Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Shakespeare2020: King Henry VI, part i

Ah we start into the histories!

Henry VI, part i (it's usually written I Henry VI) isn't one of the most well-known plays, so I'll recap it as part of my discussion of it too. But know that, even if it isn't especially well known, it's still an amazing bit o' writing. And I do like thinking about this in terms of Shakespeare's evolution as a writer. In this play, you can see themes and even a scene that he'll keep toying with and (imho) perfecting as he grows as a writer. I Henry VI was written around 1591 and might be the earliest play by my man W. Shakes, though there's a few areas that you can tell may have been written by another playwright (possibly by another fantastic laddie you may know named Christopher Marlowe! and sweet Thomas Nashe too!). I Henry VI is the first in a tetralogy that spans The Wars of the Roses (Henry VI parts i, ii, and iii and Richard III). Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies [together, they're called the Henriad) and though this was the first composed, it's actually the later in chronology; the other follows Richard II, Henry IV parts i and ii, and Henry V].

Anyway, this play starts in the aftermath of Henry V's death. Henry V was a controlling, egotistical, intelligent, and strong man, and his death has left England in the lurch. His son, Henry VI, is weak, to put it mildly. This is demonstrated beautifully by Shakespeare because Henry VI doesn't even show up in the play until Act III. 🔥

So, what is this play about? Nobles arguing, England waging war in France, nobles arguing, Joan of Arc doing a bit of witchcraft, nobles deciding that Henry VI should marry, and (yes I may have mentioned this) nobles arguing. The play ends with Henry and the nobles (mostly) agreeing that Henry should marry Margaret of Anjou (much more about her in the rest of the tetralogy), and a peace with France somewhat exists (but, characters assure us that it won't last long!).

So, that's the quick and dirty synopsis. What I want to point out are some aspects where I can see Shakespeare's broader themes and ideas being tackled for the first time:

a. Hmmm, women might be evil?
My darling Shakespeare starts to play with this idea, which will get much more sound and more well-constructed in later plays (and when he has stronger female characters).

  • Joan of Arc is the most dominant female character. She appears very early in the play when the Bastard of Orleans introduces her to Dauphin Charles (who leading a rebellion in France against the English). She wins a duel against Charles and, as a reward, is sent to command the French armies, which start to do pretty well. But, she ultimately loses her power to have visions (if she ever had this power), her sexuality becomes a joke to the French and the English (does she control Charles through sex? is she a tramp? is she really pregnant? who's the father?), and she ends the play, destined to be burned at the stake, pleading for her life.
    What can we tell from her representation? Although it is a fairly typical progression of the female trope in this early play, there are moments of unexpected power. Joan's fight and battlefield knowledge, her ability to talk to spirits, and her sexuality are all prized assets at times. Certainly, Shakespeare shows that winners write history and, if those winners are males angry at a woman, then the end result will be a harsh caricature of a woman. But I do think that by showing us her strengths, even if for a short time, Shakespeare does point to the hypocritical nature of "winners write history." Moreover, by having the English reduce Joan in such petty and typical ways, I would argue that Shakespeare emphasizes the unimaginative nature of "winning" males. 
  • The Countess of Auvergne, a very minor character, tries to capture Talbot, and levies some pretty hilarious insults at him during the scene (which he laughs off). The Countess sub-plot is pretty silly, immediately debunked, and doesn't add much to the text. It emphasizes that not all women's machinations will work. And it clearly shows the difference between Charles (easily bewitched by Joan) and Talbot (easily able to overcome a woman). In Richard III, we'll see women being wooed to showcase how Richard's power changes in concert with the exposition of the play. That trope is much better crafted, and takes up much more time, than the Countess scene.
  • Last, Margaret of Anjou is a carefully constructed creature. We don't see much of her or her personality in this play, but I think this is a deliberate choice by Shakespeare. She needs to be introduced and will become a very major character, but Shakespeare primarily uses her introduction to set up Henry's reliance on Suffolk and the apprehension that it causes with Gloucester. Shakespeare knows how to introduce a character (independent of gender) in order to show other characters' development/alliances. 

In this play, Shakespeare shows the vileness of women but points to men's prejudice as a reason that women are being twisted thusly. He'll do it much better in later plays, but that theme is clearly present.

b. Fatherhood and a lineage of power
Talbot is quite the major role in this play. He's discussed (as a hero to the English, as a thorn in the French's side) as strong; he's shown as capable; he even has a sense of humor. (Spoiler alert: He dies in battle at the end of the play.) Now, Shakespeare shines in his brilliant crafting of multi-dimensional characters, and Talbot's character construction shows several aspects that will become deeper, more pervasive elements of later characters. Talbot almost seems like an exercise in melding humor and wisdom, in seeing how strengths can showcase character flaws, in how to combine a dominant character with weaker characters in a way that still explains their interactions evenly. When Shakespeare shows Talbot arguing against his own selves/desires, I see glimpses of Macbeth and Hamlet; when Talbot demonstrates a twinge of evilness covered in a coat of likable humor, I see stirrings of what will become Richard 3 and even Iago. But Talbot most often reminds me of Othello--a strong warrior who focuses so much on how others might view him that he loses his mind. Talbot doesn't lose his mind and does care about his son, but Talbot thinks that all problems will be solved by war/brute strength, knowing that the nobles he's trusting to support him are weak-willed cowards. He assumes that the nobles will have courage when courage is needed but he underestimated their cowardice and pettiness.
In addition, the scene between Talbot and his son is a wonderful precursor to the Banquo/Fleance scene in Macbeth (though Banquo is more forceful and definitive, and we have a "never-ending line of kings" that proves that Banquo's delivery equates with success 😜). But the Talbot/son scene nicely sets up an element of lineage-derived power which is in, I would argue, every single Shakespearean play.

c. Roses are red, or are they white? Which color is right?
Yep, the WARS OF THE ROSES are a-starting! The Wars of the Roses were a series of English Civil Wars between the House of Plantagenet (white roses) and the House of Lancaster (red roses). Shakespeare deals with this more fluidly in subsequent plays of this tetralogy, but the Act II of this play is notable because we start to see which nobles will be on which side and why. It's an interesting exposition strategy that Shakespeare uses because he is introducing an idea that was very well known to audiences at the time but absolutely needs to be said. He doesn't want to bore the audience, but we need to see the teams assembling, to be blunt. The scene is constructed in a fluid and basic form, which makes it rather rich for interpretation by directors. I've seen a few versions of this play and this scene usually is the most different between directors. Some like to have roses in a garden being plucked (i.e. a visual delineation); others will play with an actor's volume (whispering and voice pitching) to explore potential alignments and misdirections. It's fascinating the complexities that are within this scene.

d. Supernatural baby!
This play talks about angels, God, spirits, witches, and demons. There's an entire scene kinda showing Joan summoning demons. It's a rich tapestry of supernatural creatures and discussions! [A little about me: I adore exploring how Shakespeare uses the supernatural onstage to bring forward subversive social, economic, religious, political, or ideological views. I did quite a bit of graduate work in Renaissance Literature and the supernatural was my specialty.] In this play, there's a lot of talk about the supernatural and one instance of a pseudo-performance of witchcraft, but they are fairly basic and typical. The talk doesn't go beyond basic tropes of supernatural creatures and the witchcraft pseudo-performance is muddled, decidedly weak, and useful only for highlighting Joan's waning power and the weak nature of Dauphin Charles. I also call it "pseudo" because the play only notes Joan talking to herself not to any other characters, and most actors play it as Joan simply wandering around, pretending to talk to the air; this is in direct contrast to later plays where supernatural characters will talk and interact as major roles.
Shakespeare will go much, much further with his use of the supernatural in subsequent plays, but it's always nice to see what he was starting from; it makes me appreciate his facility in using the supernatural in later plays even more. To me, this is how a beginning writer would use the supernatural. But as Shakespeare begins to understand the power within a a role defined and strengthened by "otherness," he experiments more and finds avenues that highlight ambiguity and unnatural/supernatural strength, and he draws on more traditions (going beyond folklore and into Greek/Roman/ Egyptian supernatural tropes).

So, obviously I'm a nerd, and I didn't think I'd write this much about I Henry VI, but I suppose I've shown you my excitement. Please do read the play. It's a snappy and swift read. Onward to part ii!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Shakespeare2020: Twelfth Night

I was excited to start out with this play, I must admit. I am following the schedule laid out by the creator of the Shakespeare 2020 project, and it's fun to have someone else decide when I should read these plays. With that said, I know 12N pretty well. I've read it dozens of times and taught it a couple of times. Whenever people tell me that they don't like Shakespeare or are uncertain what to read of Shakespeare, I often tell them to read 12N or Much Ado.

I'm going to talk about three areas that I found myself mulling over during this year's reading of the play.

1. Emotional Willingness: Viola and Sebastian have never really seemed very much like twins. I have tended to just accept that they are brother/sister and the cross-dressing and all to reach the resolution. I've admired Viola but she's no Beatrice or Lady Macbeth. But, for this reading, I really saw how, emotionally, Viola and Sebastian are very similar.
It stems from how quickly they fall in love. Viola is just in love with Duke Orsino from the second that we see her in his court. There's not much of Orsino in the text at all and you really do have to make some leaps in judgement to belief that Orsino is worthy of Viola's love, but that's for a different story. Sebastian loves/trusts Anthony immediately; then, he goes along right away with Olivia and marries her.
I've usually read it as amusing and quick because it needs to be quick--the play is ending and you gotta wrap up those plots! But I saw it somewhat differently this time. Both Viola and Sebastian fall in love quickly but they don't fall out of love. Is it a way of looking at the world, engaging your first impression, and sticking with it? Is it why people can meet in high school, marry each other, and live very happy lives together? That wasn't my type of love so perhaps the more trusting nature of Viola/Sebastian has been foreign to me until I became a mother and did fall immediately in love with a human being. I'm not sure, but I'm glad that I can start to understand that emotional trust may not just be a clever play-ending move. It might just be how some people truly engage with the world. (However, poor Olivia, though--she deserves better!)

2. Humoral Madness: In the spring of 2008, I took the most fabulous graduate course with a visiting professor Dr. Ivo Kamps. We studied the Early Modern understanding of Madness, and I simply adored the the class. We did study 12N as part of the course. The language of humoral madness expresses itself mainly in the Maria/SirToby Belch/Sir Andre Aguecheek/Malvolio scenes, when the trio of Maria/Belch/Aguecheek are trying to devise punishment for Malvolio. Throughout their discussion, they offer reasons why Malvolio is straight-laced and, especially Maria, seems to connect it to a humoral imbalance.
In case you don't know, in the Early Modern understanding of bodily health, there were four humours: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. To be in good health, there was a balance of these humours; however, more often, humours were unbalanced, causing, they believed, disease and emotional fluctuations. There's no proof that Shakespeare believed in humoral theory, but he placed it in his plays quite a bit. It makes sense. It's an easy way of connecting to a current (to early modern audiences) knowledge base and it allows the audience to easily see both why a character might be ostracized and how others inside the play view an ostracized character.
What I liked about my current reading this time was that I could clearly see how Maria uses humoral imbalance not to convince herself that Malvolio is a problem but to convince Belch/Aguecheek that something should be done to Malvolio. Maria functions like the author in this way. She manipulates a current belief so that her purpose can be fulfilled. She's a canny lass, that one. If you're reading it, look to how she uses humoral color theory combined with emotional and physical appearances to paint a picture of Malvolio that Belch/Aguecheek easily grasp.

3. Malvolio's Revenge: This one is deeply personal to me.
Poor Malvolio--fancies himself in love thanks to a manufactured letter, humiliated, locked in a mental asylum, mocked while in said asylum...sure he gets that great line "I'll be revenged on the whole pack you!"but, wow, I want to see his revenge. I mean, we've all somewhat been in that sort of situation. And, the more I read this play and teach this play, the more horror I have for Malvolio's situation. It's played for laughs, of course, but I think that's what Shakeapeare wants you to do. He wants his audience to feel arrogant and to laugh at this poor fool who was easily tricked. Shakespeare wants us to be on the Maria/Belch side of things, feeling confident and getting our laughs from watching someone suffer.
But that's where the genius comes in to play. Why should we laugh when others are suffering? Why do we want to share in the Maria/Belch bond of "winners?" Why do we want to laugh at a person who, if we're being brutally honest with ourselves, could easily be us? At times, we're all one silly incident away from being humiliated and locked up against our will and disbelieved. And that's genius. Shakespeare needs us to think about these aspects, to realize the dissonance inherent in watching a play and cheering for bad to befall someone who's just a bit different. I love that Shakespeare makes me think.

Ok--those were the three things that stuck out to me during this reading of 12N. Feel free to comment, if you like. If you feel differently about any of these points, it's okay to share that. I really just love sharing ideas and hearing others opinions. My ideas on all of these pieces has changed dramatically as I had more experiences, met more people, and heard more people's strong and confident voices. I'm just one crazy voice among a few billion, but I hope you've enjoyed seeing inside my mind for a little bit. I'm off to Henry VI next...if I can control my desire to read the tetralogies out of historical chronology and in written chronology instead!

Shakespeare2020: Introduction

Hello! It's been quite a time. I've been busy with kids, and running for office, and living life. But, as a sort of resolution, I was inspired to do Shakespeare 2020 and to read all the works of Shakespeare during the 2020 calendar year. I figured I could also use the challenge to update my blog page, so here goes...

For this challenge, I'll do a short write-up when I finish each play, poem, etc. But, it's not going to be a book report type-of-write-up. It'll be a little bit more messy. If you want to read what happens, find a Spark Notes (or ask me!). But, I'll be digging in more to a few parts of the text that leapt out at me or that I thought differently about with this most recent reading. I have read the whole Shakespeare body of work several times (and certain plays many MANY times); I attended a doctoral program in Renaissance Literature (as I call it "Shakespeare + Friends); and I'm excited to talk about in a casual yet comfortable way. we go, on to Shakespeare2020!

Here's proof that I've been busy! I'm the one on the left.  :)