Shakespeare

Henry IV

The Henriad is a collection of four Shakespearean history plays spanning the reigns of three different kings: Richard II, Henry IV (parts I & II), and Henry V. While they can be read and performed individually, each play is connected to those that come before and after it. Having read them out-of-order, I didn’t realize just how connected they were until I went back and read the Henry IV plays, which make up the middle part of the tetralogy.

Henry IV Part I is so filled with references to Richard II that I imagine it would have been very difficult to appreciate without already being familiar with Richard’s story. The whole conflict of the book is centered around the people who helped put Henry on the throne in the first place changing their minds and deciding, too late, they’d rather have Richard after all. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is the way the events of Richard II color the relationship between Henry IV and his rebellious son, Prince Hal.

Richard II was, among other things, a horrible king who had no idea he was a bad king, or that there could possibly be any such thing as a bad king. It’s not so much that he was intentionally cruel to anyone as that he was utterly self-centered, believing 100% in his divine right to rule, and to make whatever decisions he wanted. However, his incompetency and selfish nature are not the only reasons he was overthrown. The nobility seemed more concerned with the fact that he spent so much time with commoners, putting his “favorites” in positions of power and ignoring the nobles who would traditionally have been his closest advisors. Is it any wonder, then, that Henry IV is concerned to see his son and heir spend most of his time in a tavern with a bunch of drunken commoners?

Henry IV even explains this himself in Part I, when he scolds the prince for his behavior:

For all the world
As thou art to this hour was Richard then
When I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh;
And even as I was then is Percy now.

Henry IV sees in his heir the same tendencies that he opposed in Richard II, and he sees in Henry Percy’s rebellion the potential for the same kind of rebellion he himself led when he deposed Richard. It’s not just that he disapproves of the prince’s friends or is disappointed to see him wasting his time in a tavern and neglecting his princely duties. Rather, he seems to be deeply worried to see his own son behaving in a way that reminds him of the king he overthrew. He knows all too well how fragile a king’s grip on power can be.

Of course, having read Henry V, I know that isn’t the direction this story is taking. By the time Prince Hal takes the throne as Henry V, he’s ready to leave behind his rebellious ways and accept a king’s responsibility. His old friends appear in that play, but he pays them little attention, and by the end, most of them have died. I mentioned when I watched the 1989 movie version of Henry V that the short flashbacks to Henry IV made it easier to understand the moments in which Henry rejects or punishes an old friend; now, having read the entire Henriad, I think it would be interesting to go back to Henry V and see if I interpret anything differently.

One common thread, I think, is that Henry V is deeply aware of how the people perceive him, a quality that sets him apart from both his father and Richard II. While Richard seemed to enjoy putting on a performance of being king, also he seemed to assume that he was universally loved. Henry IV, on the other hand, believed in setting himself apart from his people and encourages his son to do the same. Henry V disguises himself to eavesdrop on his soldiers and makes eloquent speeches to inspire them before battle. Although his father does not realize it, he gives careful consideration to how his association with Falstaff and the others makes him look, and he deliberately plans out his own coming-of-age story to cast himself in the best light possible. He works carefully to craft a positive image for himself, one that contrasts with both his father, Richard II, and even his younger self.

The biggest complaint I have with Henry IV is that it could have been one play. The vast majority of the action and character development take place in Part I, with only a very few important developments in Part II:

  • The rebellion is anticlimactically stopped
  • King Henry IV dies
  • King Henry V becomes king and rejects his old friends

The play is not so much its own story as a bridge between the ending of Part I and the beginning of Henry V.  There is very little to Acts I-III, which really just set the stage for the events mentioned above near the end of the play. It was already implied that the rebellion would be stopped at the end of Part I, and the rest is evident in the opening scenes of Henry V. King Henry IV’s death scene (Act IV Scene V) and King Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff (Act V Scene V) are both powerful and moving scenes, but with those two exceptions, the play itself ends up feeling superfluous.

Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Book Review: Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate

If trees could talk, what would they say? That’s one of the many questions asked by Wishtree, a 2017 Middle Grade novel by Katherine Applegate.

The narrator is a red oak tree, but the story follows many characters: the animals that make their home in the tree, the owner of the land the tree is on, and the children of the two families who rent the houses on that property. Every year, the people of the town come to the tree to make wishes, which they write on pieces of fabric and tie to the branches. The tree has no power to grant their wishes, but it becomes determined to grant a little girl’s wish for a friend.

This little girl has moved into one of the two houses on the property, and she immediately forms a close bond with the tree, sneaking out to sit beneath it every night. The tree begins to care for the girl, and it becomes increasingly frustrated at its inability to help her. Not only does she have trouble making friends, but one day, a stranger carves the word “LEAVE” into the tree’s bark. She and her parents are immigrants from the Middle East, and not everyone is happy to welcome them.

Meanwhile, the owner of the property is growing increasingly frustrated with the annual Wish Day festivities, as well as the damage the tree’s roots are doing to the houses’ plumbing systems. The vandalism pushes her over the edge, and she decides to chop the tree down. While the animals that live in the tree search for new homes, the tree itself, who had expected to live for hundreds of years longer, has to face its own impending death and becomes increasingly determined to grant the little girl’s wish as a final act of kindness.

An unconventional narrator, like a tree, is the sort of thing that seems like a recipe for disaster. How can a human reader sympathize with a tree? How can a human author understand what a tree might think and do if it had a humanlike mind and the ability to act? How can any of this be pulled off without seeming ridiculously cheesy? It seems like the sort of thing that could never work, and yet somehow it does.

The tree never seems fully human. It looks at humans from an outsider’s viewpoint and cares for them but does not understand them. At the same time, though, it’s characterized in a way that, while distinctly tree-like, is relatable enough to seem real. I found myself seeing the story through the tree’s eyes, understanding its perspective as well as the human characters’. Its intervention in the story is just subtle enough to allow suspension of disbelief without making it a passive observer, and the story touches on powerful themes and ideas that make it a story worth telling, as well as one with potential to appeal to readers far older than its target audience.

My Poetry

The Brightest Star: a Poem

Because only the brightest stars become black holes …


You must have been a brilliant star
The brightest in the sky
Bigger, bolder than the sun
Burning through the night

You must have burned for countless ages
Seen the rise and fall
Of planets, stars, and tiny life forms
You must have seen it all

You must have been a supernova
Blazing in the night
Dying in the depths of space
A star’s final light

You must have been the brightest star
But that was ages past
No longer star or supernova
For these things don’t last

A hollow void that drains away
All light that can be found
You must have been the brightest star
To be a black hole now

 

Shakespeare

Shakespearean Anachronism

Today I went to see a college production of Romeo and Juliet, and it was very, very different from anything I’ve seen before. Instead of being purely modernized or purely historical, it was an odd mix of old and new, with swords and daggers used in all the major fight scenes while at the same time using modern dress: suits, sneakers, and women in pants. Women in pants fighting with swords, even, because several supporting roles went to women that were originally written as men. While Romeo and Juliet is typically a story in which the men fight and the women stay on the fringes or get caught in the crossfire, in this version women were active participants in the feud and actively involved in trying to end it as well. I’m not sure what kind of statement, if any, they were trying to make here, but the result was a play that felt both more balanced and modern and, at times, even more disturbing. Juliet being forced to marry Count Paris is one thing. Juliet being forced to marry Count Paris while a female Benvolio is out there swordfighting and sneaking into parties with her cousin feels shockingly unfair, highlighting just how little control Juliet has over her own future.

The anachronistic interpretation took a little getting used to. But on the other hand, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anachronisms. They were often performed in the clothing of the time despite taking place in the past, and the texts themselves often impose elements of contemporary culture onto historical societies. For instance, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the choice to marry Demetrius or become a nun – in Ancient Greece! The stories in Shakespeare have more to do with Elizabethan England than with the places they are supposedly set, and continue to be relevant today despite being over 400 years old. In a way, the stories could be said to take place outside the typical boundaries of time and place. They could take place at any time, in almost any location. The production that I saw made the story feel both timeless and immediate, not so much like a period piece but like something from hundreds of years ago happening right now – which is probably just as Shakespeare intended it.

From Page to Screen · Middle-Grade

From Page to Screen: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time has never been one of my favorite books. I feel like it’s important to say that upfront. I liked it but didn’t love it as a kid, and I felt about the same when I re-read it recently in preparation for the movie. I’m a book person, and this is a book blog, but for once, I went into a movie adaptation of a book without any kind of set-in-stone feeling that the book would be better, no matter what they did. This is not one of those books for me.

Many movies based on books fall shortest in character development. While books have hundreds upon hundreds of pages to flesh out their characters, not to mention the ability to show readers what they’re thinking and feeling, movies have to rely on dialogue and acting choices within a much more limited time frame. However, the characters in A Wrinkle in Time were beautifully realized. Charles Wallace in particular comes across as brilliant and childlike at the same time, which is quite the accomplishment for a young child actor playing a five-year-old genius. Meg’s parents and Calvin all remain mostly true to how they were portrayed in the book, but in Meg’s story, the movie actually takes things further and does – dare I say? – a better job of exploring who she is. For instance, in both book and movie, Mrs. Whatsit gives her the “gift” of her flaws to help her on Camazotz, but in the book this just means that she has to tap into her stubbornness to resist IT’s power. In the movie, it’s by accepting herself, faults and all, that she’s able to resist and free her mind from IT’s control.

The characters’ relationships and interactions with each other ring true. Mr. and Mrs. Murray’s love for each other, their love for their children, the growing friendship and attraction between Meg and Calvin, and the mentorship provided by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit all play out believably on screen. But where the movie really shines is in showing the deep, powerful love between Meg and Charles Wallace. The moment where she realizes that her love for her brother is stronger than IT’s hold over him is already by far the most powerful moment of the book, and would have been one of the worst places to fall short on. Thankfully, the two young actors really do an exceptional job, not only on that scene but on building up a convincing brother/sister relationship throughout the movie that gives the scene a strong foundation to stand on.

My biggest problem with the book is the stilted dialogue, and in that area, I’d say the movie is better. It’s still sometimes a bit cheesy – for instance, Mrs. Who speaking only in quotes gets old pretty fast – but at least the kids do talk to each other pretty much like normal kids, and the three Mrs. W’s aren’t really human anyway.

It’s not until they get to Camazotz that things begin to go wrong. In the book, Camazotz is both far more mundane and far more disturbing. It’s not the origin of the darkness, and it’s not some kind of nightmare illusion planet. It’s just a planet – a surprisingly earth-like planet at that – which has completely given in to the darkness. To me, the idea that a whole planet full of people – humans, because the people of Camazotz are human, or at least close enough that no one can tell the difference – would collectively decide to choose evil over good, to give themselves up to complete conformity and choose to let themselves be mind-controlled pawns of a pure evil entity – is far more terrifying than the more intense action sequences of the movie. The people of Camazotz were explicitly real and alive in the book, and some were even capable of resisting, like the little boy who throws away his ball. In the movie, they’re all just illusions.

By extension, one of the novel’s main themes is lost. Or, at least, it loses some of its power. Camazotz was a place of complete conformity, and a greatly exaggerated reflection of the peer pressure Meg and Calvin experience at school. On a different level, the society shown on Camazotz suggests that evil succeeds when people stop thinking and acting as individuals. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace actually speak to several of Camazotz’ people, some of whom are too afraid to help and some of whom are simply indifferent. Nowhere do we see a human inhabitant of Camazotz, aside from the red-eyed man, actually doing something evil – but we do see them going about their daily business as if the world that they live in isn’t consumed by evil. Camazotz in the book is sort of a cautionary tale for those of us on Earth, but in the movie it’s not much more than a pop-up book of nightmares.

So, was the book better? Yes … and no. Everything from the moment they arrive on Camazotz to the end of the movie – with the exception of Meg’s love saving Charles Wallace – was completely off the mark. As an adaptation, it can hardly compare when it completely overlooks one of the book’s main themes in favor of pointless action sequences. But from a character point of view, it was excellent, and perhaps even better than the book. I did like it, and I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out, but I still wish someone involved had understood what the point was to all those identical houses and balls bouncing in rhythm.

Shakespeare

Spring Break Reading: Richard II

Richard II is the third one of Shakespeare’s history plays that I’ve read, and it’s nothing like either of the others. I’m not entirely sure if I like it or not – but then, that’s how I felt when I first read Henry V, and now it’s one of my very favorites. While Henry V is a patriotic, celebratory play and Richard III a gruesome horror story, Richard II is far less straightforward.

On the one hand, King Richard II is a terrible king. Worse than that, he doesn’t seem to have any idea he’s a bad king, or any understanding of a king’s responsibilities – which makes a certain amount of sense, since the real Richard II took the throne at ten years old. He’s indecisive and prone to favoritism, as the opening scenes show: when two noblemen each accuse each other of treason, he first agrees to let them fight to the death, before changing his mind and banishing them both – one for ten years (later reduced to six because he wants to make the man’s father happy) and the other for life. Not that I think fights to the death are the best way to settle a dispute, but frequently and easily changing one’s mind is not a great leadership quality, either. And yet, the play spends a great deal of time talking about the divine right of kings, and many characters assume that Richard is God’s choice to rule and therefore any attempt to remove him from power is wrong.

On the other hand, Henry of Bolingbroke is Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor, and all of the history plays are at least partially Elizabethan propaganda, so we’re probably meant to be rooting for him. He certainly seems to be a more capable ruler than Richard, and he has no problem winning the nobles’ support, although not the support of the play’s religious figures. That’s where the whole divine right thing comes into play most.

Neither Henry nor Richard seems like a particularly bad person – as in, neither of them is a cartoonish villain in the vein of Richard III – but neither of them seems particularly good, either. They both make questionable decisions, and they both have faults. Richard’s main ones are immaturity and an utter lack of leadership skills. But he has a strange sort of dignity even in defeat, and he becomes increasingly thoughtful and introspective. It’s hard not to pity him, especially near the end. Like Hamlet, he might have led a happier life if he weren’t royalty. Henry, on the other hand, is incredibly arrogant in believing he can just march right back into a country he was exiled from to demand his inheritance and, by the way, the throne as well. But on the other hand, he’s also smart, capable, and probably right in thinking he’d be a better king than Richard – except, this is a history play, and the real Henry IV’s reign was short and turbulent.

All-in-all, they both come across as remarkably human for two monarchs in a historical drama. Unlike with Henry V and Richard III, who are clearly defined as hero and villain, in Richard II Shakespeare seems to present two fully human, deeply flawed contenders for the throne and lets the audience – or the actors and director – draw their own conclusion. That’s not what I was expecting, but then again, character development is one of Shakespeare’s strengths. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised it would be apparent here as well.

Shakespeare

Spring Break Reading: Julius Caesar

I just finished reading Julius Caesar, the second Shakespeare play I’ve read this week. Wow! There’s definitely a lot going on in this one, and it’s not hard to see why it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s highlights.

One of the things that stands out most to me is that the play doesn’t really have a clear-cut hero or villain. On the one hand, Brutus is more well-intentioned than Cassius and probably thinks he’s doing the right thing – but what he’s doing is helping to assassinate one of his closest friends, so maybe he’s not as honorable as he would have you think. And even the less-noble Cassius is more of a catalyst for violence than a full-blown, bloodthirsty maniac along the lines of Shakespeare’s more famous villains. In other words, he’s more like Tybalt than Iago or Edmund.

On the other hand, there’s Mark Antony, who seems like a relatively good person and doesn’t get drawn into the conspiracy – but at the same time, he’s superbly skilled at deceit and manipulation and has no problem whatsoever with inciting an angry mob. Julius Caesar himself feels like almost a side character, given that he dies early on in the play. He’s certainly not a bloodthirsty villain in the vein of Richard III. He sometimes seems too proud or too happy to accept power, but he also shows courage and decency. Even the conspirators don’t seem to think he’s a bad person; they seem to have more of a problem with the idea of having a king than with Caesar himself.

Everyone is to some degree sympathetic, and everyone’s intentions are to some degree understandable – but they’re also wrong. Caesar’s death does not prevent the Roman Republic from becoming the Roman Empire, Brutus sacrifices his honor by involving himself with the assassination, Mark Antony has his own tragedy awaiting, and – this being Shakespeare – half the cast is dead by the end. The story is made up primarily of people doing what they think is for the best and a steadily increasing death toll. The road to Hell is paved with … well, you know. And that, I think, is the true tragedy of the play.