Day 1051: The Bookman’s Tale

Cover for The Bookman's TaleIt was difficult for me to decide how much I liked The Bookman’s Tale. Parts of it were very interesting and just up my alley, while other parts of it struck me as unnecessary.

Peter Byerly is a young seller of antiquarian books. His beloved wife Amanda died unexpectedly, and since then, he has been taken over by grief. He has moved from the States to the cottage in the Cottswolds that they bought just before she died, because their previous home held too many memories.

Peter finally becomes interested in something when he finds a watercolor of a woman who looks like Amanda in a book in an antiquarian book shop. In trying to track down more information about the artist and his subject, he gets onto the track of a document that could be the holy grail for antiquarians—something that proves Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This document is in the form of the Pandosto, a play written by Robert Greene that formed the basis for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This play seems to have Shakespeare’s annotations in it. Later, there is a murder.

Periodically, we go back in time to trace the course of this document. We know there was a real Pandosto, because we see that a man lends it to Shakespeare with some trick in mind.

We also periodically look back to Peter and Amanda’s romance. Peter trains as a book restorer, so we learn something about this field, which I found fascinating. However, although I was interested in Peter and Amanda’s relationship at first, after a while I started to wonder why we were getting so much detail about it, since it didn’t have that much to do with the rest of the book.

So, a mixed review on this one. It has a good mystery about two feuding families and a lot of interesting detail about books, but the romantic storyline slows it down after a while.

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Day 981: Hag-Seed

Cover for Hag-SeedHag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of The Tempest, a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. It is inventively plotted and cleverly reimagines the events and characters of the play.

Felix wants revenge. Years ago, he was at the pinnacle of his career, director of the Makeshiweg Festival, presenting The Tempest. He was known for his avante garde approaches to theatre. But while he was occupied with the play, he let his assistant Tony deal with the other points of business. In his turn, Tony plotted with Sal O’Nally, the Heritage Minister, to remove him from his job. Making matters worse, Felix’s young daughter Miranda had died a few years before.

Felix has been leading a retired life in a rustic cottage in the country. Several years ago, he took a job with a program at a local prison. Each year, he stages a Shakespeare play staffed and acted by the prisoners. It has become very popular, and the prisoners’ literacy scores have increased.

But Felix is mostly alone with only his fantasy daughter for company.

One year, Felix hears that several ministers, including Sal and Tony, will attend the prison on the day of the broadcast of the play. Their real intent, he hears, is to shut down the program, despite its success. Felix decides this year’s play will be The Tempest, and through the play, he will get his revenge.

link to NetgalleyI thought Atwood’s approach to this retelling was much more inventive than the other reworkings I have recently read, and I found the novel entertaining. Its revenge plot didn’t really grab me, though. I didn’t like Felix very much, although he gets more likable as the novel progresses. It was clever to combine the Caliban and Prospero roles into one for this book. Certainly, readers familiar with Atwood will recognize her acerbic writing style. Not to get to the point where I thought he was a real person, but I also thought his teaching methods were really creative, and the production sounded as if it would be good.

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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.

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The Wars of the Roses

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Day 635: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare

Cover for The Secret Life of William ShakespeareAs I am interested in Shakespeare and recently enjoyed a Regency romance by Jude Morgan, I wanted to enjoy this novel a lot more than I did. There is of course a risk in making a historical figure a main character in a novel, and that is that no author truly knows the mind of the real person. The truly successful novel of this type bravely forges a persona. Morgan’s solution, however, is to make Shakespeare, about whom little is known, truly amorphous in character.

The novel centers mostly on the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, an interesting choice, since we know they lived apart for much of their marriage. Morgan explains the marriage between Shakespeare and his bride, almost ten years older, as a love match, which is perhaps more unlikely than many different explanations for it (although of course not impossible). He has Anne reluctantly agree to Will’s eventual decision to join a group of players only on the condition that he is never unfaithful to her. Anne does not understand Will’s fascination with the theatre and views it with jealousy.

To go along with the amorphous nature of Will’s character, the details of his London life are murky. Morgan hardly ever shows him at his work or refers to any of the events of his life. Instead, he has him in conversation with various players and writers, particularly Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. The introduction of Jonson into the novel is particularly confusing, as often we side track to examine his life and career as a playwright. In fact, he is a much more definite character than Shakespeare is.

It felt to me as though, in being perhaps reluctant to misinterpret Shakespeare’s personality, Morgan just doesn’t interpret it at all. Wife and friends find him equally unknowable. I had a hard time reconciling my knowledge of the plays with this reticent character. In particular, it seemed as though a man who was so fascinated with language would play with it more in his speech, as he does in Anthony Burgess’s much more adventuresome book Nothing Like the Sun. I did not buy Morgan’s idea of Shakespeare’s personality at all.

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.