Thoughts on the Metamorphoses
June 13, 2009

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It’s time for another post about a book I’m reading! In this case, the book is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s very enjoyable (especially since the translator, A. D. Melville, puts the whole poem into iambic pentameter), and there’s lots to say for someone qualified to speak about the literary value of the work, the implications of the impressive array of allusions Ovid employs, or the broader cultural context in which the Metamorphoses was written. But I’m not qualified in that way, and while a lack of expertise shouldn’t stop any self-respecting blogger from providing an opinion, my current interests lie elsewhere, so I’m not taking this blog post in that direction.

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Henry V
April 12, 2009

 

image courtesy Wikipedia:Henry_V_of_England

image courtesy Wikipedia:Henry_V_of_England

 

I have lot to say about Shakespeare’s Henry V. In the space of 48 hours recently, I read the play and watched two movie adaptations of it (Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version). (more…)

Two More Shakespeare Plays
January 7, 2009

I’ve now finished reading The Taming of the Shrew, and I want to comment on it and on The Merchant of Venice. The version of Shakespeare I’m reading has a brief 2-3 page essay introducing each of the plays, and it spends pretty much the entire essay for each of these two comedies attempting to justify the play to a modern audience.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are timeless and really easy to enjoy 400 years after they were written. For example, the portrayal of Rosalind in As You Like It is as nuanced, complete, appealing, and feminist as that of any woman in any play I’ve read. But The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew are both pretty appalling plays. In the former, the villain is a spiteful Jewish moneylender named Shylock whose implacable irrational hatred of Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) eventually causes Shylock to lose his daughter and all his possessions, and face public humiliation and the threat of execution. The play is littered with anti-Semitic characters and dialogue, and both Shylock and his “pound of flesh” have played a large role in the history of anti-Semitism ever since. And I found The Taming of the Shrew even more disturbing. This play purports to teach “how to tame a shrew”, and in the end Petruchio “tames” Katherina the way that the Bush Administration breaks a suspected terrorist: using sleep deprivation, starvation, isolation, and emotional manipulation.

These plays are incredibly famous and literary criticism has grappled with their complexities and nuances for centuries; I don’t have the background to meaningfully contribute to that discussion. The introductory essays inform me that plenty of people think Shylock is meant to be a sympathetic character on some level, or that Shakespeare is lampooning anti-Semitism, and that because of the “play-within-a-play” structure of Shrew the message of that play is actually that Petruchio’s methods of relating to his wife are fantastical and should not or would not work in the real world. I’ll never know Shakepseare’s intentions, but these explanations sound pretty hollow to me. As a blogger, I don’t have to be informed to state my opinion, and I think that Shakespeare was a great writer and if he didn’t mean to vilify Jews or degrade women in these plays, then that would have come through pretty clearly and we wouldn’t be spending all this time discussing it.

Projecting myself further into this discussion, I think it comes down to wanting to justify everything done by people we idolize (which, actually, might make a good definition for idolizing someone). Shakespeare was a giant of a playwright, and he’s created some examples of true beauty and understanding. But he wasn’t perfect – and he wasn’t even perfect for his time period. To me, these two plays reveal his ugly side and frankly stretch the meaning of “comedy”. If you’re wondering how the ethics and compassion in his plays can vary so wildly (e.g. modern feminism in As You Like It and ridiculous misogyny/cruelty in Taming of the Shrew), the best justification I can offer is that people just aren’t really that consistent.

Love’s Labour’s Lost
December 22, 2008

I just finished reading Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. I had never heard about this one before, but after reading, it’s become one of my favorite of his comedies. I imagine it’s much better to read this play than to see it performed, however. The plot and characterization are both very simple: it centers on a king and three of his lords who all commit to three years of ascetic study and self-denial (e.g. rejecting the company of women) to improve themselves. They are soon visited by a princess and three of her ladies, and each of the men independently falls for one of the ladies and breaks his oath to attempt to woo her. After a few comic hijinks, the ladies accede, and agree to marry the men, but only after they prove their devotion with one year of asceticism and community service (after all, the men are already oath-breakers).

The meat of the play is in the language, though. It contains some of the wittiest dialogue I have ever read, with sparkling flirtation amongst all the characters and running puns in English, Latin, and French interspersed throughout. That makes for very entertaining reading, but I think I especially enjoyed this play because the themes are particularly relevant to my own current thinking. The play has a conflicted attitude toward intellectualism, simultaneously lampooning the pomposity of the overeducated characters while expressing intellectual virtuosity in the snappy language of the play itself. I too am conflicted about pursuing academic studies at the expense of the real world.

Wikipedia tells me that the title is taken from a poem by the Greek philosopher Theognis: “To do good to one’s enemies is love’s labour’s lost”. I can’t find any corroboration for this, and I don’t understand at all how that line applies to the play. Can anyone who knows more about this stuff explain the title for me?