My Year in Books: 51-54/Shakesyeare 11-15

So I went on holidays. Shoot me. No please, shoot me. I didn’t read anything for over a month. This has thrown my read-all-of-Shakespeare-in-2016 challenge (aka the Shakesyeare) completely off-kilter. In an attempt to catch-up I have given myself the truly arduous task of reading a Shakespeare play per day until I’m all caught up. I’m roughly ten plays behind so I have a fun week and a bit ahead of me. Ugh.

King John

Remember in my Titus Andronicus review where I said I’d be shocked if I read a worse play during this challenge? Well colour me wrong. King John is Shakespeare’s worst play. It has to be. I mean, come on, I bet quite a lot of you reading this haven’t even heard of Shakespeare’s King John. There’s a reason for that. The play doesn’t even follow an apparent plot, it seems to just go from bickering noblemen to pointless violence and vice versa ad nauseum. However, the general rules of reviewing require me to somehow patch together a plot synopsis from this utter abortion of a play, so let me try. King John (probably Shakespeare’s worst king) and told to abdicate by some random French guy. King John is like, ‘what? No. Go away’. Meanwhile, the French king is angry because he believes King John’s nephew, Arthur, should be the king. Then they both invade a town for some reason and they bicker and it goes on forever. There is one good scene however when one of the main characters jumps off a castle. I liked that bit.

Altogether now, ‘it stinks!’

People always complain about Shakespeare being boring and I just want to slap them and shout, ‘no! You don’t know what actual boredom feels like!’. King John is Shakespeare’s most boring play. It’s as if he realised that his last play, Romeo and Juliet, was actually really good and thought he had to follow that up with something truly awful. What separates this play from Titus Andronicus however is that I do not hate King John. There’s nothing in this play to actually hate. It is so devoid of any action or characterisation that it is impossible to muster any emotional response. It is a derelict husk of a play, as bland as brown rice.

This is the face of a man who just realised he isn’t Richard III

Henry IV, Part 1

You should have heard me when I realised that I’d be following up King John with another history play. Not only is it a history play but it’s a two-parter. I swear to motherfuck. I entered Henry IV, Part 1 completely fed up. However, all those feelings of dread and boredom completely vanished once Prince Hal and Falstaff entered the stage. Henry IV isn’t actually about Henry IV at all. I mean, yeah, he’s in it and he has a major role but this play belongs to Falstaff. Just like how  Pretty in Pink belongs to Duckie or Frasier belongs to Roz.

‘This is my fucking play’

Henry IV is basically a sequel to Richard II, as that play ends with the coronation of Henry IV. His reign hasn’t been overly successful thus far and to top it all off his son, the Prince of Wales (known to us as Hal), hangs out with drunks and whores in the local taverns. The play follows the exploits of Hal and Falstaff far more than its title character, which was quite an odd decision for Shakespeare. We see the king and country nearing turmoil as Hal gallivants around joking and getting drunk. The play is as sharp a satire today as it was in the 1590s. For a history play it is quite comical, in fact I’d almost categorise it more as a comedy than a history. All of these factors come to play when I say that this might be Shakespeare’s greatest history play. He finally got it all right by the seventh one.

Celebrate! He finally got one right!

Henry IV, Part 2

Well, at least he got one right eh? Henry IV, Part 2 is (obviously) a continuation of Henry IV, Part 1 but (like most sequels) everything that made the first good is completely missing in the second. Falstaff and Hal are present here but they have grown apart and thus there are very few comedic moments. All of the comedy is provided by new characters, Shallow and Silence, who carry some whole scenes on their backs but are sadly hunched. Shakespeare reverts to his tried-and-tested method of producing a history play. There’s far more emphasis on war and kinsmanship here than in Part 1. Even Hal himself seems different.

‘This is my Speed 2: Cruise Control

My disappointment with this play is summated with one scene near the end so if you don’t want to be spoiled then please skip along. The scene I refer to is Hal’s rejection of Falstaff. How could Shakespeare possibly write this? From their joviality in Part 1 it is to be assumed that Hal and Falstaff have known each other for quite a while so why would Hal just suddenly disown him? Even if he is now Henry V that doesn’t mean that he has to literally forget Falstaff like last week’s milk. This complete turn of character is reminiscent of the treatment of Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1. All along she is a character who we’re meant to root for and then Shakespeare makes her an evil, cursing witch for no reason. I can only describe Henry IV, Part 2 by the way it ends, with bitter disappointment.

This is an actual photograph of Falstaff during the final act

The Merchant of Venice

Where does one begin with The Merchant of Venice? Is it a wholly antisemitic play or is it a condemnation of its Elizabethan audience? The play centers on Bassanio and Antonio (our titular merchant of Venice). Bassanio has fallen for Portia and needs money to woo her. He asks Antonio for a loan but Antonio is broke so they both approach Shylock, the local moneylender. Shylock agrees to give Bassanio the loan but makes the stipulation that if it is not paid back on time then Shylock is allowed to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Y’know, a perfectly normal thing to ask for. Shylock is probably Shakespeare’s most controversial characters. He is portrayed as Jewish and ticks the boxes of every single Jewish stereotype. He’s greedy, curmudgeonly, power hungry, and rude.

In fact Shylock sounds a lot like me

The Merchant of Venice was written as a comedy and thus we are meant to laugh at and taunt greedy old Shylock. Modern audiences (and I) really don’t see Shylock as a comic character anymore. I read Shylock as a tragic hero. His ‘if you prick us do we not bleed’ speech is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and (I think anyway) shows the reader that Shakespeare also views Shylock as a tragic hero. I could write a whole thesis on Shylock and my opinions but I must keep it short. The Merchant of Venice is, for me, one of Shakespeare’s best plays. In fact, you could get rid of every character and just have Shylock soliloquising on stage and it would still be a masterpiece. The overall structure of the play does irk me slightly, I mean, the final act is utterly redundant and assumes that we actually care about Jessica and Portia’s storylines. But I can overlook these qualms.

Nobody cares about you Portia

Much Ado About Nothing

Ever since one of my lecturers explained that in Shakespeare’s time ‘nothing’ was a euphemism for the vagina (because there is ‘nothing’ there) and that this play was then essentially called All About Vaginas I have been more than intrigued to read it. I’ve had a turbulent time with Shakespeare’s ‘comedies’ before. The Taming of the Shrew bored me. The Comedy of Errors was just confusing. Even my favourite comedy up till now, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, casually ends with a misjudged rape scene. Will I ever enjoy one of Shakespeare’s comedies? Yes. Because Much Ado About Nothing exists. Benedick and Beatrice detest each other. They both think marriage is a waste of time and whenever they meet they dual with insults. However, their friends think it would be hilarious if they both fell in love and thus they attempt to make it happen.

Benedick and Beatrice are literally Mary and Tom from Father Ted

Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious. It is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Benedick and Beatrice’s love/hate relationship is the engine which drives this play. Even the secondary characters are highly entertaining. Dogberry, a policeman, steals all of his scenes with his idiosyncratic grasp of the English language. The Watch are his useless team of officers who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. This is one of the few plays thus far that all of the characters work off each other like clockwork. It’s a brilliant cast. Thus far in this challenge, Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare’s best comedy.

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