intended to be read), and I’m writing about them as such.  It seemed a bit easier than 154 individual mini-posts for each sonnet (even my nerdy self doesn’t want to read that).  Besides, it makes for a juicy narrative!  These sonnets have now been my companions throughout the end of autumn, which seems oddly fitting.  Nights are getting longer as the poems get darker.  And it helped me work through a problem that's been nagging me for weeks.

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Henry VIII

My choices in what to read are slowly but surely becoming more limited as I am now on my 26th play for this project!  I haven’t dabbled too much in Shakespeare’s collaborative efforts, so it felt time to take a peak at a shared work.  And I have to say, I was thoroughly unimpressed.  The problem with this play is that it lacks any cohesive tone or theme that follows the entire story.  The characters don’t have full arcs where the audience witnesses downfall or redemption.  I tried my best to separate my knowledge of these historical figures and to just appreciate them as characters within a single story.  Unfortunately, this play allows for very little complexity, layering, or humanity in these characters, aside from maybe Katherine. Of this play, I found myself asking, “What is the point of you, Craig?”

Seriously.  What is this play even trying to say?  It can’t decide what kind of story it is.  It's a history play about a narcisstic and volatile king who hardly has a strong political message beside following his whims.  It feels exactly as frustrating as the current US presidental election, with particular emphasis on a certain candidate.

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The Winter's Tale

Shakespeare in the Park!  One of my favorite times of year, and I am so pleased that SF Shakespeare Festival decided to go the slightly untraditional route with this random romance.  I took my daughter for the second year.  As I’ve been working on this project for the past year, my kids have definitely picked up some things along the way.  They play a warped version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 3 year old insists on being Bottom because he thinks the name is funny).  They recognize the Bard’s various portraits thanks to my paraphernalia.  My oldest enjoys the Bruce Coville illustrated Shakespeare tales for children, and she’s memorized various lines.  All of this makes my little literary heart go pitter-patter.  But then I feel a jolt of guilt – are my children only into this because they’re trying to please me?

There are so many aspects of The Winter’s Tale that receive rightful attention: themes of faith, the passage of time, and fear and jealousy being blinding emotions.  Upon this reading I was really taken with Mamillius, and Leontes’s shaky self-assurance that his small son is his very image.  I was also struck by Polixenes and his need to bend Florizel to his will.  Perdita, the adopted child, is caught in limbo – perceived to be too good for her foster family but unknowing of her true familial duty.  These poor kids have a lot of expectations laid on their shoulders.  In this story, parents attempt to redeem themselves through their children…which made wonder: do I do the same with mine?

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The Taming of the Shrew

Oh, I have such a love/hate relationship with this work (as do many others long before me).  It was the first ever Shakespearean play in which I performed, back in my senior year of high school.  It inspired a classic, hilarious teen movie (to which I heavily related because I was 17 when it came out).  I’ve seen some great performances of this play.  Part of my love centers on the heightened theatricality of this play – more so than most, the text is determined by how it’s interpreted by a director and actors.

But the straight text, taken without the nuance and emotive direction of seeing it performed, is so troubling.  Modern audiences grapple with Petruchio's treatment of his new wife and of Kate's reasons for transformation.  Many attempt to explain why Kate is a shrew at the beginning.  I think this is a thoroughly modern issue -- since the 20th century, people have been preoccupied with examining past events to explain current behavior.  But where do we draw the line between learning from our pasts and being mired down in them? 

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King John

True story – my kids adore Disney’s Robin Hood.  They like to play their own warped version of it, in which I always have to play the part of King John.  They basically run around the park and squeal about how they refuse to pay their taxes while I pretend to throw a fit and suck my thumb (while giving the world’s worst Peter Ustinov impression).  Most parents probably think I’m raising my kids to be some version of Libertarian.  Anyway, some of my online Shakespeare buddies really enjoy this show, so it was time to check it out.  And turns out, I really did as well.  But not for the sniveling king as much as the illegitimate nephew who keeps trying to advise him.  In this modern world, we should all take a page from the Bastard's book.

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Love's Labour's Lost

Why This Play?: 

I wanted to try something new for this reading.  First, some backstory: about 10 years ago, I was living in Los Angeles and my parents were out in Scottsdale, AZ.  It’s a roughly 6-hour drive between the two cities, so I would road trip out on occasion to visit them.  During that period, I amassed a number of audio books on CD to help pass the solo drive.  One I picked up on the cheap happened to be the Arkangel dramatic reading of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  I listened to it once on a desert drive, tucked it away in my car, and promptly forgot about it for a decade. [I solemnly swear I’ve cleaned out my car multiple times in that decade, I just always kept hold of it in case I had another long solo drive.]  I stumbled upon it again in recent months, and I’ve been saving it for this blog post.

For this reading, I unearthed my old 2007 Macbook, popped in the CD, and followed along with my written copy.  What a fantastic way for the language in this one to come alive!  LLL is infamous for being heavy on the Elizabethan wordplay, and this really helped with my understanding far more than footnotes could.  I may have to dig up more of these at my local library!  This play is about what happens when four men desist their contact with women, but women happen into their lives anyway.  There’s a stupid, cliché adage that love only comes when you cease to look for it.  The thing is... that's actually what happened that led me to my husband.

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Troilus & Cressida

Why This Play?:

I consulted the list of plays I have to finish reading to complete the canon.  I lifted my index finger.  I waved it around in circles over the list, my other hand held over my eyes.  I pushed said finger down to the page.  I saw that I was to read Troilus and Cressida.  I rejoiced that I was to tackle a play that I had never read nor seen.  I dig getting to dive into the unknown.

And it’s an intriguing play.  I’m surprised it’s not performed more.  It’s technically listed as a comedy under the folio, and academics later dubbed it one of the “problem plays.”  I think that’s what makes it feel so modern.  We have here a tale about the idiocy of war.  We have a tale of inconstant women (whose fate and circumstances are solely decided by men).  And we have some surprisingly fun, witty banter.  Then, an ending that has no resolution at all.  It’s all over the place, and there isn’t really a clear message aside from this: trust no one because people lie and/or change their minds, and war is crazy.  Is this right?  Should we take this Troilus and Cressida as a cautionary tale that the rug can be pulled out from us at any moment? 

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As You Like It

I love a good romp in the woods.  It’s still, in today’s world, an ideal we hold: escape to the wilderness to get away from it all.  Shakespeare already explored this idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the lovers of Athens escape from the oppressive court to wild fairyland to find their romantic happiness.  While reading AYLI, I was on vacation far away from my busy California home, visiting my parents in the mountains of North Carolina (hiking Pisgah National Forest, visiting Sierra Nevada’s Brewery,  and taking in all the fresh, green quiet of early spring).  We slowed down and got away from work and schedules.  Focused less on rules and more on fun.  We all need rejuvenating periods like this to reflect, assess, and just blow of steam.  But everyone gets back to reality at some point – even Rosalind will leave the forest and return to court.  So, spiritually speaking, how does one balance a courtly life of duty with a frivolous forest life?

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Why This Play?:

Here we are, tackling one of the most important and recognized works in the history of the English language.  Nothing to be intimidated by, right?  I first read Hamlet when I was 15 years old, in my 10th grade Honors English class.  My teacher, Mr. Birrer, either had high expectations of his class and/or he just really loved getting to teach this play.  That same year, I saw Branagh’s movie (unabridged text; hold on to your hats!) in the theatre.  I think an early introduction to the work really mitigated some of the trepidation I probably would have felt if I had first explored this play in college.  I got the chance to really enjoy it from a plot/characterization standpoint before I had developed my finely honed, pretentious, English major critical thinking skills.  I could just absorb the story for what it essentially is: a punk kid, depressed about his messed-up family situation, argues with himself on how to change his circumstances.

I was very pleased to see a free, 1-hour long production of Hamlet a couple of weeks ago at my local library.  There’s something refreshing about seeing such a dense work (Shakespeare’s longest) stripped to its essence.  It brought to mind my long-ago first reaction to the play – that many teenagers could identify with this confused, angry, sad protagonist, who’s been let down by some of the people he loved most.  I like most to imagine a youthful Hamlet, because I think he struggles with his own capability in making adult decisions.  This guy has a difficult time choosing a course of action and actually pursuing it.  Hamlet as the ultimate stereotype of a hipster philosophy student.  What makes this guy so relatable and famous for so long?  Because like him, at some point, we’ve all been our own worst enemy.

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Richard II

Why This Play?:

I’m all backwards and upside-down when it comes to my reading of the history plays.  I’ve been saving the first tetralogy for closer to time when the second round of The Hollow Crown comes out later this year…except I kicked off the entire canon-reading project with Richard III.  I dove into the second tetralogy instead…except I skipped Richard II in favor of the Henry plays.  Admittedly, I studied Richard II in college and found it boring and confusing (not so this time around).  I hoped by starting with the funnier, more action-filled Henry IV Part 1, that I would somehow care for some of the characters (i.e. Bolingbroke/Henry IV) and consequences of Richard II before I dove back into the play.  Or something.  I don’t know, it all made sense in my head last fall when I started reading them all out of order. 

Upon reading Richard II, I had the weirdest sense of déjà vu.  A single person’s face kept emerging in my mind’s eye whenever I read Richard’s lines.  I’m a stay-at-home mama now, but I have an eleven-year career behind me.  I was very lucky in that time to have several amazing, supportive mentors and managers.  Except one.  And I’ll be damned if Richard II doesn’t spot-on remind me of the worst boss I ever had.  Is it wrong that I find myself siding with Bolingbroke in this play?

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Measure for Measure

Why This Play?:

I am chugging along on this project – this marks my 17th completed play in 6 months thus far.  Not quite the pace I originally hoped of 39 plays + poems done in a year (because, you know, life) so time to step it up!  I realized, just in the plays alone, remaining on my to-read list are 3 romances, 4 tragedies, 7 histories, and 9 comedies.  Well, on to a comedy then!  Measure for Measure won the selection as polled by my 2 Twitter followers.

And boy, did I discover something special with this play!  This is juicy and feels like cutting-edge satire even after 400 years.  We have characters who believe and live by their morality (Isabella), and we have characters who bend their morals to suit their actions (Claudio, Angelo…basically any character who offers an excuse as to why they engage in behavior that they know is not in accordance with the law).  The vast majority of us fall into the latter category in our daily lives.  Whether we break laws (speeding through traffic?) or go against our religious/moral ones (adultery?), what makes us still maintain that moral guidance even when we don’t exactly put it into practice?

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Sonnet 55

Some Twitter pals and I got involved in a fun little online project this week.  Lovely online antique book retailer, Buzz Bookstore, hosted a fun project.  He's collected 154 volunteers, just everyday people (not necessarily scholars or actors), to create short videos performing/reading one of the 154 total Shakespearean sonnets: the Buzz 154 Project.  Sounded like fun, so I made contact and was assigned a fun little ditty about the power of poetry to make one immortal.  Be sure to check out the whole project!  My little performance is here:

Huzzah for poetry!  Enjoy!