Monday, January 26, 2009

John's First Play Down! (The Winter's Tale)

I was really enjoying the first part of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with its emphasis on jealousy. Leontes, King of Sicilia, tries to convince his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to visit a little longer. When Leontes is unsuccessful in his plea, he casually asks his wife Hermione to try. Without much effort, she convinces Polixenes to stay, sparking suspicions from Leontes. Quickly his suspicions deteriorate into a rage, leading Polixenes to flea and Leontes to throw his pregnant wife (whom he now believes to be carrying Polixenes baby) in prison. Meanwhile, practically everyone tries to convince him of his wife's innocence.

Up to this point it's an intense piece of psychodrama. As Shakespeare goes, it's probably one of his more accessible plays, plus it's a theme as relevant today as it was then no matter in what class or country one lives. What made Leontes suddenly snap? Did he always have jealous tendencies but they just now awakened? Was there some festering issue between him and Polixenes that finally came to the fore? The play could have explored this angle but Shakespeare chose not to delve into the past. How low would Leontes sink? It could have been fun, in a morbid sense, to watch his demise. However, his realization that he's erred comes quite early in the play, at which point the play takes a 90 degree turn in a different direction.

The latter half of the play, 16 years later, becomes a love story between Perdita (the daughter of Leontes and Hermione) and Florizel (Polixenes' son). It's not that I couldn't have enjoyed a love story, but I found the earlier jealousy story much more compelling. Plus, I found some of the characters in the second half (particularly Autolycus) quite annoying.

Compared with the other Shakespeare plays that I've read, the first three acts of The Winter's Tale ranks up there with my favourites. However, with the sudden switch in tone and plot, leaving a latter half that was just mediocre, I felt disappointed overall.

(Cross posted at The Book Mine Set)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Nashville Area Production

So if anyone is going to be in/around Nashville, TN in the next couple weeks the Nashville Shakespeare Festival is producing a great version of Richard III. I went last Friday evening and the crowd was pretty decent for only the second performance. Set in a vaudeville theater, the play was very different than some i've seen before. The couple of histories i've seen were straight Renaissance-style productions. In this though, the messengers are telegram girls, the two princes tapdance their way to the Tower of London and the men swill martinis! I enjoyed the change. There was a little dancing and singing but it wasn't a really a musical. The Troutt theater on Belmont's campus is a great venue; it used to be a church and has beautiful woodwork and marble. The play runs through Feb 1st and i highly recommend it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kathrin's Shakespeare picks

I'm so sorry, but I completely forgot to post my list of books to read for the challenge here! I haven't decided on all 6 books I'll be reading yet, but here's a tentative list:

1) Shakespeare's Sonnets
2) William Shakespeare: Hamlet

Monday, January 5, 2009

An Introduction to Shakespeare

(photo by Katie Claypool)

My fellow blogger, Mental Multivitamin, introduced me to Harold Bloom's term "bardalotry:"
...the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us....
So, as one who practices bardalotry ... I'm always looking for good books on Shakespeare, and also for good books to introduce Shakespeare to young people, and I recently stumbled across a very nice series. I was slightly familiar with author, Marchette Chute, because my second grade students memorize and recite one of her little poems as one of their monthly poem projects. But as I was looking for books to choose for Historia's 2009 Shakespeare Reading Challenge, I ran into her again. Her series is very nice, for young and old alike, introducing them to Shakespeare, his worlds, and his plays! While snowbound last week, I read her book, An Introduction to Shakespeare, and enjoyed it. It's an old Scholastic paperback, geared for middle school and above, and the blurp on the back cover made me chuckle. It says the book is "A great grade booster you'll really enjoy. Score some extra points in class -- and add new meaning and excitement to your assigned reading. Journey back in time with this lively book that brings to life the world of William Shakespeare -- the greatest playwright who ever lived!"

I didn't find it lively, but I was very interested in all the information she packed into this small volume, and how easy it was to read and understand. She was very respectful of her audience, and wrote with great warmth. I learned a lot about Shakespeare that I didn't previously know, and I think this would be an excellent book to use as part of an introductory class. She wrote numerous other books, two of which I now plan to read for Historia's reading challenge:

*The Worlds of Shakespeare
*Stories From Shakespeare

From the ending to An Introduction to Shakespeare:
Among all Shakespeare's contemporaries, it was John Heminges and Henry Condell who had the greatest faith in the future. They were convinced that the reputation of their "friend and fellow" would be safe if only his work could be made available to the ordinary reading public.

...It is not our province, who only gather his works and give them to you, to praise him. It is yours that read him ... Read him, therefore; and again and again; and if then you do not like him, surely you are in manifest danger not to understand him. And so we leave him to other of his friends, whom, if you need, can be your guides; if you need them not, you can lead yourselves and
others. And such readers we wish him.
--John Heminges and Henry Condell

Their wish was answered. It was such readers he got, and no other writer in the world's history has been loved by so many people or has given so much happiness.
This was a very nice book to read to begin my Shakespeare Reading Challenge.
(Cross-posted at A Fondness For Reading)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ragdoll - Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Here's my first book for the challenge -- originally posted over at My Tragic Right Hip.

Years ago when I worked at History Television, I wrote a series of articles about Shakespeare. For a few weeks, I was obsessed by the Shakespeare question and read a pile of books both for and against the Bard's "real" identity. I've seen Shakespeare in Love about a million times and even wrote an article for the now-defunct (I wish I had a copy of it to share; it was a fun article to write) about the differences between the writer's life and how he was portrayed in the film, tying everything back into the research that I did for my job at the time. Needless to say, I think I'm more obsessed with the idea of all the controversy around Shakespeare's identity than I am by the man's work. Is that a bad thing? And let me just say for the record that I believe, as does Bill Bryson, that Shakespeare was the author of his work, not Francis Bacon or any number of other writers put forth in the years since his death and ultimate canonization.

Part of the Eminent Lives series, Bill Bryson's excellent Shakespeare: The World as Stage contextualizes the little known facts of the Bard's life into a compact and utterly readable package. As Bryson continually reminds us, there are very few known facts of Shakespeare's life: the date of his baptism, his marriage, the number of children he had, how many signatures exist (6), his will, etc. The rest is conjecture, scholars over the years uncovering new evidence, failing to prove their theories, and wishful thinking. What Bryson does so ingeniously is fill in his own spaces with interesting bits of history from the time period, padding Shakespeare's life with surrounding information, giving the reader a spirit of the age rather than trying to pull a biography from thin air. He addresses the Shakespeare question toward the end of the book, and I enjoyed reading about the interesting characters who contributed to seemingly never-ending debate.

I have to admit that I found the chapter about the plays themselves a little dry, but then he grabbed me again by making the point that part of Shakespeare's lasting impression on literature goes so far beyond the plays. So much of the language we use today, so many expressions that hadn't been used before are attributed to him, parts of our speech that we take so for granted that we barely give a thought to the fact that he wrote "be cruel to be kind." The book is full of information that could give anyone an edge should they end up on Jeopardy faced with a Shakespeare category, but it also has a grand sense of humour and a calm approach to sifting through what must have been miles upon miles of scholarship. By the nature of the lack of information about Shakespeare's life, it must have been hard to write a biography about him, but I think that Bryson's done a smashing job of it: a little Tom Stoppard, a little The Professor and the Madman, and a lot of what Bryson does so very well, write history so that it's engaging, interesting and utterly compelling.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


The new challenge starts today and goes for 365 days.
This challenges ends on December 31st - 2009.

You can read anything about or related to Shakespeare - fiction or non fiction, straight bio or authorship debate. You can read the plays and sonnets as well. AND you need to read 6 books within 12 months.

For those of you who are contributors, you can either post your review here, or post a review on your own blog and post a link to it here.