Archive for Aaron Sorkin

Shall We Be Merry?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , , , , , on 2014/04/10 by mattermind


Henry IV: Part I, Act II

Stepping into Henry IV is like entering a whole new story universe. I’ve never been quite so dazzled by anything this quickly; after much deliberation, I think I know why.

Writers often speak in terms of either “plot-driven” or “character-driven” narrative, with the conclusion inevitably being that they must be a fusion of both.  But at the end of the day, we can usually tell when what we’re reading or watching is plot-heavy (Dan Brown, The Expendables), or character-dense (anything by Aaron Sorkin, Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams).  Every once in awhile, your peanut butter gets mixed up in my chocolate, and everybody leaves satisfied (Joss Whedon’s Avengers).

And then there’s Shakespeare.  Most of his plays register high in all aspects of the Prichard scale, with some like Romeo & Juliet (which we’ll get to shortly) being both long on adventure and romance as well as interweaving a suspenseful, complex plot.

Henry IV takes this to a whole new level.  I say that because of the sheer quantity of character voices and personalities, each with a different tangy slang to their accent and outlook.  Stable boys, scoundrels, tax collectors, bar maids, chambermaids, kings, rebels, upstarts, barons, wives – they’re all here in spades and we’re only in Act II!  Not only are they here, but Shakespeare seems to revel in their boisterous individual speech and bluster.  They tell off-color jokes, insult one another with abandon.  Dialogue is saturated in subtext in the context of a festering civil war, lingering disappointment between father and son, the disillusionment of a big-hearted, petty thief, a regal heir sowing oats before inheriting the heavy responsibilities of the throne.  This is three-dimensional chess on a moving chessboard.  And a patient, deliberate artist willing to take his sweet time in delivering a corker of an action climax.

We can see it brewing in the background, a showdown between playful Prince Hal and hotheaded Hotspur.  It’s as though Hal were Luke Skywalker, passing his time on far-off Tatooine while Darth slowly strangled the rebel alliance.  You know they are headed for an epic clash.  So why not sit back and enjoy the ride?

This has all the elements of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.  Henry IV is beset by a legion of rapidly uniting forces intent on overthrowing his rule.  These aren’t just any old cantankerous dissidents, but a collection of legendary and profoundly powerful forces.  Henry IV has grown old and weary, yet he will attempt to rise to the challenge.  But it’s going to take somebody younger, a son with great, untapped potential to complete the task.

Here are my favorite lines:

FALSTAFF: But tell me, Hal, are not thou horrible afeard? Thou being heir apparent, could the world pick thee out three such enemies again as that fiend Douglas, that spirit Percy, and that devil Glendower? Art thou not horribly afraid? Doth thy blood not thrill at it?

PRINCE HENRY: Not a whit, i’faith; I lack some of thy instinct.

Marvel comic books wish they had tales this gripping.


You Can’t Handle the Truth

Posted in Context, Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , on 2014/04/07 by mattermind

In trying to make sense of Henry IV, I’m forced to confront larger issues that drive much deeper but are merely tangential to the play.  For instance, how much should the truth matter, especially when these works in particular are called the histories?

I have touched on this subject while reading Richard III.  But now it rears its ugly head again in a big way and I’m not sure what to make of it.  Isaac Asimov, for instance, points out that Prince Hal and Hotspur enjoyed more of a father-son relationship than that of rival brothers.  In fact, Hotspur was two years older than King Edward himself.

It seems Shakespeare couldn’t resist making changes that any modern screenwriter would nod and sympathize with.  These are the very points of contention that critics and fans of the novel (or historical accuracy) will inevitably bring up while slamming the said work with such comments as, “This isn’t anything like the book,” or, “That’s not how it happened.”

Well, Edward IV is another example of this, only by now so much time has passed that the actual history serves almost as a footnote, a marginal amendment applicable to scholars and wonks only.  For the rest of the civilized world, what Shakespeare dramatized has become the gold standard, interchangeable for truth.  But should we be concerned about that?

One could argue that, in making the changes, Shakespeare aspired for dramatic truth – a different form of truth, naturally, but the one nearest to his heart and talents as a playwright.  Why should he concern himself with getting all the niggling details correct?  Especially when that would mean the sacrifice of a good metaphor, irony or parallel construction.  Fudge here, compress there.  That’s how the game works.  And any reasonably literate audience ought to know that.

So why bother calling them the histories then?  Why not fictionalize them entirely, invent characters wholecloth or “based on a true story” instead of trying to have it both ways by capitalizing on the general public’s vague understanding of real events and then distorting them with hyperstylized dialogue and action?

Ultimately, I cannot escape the gravity of this rhetorical black hole.  Shakespeare wrote the plays that we call the histories which historians know are based on errors of source and errors of choice.  But then there are the plays, masterpieces unto themselves.  Why rail at Shakespeare when we can benefit from both with a little education or insight?

Coriolanus: Change We Can Believe In

Posted in Coriolanus with tags , , , , on 2010/03/07 by mattermind

Coriolanus: Act 1: Scenes 1-10

I hate politics.

I remember watching the complete West Wing on DVD a few years ago in awe, admiring Martin Sheen’s character President Bartlett (Aaron Sorkin’s character, hey), and thinking, now why can’t we have a President like that?

When President Obama got elected and entered office, I marveled at how fact had exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. Could it really be happening? Were we finally entering an era of idealism and courage, of values, vision and determination unlike any we have seen since John F. Kennedy?

It’s now just over a year since the fairy-tale inauguration, and already I’m becoming bitter and sad, watching in horror as the Obama administration gets bogged down in the morass of health care and the neverending Republican filibusters that have all but paralyzed the hope and good will that flooded into Washington after the election.

When I think of politics now, this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind:

With the economy in turmoil, skyrocketing national debt, unemployment near double digits (and higher, depending on your own demographics), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not looking to end any time soon, banks continuing to hand out record bonuses to greedy bastards otherwise known as unscrupulous CEOs — it’s next to impossible to hold out hope anymore that real change is going to happen.

If Obama can’t do it, then who the hell can?

Maybe that’s why the opening to Coriolanus seemed so topical to me, even though it was written over 400 years ago. I’m discovering yet again that among his many extraordinary gifts, Shakespeare had the uncanny ability to see into the heart of matters central to the human experience. Though Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome and the characters are Latin, in many regards he could be talking about 21st Century America.

The play begins with the plebeians in revolt over the price of grain and the lack of political representation. It’s hard to tell right off the bat who is at fault in this scenario: the aristocratic Senatorial leadership for failing to maintain an adequate food supply or the people who are so fickle as to revolt as soon as their individual needs are not met.

It’s clear however that Coriolanus is talented, headstrong, fearless — and not all that great at the nuances of politics among the masses. The battle scenes where he virtually single-handedly quashed the revolt gave me chills. There is a bloodlust to his character, a fury bred into him by his mother of all people, who encouraged him to fight and attain glory from the earliest age.

I am reminded of the Spartans in 300, of Achilles in the Iliad — of a magnificent terror in the zeal for fighting this man has, but also his seeming inability to tame his warrior nature for the subtleties of leadership that are threatening to do him in at home.

Coriolanus as a play has a drive to it unlike any other I have read so far. I feel like I am watching an action movie and not, you know, “reading Shakespeare” for whatever that is supposed to mean.

We do such a disservice to Shakespeare in modern times by gilding his work as if it belonged in a museum. So many people have the mistaken idea that his plays are pompous or arrogant because they are challenging linguistically or operate on multiple levels simultaneously.

But at heart — at least so far — Coriolanus is a ripping yarn about starving masses in revolt and a ferocious leader who is likely to be done in by the intricacies of politics which he has no patience for.  I sit reading it with great joy and anticipation, munching on popcorn, asking myself what’s going to happen next?