Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Vengeance is Mine

"Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

- St. Matthew 26:52

Revenge!  Everybody likes a good story of revenge, from Hamlet to The Count of Monte Cristo to the Odyssey to The Cask of Amontillado.  The great majority of us enjoy seeing the "bad guys" get their just desserts (I am very much in this camp, by the way.  This is not a self-righteous finger-pointing session), no matter how brutally it is handed out to them (example: the movie Taken). 

The major difference between Hamlet and all the other stories mentioned above is that Hamlet does not get away with his revenge, unlike many of the main characters in these kinds of tales.  Instead, both Hamlet and Laertes, who are revenge-obssessed, kill each other-although Claudius does get what he deserves too.  Hamlet's revenge also leads to the deaths of two innocent people, Polonius and Ophelia, who suffer the consequences of Hamlet's tenuous grasp on reality. 

Shakespeare doesn't seem to be an advocate of revenge in this play, which is a little surprising to most readers considering the sheer egregiousness of Claudius' crimes.  Shakespeare instead demonstrates that revenge is not desirable, either in hot-bloodedness (Laertes) or cold and calculating (Claudius.  Hamlet is a little bit of both).  Those who lead lives guided by vengeance will not get away and enjoy their revenge. 

Monday, September 26, 2011


The performance on Saturday...excellent.  I was very impressed by the actors that they cast for each of the parts.  Watching The Winter's Tale really helped me understand who was speaking to whom, where the action was being directed, and what the characters were feeling.  The actors' behavior put more emotion into the play, and it really drove home the fact that Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not simply read.  That means that interpretations of the play can change quite dramatically (yes, I went there), but that's part of Shakespeare's magic, I guess.  That ability to lend itself to anyone's imagination and still show us profound insights into the human mind. 

I was intrigued by the way the director chose to modernize the costumes.  To me, that was probably the most jarring aspect of the play, the part that stood out to me the most.  I don't believe that the original text was altered in any way-I could be wrong here, please correct me if I am-so seeing people in twentieth-century getup (I heard someone say that they looked like they belonged in The Great Gatsby) beg the forgiveness of Apollo and refer to themselves as monarchs and courtiers was a little strange.  Perhaps the director modernized the costumes to demonstrate the fact that Shakespeare's insights are still valuable to "modern" people, that we can still learn something about redemption and forgiveness. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Shakespeare vs. History, or The Search for a Motif

So I'm trying to look for an overarching theme for my blog, something that will provide some kind of framework for the research that I will do in this class, and also something that will help me do well in the class and meet the learning outcomes.  The problem is, as is usual in our lives, making a choice.  I'm currently trying to decide whether I should go with a historical approach to Shakespeare, but I see two major obstacles to this idea:
1.  This approach has most likely been beaten to death by centuries of scholars, revived, stitched back together, and then killed again.  Viciously. 
2.  If most of you liked reading about things that actually happened, you probably wouldn't be taking English classes. 

It also seems like too easy of an approach to take, and I feel like my posts would simply become "yes, this play is somewhat historically accurate," or "no, that crazy Shakespeare is mixing modern (for his time) kingdoms with old outdated pagan ideas and beliefs again."  More on this later...

Above:  Historical details? Who needs those?

Did anyone else think The Winter's Tale wrapped up much too neatly?  I was ridiculously surprised by how quickly it ended in comparison to the build-up.  I did notice the themes of forgiveness though, especially in the beginning of Act V when Cleomenes and Dion beg Leontes to let go of his guilt. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lovable Rogues and Identity Crises

So, I read Act IV of The Winter's Tale, and my favorite character by far is Autolycus.  The scene where he pretends to have been robbed by highwaymen and then takes advantage of Clown was extremely clever in my opinion (almost like a parody of the parable of the Good Samaritan).  He even mocks Clown in a later scene when he listens sympathetically to Clown's story of being taken advantage of on the highway.  Immediately after boasting of picking everyone's pocket after the fair, he helps Florizel and Perdita escape by switching costumes with Florizel.  What is it that draws us to the lovable rogue?  The person who, though outside "normal" society, still turns out to have a heart of gold?  The rogue is a common character in many stories across time (Tom Sawyer, Coyote from Native American stories, Shawn and Gus from Psych), and even though we see essentially the same character in all the stories, we still laugh.  Something touches us about their desire to help others in spite of their antics. 

Winter's Tale a comedy or drama?  I've heard it both ways.

And now for something completely different...

Another thing that drew my attention was how no one recognized Autolycus/Florizel after they switched outfits.  Clown, for example, had met Autolycus twice prior to his encounter with the "courtier" and failed to recognize him each time (this could in fact be because Clown is dumb.  But other people, like the Old Shepherd, fell for it as well).  It reminded me of something I learned in New Testament last semester-the idea that identity is represented by clothing.  My teacher showed me this example with the parable of the Prodigal Son, who went from rags to fine clothes, and the instance in the gospel of Luke where Jesus casts a devil out of a man, who is first described as naked when possessed, but clothed when healed.  What we choose to wear determines our perception of ourselves and other's perceptions of us.  Shakespeare shows this in several of his plays, this changing clothes to change identity (it's a common motif in lots of literary works).  No one seems to ever notice these changes-and in some cases, like Twelfth Night, you really think they should.  I think that Shakespeare is making the point that identity is fluid, that we can change the way we see ourselves, which will in turn change the way others see us. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Continuing the Winter's Tale

So, I read Acts II-III of The Winter's Tale, and I'm still not impressed by the character of Leontes.  All the other characters have interesting nuances to them-Hermione and her impassioned pleas of innocence, Paulina and her defying of gender stereotypes, and Antigonus and his aversion to the king's madness coupled with his fear of disobediance.  Leontes' turnaround was also too shallow for me to believe easily.  Maybe I'm just too cynical about this play after discussing Hamlet, but these characters seem too openly didactic for me.  There's something to learn from each of Shakespeare's plays, but this one seems intent on putting that message into the open. 
Another thing...where is the comedy?  I haven't seen any yet...unless you count Antigonus being chased and eaten by the bear, and then being discovered by Clown.  (Admittedly, I did find exit, pursued by a bear to be funny, as well as the part where Clown finds Antigonus, learns his name, and then leaves him to get mauled by the bear, only to go back and loot/bury the body later.  Maybe that says more about me than the play though).  Maybe the next two acts will be more revealing about this, or maybe there is just a different definition of comedy just as there is for romance.  Does anyone know about this?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Winter's Tale

With our abrupt switch to The Winter's Tale, I thought I'd blog about that today (I'm still a little unsure about what we are supposed to blog about, but that's okay)  I'm not very familiar with this story, as this is one of Shakespeare's plays that I have not read.  With this in mind, I looked up plot details about the play online, and discovered a few interesting details:
1. In the past, there has been discussion over whether this play is a comedy or a dramatic romance.  It shows details of both. 
2. Shakespeare was ridiculed in his time for talking about the "coast" of Bohemia, which is a landlocked province of what is now Germany, and in Shakespeare's time was a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire.  Some historians have tried to vindicate Shakespeare by showing that in his time Bohemia's boundaries included part of the Adriatic coast.  History in Shakespeare...I was waiting for my major to crop up in this class...

The first act of The Winter's Tale was interesting, but so far I think that I like plays such as Hamlet or Othello better.  Leontes seems to be a one-dimensional character to me, with his instant switch from best friend to attempted murderer.  None of Hamlet or Othello's soul-searching for Leontes, he seems to be more the Anakin Skywalker-type villain, for those of you who have seen Star Wars: Episode Three (Confronted with a problem?  Don't talk to your wife or best friend.  Just join the dark side and start executing people).  Perhaps Shakespeare was trying to make a point about jealousy with Leontes' dramatic transformation, showing how people can rapidly become consumed and change by hatred.  However, I thought Othello was a much better example of jealousy and character depth, as he was manipulated, deceived, and finally decided to trust his enemy after a lot of mental torment.  Leontes' sudden change seemed slightly unbelievable to me.  Maybe more insight into his character will be revealed in the next act. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hamlet...Crazy, Devious, or Both?

I have to admit, I enjoyed today's discussion on the character of Hamlet.  I really had never thought about the language that he uses and how he uses it to manipulate others.  I found the idea that "to be or not to be" could have all been for Ophelia's benefit an intriguing idea, as  in all the years of picturing Hamlet I had always envisioned him alone desperately grappling with the purpose of life, rather than putting on a facade for his family and friends.  We already know that Hamlet trusts next to nobody (with the exception of Horatio), as he plays Polonius for a fool, acts crazy around Ophelia, and refers to his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "adders fang'd" (to say nothing of what he thinks of Claudius and Gertrude).  Is Hamlet aware that people are after him because of natural suspicion, or is he making things up and happening to be right? 
The fact that Gertrude cannot see the ghost in Act 3, Scene 4 would seem to me to lend a lot of credence to the idea that Hamlet is simply going mad.  Hamlet seems to have transformed the ghost into an aspect of himself, from a messenger showing the facts about the his father's death to a fiend driving him towards revenge.  As we discussed in class, Hamlet's casual murder of Polonius also demonstrates his erratic personality-Hamlet can't kill a murderer simply because he has encountered him while he is praying, but he can strike down an unarmed man just for listening to him behind a curtain (I see serious issues here with Hamlet's beliefs about revenge and how it should be carried out).  Personally, I am looking forward to discussing the play more in class.  Today's thoughts gave me a lot of insight about the play, and about how to analyze and look at the text, the context, and the characters.  Who knows?  By the end of our Hamlet discussion, I might have changed my mind on my verdict of Hamlet's madness.  Or I might not.  It all depends on whether I can learn to read Shakespeare in a different way than I have before. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Previous Shakepeare Encounters

My encounters with Shakespeare throughout my childhood were sporadic yet interesting.  According to my mother, my dad read Hamlet to me when I was a baby and he was bored, but aside from this perhaps premature exposure to severe familial difficulties, I never really gained an interest in Shakespeare until high school.  We did the traditional Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, and I found, in between having to explain difficult passages to my peers and engaging in half-hearted class acting (I think it's great when Shakespeare is performed, except when I have to do it) that I really enjoyed the stories and characters that Shakespeare produced.  I've  always been interested in seeing just how much Shakespeare has influenced literature around the world, probably more so than any other work with the exception of the Bible.
I would have to say, if pressed, that my favorite play is Othello (confession number 1: This might change.  I haven't read every single one of Shakespeare's plays.  The Tempest is high up there as well).  I really enjoy the characters in this play, especially Iago (and here's number 2.  I really enjoy a good villain, not just the I'm so misunderstood variety) but all of the other characters as well.  I feel that Othello provides great insights into how people view themselves in relation to each other.  I studied Othello in English 251 Winter 2011 semester and realized that not only did I like this play, but I liked discussing Shakespeare with other people as well.  My previous experience had been mostly on my own, but I found that I gained new insights and perspectives when I talked about what I thought in class.  I am looking forward to what I will learn and what I can share this semester.