This past Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, so I decided to do something that I haven't done since 1988. Read all of Shakespeare. Back in 1988 I took a class with Gary Taylor, one of the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, and we read three plays a week. Now I have about 20 of the new Globe's productions of Shakespeare on DVD or Blu-Ray, so I also decided that wherever possible I would watch the Globe productions, and read what wasn't available from the Globe. The sole exception to that being Two Gentleman of Verona which is an RSC production. I also downloaded the 2nd edition of the Oxford for the Kindle. Back in 1988 I had to lug the 10–12 pound harde cover up and down three flights of stairs in Marist Hall at CUA. The Kindle version weighs only as much as the Kindle, a couple of ounces.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589–91)The plot is fairly standard. Two best friends, Valentine and Proteus, are seeking romantic love. Valentine goes to Milan and falls in love with Sylvia. Proteus is engaged to Julia, but goes to Milan where he also falls in love with Sylvia. Julia pursues Proteus. Various hijinks ensue until Proteus attempts to rape Sylvia. At this point there is a threat of violence, which is resolved with Valentine getting Sylvia and Proteus getting Julia. Now this is all fine and well, but what kind of marriage can the two have? The RSC's performance ends on an enigmatic note with Proteus and Julia not embracing, but rather at a distance, both physical and emotional from each other.
The Taming of the Shrew (1590–1)We saw this at the Globe in 2012. I watched it again, and the thing that struck me most was that Petruchio is essentially running a boot camp for young wives, and that just as boot camp tearstears down recruits in order to build them up as soldiers.
The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (1590–1)This is normally referred to as Henry VI, Part II. The following play is Part III, and then Part I. In the Oxford edition the works are given in presumed order of composition. The play is perhaps most well known for the line about killing all the lawyers. However, that line is put into the mouth of one of Jack Cade's followers, and Cade is a rebel against the established order. Cade is an anarchist, but a sinister one who wants to assert the supposed droit de seigneur over virgins before they wed.
Be brave, then, for your captain is brave and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass. And when I am king, as king I will be— 72
Shakespeare, William (2005-04-21). William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (p. 79). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.”
Cade's hostility to education.
Ah, thou say, thou serge—nay, thou buckram lord! Now art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal. What canst thou answer to my majesty for giving up of Normandy unto Mounsieur Basimecu, the Dauphin of France? Be it known unto thee by these presence, even the presence of Lord Mortimer, that I am the besom that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art. Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and, whereas before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used and, contrary to the King his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed justices of peace to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison, and, because they could not read, thou hast hanged them when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Thou dost ride on a foot-cloth, dost thou not?
Shakespeare, William (2005-04-21). William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (p. 82). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition. ”
WEAVER He’s a book in his pocket with red letters in’t.
CADE Nay, then he is a conjuror!
BUTCHER Nay, he can make obligations and write court hand. 94
CADE I am sorry for’t. The man is a proper man, of mine honour. Unless I find him guilty, he shall not die. Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee. What is thy name?
BUTCHER They use to write that on the top of letters— ’twill go hard with you. 100
CADE Let me alone. (To the Clerk) Dost thou use to write thy name? Or hast thou a mark to thyself like an honest plain-dealing man?
CLERK Sir, I thank God I have been so well brought up that I can write my name. 105 ALL
CADE’S FOLLOWERS He hath confessed—away with him! He’s a villain and a traitor.
CADE Away with him, I say, hang him with his pen and inkhorn about his neck. Exit one with the Clerk.
Shakespeare, William (2005-04-21). William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (p. 79). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Cade's droit de seigneur.
There shall not a maid be married but she shall pay to me her maidenhead, ere they have it. Married men shall hold of me in capite. And we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.
Shakespeare, William (2005-04-21). William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (p. 82). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.”
Also of interest is the political discussion at the beginning which shows turmoil in the land over lost territory in France, and unstable finances.
The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth (1591)This is part III, and as with most of Shakespeare's history plays should not be taken as being terribly accurate, particularly so regarding dates. Richard of Gloucester, for example, later Richard III, was 3 years old at the time of the opening scene, but is portrayed as an a
The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1592)This covers the early years of the reign, however, it should not be taken too seriously as history. Joan of Arc died in 1431, but Shakespeare has her taking part in actions that happened in the 1450s. The play is English, and Protestant, propaganda so Joan is portrayed as witch and a whore. The play concludes with the murder of Henry VI by Richard of Gloucester, later to become Richard III. Other examples include the use of the word "bullet," which wasn't used, in print, until the mid to late 1500s; "pistol" which was not in use until the 1570s, and the object itself did not exist until slightly after the reign of Henry IV
The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (1592)This is the most violent, most Senecan of Shakespeare's plays. It features rape, mutilation, murder via a sword inserted anally, (in the Globe's production), and a tasty bit of cannibalism. Back when I was taking Shakespeare I believe there was a production in DC that treated the play as a black comedy. I'm not sure if the Globe's production qualifies on that score, but there are moments of gallows humor that are in the play.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (1592–3)This is Shakespeare's earliest great tragedy, and his second longest play. It is also a bit of Tudor propaganda that derives from Sir Thomas More's history. Many people, myself included, feel that Richard was treated unfairly by More and Shakespeare, and that he probably a fairly decent king. The play follows upon Henry VI, Part III and continues in the vein established by the earlier play. It is noteworthy that Richard worsens over the course of the play, and the earlier ironist soon disappears.
Venus and Adonis (1592–3)This is one of Shakespeare's early attempts to establish himself as a poet. It takes 75 lines from Ovid and turns them into a lush narrative. Though an erotic poem, you will look in vain for any Henry Milleresque details.
The Rape of Lucrece (1593–4)Another lengthy poem. This time it is based on Roman history as recorded by Livy. It is
The Reign of King Edward the Third (1594)The 2nd Oxford admits this as part of the canon on the grounds that Shakespeare was at least partially involved in its composition. Among the portions admitted is Scene 2, which does seem truly Shakespearean. This is a wooing scene between Edward and The Countess of Salisbury. Edward is inflamed with lust for the Countess, and when she attempts to dissuade him from pursuit by saying she will muyrder her husband if he will murder his wife is eventually brought around to drop his pursuit. In this it is typical of Shakespeare comedies in which bed tricks and other devices are employed to ensure that spouses remain faithful. The history plays of the Elizabethan period resemble actual history about as much as the historical dramas of Hollywood's golden age do. Briefly, don't take the history as being accurate. In this play the Battle of Crecy (26 August 1346) appears to take place a matter of a few weeks before the Battle of Poitiers ((19 September 1356)
The Comedy of Errors (1594)This derives from Plautus. In the Globe production it is played as slapstick, and is very funny. Kaufman and Hart did a musical adaptation The Boys from Syracuse, which I recall seeing in my teens.
Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594–5)This is a comedy that features a variety of witty characters in it, foremost among them being Berown. The king of Navarre has formed a pact with three courtiers to lead a life of retired study with no women allowed. Like every kid in every movie about a boys club they soon have to violate that vow. Romance ensues, but is broken off by the news that the king of France, the father of one of the girls has died. The lovers agree to meet again in a year.
Love’s Labour’s Won (1595–6)The title seems to imply that this is a sequel to LLL. Unfortunately all we know is that it once existed and that a bookseller sold a copy. Other than that, nothing.
: A Brief Account The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (1595)Richard II was one of England's gay kings. (Some others are Richard I, Edward II, and James I.) Like Edward II the primary charge against Richard was the influence of his advisers. Unlike Edward II, who was murdered by the insertion of a hot poker in his rectum, he was murdered, in Shakespeare's version, by being stabbed in the upper torso.
The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1595)Back in 1964 I worked on a summer project at St. Paul's and Augustine in DC as a volunteer, i.e., unpaid, counselor. One of the regular staff members, an older Black man, was acting in this at the free theater at the Washington Monument. Since this was the height of the civil rights movement, and the summer that three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi the play was cast with Black Montagues and White Capulets. The Globe's version has a black Romeo and a white Juliet, but Romeo's parents are white, as are Juliet's. I think, though I can't be sure, that casting was made simply on the basis of ability. The Romeo in the Globe's version is young and passionate. Juliet is not 13, nor even 2 weeks shy of 14, as in the play, but is relatively young.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)Pearce Quigley, who was in The Taming of the Shrew plays Bottom here, and is convincing as the somewhat narcissitic weaver. Interestingly even though the fairies supposedly attend the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta they don't seem to interact with mortals within the confines of the city. The fairy-mortal interaction takes place within the forest, and is forgotten when the humans awaken and are restored to true love.
The Life and Death of King John (1596)This is set in the early years of the 13th century, about 1200-1220. John defies the Pope, but in terms that are those of Henry's rejection of the authority of the Bishop of Rome, or "any other foreign bishop."
KING JOHN What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, Cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy, and ridiculous
To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.
Tell him this tale, and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more: that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under God, are supreme head,
So, under him, that great supremacy
Where we do reign we will alone uphold
Without th’assistance of a mortal hand.
So tell the Pope, all reverence set apart
To him and his usurped authority.
Shakespeare, William (2005-04-21). William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (p. 436). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition. ”
Shakespeare may have toned down anti-Catholic sentiment from an earlier version by another author.
The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice (1596–7)It has been impossible since 1945 to read this play as Shakerspeare as read it. Our sympathies are too much with Shylock, who is unfairly maligned by the rather creepy Antonio. Personally, I applaud Shylock in seeking revenge upon Antonio. On the other hand I rather like Jessica and Lorenzo. Some people think Shakespeare has written an anti-semitic play, but it is hard not to realize Shylock's humanity and to feel that he is somewhat worthier than the smug Christians. As I am undecidedd myself as to the nature of the play touching its opposition to Jews, so I leave it to the gentle reader to decide.
The History of Henry the Fourth (1596–7)Jamie Parker stars as Prince Hal here, and as Henry V in the later plays. However, it is Roger Allam who steals the scene as Falstaff. For some reason the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare decided, on the rather dubious grounds that Oldcastle was used in the original production to use Oldcastle instead of Falstaff. However, there are no surviving copies of the play that use the Oldcastle name. Since Shakespeare used Falstaff in the succeeding plays I think the editors should have done the same.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597–8)Falstaff in love. This is a very funny Globe production of the play.
The Second Part of Henry the Fourth (1597–8)Henry's rejection of Falstaff and the rest of the Eastcheap characters fulfills the prophecy made in Part 1 that he would reject Falstaff. However, Falstaff warned Hal that in rejecting him he would reject the world. Does Henry lose a part of himself in his rejection. He has no qualms in Henry V in confirming Bardolph's death sentence.
Much Ado About Nothing (1598–9)Two pairs of lovers. Here again we have some non-trad casting with a black Hero and her black father. Again there is no racial reference in either text or production. Hero is accused of infidelity as a result of a trick played by Don John, and appears to have died. Quarrels and threats of a duel. Hero, however, like Juliet, has faked her death, and like Desdemona has been falsely accused. Since this is a comedy the situation is resolved peaceably, and the proper marriages occur.
The Life of Henry the Fifth (1598–9)Jamie Parker is an excellent Henry. When the death of Bardolph is mentioned he displays some emotion, but that quickly passes and he approves the execution of his former friend. He goes from heroic, in the battle scenes, to comic in his wooing of Catherine. Catherine, a French princess speaks no English, and he speaks no French, but somehow he manages to woo her successfully.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599)Brutus makes a crucial mistake after the murder of Caesar. Lawyers have a rule "never ask a question to which you don't know the answer." Brutus assumes that by telling Antony that they will monitor his speech that he will be controlled. The conspirators, including Brutus, leave towards the beginning of the speech. Antony calls Brutus honorable, but he undercuts it by giving examples of Caesar's modesty and humility. There is a constant diminuition of Brutus until the words "brutish animal." A link between Brutus and animality is thus achieved, and thr populace is won over. Irony and induction combine to undermine Brutus.
As You Like It (1599–1600)This is a story of multiple loves including a peasant wench, Phoebe, who falls in love with Rosalind, who is disguised as a guy. Since women were played by boys in Shakespeare's time this makes the play something of great interest to gender studies people.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1600–1)Laurence Oliver in the opening title of his film adaptation described Hamlet as tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind, but when you actually read the play there is only moment of indecisiveness. His soliloquy in Act IV when he encounters Fortinbras can be read as indecisive.
How all occasions do inform against me,However, in the Oxford edition this is given as an additional passage that is found in Quarto 2, and is not in the Folio version. If this is omitted from performance, as its exclusion from the Folio would indicate it was, then the sole justification for calling Hamlet indecisive is removed.
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;'
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1601)This production used Original Practices, i.e., female parts were played by men. However, the female parts in Shakespeare's day were played by
Troilus and Cressida (1602)This is one of a group of plays that explores the relation of the individual to either political power Troilus, Measure for Measure, King Lear or money Timon. The best known speech is perhaps the one by Ulysses that begins "Degree being vizarded," and which, in my undergraduate years, was used to introduce the concept of The Great Chain of Being. It should be noted though the underlings are frequently threatening, in the person of Thersites, to break through the comfy hierarchy, and turn things topsy-turvy. The play opens with Achilles mad at the Greeks, and it seems to be the same situation as at the start of the Iliad, i.e., Achilles upset over the loss of Briseis to Agamemmnon. It can be argued that Agamemmnon's theft of the girl violates his responsibilities towards Achilles, rupturing the prescribed relations within the great chain, and causing havoc in both the Greek and Trojan camps.
Sonnets (1593–1603) and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ (1603–4)
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love, 5
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic mad with evermore unrest. 10
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Shakespeare, William (2005-04-21). William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (p. 797). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Various Poems (1593–1616)A variety of poems.
The Book of Sir Thomas More (1603–4)This is a largely collaborative effort and Shakespeare has beens assigned scenes 6 and 8.
Measure for Measure (1603–45 adapted 1621)Here the situation begins with the Duke of Vienna leaving for a retreat. He turns his authority over to Angleo. At this point the situation immediately begins to deteriorate, and Angelo begins enforcing laws that had been dormant for 14 years. These laws called for the punishment of fornication by death. The editors point out that Claudio, who was betrothed to the girl he was accused of fornicating with, had certain legal rights as a result of his formal betrothal. Apparently it was not uncommon for formally betrothed couples to have sexual relations. Whether there was an religious, or canon law, regulation on the topic I have no idea. In any case, the Duke by turning his power over to Angelo, even on a temporary basis has abrogated his power and created a disorder in the state. The disorder can only be resolved when he takes up his power again.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (1603–4)Zoë Tapper is cast as Desdemona, and comes across as a sweet, innocent, and very loving young girl. Ms Tapper was 27 or 28 but conveys the impression of being a teenager.
The History of King Lear (1605–6) The Quarto TextAs in Measure for Measure Lear resigns his power to his daughters. Now a lot is made of Cordelia's real love for her father as opposed to her sisters' false love, but the real problem is that Lear has entered into improper relations in terms of the authority of king to his subjects. He asks for permission to keep 100 knights at Goneril's table. Now that's a large number of knights to take care of. Considering that each knight probably has a horse, and a squire or two to take care of, that's a fairly large expenditure. However, Goneril has it in her power to object to his provisioning, and to cut off support for his knights, which she does. Ultimately Lear is reduced to having no knights to accompany him. In giving up power Lear has forfeited the ability to command, and thus is the subject of his daughters. He is reduced to impotent raging against his daughters, to whom he yielded power, and the Fool in his ironic comments emphasizes the reality of Lear's foolishness.
The Life of Timon of Athens (1606)Timon is a wealthy citizen of Athens who enjoys treating his friends well. The first two scenes show him dispersing his money, even though he is spending all of his assets. His steward reproaches him for wasting his money. There are several ways of looking at this action. Back in 1980s or thereabouts there was a lot of emphasis on the so-called prosperity Gospel. Followers of that approach would say that Timon has failed to be a good steward of the gifts that God has given him. In fact Flavius reproaches him for his failure to look after his money, though he makes no mention of God. Another way would be the way Shaw viewed Ceasar, that he used gifts and money as a way of securing people to his side. Another viewpoint, similar to Shaw's, is the comment made to Ayn Rand that she was casting pearls before swine without getting a pork chop in return. All of these no doubt have an element of truth in them, but it seems to me that they miss what links Timon with Lear, and with Measure for Measure. Abandonment of responsiblity, whether connected with power, as in the earlier plays, or with money, as in Timon. Timon's rage grows when he needs money and seeks it from those upon whom he had bestowed benefices. Not receiving it, he becomes bitter, and becomes a hermit. I won't go into all the plot complexities, but Timon recovers a portion of his wealth, and uses it against Athens.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606; adapted 1616)If Measure for Measure and Lear are about the chaos created when power is relinquished then Macbeth is about the gaining of power and the workings of ambition in an otherwise honorable man. This was a production from a couple of years ago at the Globe. The witches
The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra (1606)There's a common idea that if someone is from Africa they are therefore Black. However, the occupants of Africa range in color from swarthy Arabs to black, not to mention Europeans who live in the former colonies. As for the Egyptians their racial characteristics are open to dispute. Nonetheless, there are some who insist that Cleopatra, because she was an Egyptian, which is in Africa, was Black. This is false. She was a descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, and was Greek. She had one Egyptian great-grandpartent, which would make her an octoroon under some systems, but her ethnicity was predominantly Greek. We did see a production at the Folger Library in October of 1988 in which she was played by a Black actress, however, in a recent production at the Globe she was played by a white actress.
All’s Well That Ends Well (1606–7)This has generally been regarded as a problem play, i.e., one that has no genuinely happy ending, and yet is not quite a comedy in the earlier vein. Shaw regarded Helena as being an Ibsenite heroine. I haven't read Ibsen in a number of years, and my recollection of attempts to read him or watch productions of his plays is that he, Ibsen, left me cold. Helena, however, derives from a far earlier source, and comes from one of Bocaccio's tales in The Decameron. The problem is that Helena desires Bertram, but he has no interest in her at all. You could possibly argue that Helena is a matrimonial adventurer much like Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew but of the opposite sex. In making Helena the pursuer Shakespeare has elevate female sexual desire in a way that won't recur for another 3 or 4 centuries. When Helena finally lands Bertram at the end his acceptance is not as willing as it might be, and raises the problem of their post-curtain marital life.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607): A Reconstructed Text It's currently thought that the first half of this play, roughly 800 lines or so, is by a Shakespeare collaborator, probably George Wilkins.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1608)
The Winter’s Tale (1609–10)
The Tragedy of King Lear (1610): The Folio TextThis is a shorter version of the quarto edition. About 300 lines have been cut, and scene 17 from the quarto has been removed. Both versions are usually conflated, but the editors of the Oxfordc edition have chosen to print both separately.
Cymbeline, King of Britain (1610–11)
The Tempest (1610–11)
Cardenio (1612–13): A Brief AccountThis is a lost play. Elements may have gone into a much later play called Double Falsehood, but that play is a pretty wretched thing.
All Is True (1613)This is usually known as Henry VIII but it appears to have been played under the Oxford edition's title. Parts are by Shakespeare, and the remainder by someone else. There is not a single continuous plot running through the play. What you have are incidents that culminate first in the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey, and then in the birth of the Princess Elizabeth.
The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613)This derives from The Knight's Tale and is in part by Shakespeare and in part by Fletcher. The most notable thing, and the most unShakespearean is in the subplot involving the Jailer's Daughter. She falls in love with Palamon, one of the kinsmen of the title, and goes mad. A cure is suggested in having her Wooer come to her as Palamon and bed her. This is done. Now in the Shakespearean corpus outside of this play a bed trick is used twice, in All's Well That Ends Well, in which Helena sleeps with Bertram, her lawful husband; and in Measure for Measure, in which Mariana sleeps with Angelo.