Archive for Monty Python

No Harm. What More?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , , on 2014/04/12 by mattermind

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

Henry IV: Part I, Act IV

I’ve got to hand it to Hotspur.  In a play bursting at the seams with memorable characters, he singlehandedly steals the show.

It’s your typical case of Good Guy Wins Hearts and Minds, Bad Guy Gets the Girl.  He’s brash, he’s brazen, he’s cocksure and half-loaded.  He’s fired up for battle when he ought to be measured and tactical – and still, I just can’t help loving the guy.

Up to this point, everything has gone swimmingly for the insurgency.  They have might, they even have right, with a greater claim to the legitimate crown than the sitting king himself.  Armed with confidence and united in purpose, they have come out into the open and declared their challenge to the realm.

And then things fall apart.  It’s almost comical, just how fast the fist of fury dissolves into a sputtering wreck.  It all starts when Hotspur’s own father, the great Northumberland, sends word that he has taken ill and can’t make it to the hoedown.  His forces can no longer be counted upon to match the king’s rapidly gathering horde.

This is as big a psychological blow as a tactical one, since Northumberland’s poorly-timed medical defection, whether honest or no, will surely have a ripple effect on the tenuous rebels who will now be badly outnumbered and overmatched.  Hotspur himself has no way of knowing whether his father has seriously taken ill, or has merely soured on the venture.  But to his credit, he does not allow this bad news to dampen the mood. (“It’s just a flesh wound.”)

Then, more bad news: Glendower has been set back two weeks by a foreboding astrological forecast and refuses to join them in the ranks.  That makes two vital allies now missing in action.  Anybody with half a brain would slow the parade, if not cancel it altogether.  But not Hotspur.  He’s just raring to get this party started.

His position is not completely without merit. He believes the advantage lies in striking quickly and early, before the king’s men have fully assembled.  He also contends that his horses are better rested.  On a more personal note, having heard of Prince Hal’s gallantry (being compared to Mercury astride Pegasus – high praise, indeed), he becomes all-the-more fired up for a head-on confrontation.

Although Henry IV is no Darth Vader and the insurgents no Jedis, Hotspur’s brazen courage in the face of insurmountable odds reminds me a lot of this guy:

Which leads me to believe that our story will suffer greatly if/when he ultimately gets rubbed out [see: Empire Strikes Back].  So as much as I’ve been looking forward to a mano-y-mano brawl between Achilles and Hector (Hello, St. John’s.  Yes, I was paying attention.), I’m deeply troubled that without our little engine of bravery, the play as a whole will crash and burn.

There’s still Falstaff, of course.  But after his soliloquy in Act IV, I’m not sure I even like the guy anymore.  Flush with over 300 pounds from the crown’s kitty, a purse to raise 150 able troops on the king’s behalf, he has instead recruited fops and dandies with the knowledge that they would bribe their way out of the draft (Hmm…).  He has fielded a cast of downtrodden misfits and losers, an emaciated bunch of ragtag bums who will never survive the confrontations awaiting them.

In a speech that turns my stomach, Falstaff says about his men:

PRINCE HENRY: I have never seen such rascals.

FALSTAFF: Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.  Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

This doesn’t sit well with me.  In fact, give me a dozen Hotspurs in his stead!  At least that man is fighting on principle, in defense of honor.  He’s brazen, he’s feisty, he’s lacking in a certain civil decorum.  But he knows what he stands up and is willing to die for, to the extent that he can say:

HOTSPUR: What may the King’s whole battle reach unto?

VERNON: To thirty thousand.

HOTSPUR: Forty let it be.

My father and Glendower being both away,

The powers of us may serve so great a day.

Come, let us take a muster speedily.

Doomsday is near.  Die all, die merrily.

Chilling stuff.  And the stuff of which unforgettable characters are made.

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Mad World! Mad Kings! Mad Composition!

Posted in King John with tags , on 2014/03/12 by mattermind

King John, Act II

So far, the biggest question I have about the play is why it ranks so low in popularity.  The complicated background history, maybe?

I was expecting to find it dull and overweighted with long, boring speeches. Instead, I find it brisk and tense, thanks to a few advanced lessons from Sir Isaac Asimov.

I suppose now is as good a place as any to remind people that Shakespeare was a dramatist, not an historian.  He played fast and loose with persnickety facts when the storyline suited him, and wasn’t about to let a minor inaccuracy get in the way of a ripping yarn.

So it’s useful (and necessary) not to accept his plots – particularly the “historical” ones – at face value. This doesn’t just apply to the egregious examples like Richard III.

In fact, Shakespeare’s liberality with what can best be described as dubious sources calls to mind our contemporary critique of made-for-TV movies “based on a true story.”  We yammer about structural and character changes writers make to enhance the dramatic impact of a story.  But the method is as old as caveman tales told around a campfire.  The rule: when in doubt, exaggerate for emotional impact.

The basics of what we need to know for this play are rather simple (he says).  Ever since William the Conqueror invaded England, the English king has held dual possessions in France and at home.  With strategic marriages and heavy-handed statesmanship, those territories have remained in English possession through King John, but things are about to turn ugly.

King Philip of France is using a glitch in the English rule of succession (where have we heard this before) to intercede on young Arthur’s (not that Arthur) behalf.  King John is the youngest son of Henry II and should only rule if his older brothers left no male heirs.  But, in fact, Geoffrey’s wife was pregnant when he died and their son – yep, Arthur – technically should have gotten the nod.

It’s complicated, of course, and involves a gripping subplot about two overambitious stagemothers (Eleanor of Aquitaine and Constance of Brittany) – as well as the aforementioned headstrong kings.

You really need a program to keep up with all this…which brings me back to the idea that it must be part of the reason why the play does not rank among Shakespeare’s more popular.  Then again, I still have three acts to go.

Rather than bore you with my recap, I would just like to point out a scene in Act II that reminds me of Monty Python.  The setting: France.  The place: Angiers (an English possession).  The situation: King John has stormed into France to defend his land against the trumped up (some might say) charges of King Philip.  Each king claims legitimacy before the people; King John as the King of England and King Philip on behalf of Arthur.  The poor, besieged city dwellers do not know how to answer and try to play it safe.  But it’s precarious business, especially when a battle between the rival forces ends in a draw.

Which side should the people choose?  Go with the English king, since they’re technically on English soil (even though in France)?  Or jump sides and back the French, since Philip is hot to get their land back?

The Bastard (we met him in Act I) boldly suggests that both sides put aside their differences to destroy Angiers and then resume their feud to see who may claim the spoils.

I feel for Angiers.  Trying to do the right thing.  Caught between a rock and a hard place.  And yet teetering on the verge of destruction because of the madness inherent in the screwed-up politics of succession.

He Hath Some Meaning in His Mad Attire

Posted in The Taming of the Shrew with tags , , , , , on 2014/02/24 by mattermind

The Taming of the Shrew, Act III

I am doing my best to read Taming with objectivity – whatever that means.  But it seems to me that the interpretive gist of the play falls decisively in Act III. Specifically, in these fateful lines from Petruchio:

PETRUCHIO: I will be master of what is mine own.

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,

My household stuff, my field, my barn,

My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;

And here she stands, touch her, whoever dare.

Taken at face value, this speech condemns Petruchio – at least in modern terms, although not necessarily Shakespeare – as a misogynist.  But then when can we ever take Shakespeare at face value?

The BBC must have had a similar idea by casting John Cleese as Petruchio.  It’s utterly impossible for me not to hear these lines without a Monty Python spin to them, which is not to fault Mr. Cleese for his Shakespeare but rather to reinforce that casting is an interpretive act.

John Cleese as Petruchio

John Cleese as Petruchio

Indeed, the whole manner of Petruchio’s arrival at the wedding begs for explanation.  For he hasn’t merely shown up in the equivalent of a tux and tails (or whatever the bride and guests were expecting), but in the most outrageous garb imaginable.

Had Petruchio been satisfied merely to strike a financial coop with Baptista, Katherine’s rich father, all he really needed to do was go through the motions, say “I do,” claim his prize and ride off to treat Katherine from then on however he liked.  According to Medieval law and accepted convention, he would have had every right to do so.

We have seen in the negotiation phases of each courtship that in every practical sense they are financial transactions more than matters of the heart.  While Baptista will no doubt be relieved to get cantankerous Katherine off his hands by whatever taker, he first secures Petruchio’s standing and then insists, not because he has to, that Petruchio ought first win her heart.

Oddly enough, he does not insist upon the same conditions for his younger daughter, Bianca.  In the rivalry between Gremio and Tranio (disguised as Vicentio), Baptista declares flat out that he with the richest bid will win the prize.  Make an offer – get the girl.  It’s just that simple.

Or is it?  Shakespeare shreds the accepted practices of his day by exposing them to ridicule in the form of his absurd comic treatment.  Courtship has become such a ritualized dance by his day that it offers him ample opportunity to flout its ritualized norms.

That is, in fact, what I believe Petruchio is up to here.  His outlandish getup reminds me of a scene from Don Quixote.  Imagine the mindset it requires to enter a foreign city to confront your wife’s family and fellow citizens on your wedding day geared up like that.  It takes um, err, guts.  To say the least.

Petruchio makes a bold statement with his actions.  I believe they are meant specifically for Kate, though she does not yet know Petruchio well enough to decipher his behavior.  Here Shakespeare plays with the (sorry, guys) internality and externality of perception – subjectivity and objectivity – to show her that he doesn’t care about how outlandish their behavior appears.  Let people think what they want.  He won’t be trapped by the same suffocating cliches in which everybody else remains content to participate.

He’s reaching out to Kate and saying, “I’ll risk seeming a fool to others if you will.  Step out onto the ledge and we’ll leap out together.  But first, you must learn to read the same language.”  It is precisely these lessons in subjectivity upon which Petruchio now engages.

A long time ago, I learned that Albert Camus described love as “two against the void.”  While I haven’t been able to properly attribute this quote, it has nevertheless stayed with me as the most romantic of all definitions of love.

When Don Quixote tilts at windmills, he is mad.  But if only one other person sees the giants too, well…suddenly it becomes much different.  The more quirky our uniqueness, the harder the quest to find our perfect match, our soulmate, the one other person who looks upon the world and shares our zany visions of white rabbits, a baseball field carved into an Iowa cornfield, every leg of an upcoming U2 tour – or whatever.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what you see but that you see it together.  And I think that’s what Petruchio is beginning to do here, in this act.  He wants Katherine to abandon her reliance upon the convention that has failed her and to adopt a new language that they will develop together.  Let the world believe what it wants to believe.  Behind closed doors, they will reinvent the game from scratch.

So, okay, I am back to my old romantic interpretation.  But two acts still remain.

Shakespearean Comedy: Who’s on First?

Posted in The Comedy of Errors with tags , , , , , , on 2014/02/04 by mattermind

The Comedy of Errors, Act 1

Finally, a break from the tragedy.

The Comedy of Errors was probably the first play written by Shakespeare.  While the chronology of his repertoire is far from definitive, scholars have more or less established a working sequence, with the Comedy of Errors heading the pack.

It’s a farcical tale of mistaken identity whose underlying premise reminds me a lot of this classic routine from Abbott and Costello:

In order for a story like this to work, you have to go into it like you would a campy Michael Bay movie – with a big bucket of popcorn, willing to suspend your disbelief.  Accept in advance that the premise will be sketchy and roll with it.  Tom Cruise flicks have required less.

In this case, prepare to swallow the whopper that identical twin sons were born on the same day as their identical twin servants.  One day, a shipwreck separates the parents along with one son and a servant each. Unable to reunite, they spend many lonely years apart.

Fast forward to the present, where both sons, along with their servants, a wife, her sister, and the parents unknowingly end up in the same city together.  Suffice it to say that hilarity ensues…if you are the sort that goes in for that kind of thing.

Me? I’m a Monty Python fan who used to love the screwball humor of Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Dom Deluise (R.I.P.).  Good comedies are harder to come by than competent dramas and tragedies these days, so it’s not like I’m rooting against this kerfuffle.  It’s just that the schtick tends to wear out its welcome fairly quick.  More like Benny Hill or an overly long Saturday Night Live sketch than Murder by Death, Arthur or The End.

I’m told that the staged versions of these mistaken-identity farces come off better than the plays read alone.  I’ll grant that I have yet to witness an early specimen presented live, as it was meant to be experienced.  So I will reserve judgment until then.

Did I mention how happy I am to be free of tragedy and history?

O World, Thy Slippery Turns!

Posted in Coriolanus with tags , , , , , on 2010/03/16 by mattermind

Corliolanus, Acts IV-V

While normally I would break these up into separate entries, I confess that I couldn’t stop myself from bolting straight through to the finish.

And what a finish it was!  Not the ending I might have wished for… not the Hollywood ending that might have reeled in Russell Crowe (okay, I’ll let that go).  Not what I envisioned — not by a long shot.  But there’s a Greekness to this Roman tragedy… an Oedipal you-can’t-escape-your-destiny circularity that elevates the play to something more.

It’s as if Shakespeare were announcing his presence on the world-historical stage standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Sophocles, Aristophenes, Euripedes, Aeschylus… and the lesser Romans who followed.  Tragedy being a central component of Greek drama, this makes perfect sense.

These days, we’d be more likely to call it an “homage” — riffing the style of your predecessors in tribute if you’ve got the goods yourself (a la Shakespeare) or as a blatant ripoff artist if you don’t (names will not be mentioned).  Let’s just say that Shakespeare is operating well within the tropes of a genre established 2000 years before he elevated drama to the pinnacle that has not been eclipsed to this day.

Shakespeare then must have taken a craftsman’s delight in the poetic justice of the ending.  Dedicated student of the classics that he was (I know, it’s hard to think of Shakespeare — a classic himself — as being anybody’s student), he will have recognized how well the tragic elements blend with the best of the established genre.

But I prattle.  That’s because it’s hard to watch such a great figure come undone by the petty politics, jealousy and the underhanded machinations that they summon to sustain power.  And I guess what Shakespeare might be adding is that it doesn’t matter what side you’re on… human nature knows no boundaries or affiliations that will allow a good, honest man to escape the flaws of the social beast we are.

When we left Coriolanus, he had been booted from the city under drummed-up charges of treachery.  I love how Shakespeare in no way stints his portrait of the plebeians as anything less than fickle, listing from one side to the other like drunken pirates at sea under gale-force winds.

Their behavior reminds me of this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Shakespeare has them continually speaking in unison, just as in the crowd scene from Brian. Because they’re so flighty, the plebes don’t have a chance with the Tribunes who manipulate them to get what they want, all supposedly in the name of the people.

But no sooner is Coriolanus away and the city’s calm restored than a new threat has them under peril: for Coriolanus wastes no time in joining forces with his erstwhile nemesis, Aufidius, to wreak havoc on Rome in revenge.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Coriolanus must know that the odds of this working out are slim. Then again, he hasn’t got much of anything to work with after he has been cast out of his home. He would rather die with a bold act of bravery/stupidity than to wander around as a nomad or take a month to figure out what his life will be, as Cominius counsels.

Shakespeare had me completely fooled, however, in the willingness Aufidius shows to welcome in a man he could never defeat in battle. I quietly assumed it because of a mutual recognition of each other’s proficiency in battle — a player on the Red Sox acknowledging that without the Yankees, there could be no storied rivalry. A hearty “we’re stronger because of each other” rather than the “I won’t be happy till your dead” which characterized their prior relationship.

And to some extent that’s true. But Shakespeare makes a point of showing how Aufidius takes umbrage at the way Coriolanus excels in battle and treats him as a lesser rather than as an equal. To some extent, it’s drummed up by conspirators on his own side who don’t like the way Coriolanus has entered their fold and all but taken over. You can even understand why they might be jealous. Here’s a guy who wreaked massive devastation on their homeland just a fortnight ago, and now here he is leading them into battle.

What saves Coriolanus is his wrath and how it fuels him to larger-than-life status on the battlefield. I suppose it’s a little like Brett Favre joining the Vikings to take down the Green Bay Packers. What do you do if you’re a Vikings fan? How can you root for a guy who bested you so many times as a hated captain of the arch historic rivals? But hey, how that changes once he signs up to be on YOUR team!

As you might expect, the Corioles with Coriolanus in charge and Aufidius as his companion are an unstoppable force about to lay waste to Rome itself. It’s great fun watching the Tribunes poop in their pants as the ravaging locusts approach the gates of the city. And a scream to see how the plebeians change their tune about Coriolanus now that he is about to torch them where they live. It’s such a self-serving reversal that I have to quote it verbatim:

FIRST CITIZEN: For mine own part, when I heard “Banish him,” I said ’twas pity.
SECOND CITIZEN: And so did I.
THIRD CITIZEN: And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very many of us. That we did, we did for the best; and though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will.

Only Menenius has the balls to say: If he were putting to my house the brand that should consume it, I have not the face to say, “Beseech you, cease.” Only he and Cominius are willing to accept the consequences for how the fates have turned.

The major turning point in the story comes, however, where you least expect it. Or at least where I didn’t expect it, not the way Coriolanus was bearing down on Rome hell bent for leather. The Tribunes have absolutely nothing to stop him except for pleas of mercy. Which of course they immediately resort to, having no abilities at battle themselves.

First Menenius is summoned and summarily dismissed by Coriolanus, all but handed his hat in his hands. To Menenaius’ continued credit, he wears this as a badge of honor, proof of how unswerving Coriolanus is to his purpose. He holds little faith that Coriolanus’ wife, mother and son will fair any better.

And yet, the unthinkable happens. Coriolanus relents. He calls off the quest for revenge, succumbing to the last-second bidding of his family, even though he — and they too really — know what this will surely mean for him.

I groaned at this calling off of the attack. Partly because I sensed it could not end well for Coriolanus… but also because it meant that the Tribunes and the plebes would likely get off scott free. Where’s the justice in that? At one point, Shakespeare has Brutus being dragged away by an angry mob about to be torn to shreds. But that all stops once word reaches the city that the women’s charms have prevailed.

Shakespeare lets us squirm. I don’t think he wants to let us off the hook with a feel-good ending that says that the weasels get their in the end. Because they don’t. We all know that. Just look around at the news lately. At the frauds and cheats who make off with their millions in bonuses and stock options. At the political shenanigans which thrive even with Obama in charge. Like anything really changes!

Both for this reason and because Shakespeare has bigger fish to fry — a much grander poetic scheme in mind — does he suffer Coriolanus to return to Corioles to meet his fate. You might assume it would come from the people there and the sense of betrayal they feel when Rome is not sacked after taking in the enemy; you might also think that the nobility in Corioles would question the decision to allow this man to have a leading role in the attack. But no — it comes through duplicity again, this time in the form of Aufidius. Unable to defeat his nemesis in battle, he stoops to political maneuverings to accuse Coriolanus of the same crime that undermined him at home — treachery!

Aha. It all starts to make sense now. Coriolanus is banished from Rome under the charge of treachery. He takes up arms with the enemy to gain revenge but relents, only to be charged by the enemy with the same false crime, only this time it does him in!

You can’t escape your fate, can you? It hearkens back to Hamlet (everything always does) when Hamlet says:

HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.

For his part, Coriolanus knew it was bound to come to this. At one point, he even sticks out his neck and offers it to Aufidius. His code was to live true or die hard, but honestly, as a man. Though he fell at the hands of treachery, it is Aufidius who will live on with the regret and sorrow. For never having bested his better in battle, he will have to endure the memory of having killed him at last by deceit.

Coriolanus at least stuck to his guns right through till the end.

The Monstrous Bulk of This Ingratitude

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/05 by mattermind

Timon of Athens, Act V: Scenes 1-4

Flattery comes full circle.

I’m trying to decipher what Shakespeare means by having the Poet and Painter appear again to resume their obsequiousness and obtain their share of Timon’s newfound gold.

TIMON: Good honest men! Thou draw’st a counterfeit

Best in all Athens. Thou’rt indeed the best;

Thou counterfeit’st most lively.

PAINTER: So so, my lord.

TIMON: E’en so, sir, as I say. [To Poet] And for thy fiction,

Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth

That thou art even natural in thine art.

It recalls the play within a play within Hamlet, when Hamlet counsels the actors to “hold a mirror up to nature” and not overdramatize their acting.

Socrates famously mistrusts art — plays included — for this reason. It mimes life. It blusters, it treasons, it scolds, it seduces — but all in the name of entertainment. Only philosophy delves below the surface of things (instead of slide down them, as Bono sings).

The whole trouble that Timon has uncovered is that people don’t say what they mean or mean what they say. Their words ring hollow. All he hears now are lies.

He exposes falsity this time by providing the artists what they’re really after: gold.

Then, in a cunning twist, the Senators of Athens come out to woo Timon back into the city. They’ve had a change of heart, they claim. The people feel remorse for what they’ve done and wish to make amends.

SECOND SENATOR: Ay, even such heaps and sums of love and wealth

As shall to thee blot out what wrongs were theirs

And write in thee the figures of their love,

Ever to read them thine.

Sounds great. But Timon answers sarcastically:

TIMON: You witch me in it;

Surprise me to the very brink of tears.

Lend me a fool’s heart and a woman’s eyes,

And I’ll besweep these comforts, worthy Senators.

He’s not buying what they’re selling for a second. And in the next scene, we find out he was right to do so.

The Senators were only sucking up to halt Alcibiades’s approach at the city gates. He’s come for revenge, and they falsely assume that restoring Timon will assuage his anger. A chess move, really. A bluff. But it proves yet again that some men will say or do anything to achieve their personal interests. Right, Mr. Edwards?

Meanwhile, Timon has been working on an epitaph to stand as a lasting curse upon Athens. We never know if he’s dead for sure, but a sentry sent out by Alcibiades to find Timon, finds his tomb instead.

Now I’m wondering how exactly Timon buried himself, and who carved out the gravestone. For the sentry takes a rubbing of the Latin text to show Alcibiades, who even now has reached the ramparts of Athens.

Here the fulsomeness of groveling and toadiness reach their fitting apex as the Senators stand upon the city walls and attempt to flatter their way out of sure death. They try and convince Alcibiades to listen to reason (now, of course, after they themselves did not) and only hold those accountable with whom he has a quarrel.

No need to fight. No need to fuss. Just promise you’ll satisfy your grievance only and we’ll open up the gates.

And Alcibiades agrees. Whether he means it or not, we cannot know. But at this crucial moment when the gates are opened to his waiting horde, Alcibiades receives word that Timon is dead.

This is significant, because along with their bartering and wringing of hands, the Athenian Senators lied that they had brought Timon back from the margins.

Whoops.

SECOND SENATOR: So did we woo

Transformed Timon to our city’s love

By humbled message and by promised means.

It’s a gambit that fails. The gates have already swung open to Alcibiades when he discovers that Timon is actually dead.

All bets are now off as Alcibiades stalks into Athens, declaiming:

ALCIBIADES: Bring me into your city,

And I will use the olive with my sword,

Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each

Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech.

Let our drums strike.

It’s a pity the play ends here, because now the great action sequence begins.

The final couplet harbingers doom in the very ickiness of the concluding rhyme: each/leech. Blech. But that’s not how the whole thing closes — oh, no.

Here might have come a stop. But no — unrhymed, standing alone, stuck out like a sore thumb, a thumb about to be jabbed far up somebody’s ass:

LET OUR DRUMS STRIKE.

Spoken in the same terse, foreboding manner as the damning words of the First Senator to him awhile ago as he pleabargained for the release of a friend and got banished for it.

As the Monty Python gang would say… “Run away!”