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Introduction: The Rape of Lucrece

openliterature - July 18, 2010 in Introduction

The story of Lucrece, found in both Ovid and Livy, has inspired scores of famous depictions. Britten, Rembrandt, Chaucer, Titian, Gower, Dante, Raphael and Richardson all used the story in their work, but none as famously as Shakespeare in his long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece (1594).

The poem shares its theme with Venus and Adonis, but is a “graver labour”, lacking comedy and playfulness. Here, “Lust-breathèd Tarquin” succeeds in raping “Lucrece the chaste”, and the language is that of brutal military conquest: “She says her subjects with foul insurrection / Have battered down her consecrated wall”. A sense of conflict is also conveyed by the fact that the poem is structured around a series of stark absolutes – light and dark, male and female, guilt and innocence, purity and lust, “Beauty’s red and Virtue’s white”. Beauty is, in this poem, a dangerous thing, speaking louder than words of reason and restraint: “All orators are dumb when beauty pleadeth”. Vision, however, is privileged, and the poem’s insistence on the language of sight has been linked by Christopher Tilmouth to Renaissance concepts of shame as a sensation that occurs when sins are witnessed. Guilt, shame, sight and voyeurism are all important concerns for the critical conversations that surround the poem.

The first section of the poem gives voice to Tarquin, as he contemplates an act which he knows will ruin him. He claims that no “excuse can my invention make” to justify “so black a deed”, and yet he still chooses to sneak into Lucrece’s chamber. Once the deed is done, the narrative then gives voice instead to the reaction of the innocent victim, as she considers whether she must share the guilt for the deed. After considering at length a painting of the Trojan war, she becomes sure that her only choice is, “To clear this spot by death”. Lucrece’s suicide has baffled such commentators as St Augustine who wish to argue for her innocence, but it is this action that constitutes the concluding tragedy of the poem. Tarquin has marred “the thing that cannot be amended”; Lucrece kills herself and her husband Collantine decrees Tarquin’s “everlasting banishment”. The poem has attracted particular attention from feminist critics such as Jane Newman, who is interested in the simultaneous eloquence and powerlessness of the wronged female.

This poem seems to be closely linked with a number of Shakespeare’s other works. The setting means that it is naturally compared to the other Roman plays, most obviously Titus Andronicus (because of this play’s interest in the powerlessness of words, especially as regards the raped and mutilated Lavinia). The theme of rape also sets it alongside Venus and Adonis and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tarquin’s fears about the moral implications of his intended action are related to the monologues in Macbeth. The description of the innocent Lucrece as she sleeps is reminiscent of the descriptions of Desdemona in Othello and Imogen in Cymbeline. Shakespeare also mentioned Lucrece in As You Like It and Twelfth Night.

Contributed by Rachel Thorpe

Introduction: Two Gentlemen of Verona

openliterature - April 15, 2010 in Introduction

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is often euphemistically referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘early plays’. This phrase attempts to account for its relative immaturity; aesthetically and dramaturgically it is considered by many to be inferior to the ‘later plays’. The actual date of writing is not certain, but the first record we have of it is from Mere’s Palladis Tamia, published in 1598. Edward Malone proposed that it is the first work that Shakespeare ever wrote for the stage. Another theory, initially put forward by Clifford Leech, suggests that the play was composed in stages, accounting for some of the textual inconsistencies.

Borrowing from the Portuguese story of Felix and Felismena, the plot focuses on two friends, Valentine and Proteus. Each leaves home and travels from Verona to Milan. Proteus leaves behind his beloved Julia, having exchanged with her rings and promises of “true constancy”. On arriving in Milan, Proteus discovers that Valentine has fallen in love with the Duke’s daughter Silvia and that they have planned to secretly elope together. Unfortunately, Proteus also falls for Silvia, declaring that “the remembrance of my former love / Is by a newer object quite forgotten”. He decides to do whatever it takes to win her for himself. The ensuing drama concerns itself with the limits of male friendship and the foolishness of lovers. The action comes to a climax in one of the most controversial scenes in the canon of Shakespeare’s writing. Many of the most famous performances have gained their notoriety because of the way that they have creatively navigated it, prompting Stanley Well’s comment that the play “has succeeded best when subjected to adaptation”. In the depths of the forest, Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, uttering the infamous line “I’ll force thee yield to my desire”. However, moments later he is reconciled to Valentine, who, despite being fully aware of what his friend has done, seems to offer him Silvia: “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”. The play closes with Proteus and Julia happily reunited, and a decree that both they and Valentine and Silvia shall be married on the same day, sharing “one feast, one house, one mutual happiness”.

Although the popular opinion is that this is one of Shakespeare’s least accomplished plays, it has enjoyed a rich stage history. Notably, Peter Hall chose it has his first production as artistic director of the RSC in 1960, and John Barton directed another important RSC production in 1981. The play has been set in almost every imaginable era – the medieval, the renaissance, the music-hall 1930s, the rock-and-roll 1950s, the fashion-obsessed 1990s – and is not always confined to Verona and Milan. It attracted further attention after being featured in the Academy Award-winning film Shakespeare in Love (1998), despite never being explicitly named. The play is regularly admired for its spirited comedy. And for the fact that one of the characters is a dog.

Contributed by Rachel Thorpe

Introduction: Troilus and Cressida

openliterature - March 13, 2010 in Introduction

The siege of Troy provides the backdrop for Troilus and Cressida, but – like Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde – Shakespeare opens by claiming that he “leaps o’er…those broils” of the war itself. But, again like Chaucer, Shakespeare finds some parts of the war unavoidable: the play is just as much about the petty rivalries of the Greek camp as it is about the doomed love affairs of the two eponymous Trojans. Love and war are inseparable and mutually destructive forces. The recapture of the “face that launched a thousand ships” is shown to lose its noble veneer, to be replaced by a lecherous act which has turned “crowned kings to merchants”.

The problems with classifying Troilus and Cressida are best exemplified in one of its final scenes: as the Trojan Cressida, transferred to the Greek camp, succumbs to the advances of the Greek Diomede, she is overlooked by two parties. One is Thersites, the sour fool whose relentless commentary on the perverse world of “wars and lechery”, where Greeks dine with the Trojans they will kill the next day, drives the play’s bitterly humorous satire. The other party consists of Ulysses and the spurned Troilus, whom Shakespeare endows with the sincere poetry of love that gives the play its heart and its tragic energy.

Shunted between classification as a comedy (in one of the Quarto editions) and a tragedy (in the First Folio), the play is a satisfying fit in neither. Were it written today, its ending would perhaps have been described as a descent into meaningless violence and the audience is left neither with catharsis nor reassurance that “all is mended”, instead having Pandarus bequeath them his “diseases”.

Although the immediate reception of the play remains unclear, this work only fully captured public and academic interest in the twentieth century, and is still often considered difficult and ‘elitist’. However, its refreshing anti-war stance when compared to the history cycle has made it popular production in contemporary peace-time, and audience’s unfamiliarity with it allows directors freedom in their interpretations.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

Introduction: Hamlet

Rufus Pollock - October 16, 2009 in Introduction

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best known play; a tragedy of monumental depth and linguistic brilliance. The play opens to an atmosphere of darkness and confusion. The scene is Elsinore; the royal castle of Denmark, where King Claudius and Queen Gertrude’s recent marriage has followed on the heels of the late King Hamlet’s funeral. In this strange and suspicious state where mirth and dirge unnaturally mix, it is clear that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.

After the recent death of his father, our protagonist, the melancholic Hamlet, soon seeks revenge. Yet, over and over again Hamlet loses his mettle and his will to action develops into tortured reflection. Hamlet is a dramatisation of all mankind’s moral struggles; at once comic, tragic, and romantic. In its depth, Hamlet defies all definitions and continues to captivate audiences and readers alike.

Contributed by Jude Jacob

Introduction: Measure for Measure

Rufus Pollock - October 15, 2009 in Introduction

As equivocal and all-encompassing as its title suggests, Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s first forays out of Renaissance pomp and convention into the more complicated sensibilities of the Jacobean era. Probably written while the playhouses were closed between March 1603 and April 1604, Shakespeare takes his audience to a Vienna which seems much like London: the brothels are being closed and the new ruler is deeply worried about how a king should conduct himself. The play’s main sources are a short story from Cinthio’s Hecatomitthi and its English dramatisation by George Whetstone as Promos and Cassandra, but Shakespeare has higher ambitions for his plot. Instead of having a novice nun agree to sleep with a corrupt tyrannical magistrate, in exchange for the release of her brother, what would happen if the nun’s righteous devotion prevented her from agreeing? What would be the effect of replacing the benign emperor Maximilian, who arrives at the end to resolve the action, with an “old fantastical duke of dark corners”, who manipulates characters throughout the play and whose motives are far from clear?

Of the three so-called ‘problem plays’, Measure for Measure is perhaps the least classifiable: while Troilus and Cressida leans towards unfulfilled tragedy and All’s Well That Ends Well towards bitter comedy, this play is more concerned with offering its audience a literally open-ended debate about the role of the law than conforming to any genre. Ostensibly a comedy, Shakespeare now refuses to take for granted the genre conventions kept to in his earlier works: disguise, obsessive love, the working-class fool and the happy ending signalled by marriages all become problematic and artificial. Conversely, he seems at first to be creating a tragic villain in the character of Angelo – the ruthless self-examination in his soliloquies of Acts II and IV betray the fact that this play was written alongside the great tragedies.

Decried by both Johnson and Coleridge, and almost ignored for much of the nineteenth century, the play has since been rehabilitated by both directors and critics. Whatever it occasionally lacks in coherence of tone and plot, it compensates in its thoughtful and still-relevant exploration of the division between justice and mercy, the spirit and the letter, piety and pragmatism.

Contributed by Jack Belloli