Posts Tagged ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Shakespeare: Cymbeline

January 29, 2016

51620XFKCTL._AA160_It’s not a play I know that well, never having studied it, and I’ve only read it a few times. It’s supposed to be set in ancient Britain, at the time of the emperor Augustus (which is a bit odd, since the Roman History I studied had no offical contact between Britain and Rome between Julius Caesar’s adventures in 55 and 54BC and Claudius’ conquest nearly a century later, but let’s not get too niggly..) but one thing that I have never really got is a sense of that time period; dialogue, action and attitudes basically feel like those of the sixteenth century, and the scenes in Rome and with Romans are very cursory.

It’s another of those plays where a villain convinces a man that his partner (wife or intended wife) has been unfaithful to him, causing grief and mayhem. Instead of the machinations of Don John which I wrote about in my last piece, about Much Ado, this time it’s the alleged friend of a friend, Iachimo, who manages to convince the absent Posthumus that he has slept with Imogen, the former’s wife. Clearly captivated by her beauty, he has tried it on a couple of times but got nowhere; repulsed he sneaks into her room at night and notes so many details of the chamber and the woman that he is able to convince Posthumus he’s done the dirty deed, even though he hasn’t…

There are elements of the scheming nature of Iago in Iachimo; Cymbeline‘s wife is also a schemer, and it’s via a supposed poison that she’s had concocted for a nefarious purpose that Imogen ends up apparently dead, and buried, though she comes back to life later on (now where has Shakespeare used that idea before?) This is a Roman element, I suppose, as Romans – especially women – were notorious for their use of poison to get rid of people who got in their way. And the idea of the heroine restored to life and reunited with her true love, her husband who had been gulled and led to doubt her honesty, comes up again in the later and rather more spectacular play, TheWinter’s Tale.

Then there’s the long-lost loyal friend who has fallen out of the king’s favour and gone into hiding (having arranged to have two of the king’s sons stolen away, too), which leads into a series of episodes set among the more primitive ancient Britons, though why Milford Haven should be everyone’s preferred spot does escape me.

Certainly Shakespeare wasn’t above re-using elements of earlier plays that had been successful! And they work well, re-used. The language of the play is often very complex, the syntax somewhat tortured, compacted in the way that a good number of Prospero‘s speeches are in The Tempest. I am looking forward to seeing it in performance, as I expect that it will be more immediately comprehensible when performed. And, although the combinations of plots, attitudes and characters are at times a challenge for a twenty-first century reader, I did feel strangely moved by the ending.

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

January 27, 2016

51NjXWbSjBL._AA160_When I wrote about The Taming of the Shrew last month, I mentioned that I’d come late to the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s comedies, and considered some of the reasons. I’m back here again, having revisited Much Ado About Nothing, which I realise has some similarities with the former, particularly in the central male/ female relationship.

The idea of a comedy being a story – a drama – that ends happily, rather than something that you spend a lot of time laughing at, is a difficult one for us to take on board, although if tragedy is a story with an unhappy ending, then the contrast is logical. And in a Shakespearean comedy there is usually a good deal to laugh at, even if it isn’t the primary focus. And then there is the tragi-comedy – a drama of tragedy averted – as it was so succinctly put by my English teacher at school. There are certainly tragi-comic elements in Much Ado.

I don’t find the sharpness and the displays of wit between Beatrice and Benedick anywhere near as funny or as enjoyable as those between Petruchio and Katherine, though I do like the idea of their being so ‘up themselves’ that they can be manipulated into admitting that they fancy each other, love each other, and will marry. I do find the plot which leads to the public shaming of the chaste Hero quite a shocking element in a play which will eventually turn out to have a happy ending, and Claudio’s behaviour seems quite unforgivable: thank heaven for suspension of disbelief, I suppose. And there is a reminder that the first Elizabethans prized different things from us, found different things humorous, and different behaviours acceptable.

And then there’s Dogberry and the watch: I’ve always warmed to this bumbling crew with their hearts in the right place, and the whole happy ending depends on them, of course. Somehow their blundering and their malapropisms mean the mounties get their men, as it were, and we realise how much of the success of this play depends on overheard conversations, and who overhears them and what they do with that eavesdropped knowledge…

Because it’s a comedy, the punishment of the evil Don John is deferred beyond the end of the play: there is no real assurance that he will get what he deserves, unlike what is promised Iago, for example; again an instance of the difference between tragedy and comedy.

I have yet to see a performance of this play; I suspect I will enjoy it much more when it’s brought to life. I have a DVD of the recent RSC production which I must get around to watching.

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

December 17, 2015

4116zMytiZL._AA160_I have realised it’s taken me a very long time to begin enjoying Shakespeare’s comedies as much as his tragedies, and I have been thinking about why this may be. Perhaps the tragedies are easier to access: a (pretty) clear plot, and message, and an expected audience response. Certainly, I understood Othello and King Lear when I studied them for A Level. At university, I preferred the tragedies, saw some sense in the histories, and managed, largely, to overlook the comedies.

The Taming of the Shrew is wonderful, for its plot, its framing, its message and its language – full of wit, pun and obscenity. I think the quick-fire, rapier wit exchanges are also probably somewhat more difficult for twenty-first century audiences to grasp quickly, meaning the moment has often passed before we know what to laugh at. Although I’m getting better at this. The interaction/ interplay between Kate and Petruchio is masterly, often hilarious. And again, what audiences find humorous or witty does change over time, whereas the subject-matter of tragedy remains pretty constant.

So, the range of Shakespeare I enjoy has broadened: I’ve grown to like Love’s Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor; I may even go back to some of the more obscure ones like The Comedy of Errors, or All’s Well, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although I did once, many years ago, see a wonderful production of it.

The challenge in Shrew comes with the ending: what has Kate said, and done? Is it a feminist declaration, as some would like to think, or is it shades of St Paul, putting all women in their place, silent and subordinate? I always read the last couple of scenes particularly carefully for this reason, and I look forward to seeing a production again one day, to see how it comes across. The best account I’ve come across is in the Arden two edition introduction, by Brian Morris, who sets the ending very carefully in its context, which cannot be feminist, yet also elucidates the freedom and happiness open to a Kate who understands her position in her world and what it offers her…

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