Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by William Shakespeare – A Decidedly Un-Heroic Play

 

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by William Shakespeare, a play  (1601-1602) – 114 pages

William Shakespeare started the drama ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in 1601 shortly after he had finished ‘Hamlet’ and only a couple of years before he started ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, and ‘Macbeth’.  There is little doubt that Shakespeare was operating at his peak during this period.  However ‘Troilus and Cressida’ has never attained the stature of these four other dramas.  Why not?  While I discuss ‘Troilus and Cressida’, I will attempt to answer that question.

‘Troilus and Cressida’ takes place in ancient Greek times during the seventh year of the Trojan War.  Besides Homer, one of Shakespeare’s primary sources for the play was the epic poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the mid-1380s.  In Shakespeare’s time, the Greek love story of Troilus and Cressida was as famous as that of Romeo and Juliet.

In the play, there are scenes of human passion and of human battle.  Neither in passion nor in battle do the characters act heroicly or divinely or even honorably.  In both cases, these people act all too human.  That is why ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is sometimes considered a modern play.

We start with the character Pandarus.  His name Pandarus is actually the derivation for the modern verb “to pander”. Pandarus is Cressida’s uncle.  After he finds out that Troilus has the hots for Cressida, he keeps praising Troilus to Cressida until he accomplishes his goal which is to get Cressida in bed with Troilus.  Afterwards Troilus and Cressida pledge undying love to each other.  However, soon Cressida’s father makes a deal with the Greeks to trade Cressida for a Trojan soldier held prisoner by the Greeks.  Cressida is taken to the Greek camp where she is warmly welcomed.  Unbeknownst to her, Troilus is watching as she becomes increasingly drawn toward one of the Greek soldiers Diomedes, and Troilus watches as she gives Diomedes the sleeve which Troilus had given her as a token of his undying love.  Troilus, of course, is outraged at her faithlessness.

At the outset of the battle scenes, the Greeks are depending on Achilles to lead the fighting against the Trojans, but Achilles just lays in his tent with his buddy Patroclus and has “grown dainty of his worth”:

“The Great Achilles, whose opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth,
And in his tent
Lies mocking our designs.  With him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day
Breaks scurrile jests.”

Instead the Greek leaders decide to pick the fool Ajax to lead the fighting in the hopes that Achilles will get jealous and step in to take over.

Meanwhile the Trojans begin to realize it is ridiculous for both sides to have so many men killed in fighting just for the sake of this one beautiful woman Helen.  The Trojans propose to return Helen to the Greeks and stop the war, but the Greeks don’t accept their offer.

The war continues and the Trojan warrior Hector defeats Ajax easily and among the scores of Greeks he slays is Achilles’ buddy Patroclus.  This finally rouses Achilles to battle.  However Achilles’ behavior is by no means heroic.  Achilles has his men attack and kill Hector while Hector is resting with his armor off.  Then he ties Hector’s body to the back of his horse and drags the body over rough land.

In ‘Troilus and Cressida’, there is no honor or fidelity in either love or battle.  This is Shakespeare’s most cynical but perhaps also his most realistic play. If people act so poorly, how can anything that happens to them be tragic? Joyce Carol Oates has written of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ that “no darker commentary on the predicament of man has ever been written”.

“There is no help;
The bitter disposition of the time
Will have it so.”

Why hasn’t ‘Troilus and Cressida’ achieved more popularity? Perhaps people are more comfortable and enthusiastic with the romance and undying love of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ than with the bitter cynicism and darker realism of ‘Troilus and Cressida”.

 

Grade:   A

 

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‘The Winter’s Tale’ by William Shakespeare – Dark Tragedy or Light Comedy or Romance?

‘The Winter’s Tale’ by William Shakespeare   (1610) – 108 pages

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“Merry or sad shall it be? As merry as you will. A sad tale’s best for winter.”

‘The Winter’s Tale’ is really two plays that fit together uncomfortably.  The first three acts are a dark tragedy involving a Sicilian King’s insane jealousy resulting in the deaths of his son and wife and banishment of his baby daughter.  The last two acts take place sixteen years later, and we are supposed to believe that the King has redeemed himself for those deaths through penitence to the point where his wife the Queen magically comes back to life.  This is one of the most hokey preposterous scenes in all of Shakespeare.

King Leontes of Sicily is having such a good time with his visiting old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia that he asks his wife Queen Hermione to convince his friend to stay.  Hermione does as her husband asks, but Leontes gets suspicious when he sees Hermione and Polixenes together that they are fooling around behind his back.  Hermione is pregnant, and Leontes immediately suspects that Polixenes is the father of the baby.  Soon Leontes becomes deranged with jealousy, and attempts to have one of his servants kill Polixenes, but instead the servant helps Polixenes escape back to Bohemia.   Leontes puts his wife in prison where she has the baby girl Perdita.  Leontes banishes the baby, and another servant takes the baby to Bohemia whereupon the servant is immediately eaten up by a bear.  A shepherd discovers the baby and takes her home.  Soon the king’s young son dies for missing his mother.  When Hermione hears the news, she collapses and soon she dies also.  Only then is Leontes filled with remorse.

So far, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is a dark tragedy, but act four begins in a much lighter mood sixteen years later in Bohemia.   The baby Perdita is now a beautiful young woman, and by some strange coincidence King Polixenes’ son Florizel has become enamored by her even though she is a lowly shepherd’s daughter.  Most of Act IV is taken up with the spring sheep-shearing festival where there is much singing and dancing.  A joke figure named Autolycus comes to the festival, and he plays a similar hearty comedic role as Falstaff in Shakespeare’s historical plays. At this point we are far, far away from the earlier tragedy.

0c9fe2b07a411a2db90c3317d96162adA lot of plot ensues but by Act V we are back in Sicily.  The King Leontes has been pining away with regret for sixteen years, but now his banished daughter is back with her royal boyfriend from Bohemia, and both Kings watch as the couple gets married.   After the wedding they all go to see the statue of Queen Hermione that her best friend Paulina has made, and, wonder of wonders, it comes alive, and Leontes and Hermione are reunited.

I suppose there are two ways to look at ‘The Winter’s Tale’.  One way is that the tale is out-and-out preposterous.  The other is to view it as a case study in the magnificent power of redemption for King Leontes.   However I suspect that most modern audiences would find that King Leontes’ previous crimes were too heinous for him to be redeemed.

 

Grade:   B+

 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare   (1610)  – 124 pages  Grade: A

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Shakespeare wrote both tragedies and comedies.  If no one dies a violent death in a Shakespeare play, the play is considered a comedy.  In the tragedies the dead bodies pile up on the castle floors (see Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.)

No one is killed in ‘The Tempest’, so it is considered a comedy.  In fact the play is a powerful argument against violent revenge.

 “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” 

 Prospero is the main character in ‘The Tempest’, but it is the good Gonzalo who sets the pace for the play’s spirit.  When Prospero’s brother Antonio tricked Prospero out of his Milan dukedom and banished him and his three year-old daughter Miranda to this island, it is the good Gonzalo who makes sure they are well provided for.  After Gonzalo’s fine example, the spirit of ‘The Tempest’ is kind moderation.

Thus when Prospero and his helper Ariel use magic to create a tempest that shipwrecks the vessel of the King of Naples Alonso and Prospero’s brother Antonio, they make sure no one is injured or killed.   Still there are devilish plots in the works.  Antonio and Alonso’s son Sebastian want to steal Alonso’s throne by killing Sebastian’s older brother Prince Ferdinand.   Prospero’s slave Caliban plots to kill Prospero.

Meanwhile the shipwrecked Prince Ferdinand falls immediately in love with the now almost fifteen year-old Miranda and she with him.  The play does not say whether their love is part of Prospero’s magic or just strong mutual attraction.   After only about three hours, their marriage is assured.

the-tempest-billington-007‘The Tempest’ was the last play that William Shakespeare wrote by himself.  By 1610, colonialism was well under way in England’s colonies, and ‘The Tempest’ was Shakespeare’s first and only play that addresses colonialism.

Caliban is the black slave of Prospero, and Shakespeare did not portray him in a positive light.  Caliban is described as ‘hag-born’, a ‘demi-devil’, a ‘poor credulous monster’ who ‘didst seek to violate the honour of my child (Miranda)’.  Later Caliban seeks to regain the island for himself by murdering Prospero.  Yet Caliban is eloquent in his words describing the island:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

          Caliban

 In this portrayal of Caliban, the question arises if these are Shakespeare’s own opinions or the opinions of the characters he is portraying on stage.  Thus Caliban could have been seen as a monster in the eyes of Prospero but not necessarily by Shakespeare.   Of course plenty of white Christians are portrayed negatively in Shakespeare including Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet, and Antonio here in ‘The Tempest’.  Perhaps it is a form of implicit racism to never portray a black person in a negative or evil light.

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