Thursday, December 23, 2010

A is for Antony

Julius Caesar has ignored a warning to "beware the ides of march," and goes out in Rome on March 15th, where he is ambushed and stabbed to death by some of his closest colleagues and friends.  Shakespeare's Julius Caesar interprets these events to explore themes of power, ambition, and loyalty.  The third act of a Shakespeare play usually contains the active and thematic turning points.  In the third act here, Caesar's death is important, but does not end the play.  After this, the rapid rise and more rapid fall of his murderers' fortunes begins.

A nervous, angry crowd has gathered in the street.  News of the assassination is spreading.  Things are tense -- who knows if the assassins are heroes or villans?  Brutus, who led the plot and is poised to take power in Caesar’s place, speaks to them first.  The people have nothing to fear, he says, since Caesar was really a cruel dictator, and he with the senators have brought him down.

The plotters then ask Marc Antony to speak.  He is a widely respected senator who did not take part in the assassination.  They hope to get an endorsement from Antony, which will stabilize the crowd’s anxiety and smooth their path to control.  Antony obliges, but pay attention to how he calls Brutus and the other senators "honorable" and Caesar "ambitious" over and over again.  He does this so many times that his real message becomes clear:  don’t believe what they are telling you (in performance, the actor's tone of voice and expression will make this even more obvious).  This speech helps turn the crowd against Brutus and the others.  The play continues with the conspirators' downfall and the rise of the next Caesar, Octavius.

Today, the first lines of this passage:  "friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" are often copied and parodied, and they are great code words for "hey guys, listen up!"

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Cæsar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Cæsar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Cæsar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men,—
Come I to speak in Cæsar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man. . .

Saturday, December 18, 2010

F is for Falstaff

At the Battle of Shrewsbury, Sir John Falstaff plays dead on the battlefield, hoping to escape the notice of enemy soldiers.  Once the coast is clear, he feels guilty for not having been more courageous.  But this is John Falstaff, fat, lazy, baudy, and altogether allergic to duty and honor.  So he clears his conscience with this bit of wordplay, and rationalizes his cowardice (his "discretion") into a sort of bravery.  If on reading the passage the first time you find it hard to follow, try using the word "fake" each time you see the word "counterfeit."

Note that Sir John’s speech does not have the same metered pace or rhymed structure found in other  passages (for example, Juliet’s prose or Titania’s poetry).  Shakespeare often used different styles of speech to signal the character's social rank to the audience.  Falstaff’s speech has some rhythm to it, but it does not rhyme, and it contains lines of different lengths.  Despite his noble title, Falstaff is a pretty rough guy, and his language matches his character.

To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man;
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth,
is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image
of life indeed.  The better part of valor is discretion,
in the which better part I have sav’d my life.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

L is for Lear

This play contains an unusual mix of family dramas played out to the extreme.  King Lear has three daughters who he commands to declare how much they love him in exchange for a piece of his kingdom.  When they do so, he becomes furious at the answer of the youngest daughter, Cordelia, his favorite.  He casts her out of the court and cedes the throne to the remaining two daughters, who then let loose their own ambitions.  These events somehow cause his mind to unravel, and he will die from grief at the loss of his kingdom and his most beloved daughter, who also dies.  Lear can be a difficult play to follow and understand.  It can help to see several performances, watch a film (Kurosawa’s Ran is one), or read a related book, like Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.  In this scene from the third act, a terrible storm sweeps the countryside.  Lear is caught outside, but instead of taking refuge, screams at the rain, daring it to do its worst.  Natural forces like this -- lightning, wind, and thunder -- are meant to point the audience’s attention to destructive human forces like pride and greed.  Lear is not a sympathetic hero, but a tragic one.  The ingratitude of which he complains is directed at Cordelia first, then his other daughters, but he as well suffers from this flaw.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ungrateful man!

Monday, December 6, 2010

D is for Desdemona

The character of a daughter or wife in a Shakespeare play was often required by social convention to suppress her independent thoughts and desires in deference to those of her father or husband.  So, what’s an assertive young woman to do?  Having eloped with Othello against the wishes of her father Brabantio, a Venetian senator, she now faces the court and publicly refuses the demand his demand that she return home.  Her clever tactic is to sidestep the issue of elopement, and gently assert that her position as a dutiful wife now supersedes her role as respectful daughter.  Thus she justifies her very willful actions by claiming to have acted not willfully at all, but submissively.

My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter.  But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord,
Is dearly bought as mine, and I will have it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

B is for Beatrice & Benedick

Beatrice & Benedick are two quarrelsome lovers in the comedy Much Ado About Nothing.  As the play begins, both Beatrice and Benedick have stubbornly denied their romantic interest in the other to their friends.  Yet their mutual attraction is obvious.  When they cross paths in this very first scene they can hardly resist an opportunity to engage in a passionate trade of insults.  As the play continues their mischievous friends trick them into revealing their true feelings for each other.  By the end of the play, when they team up to save a cousin’s reputation, they have become a devoted and demonstrative couple.  In contrast to so many of Shakespeare’s dramatic and narrative passages, this exchange between the hero and heroine is sharp, quick, and witty. 

Beatrice:  I wonder that you will still be talking Signior Benedick:  nobody marks you.

Benedick:  What!  My dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?

Beatrice:  Is it possible disdain should die while it hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?  Courtesy itself must covert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Benedick:  Then is courtesy a turncoat.  But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for truly, I love none.

Beatrice:  A dear happiness to women:  they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor.  I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick:  God keep your ladyship still in that mind; so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice:  Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.  

Benedick:  Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

Beatrice:  A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

Benedick:  I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer*.  But keep your way, i' God's name; I have done.

Beatrice:  You always end with a jade's trick**:' I know you of old.

* Expressions like "uh-huh" "really" and "go on" are continuers - made by someone who is listening to someone talk, as if to let them know they are listening and want the person to continue.  Benedick is talking half to himself here, complimenting Beatrice on her repartee as if to say, "wow she's really got a quick wit."

** A jade's trick is a way that a horse-trader makes a horse look more valuable than it really is, so it's a cheap trick.  Beatrice uses this term because they have been using horse metaphors in their playful argument.  Benedick has just abruptly ended the conversation, saying "I have done."  Beatrice accuses him of ending the debate with a cheap trick instead of admitting that she was getting the best of him.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Shakespeare wrote more than three dozen plays, but few people have read them all, or seen more than a handful performed.  Most people, I think, know at least something about at least one play, even if all they have ever done is dress up like Romeo & Juliet for a party.  But I have found that people who know only a little Shakespeare admit to feeling insecure, as if they don't know as much of it as they should.

That's the main reason for this project.  There is no rule that says a person can't go see a Shakespeare play they haven't studied.  It is true that having a general idea about what happens in Othello makes it more enjoyable when you do see it, but you do not have to study each play rigorously.  It is not difficult to appreciate the stories and the language of Shakespeare.  Learning just a few lines, who says them, and what they mean is quite easy.  In fact, it’s as easy as A, B, C.

That's the second reason for this project.  I started putting it together a number of years ago, when in a short period of time I watched and was blown away by a really great film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet  and then another, equally impressive version of The Tempest.  That made me start thinking about how a good hook can make Shakespeare really accessible.  I remembered that I hadn't ever "gotten" what King Lear was about until I saw the Kurosawa's film Ran.  I remembered how I'd seen a German-language performance of Hamlet which made it seem brand-new, even though I'd seen it probably a dozen times before.  And I thought about what I would do if I knew nothing about Shakespeare and had to figure out where to start.

It made sense to focus on Shakespeare's well-known plays, the ones most likely to be produced on stage or made into a movie.  From there it seemed a good idea to work with often quoted lines from the most well-known characters in those plays.  The A-B-C part came naturally, when I ran down a list of names -- Hamlet, Iago, Juliet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Portia, Richard, Shylock, Titania -- and noticed there seemed to be at least one character for each letter of the alphabet.  And that was true, mostly.

As I've kept working with it, I've tried to present examples of comedy, history, and tragedy; provide an assortment of metered prose, rhymed poetry, and plain speech; and to strike a balance between male and female speakers; humans, fairies, and witches; even royalty versus common-folk.  I've also looked for lines that illustrate common themes and literary devices Shakespeare tended to use or which reflect the events or trends of the time.

That some very famous characters and quotable texts were not selected was unavoidable, since there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.  Some of your "must-haves" will be missing.  In all, I've squeezed in twenty-eight characters and a total of thirty-one speeches.  I like to think of the project as a Shakespeare primer -- that first step you take in painting a room to prepare for the main color, or in a more literary sense, a book of essential information.

And now, to the alphabet, where as you may have already guessed, H is for Hamlet.