Books, 2014 (4)

95.  Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Arden ed., ed. Rene Weis. 10/1. I last read this in school, no doubt in a heavily redacted version that omitted all the bawdy parts. It's almost two plays--a first half that's light and romantic and lewd in parts and then the tragedy. A lot is compressed here and the emotions and actions are passionate in a youthful manner, but still it's difficult to take this seriously. The play has the poetry and poetic imagery we associate with Shakespeare, far more than many of the other plays.

96. Shakespeare, Timon of Athens. Arden ed., ed. Anthony B. Dawson and Gretchen E. Minton. The editors, on the basis of a scholarly consensus, ascribe co-authorship to Thomas Middleton and believe the Folio text was based on an unfinished draft of the play. An appendix details the detective work behind the view that this play was a last-minute addition to the Folio when the text of Troilus and Cressida temporarily appeared to be unavailable.

The editors cite many instances of unfinished business in the play as evidence that it a draft, but to me the play itself doesn't contain more of these than some other texts of Shakespeare plays. What we have makes dramatic sense, and there are very few instances of pointless and/or silly scenes. It remains a strong play about money and greed.

An anthropologist would recognize the play as a conflict between a potlatch/gift society in which leaders win prestige  by losing and bind their followers to them by liberal giving and a capitalist society in which money rules all relationships. Timon belongs to the first sort of society and, before his fall, sees himself as a winner because he gives away so much of his wealth. Most everyone else in Athens functions in the second, capitalist society.  A few, like Alcibiades, Flavius, and Apemantus,  exist between the two. Alcibiades, unlike the other powerful Athenians, is loyal to his comrade and suffers because of it; he is, however, willing to take the gold that Timon accidentally discovers in the wilds and use it to purchase his own army's loyalty. Flavius remains the loyal servant, but he is Timon's steward and the person responsible for negotiating Timon's relationship with the world of money. In the end, he, too, takes the gold and leaves Timon. Apemantus is a cynic and a possible model for the Timon of the second half of the play, but he is not as rigorous in his revulsions as Timon; as he points out to Timon, Timon swings from an extreme of giving to an extreme of misanthropy, Apemantus dines out on his milder form of misanthropy..

Actors must like this play--it must be fun to howl like Timon.

97.  Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. 10/9. Arden ed., ed. J.  W. Lever. A tightly plotted play, so tight that the Duke ends up being almost the mastermind maneuvring the other characters like puppets on the stage. Still a more interesting play than many of the comedies for the way in which engages issues of justice and mercy and religion.

This volume is from the second Arden series and was first printed in 1963 (my copy is a 2013 reprint). The emphasis of the introduction is quite different. Lever explores general themes, addresses the meaning and message of the play, and, unlike the editions in the third series, ignores the performance history of the play entirely. It's as if the editors of the volumes in the third series were reluctant to commit themselves to dealing with the play directly and do so indirectly by summarizing how others have dealt with it, whereas Lever approaches the play as was customary in his times. Interpretive tactics have changed considerably.

98. Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well. 10/10. Arden ed., ed. G. K. Hunter. Hunter dates this to slightly before Measure for Measure. It does share with that play a concern with a set of ideas and a contrived plot. At stake here are honour (in various meanings) and virtue. As is true of many of the comedies, the heroine's desire to marry the less-than-stellar hero is inexplicable. He's a PPEFAHB, and her pursuit of him and stratagems to marry him and then win him are evidence of a failure of judgment rather than of perspicuity. Shakespeare seemed in a hurry to get this over with.  The last act rushes toward the conclusion.

The only interesting character is Parolles, who stands out in a dull play. Even the Countess doesn't appear to think much of her son, although she attempts to excuse Bertram by claiming that he fell in with a bad company (Parolles)--an early example of a mother excusing a son's misdeeds by attributing their origin to someone else. Of course, in our democratic and feminist age, Bertram is bound to come off poorly, but even in Shakespeare's time, he must have been viewed negatively. Helena isn't the most admirable of heroines--smart and virtuous to be sure, but also on the make and rather single-mindedly determined to get Bertram.  The other characters are more ready to praise a dead Helena than countenance a live one. Further examples of S's ability to create complex human beings even if not particularly sympathetic ones.

Like Measure for Measure, the current Arden edition is from the second series. It was first published in 1959; my copy was printed in 2014. The introduction follows a different format from those used in the third series and focuses on the meaning of the play. Hunter is critical of the play.

99. Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors. 10/11. Arden, ed., ed. R. A Foakes. 2d ser., 1962, reprinted  2014. A farce with a few overtones of identity problems by the pairs of twins. It appears to be a playful work written for the Christmas revels of the Inns of Court. A well-designed and pleasant enough farce but not a major work.

100. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves. 10/16. Entertaining and readable, but relentlessly coy in offering conflicting ways of understanding the puzzle the book presents. All too often settles for  banal cleverness instead of intelligence. A 700-page book about human attempts to impose order on chaos and to find love in the mental asylum.

101.  Steven Galloway, Cellist of Sarajevo. 10/16.  Galloway's take on the assertion of human values by ordinary people under horrific conditions (the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s). One suspects this is what we all want to be true rather than what is. Obviously people in awful situations find ways to survive and some of them probably do so with grace. To his credit, Galloway creates rounded characters rather than just saints and sinners, and he writes will, but much of this seems the tourist's version of a city.

102.  David Mark, Sorrow Bound. 10/18. The third of a series of police procedurals featuring a Scottish detective working in Hull. Mark belongs to the Val McDermid school of detective novels--a serial killer with inventive means of killing, a tortured hero(ine), flawed cops, villains with bad childhoods. He does it well but a bit quickly. He's not an author to linger. This is definitely part of a series--at the end, the Scottish detective is in hospital; his wife, children, and a colleague are apparently dead of a hand grenade explosion in their house; and the gang of crooks responsible for flooding the northeast with drugs are still at large.

103. Jo Nesbo, The Son.10/20. Not a Harry Hole mystery this time, but Nesbo's usual mix of corrupt rich people, cops, and crooks in Norway vs. a good cop just trying to do his job and a noble young woman. The son of the title is a young man who, in return for confessing to crimes he didn't commit, accepts a lifetime of free heroin in gaol. He becomes something of a father confessor in gaol and learns how the crimes he supposedly did were committed and that his father's confession that he was the mole in Oslo's police force who revealed police plans to gang bosses and his subsequent suicide were anything but. The young man breaks out of prison and goes on a killing spree to punish those responsible. In the end, he finds the real mole, who turns out to have been the good cop, and the young man bent on vengeance escapes and runs off with the noble girl.

The revelation of the mole's identity is an unexpected twist, and Nesbo lays the groundwork for that in a convincing way without revealing the good cop's secret until the end. As usual, his characters are nuanced and complex, although the young man is gifted with unbelievable powers to evade the police and gangsters searching for him and to find and kill the bad guys. At the end, there is also a clumsy tell-all tie-up-loose-ends conversation with the good cop's wife, who's been privy to her husband's secrets. It wasn't necessary because Nesbo had already hinted at the reasons for his behaviour.

104.  Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. 10/21. Arden ed., ed. John Wilders. Good introduction by Wilders. This is convincing as a play.  The number of very short scenes must make this a headache to stage unless the production uses the minimalist staging of Shakespeare's era. It would be much more successful as a movie or TV production because of their ability to cut back and forth between locations and groups of actors. It would be destructive to the play not to stage all those short scenes because they work so well to set up the dichotomy between the Roman and Egyptian worlds and between Antony in the Roman world and Antony in the Egyptian world. A good Cleopatra would steal this play--all the other characters pale next to her.

105.  Robert Olen Butler, The Empire of Night. 10/24. The third in a series of thrillers featuring Christopher Marlowe Cobb, a journalist and American secret agent during WWI. The novel features the usual intrepid and resourceful American hero, who speaks German flawlessly enough to impersonate a colonel in the Kaiser's army; his famous actress mother, who is also an American secret agent and the lead in both English- and German-language version of Hamlet; an English baronet of German descent, who is a German sympathiser and the creator of phosgene bomb, which he plans to denotate in the West End by dropping it from a German zeppelin, and sundry other cliched characters. Butler has clearly done his research and unwisely but does not resist indulging in unnecessary details to prove that. He also gets some things wrong: no German would ever refer to Herder as von Herder, and baron and baronet are not equivalent titles. The ending of this was so overdetermined that I speedread the last 30-40 pages just to get it over with.

106.  P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley. 10/25. James's continuation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a murder mystery. Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years. On the eve of their annual ball, Lydia shows up in a state shouting that Wickham has been killed. A complex plot ensues. James doesn't have Austen's deft touch with language, and her attempts to reproduce Austen's skillful use of language make her shortcomings all too clear. There are also a few clumsy scenes in which the characters engage in an info-dump to give readers information that the characters themselves would already know. It's a clever idea, but the book doesn't deliver.

107. Asa Larsson, The Second Deadly Sin. Trans. from the Swedish. Another Nordic police procedural. A deft interweaving of crime over several generations and a lot of tortured souls.

108.  Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost. Arden ed., ed. H. R. Woudhuysen. 10/30. Contemporary audiences may have found this witty, but when the jests in eight lines of text require a hundred lines of explication to make the jokes clear, the humour begins to be forced and is lost in the footnotes. It strikes me more as an entertainment than anything else. There is some speculation that it was written for Grey's Inn's annual Christmas revels, and it is the type of play that would fit such a venue. Light, filled with plays on words, costumes, witty repartee, innuendo and double-entendres, the powerful being given their comeuppance, and, at the end, a satire on solemn odes to Winter and Spring. It more deserves the title 'Much Ado About Nothing' than the play of that name.

The editor makes the case that is a play concerned with words and linguistic registers. It is, in brief, a play on words.

109.  Juan Gabriel Vasquez,  The Sound of Things Falling. 11/4. Trans. from Spanish. A study of the impact of random violence and accidents on people, mixed in with stories of hopeless loves. A man runs to catch up with an acquaintance on the streets of Bogota. Just as he does so, the acquaitance is killed in a drive-by shooting, and the man is injured. The man spends the rest of the novel trying to find out why the man was killed. This takes him  back through the man's life and through his own failed life. One Hundred Yeats of Solitude gets passing notice in the book; perhaps this was meant as a continuation, a slight update into the current generation.

110.  Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Arden ed., ed. William C Carroll. 11/4.  Up until the last scene, this is a promising play about a man whose lust destroys his relationships with others, but then it all goes south in a few minutes as everyone reforms and gets forgiven. This would have been much better as a tragedy in which Proteus sacrifices friendship, love, honour, and trust to his need to have Silvia. Valentine should have slew him on the spot and then lamented his destruction.

111. Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Arden ed., ed. Giorgio Melchiori. 11/7. Falstaff redux. One of the comedies that is still comedic. A farce in which women prove wiser than men, wives are chaste, husbands overly suspicious, several fools gets their comeuppances, and true love win outs. And a good time is had by all. What's not to like?

112.  Tania Carver, Cage of Bones. 11/9. An intricately plotted serial killer/police procedural with the usual elements of bureaucratic infighting at the police station, a psychologist/profiler, and a moneymaking cabal with connections to the police. The publisher's blurbs claims this is in the traditional of Val MacDermid, which it is, but with overtones of romance novel.

113. Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew. 11/13. Arden ed., ed. Barbara Hodgdon. A play whose female lead doesn't make much sense. It establishes no bases for her shrewishness, her willingness to marry Petruccio, or her complete conversion to dutiful wife (surely a woman who deserves that reputation would not be subdued by a few missed dinners and lack of sleep). The only way the 'happy' ending would be convincing would be to stage it as the utterance either of a woman too terrified not to mouth that bilge or of one plotting revenge. Shakespeare appears, however, to have intended the speech to be sincere. Another comedy with an unpleasant core. I am curious to know what Shakespeare's contemporaries thought of this; a pity his age was not infected by newspaper critics. It's either a trivially cruel exercise masquerading as a comedy or, to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt, part of an argument that is no longer clear.

114.  Miyuki Miyabe, The Devil's Whisper. 11/16. Trans. from the Japanese. A thriller involving an extortion ring and revenge though hypnosis. Rather abrupt and rushed; frequent summarizing rather than telling. The plot is finally explained by the chief villain near the end of the book. Other of Miyabe's works have been translated into English, but nothing in this one makes me feel compelled to search them out.

115.  Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida. 11/18. Arden ed., ed. David Bevington. Good introduction by Bevington touches on the major themes of the play. Bevington makes the interesting suggestion that the published texts of long plays like this and Hamlet and Lear may be attempts by Shakespeare to present literary 'reading' rather than 'stage' versions of these plays. Was surprised to learn that this play became popular only after WWII. Cressida was evidently too much the wayward woman for Victorian audiences, and the play's debunking of the nobility of heroes and its cynicism about male pride and war apparently didn't sit well with 18th- and 19th-century audiences.

How Cressida is perceived would depend on the actress. She could easily be seen to deserve her traditional reputation as a bawd, although a sympathetic portrayal would leave her a victim of circumstance. Before she is handed over to the Greeks, she is almost a knowing Juliet. She expresses all the dewy-eyed romanticism of Juliet, but that is paired with a greater knowledge of male psychology than Juliet had.  Cressida isn't as innocent or as naive as Juliet. Cressida realizes that by yielding to Troilus, she loses the advantage she had when she pretended to spurn him and that he may cease to be attracted to her. In the Greek camp, she falls easily into the role of woman as prize of war making the best of a bad situation. Officially she is being restored to her father and could have clung to the role of devoted daughter, but she half-throws herself at Diomedes and does not object when all the Greek captains grope her. She half-heartedly tries to be loyal to Troilus but ends up betraying him. War turns her into a victim, but a victim who partially accepts that role and seems readily and almost joyfully to use her feminine charms to survive. Again a character made more complex by Shakespeare.

The play, however, turns away from interest in Cressida's psychology once she gets to the Greek camp, and she becomes more the motive for Troilus' rage than a focus of the play. Like many of Shakespeare's leads, she presents more questions than answers. She is, avant le nom,  ready-made for homo-social analyses of women as tokens of exchange between men (first Pandar and Troilus, and then the Trojans and the Greeks). Perhaps that is Shakespeare's point. In Troy, she is an agent and we are privy to her thoughts. What she thinks has an impact on how she chooses to act . Even in Troy, however, others such as Pandarus, Paris, Aeneas, and Helen see her as the object of Troilus's desire rather than as a person in her own right, presaging her later treatment by the Greeks. She is also oddly isolated as a character; unlike Juliet she doesn't have a nurse to confide in and to advise her. Once she is handed over to the Greeks, she becomes an object to be interpreted only through her actions. Her thoughts no longer matter to the other characters because she is acted upon rather than an independent agent. Her behaviour with the sleeve is ambiguous. She gives it to Diomedes as a token of her surrender to him. Then she remembers what it once meant and tries to take it back. Where we see her indecision and her anguish, Diomedes sees an opportunity to gain points in the economy of male rivalry. Theristes sees it as proof she is a whore. Troilus sees not her indecision but her betrayal of him, and her betrayal of him is all that matters to him--what Cressida might be feeling is of no concern to him. When Troilus tears up her letter and proclaims her thoughts mere wind for the wind to scatter, he accepts her as an object who is now no more than the reason for his desire for revenge.

In comparison, Troilus is more straightforward. He is the male on the prowl, ready with fair speeches to woo Cressida but at the same time scheming with Pandarus to win her. Having won Cressida, he pledges eternal love in exchange for her pledges of devotion. He turns jealous and possessive when he perceives a threat to their relationship but readily agrees to the exchange of Cressida as a ransom for a captured Trojan leader. He demands that Cressida remain loyal to him, assumes she won't, and blusters and threatens the Greek captain Diomedes, who is handling the exchange, but he doesn't dispute the decision that endangers Cressida and the relationship. He then spies on Cressida in the Greek camp and joins the battle solely to exact revenge on Diomedes. When Agamemnon asks Ulysses to assess Troilus, Ulysses' praise is an example of literary irony. Troilus is anything but the virtuous noble warrior Ulysses describes. It would have made for a very different play had Troilus, as a modern play about a man in a similar situation might, chosen to fight for Cressida. Instead he chooses to get in a shoving match with Diomedes.

None of the Homeric heroes emerges a hero in Shakespeare's hands. Even Hector, who comes closest to a hero, is short with Andromache and other family members when they attempt to stop his pursuit of glory, and his own stupidity in clinging to ideals of fair play in war gets him killed. As he often does, Shakespeare complicates the character by having Hector in his penultimate fight pursue another warrior for his armor, which suggests Hector is not all high principle. Hector drags the other man's body back onto the stage to strip it; he proclaims that he is done fighting for the day and puts away his sword and begins to take off his own armor. At that point Achilles arrives and surrounds Hector with his Myrmidons. Even though earlier Hector failed to take advantage of Achilles when he was down and lets him escape, Achilles has no such qualms. He ignores Hector's plea that he is unarmed and has his men kill him.

The other major characters do not fare well. Pandarus is weak and immoral, a hanger-on with an eye for the main chance. Achilles is a cad and a bully; his men rather than he kill Hector here but Achilles takes the credit and proceeds with the traditional degrading of Hector's body. Patroclus is Achilles' simpering sycophant. Agamemnon is a poor leader; Nestor a garrulous old fool; Menelaus a cuckold; Ajax a stupid oaf; and Ulysses a schemer (his seeming praise of Agamemnon's leadership and his warning about the debilitating impact of Achilles' pride on the Greek forces and later his handling of Achilles are beautiful examples of the manipulative smooth talker in action). Paris and Helen are, well, Paris and Helen. Aeneas emerges with reputation intact, but he is more a device to move the plot forward at certain points than a full-fledged character. Oddly, in a play full of amoral and immoral braggarts and fools, Thersites comes across as the one honest man, a spokesman for common sense and virtue. A good Thersites could steal this show--he rages as well as Timon of Athens.

The war itself becomes a thing of vainglory, a matter of revenge and counter-revenge pursued for reasons of foolish male pride and personal glory. Like many of Shakespeare's tragedies, it is not without its comic moments, particularly in the early scenes of domestic life in Troy. Shakespeare manages to mix the two in a way that makes the comedy heighten the tragedy. Pandarus' parting address to the audience is a pimp's curse of a pox on the lot of yis and a fitting end to a senseless tragedy.

116. Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. 11/18. Arden ed., ed. Jonathan Bate. When I read this years ago, it impressed me as overwrought and melodramatic. Prior generations' reluctance to stage this play because of its lack of decorum and its general assault on civilised values find plenty of support in the action of this play. Perhaps the events of the past century have accustomed us to the idea that even civilised people can commit atrocities. Certainly TV and movies and video games have made the sort of violence presented in this play seem commonplace and almost pedestrian.

Once one gets past all the violence, the play presents people pushed beyond civilised behaviour by horrific events, people driven by revenge and ideas of honour, and, in the character of Aaron, people who consciously opt for evil. But even in the case of Aaron and Tamora, Shakespeare displays his usual ability to round out characters and make them complex. Aaron is motivated by his desire to save his son to confess all of Tamora's and his plots to Titus Andronicus' son Lucius. Tamora is motivated by a desire to revenge TA's initial lack of humanity. Her surviving sons are idiot braggarts who commit mindless violence, but they are well-drawn and familiar thugs. Aaron and the sons don't differ from the Andronicus family and Tamora in their predilection for violence and thuggery; it's just that they don't have rationalizations for it, or at least reasons presented in the play. We may be appalled by TA's and Tamora's behaviour, but we know why they behave the way they do, and that makes us more amenable to forgive them. Aaron and the brothers are just vicious for the sake of being vicious.

The play gets the psychology right. TA laughs because he can no longer cry. It is a shocking coup de theatre that forces an audience to look more closely at TA and the question of the impact of violence.

As in other early plays, Shakespeare's language here is more consciously 'marked'; it is also much less convoluted than in many of the other plays. The lower number of explanatory footnotes relative to other Arden editions is proof that the \language remains more accessible to us.

Bate argues that the play is much better than previously thought. Don't quite agree with his high esteem for the play--I still find it overwrought and melodramatic--but it certainly deserves to be staged and read. Bate suggests that the play was Shakespeare's contribution to a late Elizabethan argument over Rome as a model for England. If so, Shakespeare was arguing that Rome wasn't the model of civilisation it was thought to be.

117. Shakespeare, Coriolanus. Arden ed., ed. Peter Holland. 11/24. Holland's introduction is chaotic. He claims in his acknowledgements that he laboured over it for about fifteen years and only published it on the entreaties of the Arden general editors. Readers would have been better served if Holland had been dismissed and replaced.

A ferocious play distinguished by the most repugnant lead in all of Shakespeare. Coriolanus is just plain unlikeable, and his mother and other members of his faction are not much better. As someone of liberal views, I find him an unfortunately all-too-familiar militarist and right-wing idiot. But he has his sympathizers. Reactionary, bigoted, a victim of his upbringing, proud, unable to see anyone other than himself, a traitor first to Rome and then to his new-found allies, he still remains the center of attention on the stage. He's repulsive, with none of the attractions of, say, Richard III, and yet he's a powerful spokesman for his views. He's never the craven, immoral person Iago is.

A strong female role in Coriolanus's mother. Although she agrees with her son's politics and exults in his military victories, in the end she is more principled than he. She never betrays Rome, and she brings her son to his knees partly out of her sense of honour and proper behaviour. Psychologically, she is the best mother in Shakespeare (who explored relations between parents and children in depth both here and in other powerful plays like Hamlet and Lear). Oddly Shakespeare was more apt to portray father-daughter relationships than mother-son ones (Lear, Prospero, a great many comedies). Gertrude-Hamlet is the only other example that comes to mind, and Volumnia is shown as more of an influence on her son than is Gertrude. Juliet's mother is a bystander, and all the dowager queens in the Histories tend to comment on the action and bemoan it rather than influence it.

118.  Shakespeare, Cymbeline. 11/29. Folger Library ed., ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. It almost seems like Shakespeare wanted to trot out all the conventions and cliches of melodramas--long-lost children raised in the wild, a wicked stepmother, a duped father and husband, perfidious friends, loyal servants. Shakespeare even resorted to the distinctive mole as proof of identity (Iachimo also uses a distinctive mole on Imogen's body to convince Posthumous that Imogen has been unfaithful).

The play, of course, is more about Imogen than Cymbeline. Poor Imogen endures hardship but remains the virtuous wife and daughter. She's not convincing as a character because, like many heroines in melodrama, she never wavers. No doubts, no interior monologues--just purity and sweetness.

Two of the three villains in this aren't convincing, either. Cloten's villainies are undercut early in the play when he appears in the company of two courtiers, who alternately manipulate him by flattering him transparently and comment on his stupidity and gullibility in asides to the audience. He's a clown rather than a villain--he can't even be villainous in his own clothes but has to borrow Posthumous's. The wicked stepmother doesn't appear often enough to figure in the play, but she manages to precipitate a war with the Romans and then administer what she thinks is a poison to Imogen. The potion knocks Imogen out long enough to fool her brothers and their guardian that she is dead and move the plot forward to return Imogen to her father as a captured Roman valet to the Roman general. Iachimo is nasty, but he is almost reformed by Imogen's virtue and later feels enough guilt that he confesses his misdeeds. He's not that unrepentant villain that Iago  or Prince John or Aaron is. These are stage villains, not evil people.

Disguise, deception, and ignorance are the constants of the plot. Cymbeline is ignorant of the true nature of his wife, his daughter, and his son-in-law. The two kidnapped children are ignorant of the fact that they are Cymbeline's sons and Imogen/Fidele's brothers. The queen disguises herself as virtuous and deceives and dupes the king.  Cloten disguises himself as Posthumous to try to deceive Imogen. Imogen dresses as a young boy and deceives everyone she meets in that guise. Iachimo deceives Posthumous. Posthumous deserts the Roman army, dresses up as a poor English peasant, and fights for Cymbeline. Belarius/Morgan deceives the two princes for twenty years. Pisanio deceives Posthumous into thinking that he has killed Imogen. In the grand final scene, all the disguises are peeled away, all the deceptions are revealed, all the ignorance is cleared up, and peace and harmony are restored.

All of this is done in poetry, sometimes quite clotted poetry. In that the peasants speak like courtiers, this is a pastoral.

This is very much a play of surfaces. The characters aren't given to introspection, and none of them utters philosophical remarks about the action of the play.  The one character who doesn't come out of central casting is Pisanio, who has to balance being the loyal and dutiful servant and doing what's right. He chooses the latter and pretends to do the former. In the end, Cymbeline foregrounds the fact that it is a play and an entertainment. It's about deception, and what better than a play to deceive?

119.  W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare. Ed. Arthur Kirsch. 12/1. In 1947 Auden gave a series of weekly lectures on Shakespeare at the New School, discussing each of the plays in what was then considered the order of composition. The lectures, as presented in this book, are reconstructed from student notes (mainly from one particular student). Since the lectures occupied the same amount of time when spoken, the variation in length of the individual chapters here owes much to the degree of the student attention and interest. There are times when Auden's exposition is detailed and clear; at other points the text is cursory and uninformative. Especially in the early lectures Auden as reproduced is given to remarks of the sort: "A is x doing y; B is y doing x." Neat, but suspect. The chapters on Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Lear, and Coriolanus are  particularly good. Auden thought little of The Merry Wives of Windsor and, instead of delivering a lecture, played Verdi's Falstaff. The chapter on Hamlet  is disappointing--why do so many poets think ill of this play? It's almost as if they are working out the anxiety of influence by denying Hamlet's attractions.

One can only be envious of Auden's wide reading in the Western tradition. Sometimes it tends to overwhelm Shakespeare. In the end, what we often get says more about Auden than about Shakespeare, and the play being discussed serves as a springboard for a lecture by Auden on what he identifies as the theme of the play and his thoughts on the subject. But he was working very much in the tradition of seeing Literature as the presentation of great ideas and often ended up discussing the great ideas instead of literature.

120.  Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. 12/1.  A biography of S for the Eminent Lives series. Necessarily short because of the lack of information on S's life. Bryson makes the most of the few fact known and deflates most speculation. The book is 200 pages long in a small format and large type. Bryson pads it out a bit with amusing stories about previous excesses and fancies about S. Still, highly readable.

121.  Shakespeare and George Wilkins, Pericles. Arden ed., ed. Suzanne Gossett. 12/4. Gossett attributes the first two acts to Wilkins; the last three to Shakespeare. Good introduction by Gossett.  As numerous notes make clear, the text is poorly preserved, but Gossett's edited version reads quite well despite the numerous cruxes.

Not a major play, but interesting for the sharing of elements with the other late romances. Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and this all deal with families that are sundered. Except for Cymbeline, the plays feature a woman who as a child is taken from her home and raised apart; Imogen's separation is delayed until she is older. All of the young women are paragons (a bir more rustic in The Winter's Tale). Pericles is the least wayward of the fathers (although some might see Prospero as that). The young women's mothers are either dead or supposed dead and absent from the young women's rearing. All the fathers are rulers who neglect their duties as rulers. All the families are restored at the end. The Comedy of Errors at the beginning of S's known career also has a sundered family and ends with restoration. The cluster of elements is so apparent that it must have had some meaning for S.

More so that the other plays, Pericles deals with sex. Pericles' initial flight is triggered by incest between a father and a daughter. Marina defends her virtue in a brothel.

The play also features a narrator who steps in to summarize the action that takes place off-stage--if this were a modern movie, Gower the Poet would be the voice-over. It also travels widely around the Mediterranean and has a large cast of speaking roles.

122. Thomas H. Cook. A Dancer in the Dark. 12/7. Cook's usual plot--a young man makes a mistake and someone dies because of it. He tries to atone for it but pays a heavy price for his lack of understanding. The young man is an aid worker in Africa; the person who pays for it is a young white woman who has a farm in a rural area and considers herself a citizen of the country in which she resides. Her feeling is not shared by the other citizens of the country, and the young man is one of those who unwittingly betrays her. Twenty years after the event, another man dies because of this, and the no-longer-young man returns to Africa to make some small amends for his former errors.

123. John Gielgud, Stage Directions. 12/8.  A short book without much insight.

124.  Pascal Garnier, How's the Pain? 12/9. Trnns. from the French. A short work of 160 pages with a lot of punch. Simon, an elderly hit man who is dying of cancer, has one last job--in a seacoast resort town. On the way there, he meets Bernard, a young man on leave from his job because of an accident who is visiting his mother. He hires Bernard to drive him to the coast. Along the way they pick up a young woman and her child. Simon, who is a cynic and angry, objects, but Bernard is perennially good-natured and somehow the woman and child go along for the ride. Simon carries out his hit, and then involves Bernard in three more hits when he doesn't get paid. Bernard objects and leaves, but he returns to complete his driving assignment. He tolerates Simon's job and its necessities. Simon hires him for one final job. He needs help committing suicide. He ties a rope around his neck and attaches it to the ceiling of his hotel room. He arranges for Bernard to come by at 8:00 am and kick the chair out from under him. Bernard does so; in return he gets Simon's car and the access codes for Simon's Swiss bank accounts. In the course of the story, Bernard goes from innocent to appalled bystander to unwitting accomplice to a killer for profit himself.

There is a subplot involving Bernard's mother, who is a hermit living in her failed shop. She dies too, of alcoholism. Her life is as meaningless as Simon's.

Nice job of nuanced writing in a brief and slight story.

125. Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Poems, 12/18. Arden ed., ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and H. R. Woudhuysen, Contains Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim (all of it, not just the poems by S), The Phoenix and the Turtle, and a few stray poems that may be by S. Good intro by the editors.

As the editors explain, the label "sweet" (mellifluous) was often applied to S during his life because of the two longer poems. Both are technically adroit works and read very smoothly. Both texts are remarkably clean, perhaps because they were the only works of S's published during his lifetime in which he had a hand. The typesetters were working from a cleaner text. This is shown in the editors' notes, which rarely deal with cruxes caused by typographical mysteries in the early texts.

The poems are good examples of narrative poetry, but they aren't as good as the sonnets can be. The number of 'eye-rhymes' is quite large

126.  Double Falsehood, or, The Distressed Lovers. 12/20. Arden ed., ed. Brian Hammond. In the 1720s, a poet and playwright named Lewis Theobald claimed to have found three copies of a play by Shakespeare. He collated and edited them successfully for the stage and published his version. That is the text presented here. Most of Theobald's contemporaries accepted that the play was by Shakespeare; later opinion came to regard it as a hoax. The copies Theobald claimed to have worked from were destroyed in a fire in the early nineteenth century.  The notion that the play was a clever patische of a plot from Don Quixote and words and phrases culled from Shakespeare persisted until someone found a reference in the court rolls to a payment in 1613 to the King's Players for presenting a play before James I by Shakespeare and Beaumont entitled Cardenio. Since Double Falsehood is based on the Cardenio segment of Don Quixote, scholars began to wonder if there was some truth to Theobald's claim. Linguistic analysis shows that Shakespeare may have had a hand in the first act; Beaumont in the last four acts. No one, least of all the Arden series editors, claim that the text we have is by Shakespeare. The question is how much, if any, of Shakespeare and Beaumont's text survives in Theobald's version.

The play itself is a melodrama of a wayward son/false friend/faithless lover who at the end of the play becomes a good son, true friend, and faithful lover. Elements of the plot bear a strong resemblance to those in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline.  Some of the lines might have been written by Shakespeare or Beaumont. The characters don't have the depth or nuance we associate with S's writing, but that may be Beaumont at work. This is more an historical curiosity than interesting literature.

127. Shakespeare, Hamlet. Arden ed., ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. 12/25. The editors' introduction is lacklustre; the footnotes on the text and the appendixes on editorial history are quite informative, however. The text here is the second quarto. A second volume contains the first quarto and the folio texts.

"To weep for Hecuba" is a telling line. An actor feigns emotions, and Hamlet wonders at our inability to tell the sham from the real. Shortly thereafter Hamlet mistakes the figure of Claudius kneeling in prayer to mean that Claudius is in a state of grace, when in truth Claudius finds himself unable to pray. Hamlet can't tell the real from the sham. A matter of literary irony to be sure, but is Hamlet's reasoning a true reflection of his mind? We the audience suspect that Hamlet is stalling and rationalising away an opportunity for revenge and deluding himself as to the reasons for his failure to kill his uncle when he has the chance.

In the next scene Polonius carefully instructs Gertrude on how she is to act the upcoming encounter with Gertrude. More deception, but things quickly go south--Hamlet isn't an actor in the play that Polonius envisions. Hamlet kills Polonius, thinking that he is Claudius. Again Hamlet deceives himself, and another self-deluded man pays the price and a woman has to endure a shocking assault by a man bent on forcing her to confront the truth as he sees it.

Both Laertes and Polonius assume at first that Hamlet is toying with Ophelia's affections; Ophelia pays heavily for that misprision--she is one of the few characters who isn't a sham. She lacks the ability to deceive herself. Polonius instructs Laertes in proper behaviour, but then coaches his servant in how to spy on Laertes. Claudius notes that love is hard to sustain and questions Laertes's grief for Ophelia and Polonius--how much of it is real and how much posturing? Is the Ghost what he claims to be? Hamlet stages a re-enactment of what the Ghost has told him occurred, not only to verify his uncle's guilt but also to check on the Ghost--duplicity in aid of discovering the truth. Is there any sincerity in Rosencrantz or Guilderstern or Osric? Is Hamlet's madness feigned or real? How much does Gertrude know and when does she know it? "To thine own self be true" is the one thing these characters can't be. Do some of them even possess an "own self" to be true to?

The plot may be that of a revenge play, but the play itself deals more with deception and self-delusion and playacting.  Ophelia goes mad because she cannot be a double person, she cannot be an actress. Horatio is the other odd man out. His strange detachment from the action is emphasized at the end when he tries to commit suicide by drinking the poisoned wine. It's almost the first time in the play that he makes an independent decision, but Hamlet immediately denies him that right and forces him back into the passive role of observer and reporter of events.

Hamlet knows he's part of a revenge play--revenge is what the audience and the other characters expect of him--but unlike Laertes he keeps veering away from that. He's not acting in the same play as the others much of the time--he's in a play about a man who can't find a character to play and in the end despairs of finding a role and resigns himself to fate.

128.  Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy. Norton Critical Ed., ed. Michael Neill. 12/30. I wasn't interested enough in the play to read all the critical essays--the three I did read seemed like academics trying hard to find reasons to like the play and justify their interest in it.

Kyd's language is very much the product of a training in classical rhetoric, and like many such attempts the formal parallelisms of that rhetoric divide the world into binaries or higher-order complementary contructs. Kyd is skilled at deploying that rhetoric, but it's hard to ignore it, and it sometimes overwhelms the play--at least for me. I found myself striving to remember the names of all the devices used instead of concentrating on the play. There is a high degree of explicit self-consciousness in this that the audience is meant to share and reflect on. The characters are static and one-dimensional--they're actors playing assigned roles.  The play eschews attempts at realism in favor of foregrounding its own theatricality, which is fine. It's one way to write a play. It's clear why the play excited early audiences--it was novel and innovative and far beyond the medieval morality plays. But it's equally clear why audiences later abandoned it. It was succeeded by plays that accomplished the same things with much greater skill.


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