Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Tempest

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” 

Supposedly written in 1610-11, The Tempest is believed by many scholars to be the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own.  Though not very popular with 17th century audiences, it is now considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's greatest works.  In some ways, this particular play is concerned with its own nature, and many early scholars have seen it as Shakepeare's farewell to the theater.  

The Plot:

After being usurped by his brother, Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have lived for 12 years on a deserted island.  Chance brings those who had overthrown him in the vicinity of the island, and Prospero uses his magic arts to cause a storm that washes everyone ashore and scatters them about the island.  This includes his brother, Antonio, Alonso the King of Naples, and the king's son, Ferdinand.  With help of his spirit servant, Ariel, Prospero works to bring all of the company back together and reclaim his rightful place as Duke of Milan.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I was pretty familiar with the plot of this play though I had never actually read it.  It has several different qualities that set it apart from the typical Shakespearean comedy.  I found it to be less laugh out loud, but rather enjoyed the more mystical aspects of it.

As with Macbeth, the atmosphere of The Tempest contributes heavily to the impression it leaves.  While the atmosphere of the former is dark and foreboding, the atmosphere of this play is light and mischievous yet tempered by a solemnity.  The magic of the two plays also contrast well as the spells and dark omens of Macbeth contribute to horror and evil while Prospero's magic is used mainly for good.  I loved the mystical qualities of the play, both playful and solemn.  Ariel, as an immortal spirit, brings fun to the story and his tricks and interactions with the villains of the play are often hilarious.  As a man approaching the end of his life, Prospero is much more straightforward and his often heavy spirit keeps the play from being in the same vein as A Midsummer Night's Dream.  We are much less concerned with characters looking ridiculous than we are in other comedies.

One of the interpretations of the story that I found fascinating was the idea of Shakespeare writing Prospero as himself.  This theory has persisted for many years and is accepted by most critics.  In this theory, the plot is meant to represent the theater and Shakespeare as magician controls the characters and even the very elements.  Yet, like Prospero, Shakespeare is approaching the end of his life and will be letting go of his servants (characters) and his magic arts (writing). "Our revels now are ended.  These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air..."  This idea of the magician/playwright giving up his magic and retiring from the public eye is both beautiful and sad.  It makes Prospero's final plea to the audience for freedom and release all the more powerful.  "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free."

I think this is the most beautiful of the Shakespeare plays that I have read.  The free use of magic and song, the mischievousness contrasted with villainy, and the reflections of a person at the end of their life all combine to be something rather extraordinary.  Though it may or may not be Shakespeare's final work, it is certainly a fitting send off for history's greatest playwright.  A must read for any Shakespeare lover.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 2010 film version starring Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, and Alan Cumming.  At first I thought that Prospero becoming Prospera would be distracting, but Mirren gave an excellent performance and played the character brilliantly.  All of the acting was wonderful and the CG elements helped keep the "magic" of the play intact.  They also did a great job incorporating the many songs of the play, even turning Prospero's epilogue into the end theme.  Worth a watch in my opinion.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.               

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Coming Soon...

As most of you who have read my blog for any length of time are probably aware, I love classic literature.  It has been the foundation of my reading life and most of the authors whose works I read have been dead for decades if not centuries.  I don't usually get to enjoy the anticipation of awaiting the publication of a new work by a favorite author.  But I do have a few modern authors whose works I enjoy and I am slowly finding new ones as well.  A couple of them have new books coming out soon that I am very excited about.

One of them is Marilynne Robinson.  I greatly enjoyed her 2005 novel Gilead and also the follow up book entitled Home.  This October, the final book in the set will be published.  Entitled Lila, it tells the story of Rev. John Ames' young wife who is briefly mentioned in both Gilead and Home but who has remained a bit of a mystery.  It follows her from her childhood up through her courtship with Rev. Ames and the birth of their son.  I can't begin to describe how excited I am about this novel.  Lila was always the character I was most interested in and I was afraid I would never learn her story.  This is a gift I never really expected to get.

Another author whose newest work I am looking forward to is Kazuo Ishiguro.  I loved his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.  His new one is set to be published in March of next year and is entitled The Buried Giant.  There aren't a lot of details as to what the novel will be about, but you can bet that I will be checking it out.

If you are a Margaret Atwood fan, you will be happy to hear that she is going to be publishing a new work.  You might, however, be disappointed to learn that you most likely will never get to read it.  She is the first author to join in on The Future Library Project, begun by Scottish author Katie Paterson.  This project will compile 100 texts from modern authors to be published in 2114, one hundred years from now.  Though the idea is fascinating, it is also pretty frustrating.  All readers live with the depressing knowledge that we won't get to read everything before we die.  Just thinking about works by favorite authors that won't be published in my lifetime makes me want to cry.

What about you?  Are you excited for any new books?  Share with us!

Saturday, September 6, 2014


"By the pricking of my thumbs, 
Something wicked this way comes."

More than perhaps any other play, Macbeth signals the change in the English monarchy that occured during Shakespeare's career.  It is believed to have been written after the ascension of King James I to the throne, ending the reign of the House of Tudor and ushering the reign of the Scottish House of Stuart.  It is a story of ambition, witchcraft, superstition, and Scottish history.  Today, it continues to fascinate actors and audiences alike, and carries a stigma with it that haunts the theatrical world.

The Plot:

The play opens on three witches, huddling together during a thunderstorm.  The forces of King Duncan of Scotland, led by Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated the armies of the kings of Norway and Ireland.  As Macbeth and Banquo return home, they encounter the witches who prophesy that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor and will one day be King of Scotland.  Macbeth scoffs at this idea until a messenger arrives announcing that King Duncan has made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his victory.

Macbeth bears the news to his wife who latches onto the idea of her husband becoming king.  She persuades him to murder Duncan while he stays at their home, questioning his manhood when he initially refuses.  The deed is done and Macbeth is pronounced king.  But his guilt and paranoia plague him and he is forced to commit more murders in order to keep his throne secure.  

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I had only a vague idea of Macbeth's plot and was unsure of how it would appeal to me.  I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and think it might just be my favorite of the Shakespeare's tragedies that I have read.

Of all of the Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one probably has the best atmosphere.  King James I was fascinated by the idea of the supernatural and Shakespeare certainly feeds that fascination with this play.  It is full of storms, witches, omens, ghosts, and prophecies.  The image of the three witches casting spells and cooking potions is vivid even on the page.  Over time, this sense of evil foreboding has penetrated even the stage where it is enacted.  Many in the the theatrical world consider the play to be unlucky and refer to it simply as "The Scottish Play" rather than as Macbeth.  As someone who enjoys some darker touches and Gothic stories, I found this atmosphere to be utterly delicious.

The other fascinating aspect of this play are the two lead characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  While Macbeth has some similarities to Richard III, he lacks the magnetism and pure evilness of that character.  He is a man driven by ambition (as well as insecurity about his own manliness).  He doesn't even think about being king until the idea is suggested to him, but once it is nothing seems more important.  To him, not attaining the crown is worse than murdering his king and guest in cold blood.  As for Lady Macbeth, her very name has become synonymous with the idea of the supreme villainess.  She is also consumed by ambition and suppresses all "feminine" emotions in favor of more brutal, "masculine" ones.  Though it is not seen by the audience,  her smearing of King Duncan's blood on his bodyguards faces is horrifying.  But ambition is never satisfied and as murder after murder is committed, both characters go mad with guilt and are unable to wash the blood from their hands.

Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare's most unique play.  It's dark atmosphere, ruthless characters, and morality overtones make it stand out.  I really enjoyed it.  And it is also the shortest of the tragedies, so I highly recommend it as a starting point.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 1981 performance starring Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie.  Though it was very much a "stage" setting compared to the other plays I've watched, it was still good.  I love Jeremy Brett's acting and he was wonderful here as well.  Worth a watch, though I really can't wait for the new version with Michael Fassbender to come out!
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.         

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Big House Books

Over at Book Riot, writer Johanna Lane has an article exploring the tradition of literature that revolves around large homes or estates.  She talks about her favorite "big house novels" and how they remain interesting to readers today:

"But the attraction of these novels is partly because the rhythms of life in great houses are so very different from the rhythms of our own: The characters linger over breakfast, they take long walks in the gardens, they stop for lunch, they stop again for afternoon tea, they talk to each other without constantly checking their iPhones."

Though she talks about how these novels have fallen out of favor of the years, I suspect that the success of Downton Abbey will change how much a modern audience enjoys those types of stories.  I have just started a "big house" novel myself (Anya Seton's Dragonwyck) and thought I would provide a list of my favorite novels that involve big homes who become just as much a part of the story as any other character:

How about you?  Do you have a favorite "big house" novel?  Share it with us!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Henry IV, Part 1

"Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;"

Written around 1597, Henry IV Part 1 is the second in Shakespeare's four part series dealing with the reigns of the English kings Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.  It remains one of Shakespeare's most popular works and includes many memorable characters like Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Sir John Falstaff.  Though it is popular, it's interpretations remain open and continue to evolve with modern readings.

The Plot:

King Henry IV's reign has been anything but quiet.  Not only is his mind disquieted by the murder of his predecessor, Richard II, but rebellion is beginning to arise in the kingdom.  Wales and Scotland are giving trouble on the borders and Henry is increasingly at adds with the powerful Percy family of Northumberland.  Adding to his troubles is the behavior of his eldest son, Hal, the Prince of Wales, who has forsaken the royal court and instead wastes his time in taverns and with low companions like Sir John Falstaff.  King Henry often wishes that Hal were more like Henry Percy (called "Hotspur"), the warrior son of the Duke of Northumberland.

The rebellious groups, including the Percy family, join forces and aim to overthrow the king and divide Britain into thirds. Prince Hal joins his father's army as they march to Shrewsbury where Hotspur's forces, and battle, await them.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the second of Shakespeare's "History" plays that I have read.  This was also the one I was most familiar with as it seems to be the most popular of those particular plays.  Though it didn't eclipse Richard III in my opinion, I did enjoy the many different viewpoints it had to offer.

One of my favorite aspects is the idea of the two Henrys, two stars in one sphere.  At first, we share King Henry's view that Hotspur is to be admired above Prince Hal.  Hotspur is a consummate warrior while Hal seems to take pleasure only in drinking and carousing, hardly the desired image of a future king.  But Hal soon tells us that he realizes the degradation the company he keeps brings on him and that he is only biding his time until he can prove that he has the character of a king.  Soon, King Henry learns that the honor and glory found on the battlefield and in the royal court cannot make up for the love a son bears his father.  Though Hal does not seem to be the son his father might have wished, he doesn't hesitate to leave the party life behind in order to defend him and his throne.

Another aspect that must be discussed is the character of Sir John Falstaff.  Perhaps no other comedic Shakespeare character is as well loved or well studied as Falstaff.  On the one hand, he seems to be most of the deadly sins personified.  He is fat, a drunkard, lazy, a thief, boastful, and cowardly.  For many years he is Prince Hal's teacher and leads him in a life of pleasure and debauchery.  But Falstaff has a depth that many characters don't.  His love of Prince Hal is genuine, and he has a quality about him that causes us to feel a bit of sympathy towards him.

This is a solid play and one that many people continue to love.  It has heavy drama with the rebellion scenes balanced with great comedy involving Falstaff's escapades.  I do recommend it as a must read for a general understanding of Shakespeare's works.  Though I wouldn't call it a favorite, it is still one that I'm glad I read.  

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 2012 production of the play included the BBC's The Hollow Crown.  It stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Michelle Dockery, and Simon Russell Beale.  It is a fantastic production and a must see.  The acting is spectacular, of course, and the structure of the play is kept mostly intact.  The action scenes are especially well done and it is nice to see it in more of a film setting versus a stage setting.  I highly recommend it.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.          

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

O Captain, My Captain...

In memory of Robin Williams 1951-2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

“When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

If you have ever read (or seen) and enjoyed a modern romance story, then you owe a lot to William Shakespeare.  His 1598/1599 comedic play Much Ado About Nothing has set the tone for many of today's most loved romance stories and remains a classic itself.  It is a story that continues to be retold in modern interpretations all over the world and remains a personal favorite of mine.

The Plot:

Leonato, the Governor of Messina, receives word that the Spanish prince Don Pedro is arriving along with his companions after a successful battle.  One of these companions, Count Claudio, instantly falls for Leonato's daughter, Hero.  Meanwhile, Benedick, the other companion, takes his up his war of wit and words with Beatrice, Leonato's niece.  They both profess to hate each other and are constantly throwing verbal punches.  Claudio and Don Pedro come up with a scheme to convince Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him and vice versa, thus causing them to fall in love with each other.  They enlist the help of Hero and meet with immediate success.  Hero also falls for Claudio and the two become engaged.  But Don Perdro's brother, Don Jon, decides to wreck things for the lovers by convincing Claudio that Hero is being unfaithful to him.  Chaos ensues and one wonders if either couple will finally achieve happiness.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the first Shakespeare play that I became familiar with and it remains one of my all time favorites.  It is one of those stories that seems to come off of the page with its great characters, witty repartees, and fun plot.

Though Hero and Claudio's story drives much of the action, it is Beatrice and Benedick who are the stars of the show.  I think their story is interesting because you can't tell when they actually begin to fall for each other.  Have they always harbored secret feelings for each other?  Or does percieving weakness in the other (i. e. one being in love with the other) allow them to take down their own defenses and open themselves up to love?  Whatever the cause, their transformation from sarcastic enemies to sarcastic lovers is a fun one to watch.

One of the aspects of this story that I love is the masking of one's identity.  At one point or another, almost every character pretends to be someone they aren't.  Whether it be as a barrier to protect themselves or a way to conceal themselves while creating mischief, each character plays a part that is not really his.  I think this has an interesting correlation with our society today.  We hide behind our avatars and our Twitter handles in order to protect ourselves or to shrug off responsibility for the things we do or say.  Like the characters in the story, we have to open ourselves up to each other in order to experience love and to take responsibility for our actions.

If you are looking for a place to start in Shakespeare, this is a good one.  It is probably one of his most accessible and fun plays.  Probably my favorite comedy so far.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

I watched Joss Whedon's 2012 film starring Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, and a host of other people from other Whedon productions.  Though the dialogue is all Shakespeare, the setting is modern.  I truly love this film.  While it is faithful to Shakespeare's lines and plot, its setting allows for a fun and modern interpretation.  All of the actors are outstanding, and Nathan Fillion is especially endearing as the hapless constable, Dogberry.  I also loved how they took the songs in the original play and set them to modern music.  I highly recommend this!

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share with us in the comments!