Oh, For a Muse of Fire!

Posted in Henry V with tags , , , on 2014/05/01 by Mattermind

Henry V, Prologue

Shakespeare wastes no time starting Henry V, an ironic statement since we begin not with the main action, but instead with a prologue.

Why this isn’t a waste has more to do with The Great Conversation, the Agon of the Ages as Harold Bloom calls it, Shakespeare’s claim to fame as one of the immortals of literature that began with humanity’s first attempts at storytelling in the annals of historical memory.

His words are thunderous, ear-splitting, mind-shattering, echoing previous invocations of the muse by Homer, Virgil and Dante – the Cosmic All-Stars.  Mighty company to keep.

When entering such a hallowed hall, best to make one’s presence known straight off by clanging the gong of a familiar meme:

Oh, for a must of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,

Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment.

Shakespeare twice begs pardon, having tapped into mighty, mythological imagery by invoking the Greek muses, the God of War, and one of the greatest kings in English history.

To rise to the vaunted heights, an aspiring writer needs a magnificent theme.  Shakespeare recognizes he has one here and seizes his opportunity by the throat, announcing to the world from the outset that the playing field has been elevated, his aspirations engaged at the highest levels.

We are invited to become willing participants.  Indeed, he needs our assistance if his words can hope to paint such a sprawling canvas.  We are to lend our aid in imagining the  battlefields, the thunderous hooves of the prancing horses, marching soldiers, bloody battles.

The stage may be a pale imitation.  But in the right hands, and with our active engagement, Shakespeare dares to make a great historic moment come alive.

It’s breathtaking and unforgettable.  And yet the play hasn’t even formally begun.

One More Word, I Beseech You

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/29 by Mattermind

Image

Henry IV: Part Two, Epilogue

I have to hand it to Shakespeare.  Just when I think there’s nothing he can do that will surprise me, he pulls a quarter out of his ear and defies me to explain his magic.

I didn’t see the Epilogue coming.  Nor the Monty-Pythonesque humor of its rollicking apology for a play that Shakespeare all but openly admits is not up to his own standards.

Maybe he felt guilty for forcing the golden goose to hatch one more guilded egg.  Maybe it seemed to him that he laid on Falstaff’s lowbrow humor a little thick.  Or maybe he felt a little sick from having stretched his own talents to supply the audience exactly what they were clamoring for without the usual challenge or curve ball.

In any case, there the epilogue is, begging almost for forgiveness and another shot at glory.  It’s offered tongue-in-cheek, one supposes, in the form of a sheepish narrator who enters the stage after the primary action is complete, saying,

EPILOGUE: First my fear, then my curtsy, last my speech.  My fear is your displeasure; my curtsy, my duty; and my speech, to beg your pardons.

He promises that if we didn’t like this one, we ought to give him another chance.  More Falstaff (a promise unkept) and Katherine of France.  More laughs, a little sex.  And the exploits of one of the greatest kings in England’s storied history.

And with that, he exits the stage.  Strange stuff indeed…causing me to scratch my head and laugh out loud at the same time.  Is he serious?  Is this a put on?  What am I supposed to make of it?

That Shakespeare.  What will he think of next?!

I Know Thee Not, Old Man

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags , , on 2014/04/29 by Mattermind

ImageImage: Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso / Source: Wikipedia

It’s easy to forget that Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) lived during almost precisely the same span of years as William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  Two towering luminaries expanded and redefined their national (as well as international) literatures in the identical epoch, creating some of the world’s most memorable characters.

This occurred to me as I was trying to make more sense of Falstaff and the comedic elements of the play.  Then it dawned on me how Shakespeare dwells upon Falstaff’s dubious status as a knight.  Suddenly, when compared to that even more famous knight errant, Don Quixote, the roistering fat man fit the bill.

Both Shakespeare and Cervantes, it seems, were intent on skewering the fading chivalric ethos with the overwhelming presence of knightly fools.  Not the same fools, to be sure.  Don Quixote is lovably deluded, whereas Falstaff is laughably conniving.  Both misread their current predicaments in an age when over-the-top romanticism is rapidly wearing thin.

The harshest blow occurs in Act V during a famous scene in which Prince Hal, newly coronated as Henry V, disowns his former friend in front of everyone.  Not only that, but he banishes Falstaff and prevents him from ever coming within ten miles of the royal presence at the cost of his life.

It’s enough to make one wonder how genuinely Hal kept the friendship, ever keeping in mind his disagreement with his father, Henry IV and the long-standing plot to transform himself into a king and shock the world.

But one must also remember that Hal’s role has changed now that his dad is dead and the weight of the realm has fallen upon his shoulders.  He must take a stand – make a show – in as theatrical (no pun intended) a fashion as possible to convince his subjects that the Harry of old will not continue his debauchery upon the throne.

It has led many to interpolate a bittersweet pride in Falstaff (portrayed particularly by Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight), recognizing even in his own rejection how far his protégé has ascended.  Our pain as audience members grows as we comprehend Falstaff’s emotional denial of the absoluteness of this rejection, attempting to convince himself that Hal doesn’t mean what he says but is merely putting on a necessary show.

By causing us to feel great sympathy for Falstaff at the last, Shakespeare has managed to bring our ideas of the man full circle, confounding easy description.  Falstaff is (pardon another pun) a “round” character, a full being who beggars simple labeling as either a good or bad man.

He may have a good soul, as Orson Welles argues, but he sometimes has a funny way of showing it.  By trying to make everything funny, he has a tendency to try and hide loose morals and cheap values, a tawdry sort of existence.  He may be lovable, and forgivable…but he sure can grow tiresome.

Like the newly christened King Henry, we all reach an age when it’s time to move onto more serious pursuits.  Such as Henry V, in this case.

The age of knights and chivalry achieved its own spectacular highs and abominable lows.  But every era too reaches a point when the welcome is worn out and a new era yearns to be born.

In That Jerusalem Shall Harry Die

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/27 by Mattermind

Henry IV: Part Two, Act IV

It turns out I’m not alone in thinking this is a problematic play.

Sir Isaac Asimov contends – and it makes sense to me – that Part Two exists solely because Falstaff turned out to be a smash hit, and Shakespeare recognized a great box office opportunity when he saw one.  Which is surprisingly similar to milking out four unnecessary Pirates of the Caribbean franchise flicks because Jack Sparrow happens to spin the turnstiles at Disney.

You can hardly blame the Bard for cashing in.  After all, his business acumen allowed him to retire into the lap of luxury at the relatively early age (these days) of only 52.  We should all be so lucky (and smart and shrewd, or whatever you choose to call it).

So instead of wrapping up the action in Part One, Shakespeare extended the rebellion into the sequel and came up with new comedic scenes for a fan favorite.  But this in turn leads to other troubles in an otherwise weighty  historical play that becomes tonally interwoven with a lowbrow sketch comedy, somewhat akin to Saturday Night Live presenting the Civil War.

On the one hand, Henry IV/Bolingbroke died from excessive cares, having to put down rebellion after rebellion because of his contested legitimacy.  That he managed to successfully pull this off is a testament to his sheer willpower and prodigious management skills; that he died a worn-out husk at the age of only 38, that just goes to show how profound those difficulties turned out to be.

But then we crossbreed these ponderous matters with a run of slapstick characters by the name of Shallow, Silence, Fang, Snare, Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, Bullcalf, Tearsheat, Pistol and Quickly… exchanging hot and saucy barbs about drinking, petty theft and prostitution in the name of a good laugh.  It becomes thematically jarring in a way that I’ll admit probably bothers contemporary reader/theatergoers far more than those in the 16th Century, though not so indisputably less that Shakespeare couldn’t help tacking on a confessional Epilogue (more on that later).

We are supposed to care about allegedly valiant Prince Hal’s epic character transformation on the cusp of inheriting the crown to become one of the legendary kings in British history.  But how can we, when we’ve undergone basically the identical scene in Part One?  When Falstaff has long past worn out his welcome?  When the rebellion has fizzled out from yet another lily-livered abandonment by the cunning Northumberland?  And when by far the most dramatic and striking scene-stealer left the stage back on the big battlefield? (Aside: echoes of Prince Andrei in War & Peace, but that’s a matter for a different time.)

You can’t always get what you want, that’s true.  But you must also be careful what you ask for.  I’m running out of appropriate clichés here but one last flourish leaps to mind: always leave them wanting more.

[Drops mic, exit stage left.]

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Shakespeare

Posted in Shakespeareana on 2014/04/23 by Mattermind

I posted a list before, but since the world never seems to tire of top tens and hundred bests, I figured it might be helpful to pass THIS one along.

It contains lots of ideas that I’ve never heard mentioned before. Have you?

The Sonnet Project Begins

Posted in The Sonnets on 2014/04/23 by Mattermind

I mentioned in previous posts my boundless admiration for The Sonnet Project. These amazing folks launched an incredible undertaking to celebrate Shakespeare by setting his sonnets in a modern, Manhattan context. It will be an honor and a privilege to help spread word about it far and wide.

They timed it all to coincide with Shakespeare’s birthday – so I feel it’s only appropriate to formally begin linking to their work today with Sonnet #1.

While I haven’t fully wrapped the Hollow Crown saga, there are more sonnets available than I could possibly cover in a month. So why not seize the day and begin now?

Please visit The Shakespeare Project and support them in any way you can. Even a friendly word of encouragement is helpful…as any blogger might tell you.

Happy Birthday, Will!

Posted in Celebrations on 2014/04/23 by Mattermind

With all the fuss they make over obscure commemorations, Google might have dialed up the glasses and done a doodle (you’d think) today to honor the greatest playwright who ever set qwill to parchment. Guess they’re too busy uploading maps and cat videos to the cloud to be bothered.

But here at the blog, we’re more than aware that today is not just any ol’ hump day, but an occasion to put on party hats and make a little noise for a guy who’s turning 450 this year.

He’s aging quite gracefully, our William. Doesn’t look a day over 305 if you ask me. Maybe the time has come for some pushback against the post-modern tendency to drag the heroes of literature down with text-fixated obscurantism.

But that’s for another day.

This one belongs to you, Mr. Shakespeare. A toast to you, who lives on through all of us who love you, and the generations to follow who will discover and love you too.

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