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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: Cymbeline

rachelthorpe - May 9, 2010 in Introduction, Uncategorized

A play of politics and prophecy, masques and magic, gods and ghosts, nightmares and nationalism, Cymbeline (c. 1609-11) resists categorization.

Like The Winter’s Tale it traces a fine line between comedy and tragedy; like Antony and Cleopatra it vacillates between the epic scale of the histories and the intimate focus of the romances. But perhaps speculations about genre have no place around Cymbeline. The words of Arviragus, a kidnapped prince raised in a cave, suggest that the play takes a less genre-directed approach to storytelling:

What should we speak of
When we are as old as you? When we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December, how,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away? We have seen nothing.

The whole action of the play is motivated by the desire to create a great story. Shakespeare seeks out the intrigue that creates narrative, and pursues complexities of genre and theme with abandon. Like the princes straining at their “pinching cave”, the play expands from the enclosed gardens of the English court circa AD 5 to 42, to the Welsh wilderness, via Rome – all in pursuit of a good story.

When the Roman Caius Lucius cannot wrest tribute from Cymbeline’s court, he tells the Britons, “The day was yours by accident”. Cymbeline relishes accident, chance, and hazard: bed-tricks, cross-dressing, and disguises lead to the birth of political Britain, resurrections, and a beheading.

Accidents create stories with which to “discourse / The freezing hours away”. The long-view of epic which, in Act III, sees Britain imagined as “a swan’s nest” in “a great pool”, zooms in, in Act V, on a lovers’ embrace. Posthumus, finally embracing Imogen, says, “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die”. The newlyweds have travelled far; they have mistaken each other for an adulterer and a headless corpse, but in the final scene they are reunited, and tell each other their stories.

Cymbeline is characterized by a fascination with dramaturgy. It often provokes elaborate staging, particularly when Jupiter descends from the heavens riding an eagle! Spectacularly elaborate productions have included Peter Hall’s (1988) and JoAnne Akalaitis’s (1989), while Mike Alfreds (2001) let the audiences’ imaginations negotiate the scope of the story, using only 6 actors and no scenery.

Since George Bernard Shaw’s description of Cymbeline as ‘exasperating beyond all tolerance’ (1896), the play as been considered difficult to stage. However, modern cinema is surely equipped to negotiate the twists and turns of the fantastical plot of Cymbeline. Considering the 21st century’s taste for epic tales like The Lord of the Rings and Avatar, a film which unleashes the diverse potentials of Cymbeline is long overdue.

Contributed by Hazel Wilkinson

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: The Taming of the Shrew

jack-belloli - March 26, 2010 in Introduction

At first glance, the continued popularity of The Taming of the Shrew can seem rather hard to stomach. Its two subplots focus on the wooing of Bianca and Katherine, the two daughters of the Paduan gentleman Baptista Milona: while the former finds herself fought over by three lovers who value her “silence…mild behaviour and sobreity”, the latter’s fierce outspokenness leads her to be spurned by all but Petruchio, who sets out to “tame” her. With Petruchio making claims like “she is my goods, my chattel” and Katherine concluding the play with a speech which celebrates wifely obedience, it’s hard not to see the play as misogynistic. Such misogyny would not necessarily have been of concern to the original Elizabethan audience, for whom the tamed shrew was a convention of farce stretching back to the Roman comedians – indeed, the wives in many traditional ballads turn out much worse than Kate!

Yet the play continues to strike readers and directors as more complicated: the submissive subject matter of Katherine’s final speech is undercut by the very fact that she’s allowed to speak at length at all. And, from the very start of the play, Shakespeare emphasises the artifice of the play’s world, raising questions over how seriously such matters should be taken. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s delight in plays-within-plays is taken to its extreme. It opens with an induction – often omitted by modern productions – in which drunken tinker Christopher Sly is made to believe that he is a lord and has the rest of the play performed before him. (This frame narrative abruptly disappears in the Folio text of the play; the 1594 play The Taming of a Shrew, also performed by Shakespeare’s company but generally considered a plagiarised imitation, features a fuller version of Sly’s story.)

Regardless of these issues, the play remains popular for its characteristically Shakespearean wordplay, with Petruchio and Kate’s sparring in Act II resembling an offensive game of word association, and its opportunities for spectacle, such as Petruchio’s “mad attire” for his honeymoon. Although it’s no longer generally considered to be the first play Shakespeare wrote, it remains a good example of how Shakespeare began his career with conventional version of genres that he would come to subvert more and more.

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: Richard II

shakespeare - February 27, 2010 in Introduction

Richard II opens with a dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, which, badly managed by the king, results in banishment for them both. Mowbray’s is the harsher sentence, since his exile will be permanent, and his parting words on how his banishment will mean his “tongue’s is to me no more / Than an unstringed viol or harp” begin an exploration of the power of language that runs the entire length of what one critic has called the ‘Henriad’.

Henry Bolingbroke, although banished, soon returns, ostensibly to reclaim his family lands, seized by Richard from an ailing Gaunt, who, in criticising the state of Ricardian England, delivers the famous definition of his country as “A precious jewel set in a silver sea” from his deathbed. Throughout the play, Bolingbroke and Richard II are opposed, and the former shown to be a consummate Machiavellian who remains to a large extent opaque to the audience.

Richard, by contrast, is perfectly and poetically open about his feelings: an openness that makes for wonderful poetry, but also for a poor Machiavellian. His character was much beloved by romantic critics, who saw him first and foremost as a poet, and it is a rare audience indeed that feels no sympathy for the weakening king. His final long speech seeks to populate his prison with “A generation of still-breeding thoughts”, but his invention slowly turns to the realisation that although he has “the daintiness of ear / To check time broke in a disordered string”, he “for the concord of my state and time / Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.” That image of broken time, like other moments of fracture and rupture in the play, establish a legacy that haunts all the following plays, as first Henry IV and then Henry V attempt the task of, in Hal’s words, “redeeming time”.

Written entirely in verse, and occasionally in couplets, the play has its own distinctive music. It also has a distinctive history: Elizabeth I famously compared herself to Richard II, and a performance of the play was requested by the Earl of Essex in the run up to his ill-fated and abortive attempt at a rebellion in 1601.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: All’s Well that Ends Well

shakespeare - January 10, 2010 in Introduction

To paraphrase another of his plays, Shakespeare’s decision to use All’s Well that Ends Well as the title for his play of 1602–3 is a case of protesting too much. The line is used twice towards the end of the play by Helena, the young woman who uses it to justify her possible “means unfit” of winning Bertram, the “hater of love” who spurned her. Her use of the ‘bed trick’, whereby Helena tricks Bertram into consummating the marriage by swapping places with the maid Diana, is perhaps more justifiable in the seedy Vienna of the contemporary Measure for Measure. But it sits at odds with All’s Well’s many folk-tale qualities: Helena’s quasi-magical healing powers, the parade of suitors, the girl’s quest to redeem a foolish beloved, all of which are intensified by an unusual emphasis on rhyme. When the lovers are reconciled at the end of the play, the King of France agrees that “all yet seems well”: for many readers, the conventional happy-ending is too swift and tidy to be believed.

The play is Shakespeare’s most faithful rendering of a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron (which would also inspire plot points in Pericles and The Merchant of Venice), although Shakespeare continued his traditional imposition of a comic subplot, in which Bertram’s follower Parolles is exposed as a coward by his fellow French soldiers. This lack of adaptation is one of the reasons for the play’s failure to gain widespread attention. As with Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Parolles was more entertaining than the lovers to a Jacobean audience, to the point that the play was abridged and renamed in his honour.

Until the nineteenth century, much critical debate hinged on whether Bertram or Helena was more sympathetic, with neither coming out very well; indeed, many see the play as remarkably conservative in its sympathy with an older generation who successfully orchestrate what they think is best for their children. The fact that the text only survives in a corrupted manuscript is a further problem. Productions remain rare, but when the balance between traditional romance and social realities is struck correctly, All’s Well that Ends Well can be a satisfying play to watch.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

Introduction: Julius Caesar

shakespeare - December 13, 2009 in Introduction

First performed in 1599, Julius Caesar is remarkable for being one of the best preserved of Shakespeare’s plays, not to mention one of only a very handful on which we have contemporary comment: Thomas Platter, a Swiss doctor from Basle, went to see an early performance and found it to be “very pleasingly performed” and to include an “admirably” danced jig at its conclusion. That jig would have come as a stark contrast to the events of a play that concludes with the suicides of Cassius and Brutus and pivots on the moment where the conspirators strike down Caesar in the name of “Liberty!” and “Freedom!”. These events and others are taken from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, principally those of Caesar and Brutus, although critics have also identified thematic elements originating in those of Alexander and Dion.

The Rome of Shakespeare is far more multi-faceted than that of Plutarch, particularly in the way each character seems aware of Elizabethan interpretations of their actions. Brutus’ description of Caesar as a “tyrant” echoes, for example, a verdict delivered in Elyot’s Book of the Governour”. Such theatrical and cultural self-consciousness comes to a peak in *Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, but is already present here in an obsession with representation and interpretation that spans the length of the play. The word “like”, picked up from North and found in such phrases as “like himself”, highlights the sceptical difficulty of knowing another human, whilst the deciphering of Caesar’s dream proves to be a crucial moment of the plot.

Since the performance seen by Platter, the play has enjoyed a great deal of popularity, and is still frequently performed today, often with a political message. Certain lines, “Et tu Brute”, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears”, and “The evil that men do” have entered modern popular culture, the last featuring in both an Iron Maiden song and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel.

Introduction: Henry V

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

Arguably Shakespeare’s best-known history play, Henry V is actually a highly ambivalent work. Some directors, Kenneth Branagh (1944) famously among them, have seen the play as a celebration of British patriotism, whilst others have emphasised the awful casualties of war, and Henry’s Machiavellian habit of, in Stephen Greenblatt’s words, provoking disorder only to repress it further.

Falstaff dies offstage, Pistol is humiliated and Bardolph hanged – but they make us laugh before they go, as does the French princess Catherine’s unsuspectingly bawdy English lesson, and the many accents of the British army. However, as in the three plays that precede it, the question of what it is to be a king dominates the action of the play once more. Wherever we see him, receiving the French ambassador at the English court, coldly stopping a coup at Southampton, delivering an ultimatum at Harfleur and a battle cry at Agincourt, Henry V is always in authority, even when, in a scene reminiscent of his youthful antics, he wanders disguised amongst his soldiers, asking himself afterwards “what have kings, that privates have not too / Save ceremony, save general ceremony?” These lines reveal the tensions of kingship as both a construction and an ideal, a tension that finds an echo in the structure of a play whose chorus endlessly iterates the need for the audience to believe in that other constructed illusion, the spectacle of the actors on a stage, tasked to “cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: Henry IV, Part 2

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

No consensus has ever been reached on the precise relation between this play and Henry IV, Part I. With Falstaff, Hal, an anxious Henry IV, a tavern and a battlefield much remains the same, but something has changed in the quality of events. The royalist victory in this play is not settled in noble combat, but through a trick by one of Hal’s brothers; although there is laughter in the tavern, Falstaff spends much of his time wandering the countryside, returning to London only to be spurned by Hal with the words “I know thee not, old man”. Those words are spoken by the new Henry V, and the play can be read as both Hal’s final steps to the throne and a double elegy for the end of the older generation of Falstaff and Henry IV.

In a discontinuity between this play and its predecessor, a new reconciliation takes place between Henry IV and Prince Hal, this time fraught with Hal’s error of being caught wearing the crown when his father awoke. Hal consoles his father with the idea that he only took it in “The quarrel of a true inheritor”, a reference to the fact that, for the first time since the regicide of Richard II, the crown will follow a bloodline, and so it shall, in Henry IV’s words, “descend with better quiet, better opinion, better confirmation”. The dying king then offers Hal the advice of using a foreign military campaign to unite the country, something that looks forward to the events Henry V.

The nature of this play, as both elegy and anticipation, makes it difficult to perform as a standalone production and some critics have speculated that the strangeness of its outlook is the result of a lack of material left in Holinshed for Shakespeare to use. Nevertheless, its distinctness from Henry IV, Part 1, may also be seen as a virtue: the worlds of the court and the tavern are more distinct here, and each adopts a particularly distinctive idiom, be it the Hostess’ request to “Do me, do me your offices”, or Henry IV’s reflection that if the “book of fate” were seen, then “The happiest youth, viewing his progress through, / What perils past, what crosses to ensue / Would shut the book, and sit him down and die”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith