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.

Day 395: Macbeth

Cover for MacbethAs with Hamlet and King Lear, the succession is a theme in Macbeth, even more so as the play was written in response to the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and others attempted to blow up Parliament with King James I in it. This event was extremely traumatic for the British, as we can clearly imagine. Macbeth is, of course, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about Macbeth’s attempt to usurp the throne of Scotland.

One theme of the play that harks back to the Gunpowder Plot is equivocation. Many of the statements in the play seem as if they mean one thing when they actually mean something else, from the witches’ predictions to Macbeth’s assurances. Equivocation was a Jesuitical doctrine that said that under examination, the truth could be substituted with “mental reservation,” in which one makes deceptive utterances but thinks the truth. It was used by Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Provincial, who learned of the plot as part of a confession. Edward Coke, a member of the Privy Council, which interrogated Garnet, called it “open and broad lying and forswearing.”

In fact, there are other references within the play that refer to James and demonstrate that the play was written in his support. Most obvious is James’s interest in witchcraft. He attended witch trials and in 1597 wrote Daemonologie, which Shakespeare used as source material for his scenes with the witches.

Banquo, Macbeth’s friend, whom Macbeth has murdered because of the witches’ prediction that Banquo will be the father of kings, was purportedly an ancestor of James I. Finally, there is the reference in the play to the healing of the king’s evil, a practice James observed that was followed after him by the British monarchy up to the Hanovers.

So, the play was written in honor of James I, to demonstrate the havoc wrought by breaking the succession. In the service of what is essentially historical propaganda, Duncan is made purer than he actually was and Macbeth more evil. The facts that Macbeth had a claim to the throne of Scotland and that the Scottish succession was not hereditary at the time are ignored. For an alternate interpretation of the story, see the wonderful King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, one of the best historical novelists of all time, in my opinion.

But these facts don’t really spoil our appreciation of the play, which is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric, with its ghosts, witches, sleepwalking, murders, and walking wood. I think I prefer the directness of Macbeth to the convoluted plots of some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. It is certainly a powerful play.

Day 375: King Lear

Cover for King LearKing Lear is about fathers and their children–in particular, how two fathers misjudge their children, mistaking flattery and trickery for love, and push away those who sincerely love them. It is also about the responsibilities of power.

We all know the plot. King Lear has three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. As he is an old man, Lear wants to rid himself of the cares of governing while keeping the title and prerogatives of his office. So, he proposes to divide his property among his daughters but first sets them a silly test of telling him how much they love him to determine the sizes of their gifts. Regan and Goneril reply fulsomely, but Cordelia, who is not comfortable with expressing feelings, replies with restraint. Lear, who had planned to give her the biggest piece as she is his favorite, banishes her and splits his kingdom between the two other sisters.

In a parallel story, the Duke of Gloucester has two sons. His eldest, Edgar, is legitimate, while Edmund is not. Edmund, who is a lot like Iago but with more cause, decides to take all that Edgar has, so he forges a letter that makes it seem as though Edgar is trying to tempt Edmund into murdering their father. He also keeps Edgar away from Gloucester by making him think that he, Edmund, is on Edgar’s side and telling him that Gloucester is angry.

In both cases the fathers, without considering their own experiences of their children’s qualities, throw away the loving child and favor the conniving children.

One metaphor throughout the play is that of sight. Neither father can see what is plainly before him. Gloucester actually loses his sight during the course of the play, and Lear goes mad before he can see clearly.

Madness also factors heavily in the play. Lear is driven mad with grief when he sees his older daughters for what they are, while Edgar pretends to be a madman to hide from his brother and father. Of course, madness is exciting in the theatre because a mad character is allowed to say anything, but Lear’s lines seem very obscure to me, unlike Hamlet’s when he was pretending to be mad.

This play seems to me to be rather disorganized. A lot of time is spent wandering around on the moors, with different characters running into other characters. I confess to finding that part tedious. Cordelia, who in one way is so important to the play, spends most of it offstage, while the fool, who is a dominant character at the beginning of the play, is ruthlessly killed in the middle of it. I am not sure of the point of the scene where Edgar makes his father think he has committed suicide by leaping off a cliff. All in all, this play seems rather messy to me.

Day 365: Othello

Poster for OthelloI have been reading and viewing a few of Shakespeare’s tragedies lately. Othello, in contrast to Hamlet, seems to be about very little in terms of overarching themes. Whereas Hamlet makes observations about death, revenge, the place of women in society, the relationships between fathers and their children, Othello is about what? Perhaps trusting too easily? Perhaps trusting not enough? Of course, it is about racism, jealousy, and betrayal, but what does it say about them?

The plot, of course, is that Desdemona elopes to marry the Moor, Othello, having fallen in love with him as he told the tales of all his adventures. Iago sees this marriage as an opportunity to have his revenge on both Othello, who has given the position he expected to Cassio, and on Cassio himself. He does this by making Othello think that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio.

To me the play is mostly about trust. Desdemona is a fool, it seems, to entrust her life to a man who would doubt her on so little evidence, actually before there is any evidence. Why is Othello so quick to trust Iago, a man he has overlooked for promotion, who has reason to hate him, and yet so quick to distrust his wife, who has never given him reason to doubt? Of course, this contrast says something about society’s view of women at the time.

Perhaps also Othello is a good excuse to write the part of a truly evil villain, Iago. For certainly Iago’s is the most important part.

Why is this a tragedy? Is Othello a great man brought down? I suppose he is great by virtue of his military adventures, but he is brought down by his own stupidity and gullibility. Desdemona is nothing but a victim, completely helpless to control her fate. This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, filling us with dread as it does from almost the beginning.

Day 328: Hamlet

Cover for HamletMy husband likes his jokes. When I told him I was re-reading Hamlet, he said, “It’s full of clichés, you know.” But it was amazing to see how many lines from this play are so familiar to all of us, have almost entered our societal DNA.

Everyone is familiar with the plot. Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has died, and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude has married his uncle Claudius, his father’s brother, who is now king. Hamlet is in grief and dismay at his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage. In the first act of the play, Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who tells him that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear as he slept. The ghost orders Hamlet to avenge his death.

One of the puzzlers for me about this play is the reason why Hamlet then chooses to fake insanity. It allows Hamlet to continually bait Claudius and Gertrude without consequences, but otherwise does not make sense to me.

An interesting point raised in the introduction of my version of the Collected Works is that Polonius, in appearance and behavior, is meant to be William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The claustrophobic feeling in the play of not being able to trust anyone, of being spied on (depicted marvelously in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart), reflects the paranoid nature of Tudor society because of the prevalence of espionage at that time.

Of course, Hamlet’s musings on suicide, death, and the nature of revenge are a major focus of the play. An undoubted message seems to be of the unintended consequences of actions, particularly of revenge. Hamlet and Laertes are bent on revenge, but in obtaining it, they manage to wipe out both their families.

I have seen Hamlet played as a drooping figure of indecision, but I don’t think this is a correct interpretation. Hamlet is caught on the crux of a dilemma. He wants to do what is right but knows that whatever action he chooses, the results will not be pretty. Hence, the inaction.