After one of the most intense reading weeks of my life, I’ve managed to catch-up on the Shakesyeare. I wouldn’t recommend reading a Shakespeare play every day for ten days. It really kills you. Also now I think words like ‘Zounds!’ and ‘mickle’ have creeped into my vocabulary and for that I am eternally sorry.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
You may remember Falstaff from Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. Well, try to keep that image of Falstaff in your head because the Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor is nothing but a sad shell of magnificent character. It’s obvious that Falstaff was such a popular character that Shakespeare decided to give him his own play, just like how the Minions somehow got their own movie. The Merry Wives of Windsor begins with Falstaff devising a plan to court two married women in order to get their money. However, both women quickly realise they’re both part of Falstaff’s ruse and conspire to play along. The wives tell their husbands about the plot and quickly everyone is in on playing Falstaff at his own game. That’s the basic plot: everyone playing tricks on Falstaff. Poor guy.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is good if you’re looking for two-hours of slapstick and bawdiness. It’s an aggressively minor play. It closely follows to formula of Shakespeare’s ‘early funny ones’ such as The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost. However, none of this makes up for the fact that Shakespeare literally shits all over one of his greatest creations. The actions and treatment of Falstaff in this play are completely out of character. Also the fact that the entire cast go completely out of their way just to play a mean-spirited joke on him leaves a real bad taste. The Merry Wives of Windsor is never great, or even good, but it is isn’t bad. It is mostly forgotten for a reason though.
Shakespeare finishes off his Prince Hal tetralogy with Henry V, a play in which we see the boisterous Hal transformed into the mature and respectable King Henry V. Anyone who knows anything about English history will know that Henry V is most famous for the Battle of Agincourt in the early 1400s. It’s probably one of the most famous battles in English history and Shakespeare’s dramatisation of it is nothing if not masterful. In Henry V Shakespeare employs a ‘chorus’, literally a character who appears at the beginning of every act to tell the audience what is happening and where the action of the following act is taking place. The chorus is a genius move by Shakespeare. Previous ‘battle’ plays have been plagued by confusion as to who is who and what is what (*cough* the Henry VI trilogy) but this is completely avoided in Henry V. I’m going to make the premature judgement and state that Henry V is Shakespeare’s best history play.
In Henry V everything just comes together. Some of the speeches are just brilliant and there isn’t a single character wasted. There is also a great deal of impartialism in my opinion, Shakespeare equally shows the French side and even includes scenes wholly in French. This was actually my first four-star play of this challenge (I have given four-stars to other plays in the past, e.g. Julius Caesar, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This is one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces and an incredible fitting ending to the tetralogy.
Ah yes this little play. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play with most productions hitting the four hour mark. I’m sure you all know the plot but here it is anyway. Hamlet meets the ghost of his father who tells him that his uncle killed him in order to usurp the throne and marry his wife. Hamlet spends the whole play complaining about it. The end. Hamlet is not only regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play but also one of the greatest plays of all time. Meh. It’s good. The problem with Hamlet is that it’s about Hamlet a.k.a. the most annoying character in all of English literature. I spent the majority of this play sighing whenever I read, ‘Enter Hamlet‘, or when I saw he had another navel-gazing soliloquy coming up.
I’m genuinely incredibly curious as to why this is considered Shakespeare’s greatest play. To me it was just another average one for Shakespeare. Hamlet is really a play for the minor characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern steal every one of their scenes, the same can be said for Ophelia, the Ghost and even fucking Yorick. I did overall enjoy Hamlet, it’s one of Shakespeare’s best constructed plays. There aren’t any of the filler scenes that really permeated a lot of the early plays and I found it to be one of the easier plays to read. However, the 1590s equivalent of Holden Caulfield takes some getting used to.
I remember actually studying Twelfth Night but I don’t think I actually read it. I hope my lecturers don’t read this blog. One of Shakespeare’s most successful comedies, Twelfth Night concerns Viola who survives a shipwreck but thinks she has lost her twin brother. She decides to disguise herself as a man and enter the court of the Duke. Another plot follows Malvolio and the tricks played on him. Shakespeare has played with the idea of twins and cross-dressing before (in The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona respectively). Malvolio’s plot is the better plot, in my opinion, because it is just hilarious. Malvolio’s attempted wooing of Olivia is one of Shakespeare’s funniest scenes.
The crossdressing of Viola seems kind of strange because there isn’t an overall explanation as to why she does it. She just arrives in Illyria and is like, ‘huh I guess I better dress as a guy!’ It’s a strange plot hole. I do think Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s better comedies but, like in The Merry Wives of Windsor, there is a mean streak running through the play. Like Falstaff, Malvolio is the butt of a joke played by a large part of the cast and at the end of the play he runs off cursing the lot of them. Why is everyone so mean to Malvolio? Yes, he’s a bit slow and a bit dim but really doesn’t deserve what happens to him. Apart from these qualms, Twelfth Night is a good and funny play. (Also, Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry’s Globe production is phenomenal)
Troilus and Cressida
Even the mere mention of that title sends me into a coma. The story of Troilus and Cressida, like a lot of Shakespeare’s tragedies, borrows its plot from ancient times (you might remember it from The Iliad). We follow Troilus and Cressida as they fall in love and… wait a minute… Troilus and Cressida are barely in this play. This play should actually be called Ulysses Orates Another Fucklong Speech. Seriously. Most of Troilus and Cressida follows the generals and leaders of the Greek and Trojan forces as they plot against each other. It’s a play about guys talking about militaristic strategies. My fave!
Troilus and Cressida is just a mess. The only redeemable mote of goodness in this play can be found in the character of Thersites. He’s utterly brilliant. He’s our comic relief and literally just takes the piss out of every character and every scene. I wouldn’t have got through this play without him. I can call this play boring and I can call it arduous but I can never call it bad, purely because of Thersites. However, maybe Shakespeare should have left this story with Homer.
Measure for Measure
I usually do a bit of research before reading one of Shakespeare’s plays. Y’know, read over a brief summary and go through the characters and stuff. Measure for Measure being the last play in my intense catch-up effort I decided to skip all usual preamble and just go in blind. And I absolutely adored it. Measure for Measure is one of my ultimate favourite plays of this challenge. Claudio is arrested for getting a prostitute pregnant and is sentenced to be executed. Meanwhile, the Duke has left town (but in reality he has just disguised himself as a Friar in order to spy on his own people) and the evil Angelo is put in charge of the town. Meanwhile, Claudio’s sister Isabella goes to Angelo to beg of him not to execute her brother. Angelo hesitates but comes up with a deal, if Isabella gives him her virginity he won’t execute Claudio. BAM. This play is fucking brilliant.
Measure for Measure balances on the threshold of tragedy and comedy. One scene may have the brilliantly evil Angelo doing something brilliantly evil and the next scene may contain a barrage of Pompey’s utterly hilarious one-liners. This is just such a perfect play. I have no idea why this is one of Shakespeare’s least popular works. We get 1,001 different film versions of Romeo and Juliet every year but yet there is still to be a major production of Measure for Measure. I cannot praise this play any higher, it’s an utter masterpiece. Also, due to the fact that there’s a character named Angelo, it is impossible to get through this play without singing the equally brilliant Brotherhood of Man song. So, I’ll leave you all with this: