Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 3

October 4, 2021

The nobles continue their bloody wrangling over the rival claims of the houses of Lancaster and York to the throne; battles and bloodshed become ever more frenzied, driven by Henry’s ambitious and demented queen and the overweening kingmaker Warwick. Some of the most horrific battles in English history took place at this time.

There are still many static scenes where characters merely stand and declaim, with much repetitive and redundant speechifying. Interestingly, Henry’s lengthy soliloquy on time, just before one of the battles, seems to foreshadow the much more famous one given to Richard II (a play yet to be written, though earlier in real time). Shakespeare certainly knew how to reuse and recycle his material… Another scene reminded me of the well-known scene with the gardeners, also in Richard II.

The horrors of civil war are brought powerfully home in the cameo of the son who unknowingly kills his father in battle, but this is then overdone immediately with an identical one where a father kills his son.

The main theme of this play, though, is the emergence of the evil genius of the man who will become Richard III; he is given more soliloquies where he can gradually reveal his scheming to the audience. It’s fascinating to see the processes through which Shakespeare seems to have developed as a dramatist, as he realises the potential in the soliloquy form, but has not yet attainted the succinctness and power which he gives to these in the later tragedies.

There is also more of a sense of pace to this play, particularly as it moves towards its end, Warwick changing sides again and eventually getting his comeuppance, and Edward taking the throne for the house of York after Richard has murdered Henry, but there is still no resolution or end to the bloodshed, as we know what Richard’s as-yet unrealised plans are…


Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 2

October 3, 2021

More factional infighting between the nobles supporting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne continues and worsens, gets even more complicated and tiresome. So many conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and subterfuges, none of it helped by a weak and wet king and a scheming queen. All my prejudices about royalty and aristocracy are confirmed…

It’s a bit less monotonous than part 1, as there is some suspense and Shakespeare gains dramatic effect of a kind from switching from one side to the other in fairly quick-moving scenes, even though there’s a lot of posturing speechifying too. We now get soliloquies – and do we need them! – to help us follow all the plotting and double-crossing, the deviousness and the treachery.

The best bit is Jack Cade’s popular uprising, which is partly comic and partly deadly serious as Shakespeare shows how completely anarchy can take over when those of a higher degree do not do what their social status requires of them. Ordinary folk take control; of course, at that time they have to make a total hash of things, but then, so do their supposed betters.

The further I got, the more I realised how skilfully Shakespeare was creating the lasting impression of a country in a state of anarchy, a non-stop series of plots, murders, battles and rebellions… utter chaos, and completely flying in the face of the natural order of things as he conceived it. There is an utterly hopeless and ineffectual king who just watches chaos developing; he can do nothing to sort it out. In a lot of ways it’s beginning to remind me a little of the state of the UK at the moment, but let’s stick with Shakespeare. We end in medias res once again, with the Yorkists victorious in battle. Part 3 beckons.


Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III


Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

September 29, 2021

The induction is a practical joke by a bored nobleman, in which a poor yokel’s world is turned upside down; in my attempts to make sense of this play, especially its problematic ending, I’m reflecting on whether the whole thing is about the world turned up side down.

Compared with the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the plot is a good deal more complicated, with layers of subplots; we can see the master’s progress as a dramatist, perhaps. There’s more humour, though still a good deal of over-the-top wordplay and punning, and there’s more of a sense of a dramatist and a play with ideas to explore here.

The problem is the ending, and specifically Katherina’s “submission” speech: what does it say, what does it imply? I’ve always found it rather hard to judge that she is playing a game in that speech, that she has somehow won and is putting one over on Petruchio and the others. It’s a play of its time, and there was a hierarchy of people in the famous Elizabethan world order, and no evidence that Shakespeare ever really challenged or went against this. So Kate has a place, a status, and it’s below her husband’s.

And yet, it’s Shakespeare, and entertainment, and so it seemed in the twentieth century that there had to be an explanation or interpretation that would make the ending acceptable somehow to a contemporary audience. The Arden Shakespeare second series is now regarded as pretty old, but it has always been my go-to text, and the introduction, which comes from the 1980s, is quite interesting on this issue and I recommend it to any others who may be puzzling in the same way as I have been.

What we need to notice is the love that has emerged between Katherina and Petruchio, more than anything else, and to remember that for Shakespeare, real love is paramount in so many of his plays, as opposed to pretences. So there is a solid base to their relationship in sixteenth century terms, which will probably not be played out in the simplistic dominance/submission trope implied by a superficial reading of the speech. Equally, I found myself remembering my comment to students that Shakespeare does not offer simple and clear-cut solutions or endings: there are often several strands/ideas/opinions being played out, as one might expect from a dramatist of his calibre. There are several different balls being juggled here, and you can’t necessarily keep your eye on all of them at the same time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not up there… and I found that helpful.


Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

September 29, 2021

The wit and wordplay of early Shakespeare nowadays feels over-contrived and overdone, tiresome even, and it’s certainly the case for me in this play. And the wooing is stylised, not really reflecting any genuine feeling or conviction. To me it’s as though Shakespeare is ‘getting there’ in what’s probably his first play, but hasn’t quite got the measure of how he will succeed…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining enough, light and frothy with plenty of misunderstandings, contretemps and confusions. What struck me most strongly on this re-read, is just how much of the later Romeo and Juliet is foreshadowed in Two Gentlemen, even though this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and this is because of his source material, apparently. There are similar love tropes, there’s a plotted elopement using a rope-ladder, there’s the need for a lover to flee because he has been banished, there’s a scheme for passing letters to-and-fro, there’s even a Friar Laurence. But it is predictable, light-weight, geared to a comic ending; there’s no seriousness here.

Another thing is how easy early Shakespeare is to read, on the page, for me: I fairly rattled through this one. The more tortuous language and syntax of the later plays is by no means as straightforward. I had decided that it was time to do some revisiting of the plays after my encounters with the sonnets over the summer. I’m not offering any academic analysis, just a personal reaction to my readings…


Carl Jung: Modern Man in Search of a Soul

September 21, 2021

     The main overall impression I gained from this book, published almost a century ago, is how much psychoanalysis has moved on in that time, in terms of its methods, procedures and outcomes, and also how far ahead of his time Jung was, even though he wrote using language which is rather impenetrable nowadays.

He warns against ‘suggestions’ from the ‘analyst’, advising that progress comes from what the client brings to a session; here we see the current way, where the ‘client/worker’ does the work through speaking and making connections, and cannot not remain passive during a therapy session, cannot, having talked for their hour, then have the ‘solution’ to their ‘problems’ presented by the expert analyst.

We see Jung’s clear awareness that people like Freud, Adler and himself were at the very earliest stages in the development of what we now call psychotherapy. Freud and Jung had initially focused on dreams, whereas today the emphasis has shifted to feelings, with dreams perhaps a significant part of what a client brings along. And Jung’s big discovery is the unconscious, and its contribution to us as individuals, and the collective unconscious and its effect on us as a species. There is a humility on Jung’s part in the way he describes so much as a work in progress, and is often quite tentative in what he is suggesting. He does place a lot of emphasis on dreams, which he saw as a useful ‘way in’ to what was going on. There is also a very interesting chapter on art and artists and the potential of art as therapy, which is now something used quite widely and commonly in various schools of psychotherapy.

He also seems to have been ahead of his time in considering the need to be working with healthy as well as unhealthy minds, in terms of developing a greater understanding of how we human beings ‘work’. And I was aware, all the time I was reading, of the huge shadow cast over Europe and its peoples by the horrors of the First World War, which had only ended relatively recently…

The other area where I feel Jung makes a significant contribution is in his recognition of the importance of a spiritual element in the human psyche, no matter what actual language or terminology we use to explore and describe it. For Jung, acknowledging this is necessary to a balanced life. He wrestles with a number of complexities here, but his ideas fit in with his key notion of the collective unconscious.

There is a great deal of thoughtful and measured wisdom and goodness in what he writes, and in the way he writes, even if it is now rather dated and unfamiliar language; it’s certainly worth the effort. Jung is much more spiritual or religious than I remember him from previous reading many years ago, and yet also far more modern in terms of his vision of how the counsellor-therapist and her/his client must work together to succeed.


Narrative, truth and lies

September 14, 2021

The idea that all narratives are lies surfaced during a discussion (of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) in our book group recently, and has been preoccupying me since then. The notion quickly needed some qualification. I think it’s clear we refer to fictional narratives here, to describe which we might use the words ‘invented’ ‘untrue’ ‘lies’, all of which have certain connotations. At one level it’s clearly a matter of semantics, but we normally overlook the invented-ness of fictional narrative and the implications thereof. The word fiction itself means something made, as in invented, and this should lead us, as I recall frequently reminding my students, to reflect on the author, the maker, as well, and her/his purposes and choices as s/he made their narrative. What had they chosen to include, exclude, emphasise? How had they ordered their invented artefact, and how did that affect the ways we received, understood and interpreted it?

There is perhaps a certain relative innocence to fiction, in contrast to the benefits from making things up, or lying in other contexts. Untruths in the personal and the imaginative spheres are not qualitatively the same thing… we may tell untruths for personal gain or advantage: consider almost any politician you care to name (said he cynically).

We like and enjoy made-up stories, and this reflects a higher stage of development and mental operation, that we can imagine, visualise, and create things which are not. Even in our prehistory, humans created art, music, poetry, story. It is deeply hard-wired into us.

Stories we read, as well as entertaining us, broaden our knowledge and experience of the world vicariously: we can explore situations and emotions we may not have experienced personally, and learn something from them. Someone – I have a suspicion it may have been Umberto Eco – pointed out that a reader lives thousands of lives as well as their own. And narratives – factual ones, based on real events we have experienced ourselves – are also surely a way we use to make sense of our own lives, as we see progressions and developments, and become aware of connections between events and experiences.

Mitchell was trying to make a point about other narratives, too, I think: the narratives that we, as a species, the human race, tell about ourselves: our histories. And these may be based on facts, have facts behind them, but are nevertheless made, shaped and interpreted by those who write them, and there are agendas and effects that we need to be aware of behind such narratives. In some ways, I think he was saying, the created narratives can over-write the realities they sprang from…

If, for instance, we read a narrative of ourselves as basically a selfish, or a warlike species, or a cruel species, do we unconsciously accept and integrate those interpretations unthinkingly? Do we believe we are innately competitive, that it’s about the survival of the fittest because we have been told this so often? In which case, who told us, and why? And if so, what if we tried different narratives, ones which focused on co-operation, on mutual self-help, on our capacity for good? Might this affect our future behaviour, might it be capable of changing subtly our lives and our world for the better? Interesting stuff…


Liz Greene: Relating

September 14, 2021

     Most people who know me probably wouldn’t imagine I was interested in astrology. But I have been, since my student years, thanks to a couple of people who opened my eyes to its rather more serious side, its insights into personality, personal development and relationships with others, as opposed to the coffee-time vague predictions about the day to come to be found in various tabloid newspapers. And then there is the link with Jungian psychology, which has also fascinated me since I came across it, round about the same time in my life, some forty or so years ago.

I’m not very good at retaining all the details linked to planets and influences, and have mainly seen astrology as an aid to understanding things about myself and the ways in which I look at and interact with others and the world. It’s been filed away at the back of my awareness for a long time, but along with revisiting other things at this stage where I seem moved to be taking stock of various aspects of my life, I returned to this book which I first read so many years ago.

Liz Greene’s book is as useful to me now as a work of synthesis between the astrological, the spiritual and the psychological as it was all those years ago when I first encountered it. There was so much depth, yet also common sense in how she presents psychology and the potentials revealed in a person’s birth chart, and the planetary influences in that chart. Here are clues to assist the quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding, added to many other things… it’s a different approach, and a valid and useful one, I have found over time.

Looking back on my life as I re-read, I was able to make greater sense of various things that had happened to me, and also made enlightening connections between key events, decisions I made, and people who influenced me in different ways at particular points in my life. These realisations confirmed for me that there is a validity in this different paradigm; for someone as rational as I am, this was interesting. It also confirms, through, that an individual’s journey of self-discovery can be long, slow and hard.

And now, I have found myself wondering once more, where free will is in all this…


Sonnets, sonnets, sonnets

September 12, 2021

     I’ve come across a couple of good ideas – which of course I borrowed – during the various states of lockdown over the past year and a half. Someone wrote about listening to all the Bach cantatas, one a day, an excellent idea even if, as in my case, some days it was none and other days playing catch-up… And then someone was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets one a day. I’d never read them all, just the usual dozen or so well-known anthologised ones that were important in teaching literature and criticism.

My reading of the sonnets was never one a day, either, just like the Bach cantatas weren’t. But it was an interesting exercise, now that I’ve reached the end. I’m glad I’ve done it, and I intend, if and when I can find the time, to spend more time studying them carefully. It’s hard to frame an overall response, really. There are a lot – 154 – too many? The sameness is rather daunting, the same structure and rhyme-scheme, apart from the single curious twelve-line one, and I’ve often used that as a way to be somewhat dismissive, especially when I’ve set Shakespeare alongside his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred for its variety of form and astonishing boldness and inventiveness.

But this reading has had me reflecting. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a tour-de-force because there are 154 of them, and even within the restrictions of that form he is both incredibly inventive, and also far wittier than I’d ever expected… again, this had been one of the areas where I’d compared him unfavourably with Donne, whose wit I still find matchless. There’s variety in Donne, but there’s an amazing number of variations on a theme in Shakespeare, which becomes captivating after a while. And then there is the inventive interplay between and among the sonnets themselves…

The other thing about the writer who set me off on this, was that they read the sonnets out loud. I loved this idea (in the privacy of my study), and parsing them as I read so that they scanned correctly and made sense was a serious challenge, which this retired English teacher rose to and enjoyed.


Reading differently

September 11, 2021

Just a few brief thoughts here as I realised the other day just how much the act of writing this blog for the last decade or so has changed the ways I read. Not in any dramatic fashion, because as a lifelong student of literature, once the bug had bitten me in my teens, through three different degrees at universities and a lifetime’s career, I feel that I have always sought to go below the surface. But for a long time, in the middle part of my life, I ‘just’ read books… one sometimes leading to another.

Now there is a greater deliberateness to my approach. Yes, I’ll allow myself to be sidetracked by a sudden discovery, but there’s more of a sense of planning to what I read and when, as I’m increasingly conscious of limited time. I’ve set some time aside this November for reading the new Olga Tokarczuk novel The Books of Jacob, which is finally scheduled to appear in English translation – and I’ve resisted buying the French version which is already out there because I like the work of her English translator Jennifer Croft – and there’s a part of me that remembers, every now and then, that I need to live long enough to read the final part of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy…

So I read a little more carefully now, with a slip of paper and a pencil to jot down ideas and thoughts, links and comparisons and anything else that occurs to me as I read. And I rejoice in the modern technology which means that if my phone is with me, I can look up words and references instantly, without leaving the sofa, and I do look things up rather more than in the past.

I’m thinking more about what I’m reading, with the discipline of this blog in the back of my mind: my promise to myself was that every book I read would get a post, and I don’t think I’ve broken this rule. And, if I’m honest, I’m getting more out of the reading that I’m doing, which can’t be bad.


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