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.


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.


Spring Break Reading: Coriolanus

This spring break, I’ve decided to read yet more Shakespeare. While I’ve now read 16 Shakespeare plays, ranging from the ultra-famous Romeo and Juliet to far lesser-known plays like Troilus and Cressida, I had not, until this week, read any of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.

Over the course of his career, Shakespeare wrote four plays set in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus. Despite three of the four being (loosely) based on historical events, they are usually considered tragedies, not history plays. (Shakespeare’s history plays focused mostly on English history). However, they are often grouped together as the Roman Plays, a category defined by their setting as well as by being historical tragedies.

If you can even call Coriolanus a tragedy, that is. The title character definitely fits the tragic hero mold, as a powerful man whose “tragic flaw” – in this case his pride – leads to his downfall. But at the same time, compared with other Shakespearean tragedies, this one seems almost tame. Only one named character dies, and beyond his own death there is no lasting harm done.

Granted, not every Shakespearean tragedy has to be a bloodbath. Both Othello and Romeo and Juliet have relatively low death counts, too. But the difference is that those deaths pack a huge emotional punch, while Coriolanus’ just … doesn’t. What feels more tragic: a double teenage suicide leaving behind two grieving families, or an arrogant soldier betraying both sides of a war and then dying for it? Isn’t the point of tragedy that you’re supposed to feel sad about it? But I didn’t. My reaction at the end was more like, “That’s it? That’s the entire scope of the tragedy – the death of the least likable guy in the play?”

That’s not to say I didn’t like the play, just that it doesn’t equal Hamlet or Othello for emotional impact. I found myself enjoying it for very different reasons. It wasn’t particularly tragic for a tragedy, and it certainly wasn’t a lighthearted comedy, but it still had a lot to say.

Coriolanus may be the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, at least those that I have read so far. Yes, the English history plays were political propaganda, but Coriolanus is definitely a critique, and one that is as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare’s England or ancient Rome. With its overly ambitious and deceitful politicians and its volatile mob of commoners whose minds are swayed at the slightest argument, I can’t help feeling it paints an unfairly harsh picture of democracy. And yet, the questions it asks about how and why we choose our leaders are valid ones, and the juxtaposition of the haughty Coriolanus, who openly sneers at the common people and admits he doesn’t care for them, with the underhanded plotting and false flattery of the tribunes, does a good job of portraying the worst extremes politicians can go to. The play doesn’t seem to advocate for dictatorship, but it’s not shy about pointing out the flaws in the Republic it portrays.

The events in the play leave the reader with a lot to think about. How can people be more discerning in who to follow or listen to or vote for? How can politicians balance honesty with tact and pride with compassion? To what extent must elected officials represent the wishes of their constituents? These questions are still important today, but they are also easily overlooked by those of us who have lived our whole lives in a modern-day democratic country.

While the idea that the common people should have a voice in their government was not new in Shakespeare’s time, it was not widespread or well-established. England’s parliament was the exception rather than the rule; most other European countries were absolute monarchies. Perhaps they were more aware of representative democracy not just as a fact of life but as something that must be given thought and attention. In the case of Coriolanus, the play does not blindly celebrate the Roman Republic, but it doesn’t entirely condemn it, either. What it does is pose important questions that, by extension, can be applied not just to Rome but to Shakespeare’s world and to our own.

From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

Richard III, with lions?

I’ve often heard The Lion King described as “Hamlet with lions”, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s more like “Richard III with lions”.

Richard III and Hamlet both feature villains who murder their brothers in order to become king, and both of them go on to murder their nephews in order to try to keep their positions of power. However, the difference is that nobody in Hamlet suspects King Claudius of any kind of treachery – nobody except Hamlet himself. Furthermore, while the Pridelands suffer greatly under Scar’s leadership and are immediately restored after his death, the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” goes far beyond Claudius’ own evil and is not so easily resolved. Scar’s openly despicable persona and single-handed destruction of a once-great land feels much more like Richard III’s reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play.

Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scar is pretty transparently evil. His song with the hyenas has all the hallmarks of a rising dictator. He has convinced them that the lions (except Scar himself) are their enemies, that it’s in their best interest to help him kill Simba and Mufasa, and that their lives will be infinitely better with him as king – yet when he does become king, it becomes obvious he doesn’t really care about helping the hyenas at all. Richard III likewise uses people as disposable pawns and convinces them to ignore his obvious deficiencies. He, like Scar, is charming in a sinister way and can win over even those who know for a fact what a horrible person he is. Claudius, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an ordinary king, taking the throne after the tragic death of his brother. He doesn’t have to charm or manipulate others into supporting him, because everyone just assumes they should. Even Hamlet requires greater proof than his father’s ghost to be convinced of his uncle’s treachery. While Richard III and Scar are obviously evil, hidden by a thin veneer of charisma and empty promises, Claudius is subtle and secretive about his crimes and very nearly gets away with them.

But, of course, Hamlet focuses the majority of its attention on Hamlet himself, Claudius’ nephew who learns what happened and reluctantly sets out to avenge his father. Like Simba, he initially runs away before returning to challenge his uncle. Both princes also encounter the ghost or spirit of their father, who pushes them to act when they are hesitant to do so. However, Hamlet’s story is all about his philosophical contemplation of death and slow descent into madness. Being a children’s movie, there’s nothing like that in The Lion King. Simba’s journey is toward courage and heroism while Hamlet’s leads to death – his own, and almost every other character’s.

On the other hand, Richard III ends with a bit more hope. Its villain protagonist is vanquished and killed, and Henry Tudor takes his place as the new king, marrying Elizabeth of York and ending the War of the Roses. While the princes in the tower are the more direct equivalents to Simba, being Richard III’s nephews who he has murdered, the triumphant ending scenes of The Lion King are highly reminiscent of Richard III: Simba defeats Scar, replaces him as king, and reunites with Nala, a flash-forward showing them with a cub and implying the beginning of a strong and benevolent dynasty to replace Scar’s violent one – exactly the sort of promises made by the ending to Richard III, which is hopeful despite the play’s overall gruesomeness.

Conflict over the throne is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and many of his villains are willing to kill for power. The brother vs. brother plotline also appears in King Lear, as in well as comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It (although, admittedly, only Hamlet and Richard III also involve an uncle trying to murder his nephew). Nor are these themes and motifs unique to Shakespeare. However, of the two Shakespeare plays it most resembles, Lion King has more in common with Richard III than with Hamlet.


Love’s Labour’s Lost

At this point, I like to think that I know what to expect when I sit down to read Shakespeare. After all, I’ve now read fifteen of his plays, including almost all of the most famous ones. I’m not saying that to boast, but rather, to give a bit of context for how utterly blindsided I was by Love’s Labour’s Lost.

It’s not that Love’s Labour’s Lost is a bad play. It’s a cute romantic comedy with a lot of genuinely funny moments. But it’s nothing like what I’ve come to expect from a Shakespearean comedy. Typically, although Shakespeare’s comedies do include plenty of romance and humor, there’s more to them than just a lighthearted love story. Twelfth Night is about a young girl stranded in a foreign country after losing everything in a tragic shipwreck. As You Like It deals with betrayal and exile and finding love in spite of less-than-desirable circumstances. There are times when Much Ado About Nothing looks like a tragedy in the making. Without even getting into tragicomedy and problem play territory, each comedy almost always has something important at stake, which is resolved in the final act, allowing for a happy ending.

However, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, this does not seem to be the case. It’s simply the story of four men who have sworn to study, fast, and remain single for three years, the four women they almost immediately fall in love with, and their various attempts at flirting. The vow that they all make at the beginning could provide some conflict, forcing them to choose between loyalty to their friends and newfound love, but it is easily cast aside. The girls seem to be playing a game with their suitors, using masks and gifts from the four men to engineer a case of mistaken identity. However, they, too, are infatuated and are just having a bit of fun. By the end of the same scene, the four couples are together. In other words, what I’m getting at is that there is very little conflict, almost nothing at stake, and not much in the way of plot.

The characters, too, come across as two-dimensional in comparison to some of Shakespeare’s later work. There is little difference between the four women, and only Berowne stands out as an individual among the four lead men. It could easily have been the story of two friends who make a similar pact and the two women they fall for without almost any of the details changing. Coming from a writer whose plays are known for being intensely character-driven and who created such memorable characters as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind, Prospero, etc., it’s startling to see a play where the lead characters are so interchangeable.

The most interesting thing about Love’s Labour’s Lost is the ending, and that’s what drew me to the play in the first place. Unlike most comedies, this one does not end with marriage, although that’s where it seems to be headed almost from the very beginning. Instead, it ends with the princess learning that her father is dead and the four women returning to France. They promise to reunite with their suitors after a year of mourning, indicating future weddings and a happy ending, although I have to wonder if these four fickle and easily-infatuated men will be able to wait a year or whether they’ll just go off in pursuit of the next group of women to show up at their court. With the rumored sequel, Love’s Labour’s Won, lost to history, there’s no way of knowing. In any case, it’s interesting to see the men forced to keep at least part of their vow (reduced to one year instead of three), rather than simply being able to break the promise and get married right away.

I’ve read and enjoyed lesser-known Shakespeare plays before – I definitely have a soft spot for Troilus and Cressida – but I can see now, having read it, why Love’s Labour’s Lost is so rarely read or performed today. It was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and one can see the beginnings of what would become his signature style in it: lovers who are trying not to fall in love, mistaken identities, clever wordplay, and even the genre-blend of an ending that perhaps foreshadows future tragicomedies. However, those pieces are not supported by a strong storyline or memorable characters and fall flat when there is so little at stake.

My Poetry · Shakespeare

Fall of a Tyrant

A poem about Shakespeare’s Richard III

Scheming, plotting, taking that
Which is not yours to take
Stealing, lying, trusting none
With smiles and friendship fake

Killing, lying, courting one
Who mourns the men you slew
Trapping in a web of lies
All those of use to you

Planning to usurp the throne
Upon a cunning lie
Locked inside the fearsome tower
Youthful heirs must die

Cheering subjects make you king
But enemies grow strong
Cursing you with hate and grief
For all your sin and wrong

Dripping down the castle walls
The blood of those you’ve killed
Brothers, nephews, allies, wife
The blood your hands have spilled

Haunting you with every step
Ghosts on the battlefield
“Despair and die!” their voices scream
By them your fate is sealed

Rising o’er the battlefield
A song of triumph soars
Rebuild the world, unite the signs
Of Lancaster and York

Nevermore from this day on
Shall brothers’ blood be spilled
But rival houses side-by-side
A kinder future build

Rest in peace, you restless ghosts
The battle has been won
The bloodstains fade from castle walls
Your business here is done


Texas Shakespeare Festival: Richard III

Shakespeare Festival - Richard IIII went into the theater last night feeling excited, but a bit apprehensive. I’d only finished reading Richard III a few days before, and while I was looking forward to seeing it play out on stage, it was one of the bloodiest and most disturbing Shakespeare plays I’d ever encountered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be entranced by the gruesome events unfolding or simply disgusted. I left the theater a few hours later, literally speechless and breathless. It was like a horrible train wreck that you just can’t look away from, and I mean that in the best way possible. I loved it!

This was my second night at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and seeing Richard III was a very different experience from Much Ado About Nothing, which is a light, humorous romantic comedy. Richard III had me gasping in horror, biting back screams, and waiting on the edge of my seat as the doomed members of the House of York plotted against each other. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but I’d imagine it’s much the same effect: what’s happening in front of you is just so horrible it leaves you gasping for breath as if you’d just come close to drowning.

Only Richard III isn’t a horror movie. It’s Shakespeare, and it’s – at least in part – history. Elizabethan propaganda, historically inaccurate, yes, but still. The sides may not have been as black-and-white as Shakespeare would have us believe, but the War of the Roses was still an incredibly bloody and violent time, and history is filled with dictators and tyrants as horrible as Shakespeare’s villain.

Shakespeare’s work often speaks to universal themes. Romeo and Juliet is about love and hatred – irrational hatred and irrational love. Hamlet is about the inevitability of death. Othello is about jealousy and distrust. King Lear is about false flattery and backstabbing and the unfortunate fact that the honest often suffer while the dishonest profit. Many of the comedies deal with some of the same themes, coming to happier resolutions. Richard III, likewise, paints a blunt and unvarnished picture of the evil in the world and the ways in which ordinary people allow it: by trying to profit from it, underestimating the dangers, or simply being too afraid to speak up. There’s something about the play, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s works, which transcends time and continues to feel relevant today.