Monday, June 23, 2014

Richard III

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York;"

Written in approximately 1592, Shakespeare's play based on the life of England's King Richard III is one of power, fate, murder, sorrow, and liberation.  Following both Richards bloody, almost secretive rise to power and his short reign, the play defines him and determines how people will think of him for centuries to come.

The Plot:

The wars between the House of Lancaster and the House of York have seemingly come to and end with the defeat of Henry VI.  Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a younger brother of the new king, laments his physical condition as a deformed hunchback.  He proclaims himself a villain to the audience and seeks to gain the crown for himself.  Though the nobles of the kingdom are warned of Richard's intentions by the former queen, Margaret, Richard is able to charm them all into believing he has only the best intentions.

One by one, he is able to remove those who stand between him and the throne.  Too late do those around him realize that he will stop at nothing to seize it.  But even once the crown is his, he is not safe as a new threat in the shape of Henry Tudor emerges from France.  Deserted by those around him, Richard seeks to retain the throne he gained by the blood of others.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I've read a number of Shakespeare plays, but this is without a doubt my favorite so far.  I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it from the classic struggle for power to the immortal lines from Shakespeare's pen.  This is certainly one I see myself indulging in over and over again.

I think the most striking thing about this play is the character of Richard himself.  From the very first soliloquy, he admits to the audience that he is a villain who will stop at nothing to steal the throne for himself.  And yet at the same time we feel ourselves drawn to him.  Perhaps it is his deformities which he blames for his lot in life.  Perhaps it is his witty charm and magnetism.  Perhaps it is because he speaks to us directly.  For whatever reason we cannot simply loathe him and our feelings become very complicated.  I think it is very telling that some editions refer to this play as the "Tragedy of Richard III" rather than the "History of Richard III".  You can certainly see how this character has affected our modern portrayals of villains in stories (I'm thinking especially of Loki in Thor and The Avengers). 

Of course, this magentism is really only a factor in the first half of the play.  As time goes on, Richard speaks less and less directly with the audience.  We begin to view him only through his actions and their affect on others which are not good.  Slowly he is becoming the pure villain he always claimed to be, desperately struggling to retain the throne he stole.  It is also clear by the end that Henry Tudor is our new hero.  We see him riding in to free England from Richard's tyranny and bring peace to the land by marrying a daughter of the House of York.  In one of the best scenes in the play, the ghosts of those whom Richard has murdered simultaneously curse him and bless Henry Tudor.  The transformation of Richard to evil personified and the House of Tudor to England's saving grace is complete.

I honestly can't recommend this play highly enough.  If you love English history, political intrigue, and complicated anti-heros, then this is for you.  A must read for anyone who is trying out Shakespeare!

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 1955 film version starring Sir Laurence Olivier.  Though there are some scenes/characters that are cut, it is still considered by many to be the definitive version.  Olivier, of course, delivers Shakespeare's lines with ease and his portrayal of the deformed king is now what most people think of when they hear the play's title.  A great version of an amazing play.

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it below!     

Saturday, June 21, 2014

School Books

The idea of what children should have to read in school seems to have been popping up a lot lately.  There was the news out of the UK that many American classics were being removed from required reading lists.  The school year just ended here in the US and most high school students have a list of books they must read over the summer.    And over at Book Riot, they asked contributors to name modern books that they think should be required reading.  Their list included The Kite Runner, The Handmaid's Tale, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and An Artist of the Floating World.  This got me to thinking about what books I would want to see as required reading for High School.  Here are some of the ones I came up with:

  • A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor.  I think short stories are great for a society that is quickly losing its attention span.  A well crafted one can leave as big an impression as a 600 page novel.  And if there is a writer who knows how to leave an impression, it is Flannery O'Connor.  Her stories emphasize grace with a strong symbolism, and is also a wonderful commentary on the South of the 40s and 50s.
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  Historical writing does not have to be boring.  Just read Robert Graves' classic about the political turmoil of the Roman Empire.  It's Game of Thrones meets House of Cards!  Plus, it is a great example of the corruption of power and underestimating those with disabilities. 
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  If you want your students to see an example of writing that is poetic, beautiful, and calm then look no further.  Robinson's story of an Iowa pastor at the end of his life is touching and I think a wonderful way to teach kids that the best books aren't just a whirlwind of adventure and romance, but can also be quiet and reflective.
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok.  This book is great for young people as it addresses the problem of becoming your own person.  Like the characters, they are struggling to find their own identity amidst the expectations of their parents, their society, and their friends.  It also emphasizes understanding for the beliefs of others that you may not understand or agree with.

What about you?  What books do you think should be required reading for High School?  What aspects are important in deciding what young adults should read?  Should certain books be required at all?  Sound off!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on.” 

Along with other classics like As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night is considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's best comedies.  It is a story of the pain of love, mistaken identities, and the pitfalls of ambition.  Over 400 years after its creation, this play still continues to enchant audiences the world over and forms the basis of or own modern storytelling.

The Plot:

During a storm off the coast of the Kingdom of Illyria, the ship carrying Viola and her twin brother, Sebastian, sinks.  After washing ashore and assuming her brother has drowned, Viola decides to disguise herself as a man, calling herself Cesario.  She enters the services of Orsino, a nobleman who is in love with a noblewoman named Olivia.  Olivia has rejected Orsino's proposal, but he decides to send Cesario (Viola) to woo her on his behalf.  Though she herself has fallen in love with Orsino, Viola obeys him and sets out (as Cesario) to secure Olivia's love for her master.  Olivia continues to spurn Orsino's advances, but she is intrigued by his messenger and is soon falling for the young "man".  As if things weren't complicated enough, Sebastian also survived and has arrived Illyria.  His uncanny resemblance to Viola causes even more confusion.  How will these tangled relationships work themselves out?

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

In Shakespeare's time and before, Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) was a day where everything was topsy turvy.  Servants dressed up as their masters, men as women, and vice versa.  It was day of revelry,
 hiding one's true identity, and licensed disorder.  We see this played out in the plot.  The general order of things is turned completely upside down.  Gender roles are switched around and general merriment is participated in by all.  Malvolio, Olivia's chief servant, is an embittered man who puts a damper on all of the revelry and in turn is made the cause of even more of it.  

I think what is most striking about Shakespeare's comedies is how much they continue to influence our entertainment today.  There isn't a romantic comedy out there that doesn't in some way draw from Shakespeare's legacy.  This one has many of the familiar tropes.  Mistaken identities, gender disguises, forged letters, love triangles...all of these are now familiar to our modern audiences.  Though they can seem rather cliche now, Shakespeare's wonderful use of language and immortal characters help keep things fresh.  I especially enjoyed the witty Fool Feste and the witless fool Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

This was a fun read, though familiar in many ways.  The plot is solid (for what it is), the language witty, and the characters unforgettable.  In short, it is everything that we have come to expect and enjoy in a Shakespeare comedy.

The Performace:

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 1988 TV version of Kenneth Branagh's original stage direction.  It starred Frances Barber, Christopher Ravenscroft, and Richard Briers.  The setting was changed to a Victorian-like time period which allowed for some interesting scene interpretations.  It was solidly acted and a treat to watch.  

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it below!        

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"One benefit of Summer was that each day we had more light to read by."

-Jeannette Walls

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

“Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”

Of the many works of great literature, there are few that touch us at our very core like the story of Tess Durbeyfield.  Though a creation of the English author, Thomas Hardy, Tess in many ways symbolizes the hardships, trials, and unjustness of life as a member of the agricultural class in Victorian England.  She is also Hardy's way of railing against the social mores of his time, especially in regards to women.  But for the reader, Tess is a real a person as you will find and our hearts go out to the beautiful, strong, and loving young woman whose life is stolen from her one unjust action at a time. 

The Plot:

John Durbeyfield is a simple peasant content with his life, until the local parson informs him that he is descended from the ancient landed family of the d'Urbervilles (long extinct).  After the unlucky death of the family horse, his wife convinces their oldest daughter, Tess, to go "claim kin" from a wealthy widow named d'Urberville, who they (mistakenly) believe to be their distant cousin.  At the house, Tess is met by Mrs. d'Urberville's son, Alec.  He is obviously taken by Tess' simple beauty, but she feels uncomfortable with his attentions.  After getting Tess a job at his home, Alec takes advantage of the situation and rapes her on her way home from an evening gathering.

Tess leaves the d'Urbervilles, but unfortunately she cannot escape the consequences of Alec's actions.  After the death of the her child, Tess leaves her home for a job at a dairy in another part of the county where her past is unknown.  Here she meets Angel Clare, the son of a well-off parson who is training for life as gentleman farmer.  He is instantly taken by Tess and she falls in love with him in return.  But as his feelings deepen, she worries that her past may drive them apart.  She must decide whether to follow her mother's advice and keep her secret, or to pour her heart out to the man she loves.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Though I was familiar with this story, I had never read the book.  I knew Hardy's reputation of writing novels with rather depressing storylines, but nothing prepared me for how this one would pull at my heartstrings.  From the first moment, we are drawn to the lovely (and loving) Tess who continuously suffers from the actions of others. 

While there are many themes and symbols contained in Hardy's novel, I will only focus on a couple of them.  The first is the suffering of the agricultural class in Victorian England, which Hardy lends a voice to much as Dickens did to the poorest classes of London.  These are hard working, simple folk whose ways of life are being changed and destroyed by modernity.  They are treated ill by the landed bourgeoisie (like Alec) who reap the benefits of the agricultural society without having to live with it's toil.  They are also idealized by liberal thinkers like Angel, who see the idyllic dream of  country life and not the harsh reality they must suffer.  Like Tess, they are taken advantage of by one group, and blamed by another.

Hardy also uses the story to attack the social mores of the time as well as the sexual double standard.  Perhaps one of the most maddening moments of the novel is Angel's rejection of Tess due to her lost virginity (though he admits it was not her fault) right after he has confessed his own sexual exploits with an older woman.  Society turns a blind eye to the "impurity" of Alec's and Angel's actions and yet ultimately condemns Tess for something she did not ask for.  Hardy's decision to make the subtitle "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented" raised many Victorian eyebrows.  And yet he is able to make the reader see Tess not as a fallen angel, but as a flesh and blood woman who is trying to live the life fate has dealt her.

There is an almost pagan sense of fate at play in this story.  So many times things could have happened differently, but they didn't.  Hardy blames Tess' demise on fate and intimates that she (and we) are nothing but amusements for the gods who play with us for their own sport.  The highlighting of Stonehenge, the May Day dance, and traditional folklore/omens also add to the Saxon feel of the novel.

There is a reason this book should still be read today.  Hardy created a character that is as real as anything and who fills us with pity for her circumstances and admiration for her strength.  Hopefully, it allows us to see the Tesses of our own time and to not be so quick to condemn them.  This is a must read for everyone.

The Movie:

Adaptations of this story have been made almost since the book first came out.  I have seen two of them.  One is the 1998 television version starring Justine Waddell, Jason Flemyng, and Oliver Milburn.  It was a decent adaptation, though I felt that it was perhaps too sympathetic with the male characters, especially Alec.  It also missed the opportunity to dramatize some of the best scenes from the book like Tess and Alec's scene at the d'Urberville vault or the landlady seeing the bloodstain on the ceiling.

The other is the 2009 Masterpiece Theatre version starring Gemma Arterton, Hans Matheron, and Eddie Redmayne.  I really enjoyed this version.  See my review here.