Tuesday, June 30, 2009

As You Like It - Seamless Comedy

Derek writes:

Alrighty, I'm going first, it looks like. I'll keep this brief, as I'm in Iowa City at the moment, looking for a place to live when I (re)restart grad school in August.

As You Like It is my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies. Other great ones have their points ― Midsummer Night's Dream with its fairyland traipsing, Twelfth Night simply for Feste, Much Ado for the exchanges of wit ― but only As You Like It seems to combine so many elements of wonderful comedy so seamlessly. When I read Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, Bloom's claim that As You Like It suffers, or Rosalind suffers, because there's no real EVIL in the play, it made me somewhat angry. One of As You Like It's great points, I think, is that, for once, there really IS evil ― not Malvolio threatening to ruin people's fun and make them go to bed on time; not Don John seeking simply to spoil everyone's joy (though he's closer to evil); not even Egeus threatening to kill his own daughter if she won't marry Demetrius (that's probably closest). In As You Like It, the world really is upside-down from the beginning, and not in any benign way. A wrongful, usurping ruler has taken the throne and banished the Duke Senior and Co to Arden. This is the stuff, potentially, of tragedy ― Macbeth, Hamlet, and so on. Or at least of problematic histories, like the War of the Roses octet. In As You Like It, the power of virtue and goodness and beneficence is immediately threatened on several levels by the cynical power-grabs of both Oliver and Frederick.

Okay, instead of going on and on about the wonder of the very explicit court v. country philosophizing, the romantically overmatched Orlando, Jacques as counterpoint to Touchstone, etc, etc, all of which I kind of want to write, I'll just stick to my point and close succinctly. Why I love As You Like It ― in most comedies, it seems to me (sorry, Mr. Bloom), as in most tragedies, actually, the end result requires a great deal of help from some external force like fate or happenstance; in As You Like It, though, that good wins out in the end is much more a result of the combined wills of Rosalind and Celia, I think. Not that they plan it that way ― but they are simply unflaggingly playful in the face of danger, and for that reason, I think, it feels to the audience that the happy ending is a foregone conclusion.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

King John - Summation by Anti-Host

Gilbert writes:

Word bethumpers,

King John is a puzzlement. It is just not in any stream of awareness, main- or otherwise. Those Shakespeare festivals committed to the entire canon must do it, but my guess is that Ashland, Oregon, has done one King John for every six Midsummer Nights. As I noted, my undergraduate Shakespeare course started with John because the professor was certain no one had ever read or seen it. Maurice Charney gives it ten pages, though if he didn’t he couldn’t call his book All of Shakespeare, while Marjorie Garber writes eleven pages on John but twenty-nine on As You Like It in her Shakespeare After All. Thus, the Will Shakespeare Experience had a tabula rasa, and as we wrote on it, three foci emerged: women, history, and insights from structure, both the penetrating insight into moral dilemmas that Randall outlined (“tracing the link between politics and morals, Shakespeare is less cocksure and doctrinaire,” says Herschel Baker) and speculations on the Bastard, both central to and somehow detached from the play.

Cindy Calder was struck, then smitten with Lady Constance, assertive, passionate and wily, though I [Gilbert] might add one more little adjective, mad. In the cat fight with her mother-in-law, Queen Eleanor, she continues the earlier Faulconbridge argument mocking paternity, as each woman accuses her rival of adultery. Constance at least defends her son with the earlier “parts” argument: “this boy [Arthur] / Liker in feature to his father Geffrey/ Than thou [Eleanor] and John in manners, being as like/ As rain to water, or devil to his dam.” [Mike—here’s another water image to add to your collection.] Constance can ring changes on “plague,” and can reduce Eleanor’s appeal to Arthur to a parody of baby talk:

Do, child, go to it grandame, child,
Give grandame kingdom, and it grandame will
Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig.
There’s a good grandame. (II.i.160-63)

In all our glances at Shakespeare’s language, have we ever seen him quite so playful, except when he goes a-Dogberrying? Yet when a messenger reports her son has become a pawn in the political manipulation, engaged to marry Blanch of Spain (perhaps especially devastating to a mother, given that Shakespeare has heavily underscored that Arthur is still a boy), she veers toward madness:

Believe me, I do not believe thee, man,
I have king’s oath to the contrary.
Thou shalt be punish’d for thus frighting me,
For I am sick and capable of fears,
Oppress’d with wrongs, and therefore full of fears,
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears,
A woman, naturally born to fears. (III.i.9-15)

Her grief at the loss of her son, long before Arthur’s death (suicide?), swells to a threnody of inconsolable motherhood. Cindy cited the crescendo: “Death, Death, O amiable lovely Death!” Thus, structurally, King John starts with an essentially comic scene of Lady Faulconbridge faced with both her sons insisting on her infidelity, passes through a battle royal version of this between two royals (Constance is wife to a prince), then darkens to the mother-queens losing their sons, until, in what Marjorie Garber calls “acute dramatic irony, the passing of these two enemies and rivals twinned,” both die within days of each other.

Derek was moved to speculate that in order to be a tough woman in a Shakespearean play, you have to be an old, preferably widowed matriarch figure, and certainly the young woman in King John, Blanch of Spain, seems to be only a mousey cipher. But I’d like to make a case for fourteen-year-old Juliet, who in every comparison, is stronger and wiser than Romeo, and at last recognizes “If all else fail, myself have pow’r to die.” And after Rosalind and Viola, let’s relish the chance to be awed by the “sexed” and unmatronly (!) Cleopatra.

As to history, King John seems too muddled to be the accomplished generic practice that makes Richard II possible. It zigzags among John against Phillip; no, John and Philip against Pandulph; no, Salisbury and Phillip against…well, I lose track…all inflated with what Herschel Baker calls “tumid rhetoric.” Most puzzling for me is Hubert, citizen of Angiers, matchmaker, but later John’s assassin-designate, but who gives way to sentiment and conscience when he spares, movingly, young Arthur.

So, King John is not a fine example of the History genre, yet it does create all these triangles. Randall’s posting, “The Flow of Time,” explores how Shakespeare’s revision of history to set up balanced, though questionable, claims to the throne, create dramatic tensions, that will be the heart and muscle of the three great Histories which follow (leaving Henry V aside as political propaganda—masterful-—without this sort of dramatic tension). Yet without the magnetic field of Tudor history, Shakespeare does create the “three depictions of moral dilemmas—Philip’s, Hubert’s, and Salisbury’s—[which] expose very complex personal [not historical] views,” as Randall noted in “Moral Dilemmas,” and, together with the free radical Bastard, put us closer to Shakespeare than we have been in earlier History.

And finally, from this dramatization of the entwining of politics and morality, Shakespeare has left instruction to Barack Obama:“To set a form upon that indigest/Which he [your predecessor] hath left so shapeless and so rude” (V.vii.26-7).

Gil, aka Thumper

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RE: King John and Shakespeare the Bastard

Randall writes:

Gentle friends,

I didn't want to let go of King John without responding to Gil's argument about Shakespeare and Philip Faulconbridge aka The Bastard. As I was reading the play, I shared Gil's question about whether there is another character like the Bastard in Shakespeare's works. The three "types" that occurred to me were "vice," "chorus" and "fool." I don't have my book in front of me (because I'm at a Shakespeare conference in New Hampshire and we're reading Antony and Cleopatra, so King John is at home on my desk) so I won't belabor the various supports and counter-arguments I might try Faulconbridge with. Instead I'll just toss out a few thoughts that occurred to me reading and have stuck with me since.

Outsider? Absolutely. I haven't put my finger on the right term for this yet but there's something about the way a character comments on action within a Shakespeare play that sets him/her apart. Faulconbridge has this quality, one that seems to me chorus-like, even though he is within the play. Gil points to Faulconbridge's freedom from class and "excess moral scruple" (this latter reminds me of some of Shakespeare's later fools: Feste in Twelfth Night, the Fool in King Lear), and I'd agree with both the categorization and the compelling argument that follows. What I'd add is this: Faulconbridge seemed to me fairly unique when I put the play down. Then finishing Antony and Cleopatra last weekend, I thought I found strong similarities in the character of Enobarbus.

In one scene in particular, Antony and Caesar are airing out their mutual grievances. Maecenas suggests that they cease arguing and focus on present needs -- the coming battle with Sextus Pompey. Enobarbus quips "Or, if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again. You shall have time to wrangle in when you have nothing else to do" (2.2.124-127). Antony shuts him down: "Thou art a soldier. Speak no more." And Enobarbus famously closes with "That truth should be silent I had almost forgot."

So here again is the outsider (soldier), whose anti-hypocritical comment on the primary action accords him the status of truth-speaker, elevating him above the action. Enobarbus in not quite as outside as Faulconbridge -- he lacks the same degree of ironic detachment -- but after his exchange with Antony, I think we as readers listen to him differently and he becomes an occasional chorus-like figure.

And I don't think Enobarbus is the only character like this. I wonder if the plays we're reading now signal a period in which Shakespeare consistently includes characters who have a portion of the quality that Gil defines, be they fools, friends, or foils. Even the quality of commenting on inflated rhetoric seems thematic in the plays we're currently reading (think Henry at the end of Henry V, wooing Katherine). Is this Shakespeare putting himself into his plays? I think we're always on dangerous ground when we say anything about Shakespeare the man (as I did in my last post), but I would find it hard to deny that in the outsider or commentator-type characters, a world view beyond character seems to emerge. I'd like to be more specific about this, so I'll note it as a characteristic to consider as we continue with our reading.For now I'll turn mute.

Your considerate stone,

Monday, June 15, 2009

King John - Mere Echoes or More?

Randall writes:


A number of us have concurred with the chronological placement of King John's writing between the two tetralogies. Some critics that I've looked through, though, place Richard II immediately prior to King John (Edmund Chambers, Sylvan Barnet, Derek Traversi), dating it 1595-96 to John's 1596-97. Whatever the order, I am interested in certain echoes in character and sentiment that turn up, which I believe point to Shakespearean attitude. We praise Shakespeare for his nearly unlimited variety in character, in fully developed and unique motivation, in tone. Yes. But I want to look sometimes at those moments when characteristics recur or similar speeches are mouthed by different people because I think these kinds of repetitions allow us to examine concepts imported to the play.

One frequently cited example is Shakespeare's views on theater which turn up in characters as diverse as Hamlet and Jacques. But Richard II and King John provide a different echo, and one question might be: do such confluences occur because the two (history) plays are written so close together, or because Shakespeare takes opportunities regardless of the common moment of the two plays to mount some soapbox?

Take dying John of Gaunt's cornucopia of patriotic epithets in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out. (Richard II 2.1.40-59)

I wouldn't be surprised to see this speech excerpted and put on inspirational posters in English classrooms. It's something of a diva speech, recalling Shakespeare's early willingness to pull out all the language stops in plays like Love's Labor's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. The overwhelming abundance of appositional phrases, not to mention the hugely delayed predicate whose absence emphasizes the preceding phrases all the more, shift our attention from Gaunt to Shakespeare. It's like when, in the blues or rock, a guitarist finds a brief phrase and repeats it over and over and over, until the crowd begins to cheer, recognizing that their focus has been shifted by the repetition from art to artist. Hence, it's easy to lose sight in this speech of what it's about ― pride in one's country and disappointment that others have failed in their allegiance.

A slight echo emerges in King John, when the Duke of Austria pledges allegiance to Arthur, whom he believes to be the rightful King of England. He promises:

That to my home I will no more return
Till Angiers and the right thou hast in France,
Together with that pale, that white-faced shore,
Whose foot spurns back the ocean's roaring tides
And coops from other lands her islanders,
Even till that England, hedged in with the main,
That water-walled bulwark, still secure
And confident from foreign purposes,
Even till that utmost corner of the West
Salute thee for her king. (King John 2.1.21-30)

While Austria reduces Gaunt's 17 versions of England to a mere five, his words elaborate on Gaunt's "fortress built by Nature" and expand Gaunt's epithets by adding personification. But in both we hear the clear tones of patriotic reverence, in one even from a foreigner (something that will occur again in Henry V when members of the French court speak in awed tones about the English power).

Certainly many characters in Shakespeare love their country (Othello commits himself to Venice, Titus kills a son for Rome, Hamlet is concerned about something rotting in Denmark), but Gaunt's effusive speech, Austria's addition of a paean to England to his promise of support for Arthur, and the King of France's quaking fear of Edward the Black Prince strike me as more than moments of rounded character. In repetition, in echo, they become themselves evidence of a motif that goes beyond character and highlights Shakespearean attitude.

So, while he prepares plays about recent kings that explore the complexities of usurpation, the confusion of political discord, the instability of allegiance, and the imprecision of moral choice, and then sets those stories in front of Elizabethan aristocracy, it must be reassuring to Shakespeare to know that at some point, some character is delivering a speech to remind his audience that, above all, Shakespeare loves England, and that England should be the god of one's idolatry. I'd cue up England's national anthem about now, but England doesn't actually have one (they have a commonwealth anthem). Perhaps someone should nominate a version of Gaunt's speech. Something like this:

(To the tune of "God Save the Queen.")

This royal throne of kings,
this earth of majesty,
this scepter'd isle.

This land of such dear souls,
this blessed plot, this earth,
this other Eden, this dear dear land.

This precious stone set in
the silver sea, this realm, this little world.

This happy breed of men,
Renowned for distant deeds,
For Christian service and
true chivalry.

This teeming womb of kings
feared for their lineage, famous by birth.
This fortress Nature-built
dear for her reputation through the world.
This England.

Oh, my stars and stripes,

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RE2: King John - Constance

Gil writes:

Cindy, and the Lords on the left,

My original focus in King John, engendered deep down by my undergraduate prof William Matchett, was on a triangle among power or possession (John), right (Arthur), and character―duty, reputation, honor, or patriotism (the Bastard). Historically, John had a legitimate claim to the throne according to his brother Richard I's will, but the Elizabethan audience could listen to an argument for Richard's late older brother Geoffrey's son Arthur on grounds of primogeniture (we will soon be tangled in the wrangle between Mortimer and Bolingbroke). Shakespeare establishes this conflict from the beginning when the French ambassador refers to John's "borrowed majesty" (I.i.4) and to young Arthur, "thy nephew and right royal sovereign." John rebuts with "Our strong possession and our right," and his mother Queen Eleanor underscores that: "Your strong possession much more than your right," i.e., possession is nine-tenths of the law. So, once again in the Histories, the issues of usurpation, possession, and succession are in play.

But the creation of the non-historical Bastard makes it more complex, because he is given (bar)sinister royal blood, the direct son of Richard I, Coeur-de-lion, so he would have the most legitimate claim to the throne were he not born on the wrong side of the sheets: "something about, a little from the right,/ In at the window, or else o'er the hatch./ Who dares not stir by day must walk by night,/ And have is have, however men do catch" (I.i.170-73). It is neat he rhymes rather than blusters about his own illegitimacy, taking the sting from the possibility that Shakespeare nearly created King FitzRichard Ia.

Eventually, by character and action, the Bastard rises to viceroy of England: "Now hear our English King,/ For thus his royalty doth speak in me" (V.ii.128-9) and emerges victorious over the French, Rome, and his own treasonous lords, who whine "That misbegotten [literally] devil Faulconbridge,/ In spite of spite, alone upholds the day" (V.iv.4-5). John is poisoned by a monk, one of those pesky Catholics (Holinshed writes John died "through anguish of mind"). But a brand new character (baaad Shakespeare), young Prince Henry, is introduced in Act V, scene vii, duty or honor prevails, and the Bastard kneels "with all submission, on my knee./ I do bequeath my faithful services/ And true subjection everlastingly" (V.vii.103-5), and English history is again on track. Cindy and I are both pleased we do not need to go on to The Long Boring Life of King Henry III. Bring on Dick, the Tooth.

Cindy redirected me (though I spent 56 days in computer limbo and many hours in hospital waiting rooms) to the mother-son relationships. We first see a comic version, in which the Faulconbridge brothers appear before the king to argue contentiously that their mother has cuckolded their father. One thinks that we will see the old joke about a wife/mother's fidelity (e.g., Don Pedro: "I think this is your daughter." Leonato: "Her mother hath many times told me so," Much Ado, I.i.104-105), but this time questioning legitimacy is in earnest:

I, a gentleman
…and eldest son,
As I suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge
Most certain of one mother
…and, as I think, one father
But for the certain knowledge of that truth.
I put you o'er to heaven and to my mother.
Of that I doubt, as all men's children may. (I.i.50-52, 59-63, italics mine)

Eleanor defends motherhood: "Out on thee, rude man, thou dost shame thy mother,/ And wound her honor with this diffidence" (I.i.64-5), though she does note a physical resemblance to her own son, Coeur-de-lion. King John, Coeur-de-lion's brother, caps it: "Mine eye hath well examined his parts,/ And finds them perfect Richard" (I.i.89-90). That settles it; in those pre-DNA times, parts is parts. Robert Faulconbridge insists King Richard had much employed his father, but the Bastard redirects him, " Your tale must be how he employ'd my mother."

Soon, the resolution is agreed upon: Robert, though not the eldest son and heir, gets the land, but Philip/Sir Richard Plantagenet/ aka the Bastard gets the face, the blood of his great father, and the honor to follow his grandmother Queen Eleanor, though his blunt, rude humor immediately emerges: "My father gave me honor, yours gave land./ Now blessed be the hour by night or day/ When I was [be]got, Sir Robert was away!' (I.i.104-6), though 'honor' may be a tenuous word, if one notes that 'hour' and 'whore' are homophones in Elizabethan England.

Enter Lady Faulconbridge: "O me, 'tis my mother," who is mighty piqued that her two sons have come before the king to besmirch her reputation, yet she must acknowledge that King Richard Cordelion was the Bastard's father; he "that art the issue of my dear offense,/ So strongly urg'd past my defense." The Bastard's rationale to absolve his mother from sin ("your fault was not your folly;" "Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose / Subjected tribute to commanding love') is touching. This guy ripped the heart out of lions; what defense would a mere woman have?

Cindy feels the Bastard lets his mother off easily, yet he truly thanks her that she has given him the heart of a lion, far better than a landed income of 500 pounds a year. I rehearse this at length because if the play underscores mother-son relationships, this first, as with everything we associate with the Bastard, is fraught with delicious irony. Yet, by the end of the play, it is the Bastard's honor, duty, patriotism, and character that prevail. And, thanks to his mother, we can see the root [pace Eric Partridge] from which this grew.