Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare)

The plot and development are fairly standard for a Shakespeare play.  It doesn’t approach the austere grandeur of the tragedies, nor does it reach the joyful hilarity of Much Ado About Nothing.  Nonetheless, it’s ending ranks with the best.  This review, or rather notes about play, relies heavily upon Richard Cody’s The Landscape of the Mind: Pastoralism and Platonic Theory in Tasso’s Aminta and Shakespeare’s Early Comedies.

Theme of pastoralism. Cody suggests that Renaissance man saw fields, creatures, gardens as mirrors of higher Platonic mysteries (Cody 82).  He suggests that Tasso’s Aminta set the pattern for this comedy.  This pastoralism aims to wed the Socratic “idea of the good life with the Renaissance literary myth of the courtier-lover-poet” (83).

Cody defines Shakespearean pastoralism as “a mythopoeic rite in which symbolic figures collectively enact a mystery of the love passion” (94).

Cody suggests that the references to love should be read as Neo-Platonic Eros

Idea of Folly = virtu di pazzia, courtliness of the folly of loving (cf. 1.1.20-23).

Sub-theme of “reconciliation of opposites,” such as Proteus and Valentine.

Cody sees a Neo-Platonic reditus in this play.  There is a “rhythm of procession, rapture, and return (emanatio, raptio, remeatio)” (Cody 90).

Shoring up Shakespear; some reviews

Henry VI, Part 3

Key theme: It is better to make a wrong decision than to make a bad decision from a position of weakness.

This is easily one of Shakespeare’s best plays, but since it is a sequel to a previous sequel, the odds of its being read are fairly slim.

Henry VI cuts a deal with the rebel, Richard, Duke of York.  Richard will stop the civil war and in exchange Richard’s son, not Henry’s, will be the next king of England.  The Queen is appalled and raises her own army against Richard, who is now forced back to fighting.

It’s easy to say that Henry was a weakling, and he probably was, but his reasoning is fairly consistent.  He knows that his ancestor usurped the crown, even if his father, the legendary Henry V, was a national hero. When reproached by his wife for disinheriting his son, Henry replies that it is better to “leave virtuous deeds behind,” noting that sons never enjoy their wealth when their fathers are in hell (II.2.49).

It is tempting to make fun of Henry as equivalent to a modern-day “virtuecon.”  He probably is, but before we do that we need to ask if Henry’s actions really are virtuous.  To be virtuous one must have the character for creating good strength in ethical decisions.  Henry displays none of that.

So, then, Richard, Duke of York, is better?  Perhaps, though he isn’t smarter.  He, too, is manipulated by others, though in other respects he is quite noble.

Cymbeline

This play falls into one of those odd categories in Shakespeare’s corpus where the play doesn’t become interesting until the middle of Act II.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that pace at the end of Act V.

I didn’t understand why Leonatus, the protagonist, made that bet with Iachimo.  True, he would get 10,000 ducats, but he was also marrying into royalty, albeit estranged royalty.  I am not saying it is unbelievable, since I know people who would do that.  It’s just stupid.  I grant that he would have gotten money, but it wasn’t worth the costs.  If he lost, he not only lost his wife, but he destroyed her honor and her future.you 

Shakespeare’s genius is in showing there is nothing new in human behavior.  We see a glimpse of the “MGTOW” (Men Going Their Own Way” movement.  If my woman was perceived to be unfaithful, that can only logically mean that every woman is unfaithful.

Notes:

There is a chiasm in Act IV.4.30-31.  “Shrinking slaves of winter/ Than be so/Better to cease to Be.”

A. Be so
B. Better

B’ To cease

A’ To be.

Conclusion:

Act V was rushed.  The denouement didn’t arise, at least not clearly, from the actions themselves. The appearance by “Jupiter” didn’t add anything to the climax. The play is enjoyable for acts II-IV, but the rest of it strains credulity.

Timon of Athens

At first glance it seems that Timon gave greatly to those in need, only to be forgotten when he himself was in need.  That’s certainly true, but on a deeper reading, and drawing upon the classical ethical tradition, Timon wasn’t as virtuous as he appeared.  There is a difference between generosity and prodigality.  The former is an act of charity.  The latter is simply mindless giving. Apemantus suggests as much to Timon (IV.3.77).

The Senate refuses to show mercy upon Timon (or his friends) when Timon is down on his luck.  They banish Alcibiades, who swears vengeance upon them (and, interestingly enough, tying that vengeance to the Senate’s love of usury; III.3.99, 107-108).

Now living in the woods Timon has a new view of human nature.  In poignant, if somewhat extreme, words he notes, “All is oblique/There’s nothing level in our cursed natures/But direct villainy” (IV.3.18-20). Unfortunately, Timon’s own view is now warped.  In the classical tradition the earth was the common bounty of mankind, while ultimately belonging to God (cf. Psalm 24). Timon now calls it a “common whore of mankind” (IV.3.42).

Nota Bene

I wonder if Timon’s servant, the grouch Apemantus, is actually a play on words.  Is he “aping” a man?  Perhaps he is a mirror to show human nature, and that is why he is always rude.  However, in a touching scene when Timon is acting like a beast, Apemantus lives up to his name and shows him what real humanity is (IV.3.197ff).  He tells Timon, “The middle of humanity thou never newest, but the extremity of both ends” (300-301).

There is a chiasm in V.4.35-36:

And by the hazard of the spotted die/Let die the spotted.

A. Hazard of the spotted
B. Die
B’ Let die
C’ The Spotted.

Among Shakespeare’s plays this is one of the more straightforward. It’s quite easy to read.

Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson

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Clingham, Greg. The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Samuel Johnson wasn’t just a writer.  He was a force of nature.  You have to reckon with him, as is perhaps evident in that many writers in this volume have a “feminist” or “post-colonialist” bent to them.  Despite (or because of) that, they are largely appreciative of Johnson. Johnson was honest.  He was a Tory of the most manly sort.  He was a monarchist who stood for a high church, yet he was also realistic about injustices in society.

We have noted that Johnson was a force of nature.  In another sense, nature, or a nexus of universal constants, is the theme of his work.  This is most evident in the chapters on Shakespeare and the Lives of the Poets.

Of particular interest is the chapter on Johnson’s Rambler essays, providing a unifying framework for reading them.

Poetry

Johnson’s poetic practice requires an intimate connection between the general and the particular (Weinbrot 35). Johnson uses the ancient concept of “concordia discord,” or a juxtaposing of contraries, to illustrate the passions in human nature.

The Essays and the Rambler

Johnson begins (or close to) his foray into essay writing with his famous “No. 4,” discussing whether an author had to be a good man to have good writing.  Johnson backs off from this in his essays on Milton and in Ramblers 36 and 37.

Johnson instructs us in practical literary criticism in Ramblers 86, 88, 90, 92, and 94 (and 139-140). 86, 88, and 90 deal with Milton’s methods. The theme here is the dialectic of imitation and originality.

Johnson is indeed in favor of education for women (Korshin 62).

Johnson’s Politics

While he may have been England’s most famous Tory, nevertheless, one may not necessarily deduce positions from his Toryism (Folkenflik 102). The common ground of his Toryism is the relationship of religion to the state.  While landed gentlemen, the Tories saw themselves as uniquely positioned to protect the poor and middle class from predatory interest.  And on Folkenflik’s reading, it was the Tories, not the Whigs, who opposed both colonialism and slavery (105).

In light of all of this, his Toryism could overlap with gentlemen such as Edmund Burke on revolution.

Shakespeare

Johnson sees in Shakespeare a necessary link (yet distance) between “manners” and nature (Smallwood 147).  It is a distinction between surface and depths, between how things appear (manners) and how they are (nature); yet, they can sometimes overlap. Manners reveal the nature.

Lives of the Poets

Nota bene: “It is impossible for any thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its foundation in the nature of things” (quoting Addison, 166). Johnson’s criticism is governed by three themes: beauty (Shakespeare), pathos (Milton), and sublime (Pope).

Writing like Johnson, a small tip: when delivering a forceful reply, Johnson not only used parallel terms but ends each parallel with a sharp monosyllable.  Consider

The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours…has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.”

This volume suffers some repetition but it is full of useful guides for reading Samuel Johnson.

 

Henry VIII (Shakespeare)

Even though this isn’t Shakespeare’s best work, it is by no means a poor work. Indeed, in some areas it exceeds his more notable works.  The language is stately and pleasing.  The plot doesn’t suffer from having 16 different subplots. Moreover, several of the characters, notably Katherine (spelled thus), exhibit true heroism.

The faults, however, are noticeable.  There isn’t any action, and the scenes with Cranmer in Act V were introduced too late in the play to have their full impact.

Some notes:

“My drops of tears I will turn into sparks of fire.”

This might be an inferior play, but I’ll put that quote up with anything you will find in Hamlet or Macbeth.

Henry VI, Part 1 (Shakespeare)

Henry VI, Part 1

I think it is obvious this is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, and not necessarily in a bad way. While there is little of the depth found in his tragedies, nor any of the pointed social interactions in the comedies, it’s still a good play. The story, by contrast, is more straightforward.

Henry V is dead and his son is weak. The country isn’t yet at civil war. France, led by Joan of Arc, is reclaiming her lands.

Some things of note:

Shakespeare paints Joan of Arc as a witch.

Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition

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Jones, Marjorie.  Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition.

Dame France Yates pioneered key research in the 20th century by noting that the Renaissance man was as much a magician (or so he thought) as a secular freethinker.  Even Copernicus had magical overtones. Giordano Bruno wasn’t executed simply because he was a Copernican. He made the argument, obvious to everyone in his time, that the planets had “properties” of sorts.  This is the world that Yates reintroduced us to.

This biography of her, while summarizing her work and giving us a fascinating account of her strange childhood, is good.  However, it never rises to the level of greatness.

Interpretation of Bruno.  Yates rejected the silly idea that the Renaissance was filled with noble freethinkers.  They were magicians and Bruno the chief. Bruno, however, would have seen himself as a good scientist like Copernicus.  If the planets went around the sun, then the stars of other systems would be suns with their own planets. From this he drew the conclusion that the universe is infinite.  This last sentence, of course, is false from both a scientific and logical point of view.

Clarifying the Bruno Thesis.  Bruno wasn’t a victim of a war between Science and Religion.  Rather, he represented a schism within.

On ShakespeareKingship is the principle of order.

Criticisms

There was some repetition, as Jones repeatedly reminded us (sometimes on the same page) that Yates was a chain-smoker.

All’s Well that Ends Well (Shakespeare)

This is a classic and devious, yet ultimately innocent, yarn about deception and marriage. Shakespeare utilizes many of his classic plot devices (fear of cuckoldry, mistaken identity, etc). He draws upon, though never explicitly states, themes of “godly deception” found in the Old Testament. Legalists will not like this play.

Some critics, if Wikipedia is to believed, say Bertram’s actions, both in leaving the court (and ultimate reconciliation) are “forced” and not realistic.  What many do not understand is that in the ancient world, if you consummated a marriage, you were bound to each other as one flesh. Bertram knew this. He knew that marrying but not having sexual intercourse with his bride allowed him an easy way out through annulment.  That’s what makes the “reveal” at the end so perfect.

More on lying and deception: https://drmsh.com/lying-and-deception/

 

Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida

This is Romeo and Juliet for grown ups.  The characters make less than wise decisions, but they aren’t brainless.  They are unlucky. Troilus is forced to see his new bride married off to the enemy for the good of the City.  While it does leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth, we still haven’t reached the complete idiocy of Romeo and Juliet.  

Have you ever watched a movie and felt the director said, “We have to end this in the next 45 seconds.  Hold on tight, everybody”? That’s what happens here. Cressida is now with Diomedes and Troilus saw that.  Here’s the problem: It doesn’t seem like Diomedes and Cressida consummated their “marriage.” True, Cressida–from Troilus’s vantage point–seems to be giving in to Diomedes, but she could also be dissembling and buying time.

What happens to them at the end?  Nothing. Nothing happens. Shakespeare could have taken this in several directions: In the chaos of battle Troilus mounts a rescue operation.  If we want to take it in a more tragic direction, Troilus can go crazy and start stacking bodies. Either one would have been a better ending.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Beauty fades.  The wall approaches.  The language in these sonnets is beautiful, but the sentiment is blunt enough:  you won’t be pretty forever. Your beauty can only live on in your progeny.

“And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence” (12).

There is a subtle shift or movement in how to combat the ravages of Time.  At first the author suggests that she live through her progeny. By Sonnet 21 he is suggesting his poetry will make her immortal.

Evidently the poet is depressed, but  no matter; for, “

thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings” (29).

Did she cheat on him in Sonnet 35?  

We see a distinction in speakers in Sonnet 41.  We have the author advising the young male to marry, but also implying some knowledge of the lady as well.

Sonnet 130 marks a shift to the “dark woman.”  I’m not going to bother figuring out what she symbolizes.  I know too many people like her to think that she has to be a symbol.  She’s ugly, though, and she can’t fall back upon her personality. The speaker thinks he is in love with her, despite her appearance, but this is a toxic relationship.  

That might be the point.  Reason is the physician to love and the physician was ignored (Sonnet 147).

Shakespeare: Henry V

Kenneth Brannaugh’s stellar performance might mislead new readers to this play.  Those who saw his “Band of Brothers” speech might rightly view Henry as the greatest of all Christian kings (and thus the greatest of all possible rulers).   It would be hard to contest it.   (Below I am leaning heavily on Peter Leithart’s analysis)

Shakespeare gives us a subtle caution, though.  In 2.0.14 he calls Henry “the mirror of all Christian kings.”  What do you see when you look in a mirror?  You see your own reflection.  If so, then maybe Henry is a type of Christ.  He was denied his rightful claim in France and so invades enemy territory.  Even better, the story ends in a wedding and reminds readers of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

But mirrors can work in more than one way.  When you look into a mirror, you see the “opposite” of what is there (your right hand is on the left, etc). Further, mirrors can play tricks on the eyes.   Perhaps Shakespeare is inviting us to see deeper in the picture.

The drama begins with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Ely discussing church politics.  They are worried that they will lose church lands in a coming political sweep.   Long story short, they convince Henry to go to war in France (and presumably gain lands there).  Henry never stops to ask if this is actually just.

The drama then moves (unexpectedly) to a tavern and we are introduced to three idiots from the previous plays:  Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym.  Viewers of the film version will be at a loss here:  what relevance do these men have to Henry (and even worse, the audio on the film version is particularly bad and it is hard to know what is going on)?  These were Henry’s old drinking buddies.   Of particular interest is Shakespeare’s constant juxtaposition of Pistol and Henry.  While Henry is noble and Pistol an oaf, Shakespeare is inviting readers to see both a contrast and a similarity.

But Henry isn’t entirely bad.   He gives orders that French churches are not to be harmed (and hence would seem to follow Just War Theory). He puts off his airs and appears among the men in camp, calling up remembrance of “Our good king ‘Arry.”  His unmasking the three traitors is pure genius.  And of course, his Band of Brothers speech is one of the finest moments in the English language.

Unfortunately, though, dark clouds remain.  The presumed bad guys, the French, are fighting a defensive war against an invader whose claim to the throne is strained at best.   Worse, when Henry lays siege to Harfleur, he threatens to cry havoc and bring fire, sword, and rape to the city if it does not surrender.  Not surprisingly, the city surrenders.  But is he really the mirror of all Christian kings?   His conversation with his future (French) wife is charming, of course, but reading between the lines shows that it is little more than a continuation of Henry’s conquest by other means:  she marries him because (she knows and her father knows) France has lost the war.  Henry is negotiating from a position of power.

The drama may end with a wedding, but it is not the Wedding of the Lamb.  Shakespeare’s readers know, as the contemporaries would likely guess, France will soon be plunged into more war at England’s hands, staving off defeat by a series of desperate miracles (think Joan of Arc).

Postmodernists love to think they are original and fresh.  Early modern artists like Shakespeare had them beaten in both originality and content.  This play is an example of deconstructionism in its best sense:  looking below the surface of events, we see multiple layers of meaning, many of which conceal power plays.

LAGNIAPPE:  Shakespeare gives us an interesting example of how Protestants view the difference between the sign and the thing signified.  Henry is reflecting on ceremony (Act IV).   What is ceremony?  On one hand it points to something noble.  It makes the difference between kings and commoners.  On the other hand, it doesn’t change the man ontologically.  If a sick commoner appears before the king, the king can’t heal him.  Ceremony doesn’t give him that kind of power.  But as we have just seen, it isn’t an empty ceremony either.   The sign (ceremony) and the thing signified (royalty; glory) are held in appropriate tension.  Other traditions, by collapsing sign into thing signified, lose this tension.