HALL OF FAMEon 19 September 2005
This is a collection of Shakespeare's tragedies, of which these four are but a portion:
This play, of course, is perhaps the best known in all of English literature. Taking it's inspiration from lesser plays and tales of the same name, Shakespeare crafted the characters, dialogue and plot into a timeless tale of betrayal, the quest for justice, and ultimately a hollow victory. This play, in short, is a downer.
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
Of course, it really thrilled the audiences, who, lacking the primetime violence of today, enjoyed seeing the blood, the gore, the violence, the swordplay. Those with a more subtle bent were very satisfied with the wonderful dialogues, full of double and self-reflexive meanings. So many of the monologues have become common parlance in our language.
A hit, a very palpable hit.
The 'on one foot' synopsis: Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is suspicious that his step-father killed his father and usurped the throne and his mother's bedchamber; he plots to get revenge; in the meantime his love-interest Ophelia dies; in a duel to the death at the end the mother dies, the step-father dies, the duel contender dies, and Hamlet dies. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The rest is silence.
Rude I am in speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace
Surely Shakespeare was not speaking of himself here. Even his poorly-spoken characters cannot help to have an elegance and subtlety all their own. Othello is another tragedy, this one driven by jealousy. The exact cause of the jealousy can vary; Iago can be jealous of Othello, of his love for Desdemona, of Desdemona herself, or several other possibilities. The emphasis often lies in the performance, and Shakespeare's play is written broadly enough to allow for any of these to be correct interpretations.
But men are men; the best sometimes forget.
Othello satisfied the need for violence, for passion, and for intrigue. 'On one foot', Iago, servant and friend of Othello, who also hates Othello, plants the seeds of suspicion that Desdemona has been unfaithful, leading Othello down a treacherous path that leads in his ultimate murder of Desdemona.
Take note, take note, O world!
To be direct and honest is not safe.
During one performance in the American Old West, an audience member became so entranced and enraged with the actor's portrayal of Iago that he took out his pistol and shot him. The tombstone of the actor reads 'Here lies the greatest actor'.
The prince of darkness is a gentleman.
This most difficult of Shakespeare plays, both for performing and for studying, is one of the true masterpieces of English (or any) literature, and yet is underperformed and underappreciated due to the power of its complexity and of its tragedy. Indeed, often the tragedy at the end has been softened by having Cordelia survive victorious. Beware these kinds of performances--they not Shakespeare's intent, however much we wish.
Lear begins with folly, and ends in tragedy, while treachery and evil seems to creep like a vine choking off first this person, then that. The fool is the only wise one; the insane are the only protected, and the nobles increasingly lose nobility of intent and action as the events progress. Gloucester and Lear are both deceived by wicked children turned against their better offspring; all ends in tragedy for most of the lot.
Lear addresses sibling rivalries, parent/child relationships, poverty and insanity, and any number of other readily accessible issues, but all interwoven so tightly that they cannot be unravelled easily, yet all the while the world for the characters are unravelling thread by thread before our very eyes. Lear points out the folly of human planning and agency. Lear was banned from performance, actually, during 1788-1820 when George III was considered insane, and the connexion between stage and royalty would be too blurred for official comfort.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones!
The witches, the blood-stained hands, the play whose name must not be mentioned in a theatre lest bad luck befall the actor or production. Macbeth is all of these, and more. Loosely based upon a real historical character, the tragedy here is one of ambition.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air
Did Macbeth really see the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, or was it indigestion because of the haggis? Macbeth can be played with or without a conscience, which makes for differing character development, but both options are available in Shakespeare's flexible playwriting.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell
Macbeth is driven by his ambition, but also by the ambition of his wife, Lady Macbeth, as treacherous a villain in many respects as any male character in Shakespeare. Macbeth has an overgrown sense of invincibility, convinced by prophecies that his course will be successful, and ordinarily it is (until it all goes awry); it is a successful struggle to the throne, but never secure, and in the end, all is lost.
Macbeth may be the bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays, a thrill for Elizabethan audiences, and a wonder to behold as the scenes get ever more desperate and darker.
There are so many editions of Shakespeare available, and many have merits. This particular volume of the thirteen major tragic plays provides notes and readable text, but not much by way of commentary; it lets the plays stand on their own merit. Not short by any means (over 1200 pages), this will nonetheless give a good edition of the tragedies for any library.