Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Big House Books

Over at Book Riot, writer Johanna Lane has an article exploring the tradition of literature that revolves around large homes or estates.  She talks about her favorite "big house novels" and how they remain interesting to readers today:

"But the attraction of these novels is partly because the rhythms of life in great houses are so very different from the rhythms of our own: The characters linger over breakfast, they take long walks in the gardens, they stop for lunch, they stop again for afternoon tea, they talk to each other without constantly checking their iPhones."

Though she talks about how these novels have fallen out of favor of the years, I suspect that the success of Downton Abbey will change how much a modern audience enjoys those types of stories.  I have just started a "big house" novel myself (Anya Seton's Dragonwyck) and thought I would provide a list of my favorite novels that involve big homes who become just as much a part of the story as any other character:

How about you?  Do you have a favorite "big house" novel?  Share it with us!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Henry IV, Part 1

"Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;"

Written around 1597, Henry IV Part 1 is the second in Shakespeare's four part series dealing with the reigns of the English kings Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.  It remains one of Shakespeare's most popular works and includes many memorable characters like Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Sir John Falstaff.  Though it is popular, it's interpretations remain open and continue to evolve with modern readings.

The Plot:

King Henry IV's reign has been anything but quiet.  Not only is his mind disquieted by the murder of his predecessor, Richard II, but rebellion is beginning to arise in the kingdom.  Wales and Scotland are giving trouble on the borders and Henry is increasingly at adds with the powerful Percy family of Northumberland.  Adding to his troubles is the behavior of his eldest son, Hal, the Prince of Wales, who has forsaken the royal court and instead wastes his time in taverns and with low companions like Sir John Falstaff.  King Henry often wishes that Hal were more like Henry Percy (called "Hotspur"), the warrior son of the Duke of Northumberland.

The rebellious groups, including the Percy family, join forces and aim to overthrow the king and divide Britain into thirds. Prince Hal joins his father's army as they march to Shrewsbury where Hotspur's forces, and battle, await them.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the second of Shakespeare's "History" plays that I have read.  This was also the one I was most familiar with as it seems to be the most popular of those particular plays.  Though it didn't eclipse Richard III in my opinion, I did enjoy the many different viewpoints it had to offer.

One of my favorite aspects is the idea of the two Henrys, two stars in one sphere.  At first, we share King Henry's view that Hotspur is to be admired above Prince Hal.  Hotspur is a consummate warrior while Hal seems to take pleasure only in drinking and carousing, hardly the desired image of a future king.  But Hal soon tells us that he realizes the degradation the company he keeps brings on him and that he is only biding his time until he can prove that he has the character of a king.  Soon, King Henry learns that the honor and glory found on the battlefield and in the royal court cannot make up for the love a son bears his father.  Though Hal does not seem to be the son his father might have wished, he doesn't hesitate to leave the party life behind in order to defend him and his throne.

Another aspect that must be discussed is the character of Sir John Falstaff.  Perhaps no other comedic Shakespeare character is as well loved or well studied as Falstaff.  On the one hand, he seems to be most of the deadly sins personified.  He is fat, a drunkard, lazy, a thief, boastful, and cowardly.  For many years he is Prince Hal's teacher and leads him in a life of pleasure and debauchery.  But Falstaff has a depth that many characters don't.  His love of Prince Hal is genuine, and he has a quality about him that causes us to feel a bit of sympathy towards him.

This is a solid play and one that many people continue to love.  It has heavy drama with the rebellion scenes balanced with great comedy involving Falstaff's escapades.  I do recommend it as a must read for a general understanding of Shakespeare's works.  Though I wouldn't call it a favorite, it is still one that I'm glad I read.  

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 2012 production of the play included the BBC's The Hollow Crown.  It stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Michelle Dockery, and Simon Russell Beale.  It is a fantastic production and a must see.  The acting is spectacular, of course, and the structure of the play is kept mostly intact.  The action scenes are especially well done and it is nice to see it in more of a film setting versus a stage setting.  I highly recommend it.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.          

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

O Captain, My Captain...

In memory of Robin Williams 1951-2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

“When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

If you have ever read (or seen) and enjoyed a modern romance story, then you owe a lot to William Shakespeare.  His 1598/1599 comedic play Much Ado About Nothing has set the tone for many of today's most loved romance stories and remains a classic itself.  It is a story that continues to be retold in modern interpretations all over the world and remains a personal favorite of mine.

The Plot:

Leonato, the Governor of Messina, receives word that the Spanish prince Don Pedro is arriving along with his companions after a successful battle.  One of these companions, Count Claudio, instantly falls for Leonato's daughter, Hero.  Meanwhile, Benedick, the other companion, takes his up his war of wit and words with Beatrice, Leonato's niece.  They both profess to hate each other and are constantly throwing verbal punches.  Claudio and Don Pedro come up with a scheme to convince Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him and vice versa, thus causing them to fall in love with each other.  They enlist the help of Hero and meet with immediate success.  Hero also falls for Claudio and the two become engaged.  But Don Perdro's brother, Don Jon, decides to wreck things for the lovers by convincing Claudio that Hero is being unfaithful to him.  Chaos ensues and one wonders if either couple will finally achieve happiness.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the first Shakespeare play that I became familiar with and it remains one of my all time favorites.  It is one of those stories that seems to come off of the page with its great characters, witty repartees, and fun plot.

Though Hero and Claudio's story drives much of the action, it is Beatrice and Benedick who are the stars of the show.  I think their story is interesting because you can't tell when they actually begin to fall for each other.  Have they always harbored secret feelings for each other?  Or does percieving weakness in the other (i. e. one being in love with the other) allow them to take down their own defenses and open themselves up to love?  Whatever the cause, their transformation from sarcastic enemies to sarcastic lovers is a fun one to watch.

One of the aspects of this story that I love is the masking of one's identity.  At one point or another, almost every character pretends to be someone they aren't.  Whether it be as a barrier to protect themselves or a way to conceal themselves while creating mischief, each character plays a part that is not really his.  I think this has an interesting correlation with our society today.  We hide behind our avatars and our Twitter handles in order to protect ourselves or to shrug off responsibility for the things we do or say.  Like the characters in the story, we have to open ourselves up to each other in order to experience love and to take responsibility for our actions.

If you are looking for a place to start in Shakespeare, this is a good one.  It is probably one of his most accessible and fun plays.  Probably my favorite comedy so far.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

I watched Joss Whedon's 2012 film starring Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, and a host of other people from other Whedon productions.  Though the dialogue is all Shakespeare, the setting is modern.  I truly love this film.  While it is faithful to Shakespeare's lines and plot, its setting allows for a fun and modern interpretation.  All of the actors are outstanding, and Nathan Fillion is especially endearing as the hapless constable, Dogberry.  I also loved how they took the songs in the original play and set them to modern music.  I highly recommend this!

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share with us in the comments!