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All done: all read. Thirty-seven plays: the complete dramatic works. Having finished the task I had hoped for an award or a certificate: maybe even a case of sack and a capon to celebrate. Surely, there’s a Shakespeare society that gives out such awards.
There isn’t.

Well here is a potted gallop through the last several plays and some impressions: Henry V is forceful and martial with a large section in French; Henry VI parts 1-3 are likewise martial: the smell of battle, sweat and blood comes off the pages. The best way to see Henry VI is like those movies of great wars: Pearl Harbor, the First World War, that type of thing; it’s a reenactment of the key people and how they acted during the conflict.

Henry VI is more engaging – though looking up Wikipedia as to who all the people are is necessary with the historical background. It’s only defect as drama is the repetition of the form: Nobles gathered and connive, or else insult each other than go to battle, someone dies, then nobles gather and praise fallen heroes, or excoriate foes, or else use fighting words to rediscover their courage, then back into battle. It follows that form for a long, long time. This sequence of plays does have one of Shakespeare’s strongest females in Margaret of Anjou, the wife of the pious spineless Henry VI. She is full of invective and ‘hot spleen’d’ as they said then.

Richard II has a sense of Godfather II in it, power struggles and much reflection on the nature of power. Richard III (not a sequel ) is really, really lo-o-o-ng. History may have been different if young Richard had received counseling and found a nice girl, (“And therefore,–since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days,– I am determined to prove a villain”) instead of stewing his hate into plots. It’s length is a serious consideration.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is weak and wet. The Winter’s Tale is an odd creation: very cruel in the first half and all sunny and ‘hey nonny nonny’ in the second, with the almost obligatory unifications of characters at the end. The Elizabethans liked contrived theater. Unlike that other odd chimera, All’s Wells That Ends Well, it doesn’t fit together, even as an intriguing experiment.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of the best structured plays: clear and clever, the sparring is even between characters, it is a game of power, not a RomCom. Although the message is tainted now by the subservient wife, recall that Margaret of Anjou from Henry VI is a mighty woman and leads her kingdom. And Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, dominates him and is influential that play. Shakespeare didn’t mold stereotypes.

One play that hits all the marks is Julius Caesar even if the story is well-known. It’s also one of the works where the eponymous character hardly features; it might just as well be called Brutus and Cassius. In Act IV, scene III – preempting the Bromance genre – the two assassins declare their enduring bond, after a serious spat:
BRUTUS: Let all the gods know you are mine own proper dude, as honest and clear as the morning light!
CASSIUS: Faith! There are no dudes as close and true as we, and neither be put asunder by no foe as e’re I draw breath.

Hamlet, still has the power to bewitch, though it’s like a greatest hits as you say to yourself silently, ‘ know that, yeah – that one’ with each phrase that has since become a quote. Romeo and Juliet is a paradox in that it is one of the best structured of the plays but the verse is jejune, even awkwardly written, and generally quite pedestrian.

As one of the comedies Twelfth Night is better than many though Viola’s plot: “The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke, Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him” is one of the more bizarre. Naturally, as occurs in Shakespeare’s world, no one can recognize anyone else which might have been a common daily challenge with Elizabethans. The Tempest does not have such faults and is one of the best of all the plays: a blend of mystery and musical poetry, it is a tale of revenge told with comedy and music that makes it passes so well.

Next week I’ll post my overall impressions and my list of favorites.

Guy Cranswick
16 June 2012

The other posts on this reading of Shakespeare are here:
‘Tis-a-most-excellent-enterprise

How shall we beguile the lazy night if not with some delight?

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