All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 5:01 pm on Saturday, September 11, 2010

From the back cover:
“This play concerns a maid, Helena, who cures the King of France of a disease, then asks for Lord Bertram’s hand in marriage. Bertram obliges, then quickly flees to Italy to engage in war, hoping for death to avoid marriage. Helena is greatly hurt, and sets out on a pilgrimage, only to wind up in Florence, Italy, where she meets Bertram’s new young mistress, Diana. In a perplexing “bed trick,” Helena sleeps with Bertram, while Bertram believes he is sleeping with Diana. This act secures Helena’s bond to Bertram, and Bertram, matured by war, consents to happily love Helena and their future child.”

My thoughts:
Rather by coincidence, this play was much like Cardenio/Double Falsehood, the previous Shakespeare play I read. The finale finds itself with a marriage between two people who probably would have been better off never having met. In DF, a rapist is (sort of) forced to marry his victim when her less-than-virginal state would otherwise become a liability for her. In All’s Well, a man who had been forced to marry someone he considered beneath him (and then duped into consummating the marriage by means of a bed trick), must finally yield and submit to the unwanted union. (One could add to this group Measure for Measure and make it a trio.)

I very much enjoyed the folktale scaffolding of this play, with the poor girl healing the king who promises she can have what she wants without knowing what (or who) he’s promising away, the girl marrying the boy who turns out not to like her, the promise that he’ll be a true husband only when certain impossible conditions are met…

In real terms, he’s kind of a jerk and a snob. It would be different if he objected to any arranged marriage (i.e. the fact of not having a choice in who he marries) or if he objected on the basis of her character or what have you, but to object on the basis that she grew up a poor physician’s daughter seems rather haughty (especially since the king agreed to provide her with title and wealth so the match wouldn’t be uneven).

For us moderns, it might be difficult to completely get why Helena pursues Bertram so relentlessly once he proves to be so unworthy of her. But in reality she hasn’t got much of a choice. It’s either Bertram (with the hope he’ll eventually come around and get some sense of respect for her) or the convent.

As for Parolles, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. A bit of a boaster and a rogue, but I don’t think he really deserved to be punked like that.

One more thing…that conversation in the first act about losing one’s virginity while the time is ripe was exquisite. All that word play put into service talking about something so timeless & universal. Ah, Will, I’m sure you could’ve talked anyone into bed in a minute or two.

Double Falsehood by William Shakespeare (et al.)
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 2:43 pm on Saturday, September 4, 2010

From the back cover:
“On December 1727 an intriguing play called Double Falshood; Or, The Distrest Lovers was presented for production by Lewis Theobald, who had it published in January 1728 after a successful run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. The title page to the published version claims that the play was ‘Written Originally by W.SHAKESPEARE’.

Double Falsehood‘s plot is a version of the story of Cardenio found in Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) as translated by Thomas Shelton, published in 1612 though in circulation earlier. Documentary records testify to the existence of a play, certainly performed in 1613, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, probably entitled The History of Cardenio and presumed to have been lost. The audience in 1727 would certainly have recognised stage situations and dramatic structures and patterns reminiscent of those in Shakespeare’s canonical plays as well as many linguistic echoes.”

My thoughts:
Shakespeare & Co. put spotlight on mistreatment of women–At least that’s what I’m getting so far. Violante basically date raped, Leonora forced by her father to marry against her will (as it happens, to the rapist of the first girl). I don’t know if that was the original thrust–I get the impression that much of the text was pared (a kind word) by Theobald. It’s a little frustrating to think that he may have had earlier copies of the complete play and decided to do his own spin on it and now this is all we have.

Then again, it’s good that we have anything of it remaining, so thanks, Theobald!

When Dunzy first told me about this edition, I made a joke about them going through every line trying to decide what’s authentic Shakespeare. In fact it’s word by word, phrase by phrase. It’s interesting, but a bit distracting.

I haven’t finished, but I’m getting hints about how it will turn out–for poor Violante anyway. She dresses as a boy and goes out of town and into the countryside, but she expresses her intention to keep watch on Henriquez, ostensibly hoping that he’ll repent. The problem is, the outcome she’s looking for is, presumably, that he’ll make up for the damage done to her reputation by marrying her (cf. that repulsive injunction on rapists to marry their victims in Deuteronomy). I don’t know if Shakespeare will subtly show this to be not exactly the best answer to the problem (or if he did, if it will survive in Theobald’s edition), but I’m pretty sure she’s going to end up with him.

For a woman with a 21st century sensibility, the outcome I’d love to see is to have Roderick fall in love with her and not care that she’s “damaged goods”* & marry her anyway. I’d also love for Henriquez to have his comeuppance.

* according to their culture, not my opinion of course

Overall, I’d have to say this was a bit disappointing. It’s a bit like having a fossil of an extinct animal. We have a pretty good idea of the original structure (though details could be missing) and we can model what the original organism might have looked like, but all the flesh is missing. All that stuff (aside from the obvious–the language) for which we read Shakespeare seemed to have been left on the cutting room floor. The deep understanding of the human condition, the emotional and intellectual self-contemplation, the conflicts and confrontations, were all pretty much absent. We’re left with a bare-bones plot and little insight into the characters. There are also clear signs that there used to be more, like oblique references to events that are no longer included. Also, a couple of places where Theobald’s interpolations are quite evident. But I guess a fossil is better than no record at all.

(Oh, and I was right about Violante. One moment Henriquez is pressing his suit to Leonora, the next (when confronted with V’s allegation) he’s pledging his true love to Violante. All the men involved agree that H & V should marry and that’s that.)

Paradise Lost by John Milton
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 12:48 am on Saturday, August 14, 2010

From Penguin:
“In Paradise Lost Milton produced poem of epic scale, conjuring up a vast, awe-inspiring cosmos and ranging across huge tracts of space and time. And yet, in putting a charismatic Satan and naked Adam and Eve at the centre of this story, he also created an intensely human tragedy on the Fall of Man. Written when Milton was in his fifties – blind, bitterly disappointed by the Restoration and briefly in danger of execution – Paradise Lost’s apparent ambivalence towards authority has led to intense debate about whether it manages to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, or exposes the cruelty of Christianity.”

My thoughts:
I don’t think there’s any debate. Exquisite poetry defending the indefensible. This poem exposes not only the cruelty of Christianity, but its absurdity, its sanctification of misogyny, its glorification of servility, and its exaltation of ignorance. God the Father is malicious and cares only for his own ego. The Son is a bit of a cardboard cut out (which is okay I guess because he’s just a puppet of the Father). Adam is, well, as misogynist as his maker set him out to be. And Eve is a submissive, simpering slave (the one time she shows some independent thought, she brings God’s curses down on them all). Life before the “Fall” is pointless and stupid. Knowledge—its own intrinsic value and the value of seeking it are both denigrated by God, by the angels, and by Adam (of course the one who is desired to be most ignorant is Eve who is sent away or put to sleep whenever anything of import is discussed or related). The only character with any redeeming value whatsoever is Satan, a real tragic hero. We know from the start that his cause is futile and he’s bound to pay a dreadful price for his rebellion, but we can’t help but cheer him on as he fights tooth and claw for liberty and justice and against ignorance and subjugation. Not that I think Milton really intended that to be the case, but Satan is brilliant. Oh, and did I mention that the poetry is exquisite?

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 7:41 pm on Wednesday, August 11, 2010

From the publisher:
“Visiting an idyllic German village, Werther, a sensitive young man, falls in love with sweet-natured Lotte. Though he realizes that Lotte is to marry Albert, he is unable to subdue his passion and his infatuation torments him to the point of despair. The first great ‘confessional’ novel, it draws both on Goethe’s own unrequited love for Charlotte Buff and on the death of a close friend. The book was an immediate success and a cult rapidly grew up around it, resulting in numerous copycat deaths as well as violent criticism and suppression for its apparent support of suicide. Goethe’s exploration of the mind of an artist at odds with society and ill-equipped to cope with life remains as poignant as when it was first written.”

My thoughts:
This little novella looms large over the nineteenth century, so I was keen to experience it for myself. I knew in advance that young Werther ends his own life over a star-crossed love and that his action inspired real life copycat suicides. I also knew he was held up as a kind of Romantic (note the capped ‘R’) ideal, with Sensitivity and Passion and a love of Nature. I thought it was kind of interesting in a historical sort of way, but it was difficult for me to quite take it seriously—to be so in love as to decide that life is no longer worth living? It’s just so over the top. Is that because we just don’t feel that strongly anymore? Perhaps this kind of situation is like a kind of religious fervour. As if falling in love like this was expected so that’s what he did? But then Goethe himself shook it off and went on with his life, so it’s hard to say. Throughout, I just wanted Charlotte, Werther, and Albert to throw off restraint and go for a nice, accommodating, polyamourous relationship. Am I a twenty-first century girl or what?

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