Reading Shakespeare - Part I: The Comedies
Over the last couple of months, I’ve read the collected works of William Shakespeare. I don’t think that I can add any deep insights to the vast literature on the Bard, so I just give a quick personal judgment on all of them, in the order they are printed in my collection (“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Edited, with a Glossary, by W.J.Craig M.A., Trinity College, Dublin”; Reprint by Henry Pordes, London 1987.)
I will start with the comedies:
The “Tempest” left me disappointed – it’s a trite morality play, the characters left me cold. The only character I felt sympathy with is the savage Caliban, who had welcomed the shipwrecked Prospero and his daughter, then was subjugated by his magic, and is depicted as a monster to boot. I remember reading discussions of Caliban where his treatment is compared to that of indigenous people – cheated out of their homelands and then demonized when they don’t take it lying down. Caliban is no angel, but Prospero would have been more in his right to punish him for assaulting Miranda if he hadn’t enslaved him before. As in many of the following plays, the most entertaining part is the banter of the lower class people, here the sailors and servants.
The Two Gentleman of Verona
An unbelievable plot with cardboard characters and wafer-thin psychological motivation. Again, the only saving grace are the banter and the monologues of the servants.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A really funny comedy. Not really original or psychologically deep, but well executed and full of wordplay, even if some aspects (“foreign accents are funny”) may not cater to more refined tastes nowadays.
Measure for Measure
The plot and plot twists are very construed, but it has some interesting thoughts on justice and sin. The sense of justice and the reasoning partially seem alien from today’s point of view. E.g., almost everybody accepts that sex out of wedlock is a crime, even worthy of death, and only argues that either punishing it is impractical because too many people are guilty of it, or asks for forgiveness because even those who punish for it are subject to sin. No-one comes up with what would be the main arguments today, that sex out of wedlock shouldn’t be punished at all or that the death penalty is much too harsh. On the whole, it doesn’t really work for me – the comedic parts distract from the serious issues.
The Comedy of Errors
I don’t especially like comedies of mistaken identity, but I imagine that this one can be funny on the scene if played well. As I just read it, I didn’t find it really funny. The only psychologically interesting part was where her supposed husband’s strange behavior fueled Adriana’s jealousy.
Much Ado About Nothing
Again a comedy that is saved mostly by the banter. Neither the “tragic” plot (Hero’s slander and rehabilitation), nor the “comedic” plot (Beatrice and Benedick being duped into loving each other) really work. That’s not astonishing for the tragic plot, because the tragic plots tend to be cardboard-flimsy in other Shakespearian comedies as well, but also the change for both Benedick and Beatrice from being convinced bachelors to loving each other just by being told that the other one is secretly desperately in love with them is not convincing at all.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
This one doesn’t even have got much of a plot, and it’s the better for it. Lots of banter, puns, and comic relieve.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I liked this one – a fluffy comedy with lots of wordplay and banter, and it has really funny moments – Bottom in fairyland, the bitch fight between Helena and Hermia, the audience panning the artisans’ play. The invocation of fairy magic also makes the plot about erring love and subsequent reconciliation believable. Both Helena feeling mocked by suddenly being the object of declarations of love by two men, and Hermia’s despair at her love abandoning her add some depth to the play.
The Merchant of Venice
This play has three plots that seem welded together. One of them is a morality play – the choice of boxes demanded from Portia’s suitors. The second is light comedy - Portia and Nerissa testing the faith of their fiancés. The third and central plot, Shylock trying and failing to get his revenge on Antonio, is the most serious and quite tragic. The tragic figure is Shylock, who despite his riches loses control of his daughter and has to suffer from prejudice against his religion and from contempt for taking interest, even though the credit he provides is part of the basis for the ventures of the Christian merchants who despise him. And, as often with the oppressed, when he sees a chance for revenge, he overshoots and then is brought down by a system that is rigged against him. His demand for Antonio’s flesh is cruel and inhumane, but Shakespeare shows very well that this cruelty has its roots in the behavior of those who mercilessly mocked and abused Shylock, and suddenly plead for and demand mercy when the sharp end is pointed at them. This central plot and its execution make the play a masterpiece.
As You Like It
This play is a bit like a salad – several subplots have been mixed in a bowl, and none of them, by themselves, is very convincing or original. The villains are cardboard, and the resolutions are mostly dei ex machina – a brother’s hatred is converted to love by the other brother saving him from a conveniently arisen danger, another villain is converted to virtue by a conveniently met holy man, and both conversions happen off-stage and are just related by narrators in the play. Some scenes and characters look bolted on, as if they were meant to play a bigger role and were cut short, but forgotten to be totally taken out – an example are the scenes with Oliver Martext and William, and in general it seems to me that Touchstone’s wooing of Audrey is just a remnant of what was a bigger subplot. Nevertheless, the play has a nice cast of funny characters and a sufficient amount of witty dialogue, so it looks like it would be fun to watch.
The Taming of the Shrew
I can’t see how this play can still be played as a straight comedy nowadays. It’s quite witty, and has many funny scenes, and in this piece, even the mistaken identities make sense. But the central idea, that women need to be subservient to men and that using psychological bullying in order to subdue them is clever and to be applauded, this is an idea that today would be shared only by very misogynistic or reactionary persons. Here, Shakespeare is just a man of his times, and he isn’t even able to show Katharina the degree of understanding that he shows for Shylock in the “Merchant”. Therefor I can read it only as a document of a worldview that I don’t share, but not enjoy it as a comedy.
Another thing is the framing plot about a Lord playing with poor drunkard, making him believe that the drunkard is really a Lord who had lost his mind, having the taming of the shrew staged as a play for him to watch, and then sending him back to his life as a poor drunk again. While it is known that Shakespeare found that framing plot in a previous version of the play by another author that he re-wrote, it’s not clear how much of the framing plot was actually included when the play was staged at the Globe Theatre. It can be read as a kind of commentary, because this is also about someone (the Lord) using his power to abuse someone less powerful, even though less damage is inflicted.
All’s Well That Ends Well
My German Shakespeare edition that I’m reading in parallel calls this “not so much a comedy as a drama with a happy ending”. That’s quite a fitting description, depending on what you call “happy”. Is it a happy ending if the girl gets the boy she wants, but the boy is a jerk? The young Count Bertram may be a valiant soldier, but he’s not only full of class conceit – which would be understandable to a degree for a man of his time and rank -, he also forgets his vows to a woman he swore to love, and slanders her when she holds him to his vows. He tells lies when he’s found out. And I can’t shake the feeling that the love he says he’s developed for Helena after her supposed death is only show for the sake of his mother and the king, whom he wants to please. (He also doesn’t love cats, which is a sure mark of a bad character.) With all this, I can’t understand why Helena still wants him after all she’s endured and witnessed from him; love surely makes blind.
Despite these misgivings, I liked the play, which has a relatively straightforward plot that is not driven mostly by accidents and dei ex machina, like many other of the comedies, but by the actions and personalities of the main characters, who also are interesting and not just cardboard. There also are comedic elements, like the scenes with the fool of the Countess of Roussillon, and the plot around the exposure of the boastful but cowardly Captain Parolles.
Twelfth-Night, or What you Will
A light but entertaining comedy of errors, with main female protagonists fleshed out enough that one cares for them. It also has a funny sub-plot about a pompous, self-important servant who is played for a fool.
The Winter’s Tale
Like “All’s Well”, this is more of a drama with a happy ending, than a full comedy. King Leontes’s jealousy, which causes the chain of event depicted, is well executed. King Polixenes’s rejection of his son’s courtship for Perdita has a certain irony – he is ruining the relationship with his son, and risks losing him, in a similar manner like Leontes ruined his friendship with him and lost his wife and children. The reconciliation and Hermione’s “resurrection” are too melodramatic for my taste. The comedic elements, especially Autolycus’s mischief, don’t really fit – it looks like Shakespeare mixed up a piece to please everybody.