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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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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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 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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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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