Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Happy Birthday To:

Truman Capote
September 30, 1924

“Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I'd rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.” - from Breakfast at Tiffany's 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra

"The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack."

Believed to have been first performed around 1607, this play immortalizes one of history's most famous and captivating love stories...that of Roman general Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt.  It is a story of passion, betrayal, power, and ambition.  But more than the relationship of two people is at stake as two empires collide and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

The Plot:

Mark Antony is one of the triumvirs of the Roman Republic, but lately he has been neglecting his duties.  He has fallen in love with Cleopatra and spends his time with her in Egypt.  He ignores Rome's problems, even when his own wife dies after leading a rebellion against Octavius Caesar.  Tensions mount between Antony and Caesar when Antony is called back to Rome to help fight pirates who are terrorizing the Mediterranean.  In an effort to smooth things over and strengthen the bond between the co-rulers, newly widowed Antony marries Caesar's sister, Octavia.

Eventually, Antony is unable to resist returning to Cleopatra.  He abandons his family and has himself and Cleopatra crowned as King and Queen of the eastern third of the Roman Empire.  War is inevitable and both sides prepare for a meeting that will change not only of their own lives, but that of the empire as well.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I wasn't sure what to expect from this particular play, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.  It was, in my opinion, the most complex of the Shakespeare plays that I have read.  I enjoyed the Roman setting, and the similarities to the power struggle seen in Macbeth was interesting as well.

The play is structured around the dichotomy of Rome and Egypt.  Rome is portrayed as an almost masculine empire.  It is ruled by men and governed by law and reason.  Honor and strength in battle is considered more important than anything.  Egypt, ruled be a woman, is portrayed as a land of pleasure and sensuality.  Emotion dictates action.  In this world, there is no room for emotion and reason to coexist.  Antony is weak because he allows his desire for Cleopatra to keep him from fulfilling his duties to Rome and to his family.  Though it is line with 17th century thinking, it could certainly rub modern audiances the wrong way.

The role of Cleopatra is considered by many one of Shakespeare's most complex female roles.  At first glance, she seems to embody the manipulative seductress.  She is given to hysterics, uses her changing moods to keep Antony with her, and rules a court given completely to pleasure and sensuality.  And yet, underneath all of that, she is also a skilled ruler.  She shows time and again that she does not use her feminine whiles for selfish pleasure only.  She is Julius Caesar's mistress while he is in power.  She saves her Egyptian fleet at the price of Antony's.  She considers Octavius Caesar's offer of allowing her to keep Egypt in exchange for killing Antony.  And she takes her own life, not in grief for Antony, but rather in fear that she will be taken to Rome as a prize.  It is clear that she is not a character to be put in a box.

This was a nice way to finish my summer reading of Shakespeare.  It is certainly not as cut and dry of a play as it may appear at first glance.  And in many ways, it combines elements of all of the Shakespearean categories...comedy, history, and tragedy.  A good read for anyone who loves Roman history and complicated characters.

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 1974 television performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It stars Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman, Corin Redgrave, and Patrick Stewart.  This is the RSC, so naturally it was well acted.  Some of the production values screamed 1970s, but overall it was a good performance.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Books That Made Me...

If you have been on Facebook recently,  you have probably seen the "10 Books That Have Stayed With You" meme.  Participants have listed 10 books that continue to impact them and then challenge friends to do the same.  Author Roxane Gay took it one step further with this post entitled "The Books That Made Me Who I Am".  In it she states:  "I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books." 

It got me to thinking about, not my "favorite" books, not books that have "stayed with me", but the books that have transformed me as a person and that influenced me in different ways throughout my life.

My inquisitiveness must stem from my early love of mystery novels.  My mind goes back to the moments spent curled up on the couch as my mom read me the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators Series.  I was caught up in the mystery and the knowledge that you could solve the problem if you were observant.  As I grew, this was only encouraged by the Sherlock Holmes stories.

My love of the magic and beauty of childhood and home certainly comes from classics like The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, and Paddington Bear.  Even now, reading them brings me a sense of peace, safety, and a love of the simple and funny moments in life.  As I grew, I learned that comfort and safety isn't guaranteed.  But reading The Chronicles of Narnia gave me courage and helped me realize that though God may not always seem close, He is there and has equipped me to face every battle.

My idea of friendship was influenced by Little Women and the Anne of Green Gables series.  I always envisioned me and my sisters as being an extension of the March family.  We were very close as children and often found our amusement, our encouragement, and our strength within our family circle.  And Anne Shirley taught me that it isn't age, gender, class, or proximity that determines if someone can be your friend.  It is choosing to see beyond what is visible in people and embracing the spirit within them.

The hopeless romantic in me is fed by the likes of the Jane Austen novels, North and South, Rebecca, and classic fairy tales.  I'm a sucker for a romance, and my idea of the perfect man has (for better or worse) certainly been shaped by these stories.

My self-worth, as a person and as a woman, has been influenced by various female characters.  Elnora Comstock from A Girl of the Limberlost taught me that self education can take you as far as any structured classroom.  Marian Halcomb from The Woman in White taught me that strength, love, and intelligence are more important than traditional beauty.  Laura Ingalls from the Little House series taught me to embrace an adventurous spirit and to not let others' ideas of who you should be keep you from living the life you want.

The one book that has had the most influence on me from the very first time I read it was Jane Eyre.  As I have grown and matured, it has become what I needed in each stage of life.  As a teenager, I reveled in the romance between Jane and Rochester.  Now, as an adult, I see in Jane not only the person I am, but also who I want to become.  A passionate person enclosed in a quiet frame.  Someone who feels that she must do the right thing, no matter how much she wishes not to.  Someone who cares about herself and reputation, yet doesn't allow the opinions of others to dictate her life.  Someone who is comfortable in solitude, and yet desires true companionship.  No matter how the rest of my life turns out, I can't help but feel that this book will always be one of my touchstones.

What about you?  What books have shaped your life and the person you have become?  Share with us!           

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Henry IV, Part 2

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

The reign of Henry IV draws to a conclusion in the third of Shakespeare's series of history plays.  Though less known (and less loved) than Part 1, there are moments of mirth and heartbreak  that will remain with the reader (or audiance) forever.

The Plot:

Part 2 picks up right where Part 1 leaves off.  Hotspur is slain, but there are other rebellious parties that must be defeated.  Prince John of Lancaster rides to the north to engage the armies of the Archbishop of York.  Sir John Falstaff makes his way, slowly, behind him gathering men for the royal forces along the way.  Prince Hal seems to slip back into his old habits and company, again grieving his father.  And King Henry IV is weighed down by his crown and feels he is reaching the end of his reign.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

As a follow up to Part 1, this particular play seems less dramatic and not as tightly written.  There are no battle scenes, less time is spent amongst the rebels, and Prince Hal and Falstaff only encounter each other twice.  But there were some stand out ideas and scenes that definitely stuck with me.

The first is the decline of King Henry IV.  He is a man who gained his crown through rebellion and has had to fight every moment of his reign to keep it.  His dream of leading a crusade to the Holy Land slowly fades as he realizes that his health and the rebellion in the kingdom will never allow it.  Though he gained what he wanted (the throne of England) he was never able to enjoy it in peace.  His greatest achievement became his greatest curse.  He hopes that Prince Hal will have a more peaceful reign since he will attain the crown legitimately, through inheritance.

The most important part of this play is the transformation of Prince Hal to Henry V.  At the beginning of the play, it seems that he has slipped back into his old habits.  He continues to frequent his old haunts and spend his nights in pleasure.  And yet, it becomes apparent that his perspective is changing.  As his father lies on his deathbed, he considers how much the crown cost the king and what a weight of responsibility it is.  His acceptance of this responsibility and his change in behavior is both wonderful and heartbreaking.  It was good to see him accept the Lord Chief Justice (who had openly scolded his wild behavior) as a mentor.  On the other hand, his dismissal and banishment of his former companions, including Falstaff, comes across as rather harsh.  Though we know that Falstaff is a fool and not someone who should be close to a king, it is obvious that his love for Hal is genuine.  The betrayal he felt must have been devistating.

This is probably the weakest of the Shakespeare plays I have read this summer, yet it is one that should be read along with the other three in the series.  It certainly outlines the burden that comes with power and the strength of character needed to rule wisely.

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.

As with Part I, I watched the 2012 production included in BBC's The Hollow Crown.  It stars Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, David Bamber, and Geoffrey Palmer.  It was a wonderful production that beautifully conveyed the heavy emotion of the play.  Definitely worth watching.

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying,  dying

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Tempest

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” 

Supposedly written in 1610-11, The Tempest is believed by many scholars to be the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own.  Though not very popular with 17th century audiences, it is now considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's greatest works.  In some ways, this particular play is concerned with its own nature, and many early scholars have seen it as Shakepeare's farewell to the theater.  

The Plot:

After being usurped by his brother, Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have lived for 12 years on a deserted island.  Chance brings those who had overthrown him in the vicinity of the island, and Prospero uses his magic arts to cause a storm that washes everyone ashore and scatters them about the island.  This includes his brother, Antonio, Alonso the King of Naples, and the king's son, Ferdinand.  With help of his spirit servant, Ariel, Prospero works to bring all of the company back together and reclaim his rightful place as Duke of Milan.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I was pretty familiar with the plot of this play though I had never actually read it.  It has several different qualities that set it apart from the typical Shakespearean comedy.  I found it to be less laugh out loud, but rather enjoyed the more mystical aspects of it.

As with Macbeth, the atmosphere of The Tempest contributes heavily to the impression it leaves.  While the atmosphere of the former is dark and foreboding, the atmosphere of this play is light and mischievous yet tempered by a solemnity.  The magic of the two plays also contrast well as the spells and dark omens of Macbeth contribute to horror and evil while Prospero's magic is used mainly for good.  I loved the mystical qualities of the play, both playful and solemn.  Ariel, as an immortal spirit, brings fun to the story and his tricks and interactions with the villains of the play are often hilarious.  As a man approaching the end of his life, Prospero is much more straightforward and his often heavy spirit keeps the play from being in the same vein as A Midsummer Night's Dream.  We are much less concerned with characters looking ridiculous than we are in other comedies.

One of the interpretations of the story that I found fascinating was the idea of Shakespeare writing Prospero as himself.  This theory has persisted for many years and is accepted by most critics.  In this theory, the plot is meant to represent the theater and Shakespeare as magician controls the characters and even the very elements.  Yet, like Prospero, Shakespeare is approaching the end of his life and will be letting go of his servants (characters) and his magic arts (writing). "Our revels now are ended.  These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air..."  This idea of the magician/playwright giving up his magic and retiring from the public eye is both beautiful and sad.  It makes Prospero's final plea to the audience for freedom and release all the more powerful.  "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free."

I think this is the most beautiful of the Shakespeare plays that I have read.  The free use of magic and song, the mischievousness contrasted with villainy, and the reflections of a person at the end of their life all combine to be something rather extraordinary.  Though it may or may not be Shakespeare's final work, it is certainly a fitting send off for history's greatest playwright.  A must read for any Shakespeare lover.

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 2010 film version starring Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, and Alan Cumming.  At first I thought that Prospero becoming Prospera would be distracting, but Mirren gave an excellent performance and played the character brilliantly.  All of the acting was wonderful and the CG elements helped keep the "magic" of the play intact.  They also did a great job incorporating the many songs of the play, even turning Prospero's epilogue into the end theme.  Worth a watch in my opinion.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.               

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Coming Soon...

As most of you who have read my blog for any length of time are probably aware, I love classic literature.  It has been the foundation of my reading life and most of the authors whose works I read have been dead for decades if not centuries.  I don't usually get to enjoy the anticipation of awaiting the publication of a new work by a favorite author.  But I do have a few modern authors whose works I enjoy and I am slowly finding new ones as well.  A couple of them have new books coming out soon that I am very excited about.

One of them is Marilynne Robinson.  I greatly enjoyed her 2005 novel Gilead and also the follow up book entitled Home.  This October, the final book in the set will be published.  Entitled Lila, it tells the story of Rev. John Ames' young wife who is briefly mentioned in both Gilead and Home but who has remained a bit of a mystery.  It follows her from her childhood up through her courtship with Rev. Ames and the birth of their son.  I can't begin to describe how excited I am about this novel.  Lila was always the character I was most interested in and I was afraid I would never learn her story.  This is a gift I never really expected to get.

Another author whose newest work I am looking forward to is Kazuo Ishiguro.  I loved his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.  His new one is set to be published in March of next year and is entitled The Buried Giant.  There aren't a lot of details as to what the novel will be about, but you can bet that I will be checking it out.

If you are a Margaret Atwood fan, you will be happy to hear that she is going to be publishing a new work.  You might, however, be disappointed to learn that you most likely will never get to read it.  She is the first author to join in on The Future Library Project, begun by Scottish author Katie Paterson.  This project will compile 100 texts from modern authors to be published in 2114, one hundred years from now.  Though the idea is fascinating, it is also pretty frustrating.  All readers live with the depressing knowledge that we won't get to read everything before we die.  Just thinking about works by favorite authors that won't be published in my lifetime makes me want to cry.

What about you?  Are you excited for any new books?  Share with us!

Saturday, September 6, 2014


"By the pricking of my thumbs, 
Something wicked this way comes."

More than perhaps any other play, Macbeth signals the change in the English monarchy that occured during Shakespeare's career.  It is believed to have been written after the ascension of King James I to the throne, ending the reign of the House of Tudor and ushering the reign of the Scottish House of Stuart.  It is a story of ambition, witchcraft, superstition, and Scottish history.  Today, it continues to fascinate actors and audiences alike, and carries a stigma with it that haunts the theatrical world.

The Plot:

The play opens on three witches, huddling together during a thunderstorm.  The forces of King Duncan of Scotland, led by Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated the armies of the kings of Norway and Ireland.  As Macbeth and Banquo return home, they encounter the witches who prophesy that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor and will one day be King of Scotland.  Macbeth scoffs at this idea until a messenger arrives announcing that King Duncan has made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his victory.

Macbeth bears the news to his wife who latches onto the idea of her husband becoming king.  She persuades him to murder Duncan while he stays at their home, questioning his manhood when he initially refuses.  The deed is done and Macbeth is pronounced king.  But his guilt and paranoia plague him and he is forced to commit more murders in order to keep his throne secure.  

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I had only a vague idea of Macbeth's plot and was unsure of how it would appeal to me.  I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and think it might just be my favorite of the Shakespeare's tragedies that I have read.

Of all of the Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one probably has the best atmosphere.  King James I was fascinated by the idea of the supernatural and Shakespeare certainly feeds that fascination with this play.  It is full of storms, witches, omens, ghosts, and prophecies.  The image of the three witches casting spells and cooking potions is vivid even on the page.  Over time, this sense of evil foreboding has penetrated even the stage where it is enacted.  Many in the the theatrical world consider the play to be unlucky and refer to it simply as "The Scottish Play" rather than as Macbeth.  As someone who enjoys some darker touches and Gothic stories, I found this atmosphere to be utterly delicious.

The other fascinating aspect of this play are the two lead characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  While Macbeth has some similarities to Richard III, he lacks the magnetism and pure evilness of that character.  He is a man driven by ambition (as well as insecurity about his own manliness).  He doesn't even think about being king until the idea is suggested to him, but once it is nothing seems more important.  To him, not attaining the crown is worse than murdering his king and guest in cold blood.  As for Lady Macbeth, her very name has become synonymous with the idea of the supreme villainess.  She is also consumed by ambition and suppresses all "feminine" emotions in favor of more brutal, "masculine" ones.  Though it is not seen by the audience,  her smearing of King Duncan's blood on his bodyguards faces is horrifying.  But ambition is never satisfied and as murder after murder is committed, both characters go mad with guilt and are unable to wash the blood from their hands.

Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare's most unique play.  It's dark atmosphere, ruthless characters, and morality overtones make it stand out.  I really enjoyed it.  And it is also the shortest of the tragedies, so I highly recommend it as a starting point.

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 1981 performance starring Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie.  Though it was very much a "stage" setting compared to the other plays I've watched, it was still good.  I love Jeremy Brett's acting and he was wonderful here as well.  Worth a watch, though I really can't wait for the new version with Michael Fassbender to come out!
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.