Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Histories

The Histories: Tudor Propaganda
One of Shakespeare’s three distinct genres, the histories explain the history of the British, mostly during the War of the Roses. These histories can be compared to the action movies of today. Since these plays are based on actual historical figures, many question how accurate these plays are to the real history. Unlike real history however, Shakespeare’s historical characters differ in their persona corresponding to the time period Shakespeare was living in. Shakespeare lived during the Elizabethan era in Great Britain, during which Queen Elizabeth I ruled. Queen Elizabeth is from the house of Tudor, the house that ended up ruling Great Britain after the War of the Roses starting with the crowning of Henry VII, also known as Henry Tudor, also known as Richmond in Shakespeare’s play Richard III. In order to coincide with his country’s patriotic feelings and the British peoples’ feelings towards past kings, Shakespeare accordingly made characters to fit these needs. Richard III is portrayed as the ultimate evil, the ultimate snake in the grass; this power-hungry monster who will stop at nothing. On the other hand, Henry V is shown as a pious, righteous, and glorious leader who never shirked his kingly duties. Regardless of how these characters are viewed, however, Shakespeare excels at creating two highly dynamic, developed, and interesting characters. In these plays a lot of foreshadowing is hinted at since the people seeing these plays at the time already knew what was going to happen since this was their history. Even though these plays Shakespeare has written are slightly biased the character development is still very critical. For example in both Henry V and Richard III the actions of the main characters develop in intensity exponentially as the play progresses. While Richard is killing a king in the beginning, he then moves on to his brothers, the princes, and then to even his best friend, Buckingham. Henry V, however, is seen as being viewed by others as childish yet over the course through multiple tests of masculinity, he proves his kingship by the end of the play. It is this development of these well-known historical characters, whether they are fictitiously created or not, that gives the histories such literary acclaim.

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In the plays Richard III and Henry V we are presented with two very different sides of the spectrum in terms of characters. Richard is truly the ultimate evil without a lack for morality. Meanwhile Henry is the embodiment of heroism and chivalry; of a true underdog. What really sets these two characters apart is power; how they use their kingly power and how they view it. In Richard’s case it is how he wants this power since he was only king for two years. In fact, Richard is only king halfway through act four and shortly after is killed in act five. Richard is utterly consumed by this lust, this yearning for power he so greatly wants. In his famous opening speech the audience is already shown how he justifies his reckless actions:

Richard: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

This entire speech shows how Richard is driven to the point of madness over his desire for the crown. In fact, just from the beginning of the play we can see that he is willing to even kill his brothers, his own flesh and blood, just for one chance to have the power he so greatly desires. The reader can somewhat understand his plight; he is a lonely person, rather disfigured and discontent with himself. Yet it is from this uncontrollable aspect of his life that Richard decides that the only way to alleviate his pain is by becoming a villain; and this is where the perverse realms of Richard’s mind begin to take hold over him. By the end of the play Richard is seen as so inhuman due to his lack of humanity for the countless people, many who were close to him, that he murdered. In fact, what is paradoxical is how he has done so much for his kingly power yet in the heat of battle he would willingly give it all away just to save his own life. What is also paradoxical is how Richard embraces death, uses it as an instrument of self-fulfilling pleasure but when he faces death himself, he refuses to die.
Henry V, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Richard. At the beginning of both plays both characters are seen as unfit to rule yet Henry has had this power thrust onto him from the very beginning. In fact, he really had no choice and now must face the world as a grown, mature individual. Henry had just as much potential to become Richard-esque yet he changes his ways from his youth as an immature boy to a powerful and courageous ruler. Unlike Richard, who desires the throne so much, Henry doesn’t use his position to flaunt his power or to feel like he has a legitimate purpose in the world. In fact it is Henry’s selflessness that makes him and Richard two completely different characters:

King Henry: I am a king that find thee, and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.

While Richard envies those in power, Henry, in fact, envies the slave who has life easier than he does. Henry would give away all of his power to live a worry-free life but at the same time he realizes that his troops and all of Great Britain need him. From the beginning of the play others have told him he wasn’t fit to be king. The Dauphin of France even sends him tennis balls to make a statement on how immature he is. Many question his past where he affiliated himself with scoundrels such as Pistol and Bardolph; doubt hangs in the courtroom. It is this inner confrontation about whether he is worthy or not that plagues him throughout the entire play until he comes of age at the battle of Agincourt. It is this selfless behavior that sets apart Henry from Richard and shows Henry’s true colors. The desire for power and how these two characters handle it differently show Shakespeare’s biased history writings in full effect. Regardless, however, it is the dynamic development that makes the audience cheer at Richard’s death and shed tears of joy at Henry’s victory over France.

* * *

I found Shakespeare’s histories to be very intriguing. The astounding leap of character development from the comedies is what, to me, makes these plays astounding. In both plays the character development of Richard and Henry had me turning until the last page. I loved Richard’s character; the perfect epitome of a villain. Never before have I seen a character so ruthless and evil. It was this inherent evil that made the play so realistic; I truly could imagine in my head these events happening. On the other hand while Henry V is a little over-the-top in terms of the perfect hero, in character development we get to see some flaws he has in his character such as playing tricks on other people. I felt that both plays provided what I like to see in a piece of literature: real characters. Not cookie-cutter characters that remain the same but dynamic characters that have emotion (or in Richard’s case, a lack of emotion), that are biased, that react as a real person would. Overall I found Shakespeare’s histories an interesting look into his own twist on british history woth some extra drama thrown on for good measure.

It's a trap!!!!!!

The Comedies

The Comedies Analysis: Tragedy Potential
Shakespearean comedies and tragedies have the same plot potential; the same ball of clay, if you will. But it is the how Shakespeare molds this clay through the plots of his plays that defines the difference between tragedy and comedy. Unlike the tragedies where the worst possible things can happen, comedies always end light-heartedly; yet that chance for tragedy was present during the play. For example, the opening conflict for each comedy is a lightly tragic scenario that could have spun out of control in a tragedy. For example, Lysander and Hermia’s forbidden is strikingly similar to Romeo and Juliet, yet both plays end on totally different ends of the spectrum. Prospero’s desire for revenge can be compared to Hamlet’s desire for revenge on Claudius. Yet again, however, the two different genres end with totally different endings. While in tragedies a single character is greatly explored, in comedies the characters remain relatively static. The endings themselves between the two genres show the striking differences; utter disparity on one side and sheer joy on the other.
While tragedies employ the grim reality of life, comedies play down on the reality and rely more on an illusioned life where, in the long run, everything works out. In order to dispense this illusion, Shakespeare often utilizes magic as seen in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not only does the illusion provide for the comedic value but the situations themselves supply the audience with more than enough humor. In all of the comedies the characters are placed in situations that entirely go out of expected context: suitors begin to reject the fair maiden they once loved while under a magical spell, monsters worship drunkards, eccentric men marry shrewish wives and employ unorthodox tactics to gain their obedience, and the list goes on and on.
When many think of Shakespeare, the first thought their mind conjures are usually the horrific tragedies yet let’s not forget the tragedy’s lesser-known yet still exceptionately written cousin, the comedy.
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Passage Analysis: The Fool
One of the archetypes implemented by Shakespeare to inject humor into the situation of the comedy is the fool. There are three major things that differentiate a fool from a regular character. The first is the acute form of mortal vices they have. For most of these fools one of these vices is a lack of intelligence. Other major vices include alcoholism/drunkenness, impulsiveness, clumsiness, over-enthusiasm, etc. The second is the fool’s lack of reality. Shakespearean fools don’t realize they are fools or are doing foolish things and this brings their comedic situations to a new level of humor since the fool is unaware of why he is in such a predicament. The final differentiating facet of the fool is their lack of character change. While the fool goes through a situation where he is ridiculed, his lack of realistic viewing causes the fool to remain the way he was at his first appearance. What differentiates the comedic fool from the tragic fool such as the one from King Lear is the fool’s illusionary temporary ascension into a higher status that in reality the fool would be completely unable to achieve. However, while the fool is a secondary character that at first seems unimportant to the play as a whole, it is through the fool’s antics that most major messages of the comedies are delivered. For example, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a static perspective is unimportant to the plot yet when one delves deeper into the use of Bottom we can see the true message that Shakespeare delivers. For example, the following line indicates Bottom’s fool-status: When we first see Bottom in the play he is portrayed as a true ass; somebody who thinks he is above all reproach and who believes he is not bound by any obstacles. In reality, however, Bottom is truly a mediocre person, somebody who can barely even put on a decent performance. It is this foolish illusion conveyed by Bottom that sparks the greatest aspect of humor in the play. With his mortal vices of hubris and mediocrity and his failure to see these faults, Bottom is indefinitely a fool. In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew the fool is again implemented yet in this play he is used in a much interesting fashion. The fool Sly is introduced at the beginning of the play, yet the first entire opening scene is not even the play itself as The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. The use of a fool for a play introduction allows for this comedy to start off on a light-hearted note from the onset. Sly is a drunken beggar who is dressed as a noble and treated as one as a joke by the nobles of the castle. In his drunken state Sly too believes he is nobility that once again portrays the temporary rise to power. While A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with a somewhat tragic situation among the young Athenians, the use of a fool at the beginning allows the audience to laugh right from the start. One of Shakespeare’s greatest implementation of the fool, however, is seen in his play The Tempest, a romance which is essentially a mix of the tragedy and comedy genre. The while the plight of Prospero is shown, Shakespeare injects some comic relief by implementing the fools Trinculo and Stefano. Stefano, a drunk, gives Caliban some of his wine and inebriates Caliban. In his drunken state, Caliban proclaims Stefano a god, a powerful man. It is this scene that yet again brings the fool from a lowly state to a high status in the eyes of another. It is the common humor and the common archetype that makes all comedies the same, yet their plots different.
The Tempest

I'll kiss thy foot; I'll swear myself thy subject.

Come on then; down, and swear.

I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed
monster. A most scurvy monster! I could find in my
heart to beat him, --

Come, kiss.

But that the poor monster's in drink: an abominable monster!

I'll show thee the best springs; I'll pluck thee berries;
I'll fish for thee and get thee wood enough.
A plague upon the tyrant that I serve!
I'll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee,
Thou wondrous man.

A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a
Poor drunkard!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.

Where's Peaseblossom?


Scratch my head Peaseblossom. Where's Mounsieur Cobweb?


Mounsieur Cobweb, good mounsieur, get you your
weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipped
humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good
mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag. Do not fret
yourself too much in the action, mounsieur; and,
good mounsieur, have a care the honey-bag break not;
I would be loath to have you overflown with a
honey-bag, signior. Where's Mounsieur Mustardseed?


Give me your neaf, Mounsieur Mustardseed. Pray you,
leave your courtesy, good mounsieur.

What's your Will?

Nothing, good mounsieur, but to help Cavalery Cobweb
to scratch. I must to the barber's, monsieur; for
methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I
am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me,
I must scratch.

The Taming of the Shrew

Am I a lord? and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? or have I dream'd till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak;
I smell sweet savours and I feel soft things:
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker nor Christophero Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight;
And once again, a pot o' the smallest ale.

* * *

While the comedies provide a great laugh, to me their literary merit just can’t add up to Shakespeare’s more serious plays. While A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest were well-written, I found that The Taming of the Shrew provided a more realistic comedic situation. The use of magic in the plays to me just seems to account for a lack of creativity. Anybody can make a story where in the end a magical unicorn comes and strikes a lightning bolt down on the antagonist and everyone is happy. It takes a lot more skill to make a comedic situation that can apply to real life which is why I found The Taming of the Shrew to be the most enjoyable read. However, I found the fools in all of the plays equally funny in their lack of reality perception and their ridiculous behavior. I especially found Bottom’s hubris so hysterical since in truth he is a mediocre person at best. Compared to other genres, though, I did not particularly enjoy the endings to all of the Comedies. That lack of reality, to me, really takes away from what could have been a really good play. While the tragedies may be very heartbreaking at the end, this ending is so realistic that it impacts me more than a “happily ever after” ending. Overall, I found the comedies to be a nice read, however, I would suggest Shakespeare’s other genres over this one.

"I pity the Shakespearean fool!"