Review 1682: Titus Andronicus

I knew nothing about Titus Andronicus except that it is a blood bath. And it is, too, with rape, murder, dismemberment, and a woman being served her sons’ corpses in a pie.

The introduction to the play in my Riverside edition points out that the play was long poorly regarded and even by some thought not to be the work of Shakespeare. But more lately its reputation has been rehabilitated.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who has been fighting the Goths for years—having lost 20 sons in battle—when he returns to Rome. The emperor has recently died, and the citizens of Rome want to elect Titus, but he gives his support to the emperor’s brother Saturninus, who is duly elected but resents Titus for this.

In rapid succession and a confusing first scene, Saturninus says he will marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia while openly ogling Tamora, the captured queen of the Goths that Titus has brought back with him. Titus has just sacrificed her son to thank the gods for his triumph. Then Bassianus, the brother of Saturninus, comes in and claims Lavinia as his own, supported by some of Titus’s sons. Titus kills his own son Mutius for acting against the emperor. Although Saturninus rebukes Titus for slaughtering his own son, he still banishes Titus’s other sons for supporting Bassianus’s claim to Lavinia.

Saturninus marries Tamora, and she begins to plot her revenge against Titus for killing her son, aided by her lover, the villainous Moor Aaron. Aaron convinces Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron to murder Bassianus and rape Lavinia during a hunt. They improve upon this plan by cutting off her tongue and hands, and then they frame Titus’s sons for Bassianus’s murder. More villainy follows, but once Titus has had enough, he gets his own revenge.

There aren’t very many striking passages in this play, but it is very tightly plotted. I could see some similarities to Coriolanus, another Roman revenge tragedy. I think the play might be quite horrifying and effective when performed. This play is one of the last books on my second Classics Club list.

Related Posts



King Lear

Review 1674: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is a widow, and her brother Ferdinand does not want her to remarry, so that he will eventually inherit her estate. So, he sets a spy on her, Bosola.

Despite Bosola’s efforts, the Duchess marries her steward, Antonio. It’s not clear what would have happened if she had picked someone closer to her station, but this choice outrages her brothers. (Oddly enough, Bosola doesn’t report that she has a lover until she has three children by him.)

At first, the brothers think the Duchess has been whoring around, but the situation isn’t improved by their finding out she is actually married. Ferdinand has her imprisoned in rooms of her castle, and things get worse from there.

When I studied 17th century drama, these plays were called revenge tragedies, but the introduction to my very old Mermaid edition calls them Tragedies in Blood. Since pretty much all the main characters are dead by the end, this is a fitting name.

Webster’s play is a bit rough around the edges. Certainly, it doesn’t have the power of Shakespeare or even Marlowe, and most of it is in prose. Still, there are some effective moments. I think this play is probably much more moving when performed rather than read. I read this play for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts



Edward II

Review 1656: Edward II

I haven’t read any Christopher Marlowe plays since college, so when I made up my Classics Club list, I picked Edward II, because I didn’t remember reading it. And it’s true, it didn’t ring any bells except through reading fiction about his reign until I got to the part about the line in Latin that could be read in two ways.

The play begins with the return, after Edward’s accession, of his favorite Gaveston, who had been banished to France. Edward has summoned him with a love letter, and Gaveston tells us straight out that he’s going to use Edward’s homosexuality to manipulate him. And he does. Almost the first thing Edward does is throw the Bishop of Coventry into jail and give all his possessions to Gaveston. Although Mortimer, in particular, is bothered by how “basely born” Gaveston is, the main complaint is his greed: “While soldiers mutiny for want of pay/He wears a lord’s revenue on his back.” Basically, he’s bankrupting the kingdom.

Further, Edward is slighting his queen, Isabella of France, who seems at first an innocent victim. But things are going to get a lot more interesting.

In Marlowe’s plays, government is usually corrupt. He’s not very interested in appeasing power. Usually, this corruption is a result of greed or sex—in this case both.

I have always found Shakespeare to be a great deal more poetic than Marlowe, but Marlowe’s plays have their power. This one also has the benefit of being a great deal more true to the actual events than most of Shakespeare’s history plays are, but of course Shakespeare was interested in appeasing power.

Related Posts

The Lily and the Lion

The She-Wolf

Henry VI Part I

Review 1404: All’s Well That Ends Well

Although All’s Well That Ends Well is grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, the introduction to my edition says that, like Measure for Measure, it is a problem play. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but Wikipedia says it applies to ambiguity and a shift in tone between darkness and light.

The actions in this play by Count Bertram bear many resemblances to those of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton, who was made to marry a girl he didn’t want. Helena, the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, is the daughter of a physician and so is inferior in position—or at least he thinks so—to Count Bertram, the Countess’s son. Yet, she is in love with him.

When the Count goes to the court of France, Helena follows. The King is deathly ill, and she offers him a cure of her father’s. He agrees, if it works, to marry her to the single lord of her choosing.

Of course, the cure works, and she chooses Count Bertram. Forced to marry her, the young man leaves for war in Italy vowing never to consummate the marriage.

Frankly, this later play is not one of Shakespeare’s best. Its main theme is the disagreement between young and old, as everyone in the play who is older thinks Bertram is an idiot to reject such a virtuous, lovely bride, and also the part that status plays in marriage as opposed to character. The play has no rolling speeches, however, and pretty much just gets down to doing its job.

From the modern viewpoint, it’s fairly easy to see why this play isn’t presented as often as others. I read it before I went to see it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Mainly, Count Bertram is pretty despicable despite his change of heart at the end. First, he rejects Helena just because of her social status, even though she is beloved by his mother and the King. Later, he attempts to seduce a virtuous Italian girl of good family, Diana, even promising to marry her despite being already married. When she pursues him to France, he lies about her, saying she is a camp bawd. What a great guy. Obviously, all would be well if Helena didn’t end up with him at the end, at least for Helena. But that’s the 21st century view.

Related Posts

Antony and Cleopatra



Day 1274: The 1944 Club! No Exit

Cover for No ExitThe 1944 Club crept up on me. I found I didn’t have time to read anything very long, so I decided to reread Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. When I say reread, I mean that I must have read the play before, as I own a copy of it and took a course in Absurdist drama that included it. However, I don’t really remember it except that I knew the premise, which is famous, going in.

Sartre himself wasn’t exactly an Absurdist but an Existentialist who believed that people can define their own essence. That done, though, they must be authentic to that essence.

In No Exit, three people are locked in a room. They are dead, and they are in hell, but hell is not like what they expect. Inez is a lesbian who is attracted to Estelle. Estelle is a beautiful young woman who needs the attention of men. Garcin is a journalist who is preoccupied with the fear that he was a coward after he deserted because of principle.

I’m sure that No Exit was shocking and controversial in its day, but I found it predictable and sexist. The arguments among the characters that provoke the conflict and lead to the famous conclusion “Hell is other people” seem contrived, and Garcin is the only character who is even slightly sympathetic. To me, the women seem stereotypical—Inez as the woman who hates men and Estelle as the cloying dependent type.

So, I’m not sure how well this play translates to the modern day. I think I generally have problems with works that are about ideas rather than actual people, and these characters do not seem like real people to me.

Related Posts

A Country Road, A Tree

Suite Française

Half-Blood Blues

Day 1151: Henry VI, Part III

Cover of Henry VI Part IIIHenry VI, Part III must have been a difficult play to write, because it telescopes the major events of years into five acts. Its action is a little tiresome, as one side of the conflict is in the ascendent, then another. However, the longer speeches in this early play are beginning to show Shakespeare’s stuff. And certainly, for audiences of the day, who didn’t know their history, it was probably exciting.

The play opens where Part II left off. Henry has just been defeated by the Yorkists at the first battle of St. Albans. Shortly thereafter, he makes a deal with York that allows him to rule during his lifetime but makes York his heir. But both York and Queen Margaret soon break the vow. York is preparing to resume conflict so that he can be king when Queen Margaret attacks in an effort to protect her son’s rights.

What was most interesting to me in this play is the depiction of several of the main characters. Queen Margaret is a real viper and is reviled by several characters, even though she is just trying to protect her son. In fact, I believe it was this play in part that was responsible for her reputation in history.

Although Henry is depicted as saintly and all for peace, he is not shown as mentally incapacitated, as he was for much of his life. Warwick, despite changing sides and being ultimately on the wrong one (as far as the Tudors are concerned), is rather heroic. And Gloucester, later Richard III, is set up beautifully for the subsequent play, Richard III.

All in all, I thought that the second play moved along better. I was glad to contrast this trilogy with the other reading I have done on the Wars of the Roses.

Related Posts

Henry VI, Part I

Henry VI, Part II

Margaret of Anjou

Day 1118: Henry VI, Part II

Cover for Henry VI, Part IIJust by coincidence, I began reading Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series right around the same time as I started reading these three plays about Henry VI. I found it interesting that Iggulden’s first book, Stormbird, begins almost exactly in the same place as does Henry VI, Part II. Suffolk has brokered Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, but Henry’s nobles are shocked to learn that the price is to return the provinces of Maine and Anjou to France. Further, the French are not even paying a dowry.

As with Part I, Henry isn’t much of a character in this play, the intent of which is to tell the events of his reign. But whereas he was a child in the first play, this absence in Part II helps to signify his ineffectuality as a ruler. When we see him, he is kindly, but he is unable even to keep his nobles from fighting in his presence.

Besides the struggle for power among the nobles, we are witness to some of the important events in the King’s reign. These include the disgrace of the Duchess of Gloucester and the murder of her husband, the disgrace and murders of Suffolk and Somerset, and Jack Cade’s rebellion.

This play is supposed to be the best of the three Henry VI plays, and apparently Shakespeare’s contemporaries found it exciting because they were unaware of their history. Especially at the beginning, it certainly provides a cogent explanation of the problems of Henry’s realm. Unfortunately, he was not the man to handle them.

Related Posts

Henry VI, Part I


The Wars of the Roses

Day 704: Henry VI, Part I

Cover for Henry VI, Part 1Henry VI Part I is my book for the latest Classics Club Spin! Enjoy the review.

The only one of Shakespeare’s history plays I’ve ever read previously is Richard III, although I once saw Peter MacNicol perform Richard II in Central Park (with Martin and Charlie Sheen two rows down in the audience). Henry VI Part I is Shakespeare’s first play as well as one of his Wars of the Roses plays, of which Richard III is the last.

As a history play, Henry VI Part I is more about the events at the beginning of Henry’s reign than about Henry’s life. In fact, he is very young through much of the play and only appears occasionally. The play depicts the discord among the powerful men surrounding Henry, culminating in the Wars of the Roses (although the seeds of the discord can be traced back earlier, to when Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) deposed Richard II). Henry IV and Henry V, in their turns, have held the country together, but Henry V’s young son shows no such ability. Although Shakespeare himself (and many historians) seems to be disposed toward the Yorkists, it is clear by the end of the play that the Lancastrians will prevail during Henry’s reign.

Painting of scene
The choosing of red and white roses, a scene from the play

The other main event of the play is the war in France. I should not have been surprised to find Joan of Arc (referred to in the play as Jean La Pucelle) the villain of this plot, since the English burned her, but it was a shock nonetheless. The gallant Lord Talbot is the hero, while Jean fights with the aids of demons.

The play is not as dramatic as some others, but it has its moments. I thought it was most interesting as showing the Tudor view of this great series of conflicts.

Related Posts

The Wars of the Roses


Lords of Misrule

Day 434: Coriolanus

Cover for CoriolanusCoriolanus is one Shakespeare tragedy with which I was previously unfamiliar, and it is a powerful one. More than any other Shakespeare play I’ve read, it is about politics, class dissension, and the fickleness of popularity. It is also about excessive pride.

The play has references to events of the time it was written, for it begins with a riot over corn, the like of which had taken place in Warwickshire the year the play was written. Its war between the Romans and the Volscians is also a reference to the war the English and Spanish had been carrying on intermittently.

Caius Marcius is a warrior who has spent most of his life as a soldier and has no social graces. He is proud and arrogant and disdains the common man. After he soundly beats the Volscians in battle, particularly his bitter enemy Aufidius, and conquers their city of Corioles, the Roman generals rename him Coriolanus and the senate wants to award him a consulship. This office as ruler of Rome is the one that all great men aspire to. Unfortunately, to have the office, Coriolanus must beg the honor from the public and show them his wounds gained in defending the state.

He is reluctant to do so, knowing that he is unable and unwilling to ask for what he thinks he deserves, but his austere mother Volumnia and his supporters talk him into it. Two jealous tribunes, who are representatives of the people, are afraid that Coriolanus will strip them of their offices. So, the two, Brutus and Sicinius, work to enrage the people after they have already sworn to support Coriolanus.

The result is another riot, and instead of receiving the high honor, Coriolanus is declared a traitor. The tribunes even try to have him executed, but he is banished.

The seeds of Coriolanus’ downfall are sown both by the treachery of his rivals and by his own hubris. Things go downhill from there.

It is interesting that in the class divide, Shakespeare’s sympathies seem to align with the men of power even while he deplores Coriolanus’ flaws. There are several speeches about the public not being able to make a decision, about their fickleness, and so on, and the actions of the public seem to bear these ideas out. You can image what Shakespeare would think about a democracy or about our current political situation.

Day 415: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraOf the Shakespeare tragedies I have been reading, I think I have the least sympathy for the characters in Antony and Cleopatra (except perhaps for Othello–I have no sympathy at all for him). One of the problems is in, of course, how their relationship has historically been portrayed–with Cleopatra as a manipulative slut instead of a sovereign trying desperately to save her kingdom from being swallowed up by the Roman Empire. But the victors always get their way in portraying the conquered.

Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, the play about the last years of the relationship between Marc Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt, their political maneuverings with Rome and particularly with Octavius Caesar, and their deaths.

I believe the traditional way of looking at this play is of the great man brought down by his fascination with a rapacious woman. However, pay attention to the difference between how the characters talk about the nobility of the Romans and how the Romans actually act. I think something more subtle is going on here. I don’t see much evidence of a great man in this play. I see a soldier who pretends to be a noble Roman and is not. I see a female ruler who is more of an enigma, who controls her own shifting image, like a chimera.

image of The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald ArthurNot having the strongest grounding in classical literature, it is not always clear to me what is going on during the political maneuverings and battles, and which characters are on whose side. Of course, it is a historical fact that Cleopatra fled the battle of Actium with her ships at a strategic point, causing the battle to be lost. Why she did so is still a mystery.

For a different view of Cleopatra, although maybe a closer view than Schiff thinks, see Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography.