Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL by William Shakespeare:

THE PROBLEM PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE by Ernest Schanzer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/10/2018]

I just saw a production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL by William Shakespeare (ISBN 978-0-743-48497-8) done by the Hudson River Shakespeare Company. This is often described as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." The problem is not whether he wrote it (as some might suppose), but the ambiguity of its morality. W. W. Lawrence (1931) claims there is no such ambiguity--the resolution is consistent with Elizabethan notion of the "Clever Wench fulfilling her seemingly impossible tasks" (as described by Ernest Schanzer in THE PROBLEM PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE (ISBN 978-0-805-20110-9), and indeed Schanzer omits it from his discussion. L. C. Knights defines a "problem play" as one in which we frequently find ourselves in doubt as to our moral bearings." The problem, of course, is that while *we* may find ourselves in doubt as to our moral bearings in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (for example), it is not clear that Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have. And so what seems a "problem play" to us might not have been intended or perceived that way when it was written.

Not surprisingly, Elizabethan plays that leave the audience in a state of moral confusion at the end are unlikely to be very poplar or performed very often today. Theater companies stick with the Old Reliables (e.g., ROMEO AND JULIET, A MIDSMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, MACBETH) and the unavoidable classics (e.g., HAMLET, KING LEAR). Who needs trouble? (Similarly, opera companies tend to perform either Puccini's MADAME BUTTERFLY or LA BOHEME rather than LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST or EDGAR.)

My problem is not with the supposed moral problems of the heroine. (Even Schanzer says that she has no moral problem, only difficulties to be overcome.) It is that she loves someone who does not love her, traps him into marriage, and then tricks him into sleeping with her so that an oath he made will tie him to her irrevocably. Why she thinks this will make her happy is a total mystery to me. His seeming conversion to loving her is played sometimes seriously, sometimes clearly as a concession to the King's command. The former is improbable, and the latter bodes ill for the future of the marriage.

To order All's Well That Ends Well from amazon.com, click here.

To order The Problem Plays of Shakespeare from amazon.com, click here.


THE HOLLOW CROWN by William Shakespeare:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/06/2013]

I am watching the BBC production THE HOLLOW CROWN, which consists of adaptations of William Shakespeare's RICHARD II, HENRY IV (Parts 1 and 2), and HENRY V. I know that people talk about how Shakespeare makes us empathize with Richard II, and laugh with Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, but all I find myself thinking is that these are all fairly despicable people. Richard II thinks everything he does is okay because he is king ("when the King does it, that means it's not illegal" sort of thing). Harry Percy (a.k.a. Harry Hotspur) is constantly flying off the handle. Falstaff lies, steals, drinks, wenches, takes bribes from able-bodied men and impresses slaves into the army instead, and Prince Hal is little better. And for all his complaints about Richard II's imperiousness, Henry IV is not all that different.

To order The Hollow Crown from amazon.com, click here.


HENRY IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/11/2011]

I have been watching the British television mini-series "Shakespeare's Age of Kings", broadcast in 1960 in fifteen parts with a really amazing cast: Sean Connery as Harry Percy (a.k.a. Hotspur), Judi Dench as Princess Katherine of France, Julian Glover as King Edward IV, and Frank Pettingell as Sir John Falstaff.

In "Henry IV, Part 2", King Henry V makes the following speech to the Lord Chief Justice when Henry becomes king after his father's (Henry IV's) death:

	You shall be as a father to my youth:
	My voice shall sound as you do prompt mine ear,	
	And I will stoop and humble my intents
	To your well-practised wise directions.
	And, princes all, believe me, I beseech you;
	My father is gone wild into his grave,
	For in his tomb lie my affections;
	And with his spirit sadly I survive,
	To mock the expectation of the world,
	To frustrate prophecies and to raze out
	Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down
	After my seeming. The tide of blood in me
	Hath proudly flow'd in vanity till now:
	Now doth it turn and ebb back to the sea,
	Where it shall mingle with the state of floods
	And flow henceforth in formal majesty.

And later, when speaking to Falstaff:

	Presume not that I am the thing I was;
	For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
	That I have turn'd away my former self;
	So will I those that kept me company.
	When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
	Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
	The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
	Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
	As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
	Not to come near our person by ten mile.
	For competence of life I will allow you,
	That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
	And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
	We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
	Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
	To see perform'd the tenor of our word. Set on.

This seems merely an elaboration upon I Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

To order Henry IV, Part 2 from amazon.com, click here.


PERICLES and CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/18/2005]

When I finished Plutarch's life of Pericles, I said, "I don't remember Shakespeare telling that story," so I re-read Shakespeare's PERICLES (ISBN 0-140-71469-3), and it was completely different--just the name was retained. Plus Shakespeare had the usual set of anachronisms: references to being within pistol-shot, Latin mottoes on shields, a whole feudal structure of knights that never existed in ancient Greece, a reference to the title page of a book (in ancient Greece?), and so on. But with CORIOLANUS (ISBN 0-140-71473-1) Shakespeare sticks reasonably close to the historical figure.

CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/25/2011]

This week we watched a BBC production of a political thriller about a politician who thinks he is above the people. The people are clamoring for subsidized grain because there is a shortage due to a recent troop build-up, but he dismisses this as wanting too much of a "nanny state" on their part. All his opponents do the usual thing, mingling with the people, bragging about their military service, begging for the crowd's approval, but he thinks this is pandering and when forced into it, does it very poorly. He rails against making everything into sound bites and special pleadings, but only manages to antagonize so many people that eventually they turn on him, and he goes over to the opposition. After he starts helping them make gains, his original party starts to wish they hadn't driven him out, and eventually his family convinces him to change his affiliation back. At this, the opposition has had enough of these flip-flops and completely destroys him with accusations and slurs.

And the name of this thriller? CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare (ISBN 978-0-451-52843-8).

To order Pericles from amazon.com, click here.

To order Coriolanus from amazon.com, click here.


RICHARD III by William Shakespeare:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/28/2007]

Our book discussion this month was about RICHARD III by William Shakespeare (ISBN-13 978-0-743-48284-4, ISBN-10 0-743-48284-0). One problem I have with this play is that parts of it are just unbelievable--in particular, Richard's (successful) wooing of Lady Anne. I don't care how charming someone is, it is just not credible that they could kill a woman's husband and father-in-law, and then get her to fall in love with him at the funeral. (Unless, of course, she is not in love with the husband--but that is not the case here.)

[First, the husband and father were not murdered but fell in battle, which is a little bit different. Also the fact that Anne Neville was only 16 and was probably left unprotected might have had something to do with it. (Thank you, answers.com.) By the way, she does not fall in love with him in the play. In one scene she goes from detesting him to merely disliking him. -mrl]

Of course, a lot of RICHARD III is not to be believed, not because it is just unlikely, but because it is actually false. Shakespeare based his characters on the histories written by Thomas More and other Tudor supporters, and these histories were written more to blacken Richard's name than to convey the truth. For example, Clarence was actually disloyal to Edward, and was killed because of that, in spite of Richard's attempts to save him. One of the best expositions of the misrepresentations is Josephine Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, which is our discussion book next month.

However, parts of the play are spot-on even today, such as this description from Act III, Scene 7:

Buckingham:
	The mayor is here at hand: intend some fear;
	Be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit:
	And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
	And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord;
	For on that ground I'll build a holy descant:
	And be not easily won to our request:
	Play the maid's part, still answer nay, and take it.
...
Lord Mayor:
	See, where he stands between two clergymen!
Buckingham:
	Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
	To stay him from the fall of vanity:
	And, see, a book of prayer in his hand,
	True ornaments to know a holy man.
	Famous Plantagenet, most gracious prince,
	Lend favourable ears to our request;
	And pardon us the interruption
	Of thy devotion and right Christian zeal.

Doesn't this sound like some of today's politicians?

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/16/2010]

For the science fiction book-and-movie discussion group, this month's selection was "The Tragedy of Richard the Third" by William Shakespeare, along with Sir Ian McKellen's 1995 film which set the action in 1930s England.

The first thing to note is that Shakespeare calls it a "Tragedy", not a "History". This is often pointed out as an excuse for Shakespeare's presenting such a slanted picture of Richard III, but it probably was supposed to indicate just that it was not quite as accurate as those histories titled "The Life of" (e.g., the plays of the Henriad or "King John").

Reading the original play, I saw a couple of instances where Shakespeare decided he liked his words or structure and so re-used them in "Julius Caesar". For example, in "Richard III" someone refers to the crowd as being "like dumb statues or breathing stones" (Act III, Scene vii, Line 25) and says, "What tongueless blocks were they! would they not speak ...?" (Line 42). In "Julius Caesar", someone addresses the crowd as "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!" (Act I, Scene i, Line 36).

Also, Richard refuses the crown two times (Act III, Scene vii, Lines 156 and 209), then calls back those offering it (Line 225) so that he can accept it. Caesar refuses the crown three times (Act I, Scene ii, Lines 229, 262, and 234). Interestingly, McKellen splits one speech of Richard's to make three refusals, making the parallel even stronger.

McKellen also simplified a lot, dropping several characters who would be as easily identifiable to Elizabethan audiences as Jefferson Davies or George Armstrong Custer are to us, but with whom modern audiences would have problems. He also got rid of the concept of sanctuary, which was important in Richard's time, but has no meaning in modern secular states.

And he changes the method used to "infer [imply] the bastardy of Edward's children" from a complicated situation involving a possible prior marriage to "Lady Lucy" (making his marriage to Queen Anne invalid), to the simpler idea that Edward and Anne did not marry until after the birth of the Princes. While that may actually make sense for the older of the two Princes, it seems beyond belief that the King of England would wait another ten years and until after the birth of a second son to think, "Gee, maybe I should marry Anne so that my sons might have some claim to being legitimate heirs."

To order Richard III from amazon.com, click here.

To order Ian McKellen's annotated script of Richard III from amazon.com, click here.


Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/06/2016]

I recently watched the Kenneth Branagh version of TWELFTH NIGHT (as shown on Thames Television), and it served to remind me of the problems in this (and indeed in other plays of Shakespeare).

One problem is the romantic inconstancy of the hero. At the beginning, Orsino is madly in love with Olivia; at the end he fairly quickly transfers his affections to Viola. Olivia is madly in love with Viola, but apparently cannot tell the difference between her and Sebastian. Even granting they look fairly similar, they are two different people. The whole thing reminds me of Lucy Steele's transference of affections from Edward Ferrars to Edward's brother Robert in Jane Austen's SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, but in that book Lucy is supposed to be a gold-digger and this change of heart is an example of her low, scheming character. Shakespeare seemingly has Orsino retain his good character. And Olivia seems content to be married to Sebastian, even though she was completely deceived as to who he was when she married him. (At least Jacob was upset when he discovered he had married Leah instead of Rachel.) For that matter, Romeo starts ROMEO AND JULIET madly in love with Rosaline, but rapidly turns to Juliet (without ever speaking to her!) and drops the first one.

And while we are talking about ROMEO AND JULIET, what is with the friar? Romeo, whom he knows was madly in love with Rosaline, now swears he is in love with Juliet, whom he just met the previous evening. After a brief lecture about inconstancy, the friar agrees to marry The two of them, in spite of 1) the briefness of their courtship, 2) the fact that Juliet is only thirteen, and 3) the fact that her father has not given his approval, indeed, has not even been consulted, and would almost certainly disapprove. And why? Because it might end the feud between the families. And he even says that he is performing the wedding only for this reason, and (presumably) not because Romeo and Juliet are in love.

And then he comes up with this bizarre plan, involving a sleeping potion that makes Juliet appear dead for forty-two hours. Okay, they did not embalm people (quickly or otherwise), but the friar is definitely assuming that the family won't bury her or seal her in a casket in that time. Why doesn't he just sneak her out of Verona to be with Romeo in Mantua?

This shows up in other plays as well, although often there is some attempt at justification. In A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, at least there is a love potion one can blame for the characters' changes of heart. In HAMLET, Gertrude transfers her affections seemingly quickly to Claudius, although there is some indication here that this may have been part of the cause of Hamlet's father's death. It has been commented that the most "constant" couple in Shakespeare may be Lord and Lady Macbeth.

It is true that Shakespeare often has his characters talk about constancy. In TWELFTH NIGHT, Viola (as Cesario) berates Orsino for claiming that men love more deeply and constantly than women (although both he and Olivia are inconstant in this); Juliet tells Romeo to "swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon," with the implication that Romeo might conceivably be inconstant (which of course he is).

Another problem is that with changing times, much of the difficulty in the mistaken relationships is blunted. When Olivia was taken with Viola when Viola was dressed a man, audiences now may find themselves thinking that while the fact that Viola does not love Olivia is an obstacle, the fact that Viola is a woman does not seem as much a problem as it was to Shakespeare's audience. Similarly, if Orsino loves Viola when he finds out she is a woman, today's audiences may wonder why there was no indication of this before.

Of course, all this would make Olivia's transference of affection less explicable/forgivable--in the play, she cannot marry Cesario (Viola), so Sebastian is a "reasonable" second choice. Today, her reaction to Viola's revelation could as easily be the same as Osgood Fielding III's to Jerry/Geraldine's in SOME LIKE IT HOT: "Well, nobody's perfect."

The flip side of this is that the idea that a woman can successfully disguise herself as a man, and vice versa, is perhaps less problematic now than then. Even without surgery or drugs, we now accept that there are people with fairly androgynous features. I would love to see a (film) version of TWELFTH NIGHT with someone such as Eddie Redmayne in the roles of Viola and Sebastian. (I specify "film version," because clearly for the scenes where both are on stage some special effects would be necessary, either traditional split-screen or CGI manipulation.)

(I am reminded of someone's Usenet post about SOUTH PACIFIC. When she first saw it, she could not figure out what Nellie Forbush was so upset about with Emil de Becque's children. Eventually she twigged to the fact that Nellie cared that the children were "mixed-race" (which now is more likely to be expressed as "bi-racial"). I won't say that this has entirely disappeared, but these days it is much less an issue, and would have to be made more explicit in a play for people to "get it.". (In Puccini's MADAME BUTTERFLY, the marriage between Pinkerton and Butterfly is considered not quite a "real" marriage, but the idea that their son would not be accepted by his fiancee does not seem to arise.)

I got TWELFTH NIGHT as part of a two-disc set, the other half being ROMEO AND JULIET. Having just watched SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I cannot help but wonder if these two were paired because they are the two plays most referenced in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, albeit incredibly anachronistically. ROMEO AND JULIET is usually dated to 1595, and TWELFTH NIGHT to 1601. Yet at the end of ROMEO AND JULIET the Queen asks for a play for Twelfth Night within the year, and Wessex seems to have tobacco plantations in Virginia at least ten years before Jamestown was even founded.

To order Twelfth Night from amazon.com, click here.


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