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The Winter’s Tale brings to mind the Ed Hardy-clad Stefon of SNL’s Weekend Update fame. This play has everything! Death! Disguise! Mutilation! Heartbreak! Resurrection! Statues! Bears! Bill Hader would giggle and glance flirtatiously at Seth Meyers while adding,’and it spans 16 years!’ Seth would thank Stefon, but ask him to focus on what makes the play worth reading.
For me, it’s that while it contains just enough of several familiar Shakespearean elements – whimsy, tragedy, mistaken identity, and reconciliation – to make it deliciously satisfying, he doesn’t overdo any one of them, so it is neither treacly nor devastating.
I’d direct readers to this play, like Stefon sends revelers to clubs, because of an important theme that resonates strongly with me. In it, Shakespeare portrays jealousy and malice as infectious agents that cause disease, resulting in suffering and death. He depicts the cure as an awakening which cleanses and detoxifies and makes room again for health.
Jealousy infects Leontes, king of Sicilia, like a virulent virus. “Affection! thy intention stabs the center.” (I,ii,138) Here, the footnote defines “affection” as “jealousy.” (I,ii,note 138) Dictionary.com defines “affected” as “influenced in a harmful way; impaired, harmed, or attacked as by climate or disease.” Leontes is literally affected by affection.
Polixenes, king of Bohemia and long time close friend to Leontes recognizes this immediately as he becomes Leontes’ target. He likens the vitriolic jealousy to a destructive disease: “O then, my best blood turn/To an infected jelly,” and “…worse than the great’st infection/That e’er was heard or read.” (I,ii,417-8 and 423-4) Sicilian lord and Leontes confidante Camillo agrees and paints it as an epidemic that, like cancer, “will continue/The standing of his body.” (I,ii,431)
Leontes himself acknowledges how poisonous thoughts can cause illness. Once aware of the “venom”, (II,i,41) “he cracks his gorge, his sides/With violent hefts.” (II,i,44-5) Also, he admits that he is infected. “I have drunk, and have seen the spider.” (II,i,45) Like Othello, jealousy turns septic and taints the whole system. Leontes’ queen Hermione, like Desdemona, recognizes the ailment in her husband: “There’s some ill planet reigns;” (II,i,105)
His servant and courtiers diagnose it, too, and hope for an cure: “‘Tis hoped his sickness is discharg’d,” (II,iii,11) and “Do come with words as medicinal as true,” (II,iii,37), they implore. Lady Paulina offers herself up as “your loyal servant, your physician,” (II,iii,54) in hopes of treating the malaise. Hermione notes that “I am barr’d, like one infectious.” (III,ii,98) Shakespeare’s use of this medical language strengthens the association between the malevolent thoughts and their impact on the body and society at large.
But there is no remedy as long as Leontes submits to the pathogens. They cause fever, paranoia, and delusions. The plague proves fatal. His young son succumbs. He exiles his newborn daughter, believing her a product of adultery, to perish in the elements. Only Hermione’s death brings him to his senses and allows him to recognize the insidious nature of the germ’s infiltration and implantation. He hopes for “Some remedies for life,” (III,ii,153) but of course there are none, and he spends 16 years trying to exorcise the disease and repent its physical and mental fallout.
The detoxification process begins when his long lost daughter, aptly named Perdita, travels to Sicilia from Bohemia, where she was brought as a discarded infant. She returns on the arm of, and engaged to, Florizel, Polixenes’ son.
The healing process sounds very much like a leech-induced blood letting, with frequent references to the red stuff. When they arrive and seek an audience with Leontes, he greets them with the request that “The blessed gods/Purge all infection.” (V,i,168-9) The metaphor continues with images of the reconciliation: “bleed tears; for I am sure my heart wept blood.” (V,i,89) The sanguine imagery conjures a cleanse of all remnants of the infectious agent.
When the detoxification is complete, Hermione statue’s “veins/Did verily bear blood.” (V,iii,63-4) as the stone likeness comes to life. When Leontes expels the source of what ailed her, she can breathe again. Leontes concludes his repentance with a full confession. “Both your pardons,/That e’er I put between your holy looks/My ill suspicion.” (V,iii,147-9), fully recognizing the obsession’s nature and impact with his use of the word “ill.” His awareness, acknowledgement, and atonement provide the antidote to the affliction. His mindful compassion prove as life-affirming as his blind envy and vengefulness proved deadly.
That’s all he wrote. And, so, too, that’s all she wrote. After two years and nine months almost to the day, I close The Riverside Shakespeare and rest my pen with a mixture of satiety, joy, and melancholy. Shakespeare has had a profound impact on me. Although I see and hear him everywhere, I will miss spending part of each day with him on the page. Parting is, indeed, such sweet sorrow.
Categorized as a ‘romance,’ and widely believed to have been co-authored by John Fletcher, this play is often left out of the Shakespeare canon entirely. But if The Riverside Shakespeare, I will, too. And since I’m reading alphabetically, this penultimate play in my project follows Two Gentlemen of Verona (TGV).
I called the title of that ‘comedy’ a miscue because only one of the title characters deserves the moniker. In this play, the title seems at first to mislead again. But, although the eponymous cousins act, at times, rashly and foolishly, they acknowledge it and work in concert to resolve their differences while maintaining their bond.
No matter how absurd their conflict and proposed solution may seem, they maintain their ‘nobility’ throughout. The word “noble” appears 40 times in the play, almost as if to remind us of their pervasive and consistent attribute. Google dictionary defines noble as: “having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principals and ideals.” This describes Palamon and Arcite even at their worst. It doesn’t describe Proteus at his best.
As the play opens, three mourning queens interrupt King Theseus of Athens’ marriage to the amazon Hippolyta to implore that he vanquish the tyrant King Creon of Thebes and allow them to properly bury and honor their dead husbands, slain by Creon. He agrees and leaves mid-wedding to defend Thebes and the queens’ honor.
We meet Palamon and Arcite, Creon’s nephews, sifting through the wreckage of their home and lamenting their uncle’s bad behavior. They sound wise beyond their young years, speaking of the strength of their bond and the men they hope to become: “‘Tis in our power…to/Be masters of our manners.” (I,ii,43-4) Even after Theseus captures and incarcerates them, they stay true to their core value of nobility. Despondent at first, they lament their fate and what they stand to lose. But they quickly end the pity party and reframe their plight in what could be a scene from the Broadway musical Anything Goes; I envision them singing and tap dancing to the Cole Porter song Friendship. They wax poetic about how their imprisonment is really a good thing because they’ll always have each other. “Yet, cousin,/Even from the bottom of these miseries,/From all that fortune can inflict upon us,/I see two comforts rising, two mere blessings,/If the gods please – to hold here a brave patience,/And the enjoying of our griefs together./Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish/If I think this our prison.”(II,ii,55-62)
Alas, had the jail windows been higher, they might have continued to view the “prison our holy sanctuary.” (II,ii,71) But like in TGV they both espy and fall instantaneously in love with, and conspire to win over a woman: Emilia, sister to Hippolyta.
And like in TGV, their friendship goes to shit from there. But interestingly, unlike in TGV, their integrity and respect for one another remain in tact – until the bitter end. It is this that makes them noble.
Palamon is struck first by Eros’ projectile: “Behold, and wonder!/By heaven, she is a goddess.”(II,ii,133) But Eros soon shoots Arcite, too: “I love her with all my soul.” (II,ii,176) This deep and immediate infatuation is almost beyond love at first sight. There can be no other explanation than Eros’ divine intervention here. Their feelings are instantaneous, all-consuming, and pit them – cousins, compatriots, and friends – against one another. How will their ‘nobility’ survive Eros’ slings and arrows of love? Will they just fall down into the mud so they can fling it at each other as they fall in love? The notable thing about this play is that the answer to both is a resounding ‘no.’
They separately get out of jail and reunite in the forest, where Palamon hides in the bushes, still shackled, to confront each other. They thoughtfully, albeit emotionally, acknowledge their dispute but do not let it degenerate into incivility or violence. They engage in remarkably open and honest communication. Palamon questions Arcite’s love for him and accuses him of being “rough with me.” (III,i,102) But Arcite bridles at this claim: “Plainly spoken,/Yet pardon me hard language.” (III,i,105) He warns him to hide again to avoid danger even as he promises to bring him food, water, armor, and a weapon so they can properly duel over the damsel.
When he returns with the weapons of their destruction he greets Palamon thus: “Good morrow, noble Kinsman,” (III,iv,17) and Palamon shows concern for Arcite’s efforts on his behalf: “I have put you/To too much pain, sir.” (III,iv,18)
Their duel interrupted and identities revealed, their fate falls into Theseus’ hands. He, his now wife Hippolyta, and Emilia – the target of the cousins’ affections and unwitting cause of all this strife – struggle to arrive at a just resolution. The seemingly unsolvable enigma leaves all of them desolate. When they finally agree on a public duel to the death, the cousins part to prepare with these words: Palamon: “I am friends again till that hour,” and Arcite: “I embrace ye.” (III, vi,299-300) A member of Theseus’ court notes “They are all sons of honor,” (IV,ii,142) and Emilia laments “Go weep, for whoever so wins/loses a noble cousin.” (IV,ii,156)
I won’t reveal the outcome or the twist that accompanies it. We may find it hard to believe that two such close, loyal men could come to blows over a woman they barely know, except as a literary device to quickly create drama. But if we put that aside in both TGV and TNK, the glaring difference between the plays is how the characters deal with the conflict. In the former – a ‘comedy’ – one gentleman acts very badly. In the latter – a ‘romance’, they both act nobly. I’m not sure if the category of the play dictated their reactions, or if their comportment created cause for the plays’ categorization, but in the case of The Two Noble Kinsmen, the title stands as valid.
In this early, and fairly spotty, comedy Shakespeare emphasizes the adage that actions speak louder than words. This is an interesting concept for a playwright, a play reader, and an audience member to explore. The words are written first, but take on a different meaning with each production – perhaps even with each performance. While the words must come first, and are meaningful and moving, it’s the action that ultimately consummates them. In this play Shakespeare gives us one character who puts his money where his mouth is, and one who decidedly does not.
While rife with frustrating inconsistencies, the play contains delightful wordplay aplenty that reinforces the notion of both the importance of words, and their limitations. We revel in the repartee, but the play itself still has to hang together as a whole, and it disappoints. The words may be great, but the overall action of the play undercuts their value.
Proteus, one of the “gentlemen,” illustrates this problem. He is no gentleman. Even before he opens his mouth, Shakespeare’s choice of his name speaks volumes. Proteus was a god of bodies of water in Greek mythology.(Wikipedia) As rivers and seas constantly change, so does Proteus. He is a shape shifting chameleon, whose self-serving actions contradict his words. In fact, protean means “tending or able to change frequently or easily; inconstant; unstable.”(Google dictionary) He literally talks a good game but has no substance to back up his words. His actions reveal him as a deceitful lout.
Valentine, the other (and true) gentleman, is named for the universal representative of love and lovers. Saint Valentine, the martyred Roman saint, is “associated with a tradition of courtly love,” a love that “emphasized nobility and chivalry.” (Wikipedia). He not only stands behind what he says, but is quick to forgive when his friend doesn’t.
Shakespeare tells us all we need to know about them with their names. One shifty, one true. We meet the best friends in the opening scene where they express their esteem for words. They thrust and parry over books (I,i,19-21), writers (I,i,42-46), and letters (I,i,57) before they part ways.
When Proteus bids adieu to the woman he claims to love deeply (Julia), he laments her lack of verbose response more than the departure itself:
“What, gone without a word?/Ay, so true love should do: it cannot speak,/For truth hath better deeds than words to grace it.” (I,ii,17-19)
And he simultaneously confirms the inability of words to trump action. Ironically, he then goes on to break his solemn word to those he ardently averred most dear to him: is friend Valentine and his love Julia. He betrays them both at once by renouncing his love for her to woo his best friend’s girl, Silvia. He justifies his abhorrent actions by invalidating his own words with more convoluted words: “Unheedful vows may heedfully be broken,/And he wants wit that wants resolved will/To learn his wit t’ exchange the bad for better.” (II,vi,11-13)
Valentine, on the other hand, goes to words as his tool of choice: “That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man/if with his tongue he cannot win a woman.” (III,i,104-5) He backs them up with his behavior. When a group of banished outlaws anoints him their captain they cite his talent as a “linguist”(IV,i,55) as one of the reasons for selecting him, but note that he backs up his words by acting as “a man of perfection.” (IV,i,55)
Proteus’s language, at first poetic and playful, changes as he steeps in deceit. He speaks more in prose with longer, less rhythmic sentences. This change mirrors how far his actions have strayed from his words. Valentine continues to wax poetic, especially as he eschews village life for the refreshing great outdoors where he lives, banished, with the outlaws. His proximity to nature seems only to strengthen the connection of his word and deed, even as Proteus’s divide widens.
When Valentine, Silvia, and Julia confront Proteus with his deception and betrayal, he beats a hasty verbal retreat. They, astonishingly, accept his hollow apology, having learned nothing from his past behavior, which is surely the best predictor of how he’s likely to act in the future. I, for one, remain completely unconvinced by his words and find no comfort in the final image of the two couples heading off to marital bliss. The title may claim that there are “Two Gentlemen” in this play, but those are just words. The play’s action reveals only one.
A veil, or being veiled, has many meanings and as many effects. In Twelfth Night, or What You Will Shakespeare shows veils to be double-edged cloth that impact each character and the action in unique ways, depending on how they’re worn.
In fact, the play itself wears two ‘veils.’ It is the only of his plays to which he assigned two titles. Thus, he not only gives the reader/audience the choice of title, but with the second one, even further latitude to interpret the title, characters, and their actions.
Even the characters’ names sound like veiled versions of each other: Viola and Olivia; Orsinio and Cesario.
Shakespeare often uses disguised and cross-dressing as plot devices. In this play, some such veils are obvious. Some are more subtle. They can provide the freedom to act in anonymity, or impose restrictions, and, in some cases, both. Lifting these veils can prove liberating or disastrous, but ultimately reveal truths in which the characters can live more honestly and move forward in their lives.
- Olivia: She, grieving for her father and brother has sequestered herself at home as well as beneath a black veil of mourning. She intends to maintain this posture for seven years. In the 1996 film version Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) covers not only herself, but her entire estate with heavy drapery, living like a vampire who cringes at daylight. But I would argue that she hides not so much from sadness as from intimacy: “she hath abjur’d the [company] and [sight] of men.” (I,ii,40) Orsinio has pursued her doggedly and relentlessly. She rejects his company and advances as much as anything with her veils. For when she meets ‘Cesario’ (Viola in disguise) and develops feelings for ‘him’, she lifts her veil as readily as a happy bride awaiting her first married kiss. In the film, she ditches the veil and black garb and appears henceforth in bright, jewel-toned, low cut gowns. Her veils drop away once she feels true love.
- Viola: Not only does this play feature twin titles, but twin main characters as well. Having survived a shipwreck and believing her twin brother lost to the sea, Viola disguises herself as a boy so she can work for Duke Orsinio as she works out her future. “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/For such disguise as haply shall become/The form of my intent.” (I,ii,53-5) This veil of a faux sex change allows her to experience life from a male perspective and get to know Orsinio in a way she could not have if she’d approached him as a female orphan. In her camouflage she also serves as the key that unlocks Olivia’s hidden heart. While her disguise initially restricts her, it ultimately frees her and serves as a catalyst to unleash Olivia’s, Orsinio’s, and her own true emotions.
- Malvolio: Olivia’s miserable steward veils his love for his boss under a mask of stiff upper lip sternness. It makes him efficient but mean. Olivia herself notes: “O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio and/taste with a distemper’d appetite.” (I,v,90) The others in the household tease him out of his repressed dourness with a subterfuge of their own: they trick him into believing that Olivia requites his affections. Believing it will please her, he festoons himself in bright yellow stockings and twisted garters, and an even brighter stuck on smile, which is most out of character for him. While he trusts that this absurd display with further his cause, it cannot – it is only another veil. This facade obscures who he truly is even further so cannot help but fail, and humiliate him considerably in the process. Ultimately, he is “hoist with his own petar” (Hamlet, III,iv,207). Both his veil of repression and veil of frivolity, backfire.
- Sir Toby Belch: The aptly named Belch uses alcohol to veil his feelings of loneliness and neediness. Staying out late and staying drunk whislt a guest in his cousin Olivia’s home, tries her patience: “Go, then and seek the crowner, and let him sit/O’ my coz; for he’s in the third degree of drink, he’s/drown’d.” (I,v,134-6) He acts the doppleganger to Malvolio, acting with lighthearted, wisecracking, alcohol-fueled irresponsibility to avoid the fact that he has no one, nothing, and nowhere to go. Love, for him, too, lifts his liquid veil, in the person of Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria. In the film, the director Trevor Nunn shows his transformation. Initially, we see a sloppily dressed, unkempt Sir Toby. Once in love, and “He hath married her” (V,i,364) he is coiffed and groomed for his new role as groom.
- Feste: A fool who served Olivia and her father appears, as fools often do in Shakespeare, to help untangle the messes the characters create for themselves. Interestingly, in the film, he (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) is bald – completely free of covering, even in the form of hair. He is honest and genuine and thus helps the others to shed their veils and reveal their true character. He shares his wisdom in tongue-twisting missives. To Olivia: “bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest.” (I,v,44-5) He prepares to leave as soon as the others’ veils have dropped away, but only after they all leave the stage, each in the truest versions of themselves.
In the double-titled Twelfth Night, Shakespeare allows us to see two versions of most characters: both veiled and unveiled. In some cases the cover allows a certain level of freedom and protection. But ultimately, each character experiences true liberty only when they lift the various veils.
In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare creates a world of unresolved uncertainty, and while initially unsatisfying, it actually more accurately reflects reality than more tightly tidied plays. He leaves us hanging in many ways, and challenges the readers’ and the audiences’ need for resolution.
This play dangles us in limbo even before we begin reading. For one thing, the title misleads us into thinking the play is about the named couple. Not so much. It’s really about the Trojan war. T&C are just a minor, barely interesting subplot. Also, The Riverside Shakespeare Contents (p. vii) lists it 11th under Comedies. But it doesn’t quite fit there. Shakespeare included the word “History” in the title, but since it’s not about an English monarch, it doesn’t really belong in the Histories either. It has tragic aspects, but no central tragic hero or conundrum to teach the hero an important lesson, so it cannot take a place in that vaulted canon. And without that familiar central focus of troubled, intriguing father-daughter relationships, it doesn’t really qualify as a Romance either. So it is a play without a place that holds one of its own.
As the Prologue reveals, the play doesn’t start at the beginning, like a play typically would:
“To tell you, fair beholders, that our play/Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,/Beginning in the middle; starting thence away/To what may be digested in a play.” (Pro,26-9)
Nor does it end at the end. The Trojans trek out to avenge Hector’s death, leaving poor Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle) alone on stage with the unenviable task of wrapping things up with nary a gift box or bow in sight:
“O [traders]and bawds how earnestly are/you set a-work, and how ill-requited! Why should our/endeavor be so lov’d and the performance so loathed?” (V,x,37-9)
So again, it doesn’t have a finite category, or a finite beginning or end.
Nor are any of the obvious conflicts resolved. Despite seven years of fighting and “Sixty and nine” (Pro,5) ships – not quite the mythical number that Troilus perpetuates, “Why, she is a pearl,/Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships.” (II,ii,81-2) – and countless troops, and innumerable deaths on both sides, The Helen of Troy remains firmly ensconced in the castle and in bed with her lover Paris. Her husband, Menelaus, pines. Both the Greek and Trojan boards of directors meet to engage in elaborate and lengthy debates over the merits of and strategies for waging the war over her, with some of the most complex and intricate language anywhere in Shakespeare. It is at once difficult and rewarding to read, but moves neither the play nor the problem toward a satisfying conclusion. This is most evident in Act I, scene iii, where even footnote #2 claims that “Both Agamemnon and Nestor speak repetitive commonplaces concealed in high-sounding and opaque language.” Ulysses joins in the fray with over 100 lines of dialectic, concluding with “To end a tale of length,/Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.”(I,iii,136-7) Phew. If he’d just said that first, he could have saved Shakespeare a lot of writing, me a lot of reading, and audiences (what I suspect is) a lot of snoozing. Just a lot of “words, words, words” as Hamlet says (II,ii,181). So does Troilus, almost verbatim: “Words, words, mere words.” (V,iii,108) Still, with all the words, they are no closer to a resolution.
Nor is the minor conflict of T&C’s love, for which the play is misguidedly named, ever resolved. Both their love and its evolution pale in comparison to the legendary romance and consequences of Paris’s taking of Helen. Cressida claims to play hard to get but quickly concedes to Troilus: “Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart./Prince Troilus, I have lov’d you night and day/For many weary months.” (III,ii,113-5)
That’s just a pathetic passionless declaration of love. And when the Greeks demand Cressida in a hostage exchange, she not only goes willingly (unlike Helen) but falls for one of her captors. She throws Troilus over for him as easily as Achilles lets fly a javelin. She gives her new suitor Diomedes the sleeve, given to her by Troilus as a token of their love, without a moment’s hesitation. Diomedes wears it into battle on his helmet, leaving Troilus sleeveless with nowhere to wear his broken heart. The eponymous romance is neither convincing, nor worth naming the play after. We keep waiting to understand why the play is thus titled – waiting for more, but we never get it.
At first, being left in this purgatory between the heaven of a tidy, happily-ever-after comedy conclusion and the hell of a gory, gut-wrenching traditional tragedy, feels quite unsatisfying. A little Seinfeld-ian, in that not much really happens to further the plot.
But on closer examination, this uncertainty rings truer to life than either extreme. Seemingly inane conflicts – of both small and large scale – drag on endlessly. Lovers are left in the lurch. Politicians and business leaders pontificate ad nauseum, bringing to mind Macbeth’s description: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/signifying nothing.” (V,v,26-8)
Life is not always neat and tidy and resolved. This play is ultimately so satisfying because neither is it.