Revisiting Shakespeare

I am, as previously mentioned, more of a Marlowe fan. However, in my final semester at uni (of which I now only have two weeks left), I took an elective in Shakespeare. I had taken a Shakespeare elective last year, and the plays on this course were (bar one) not ones I had previously studied at uni. There were plays which I had not read before, and absolutely loved; Henry IV and Love’s Labour’s Lost, but there were two plays I was absolutely dreading. I studied Othello and The Tempest in school, and to say that I was bored at the prospect of trawling through them again would be an understatement. Yet, I found myself pleasantly surprised when I revisited them, and I found a lot to like upon second readings.

Othello was the first play which I re-read, more because I was able to recall a bit more about the plot. I had never really liked the character of Othello, and I still don’t now. Unlike a lot of Shakespeare, I actually don’t think this play requires much suspension of disbelief. If your best friend who you have known for years tells you that your partner is being unfaithful, and provides evidence (however scanty), a lot of people would not extend the benefit of the doubt to their partner (a lot of people also wouldn’t strangle them either, admittedly). Desdemona is a character who I rank with Cordelia from King Lear, absolutely dreary. People point out to me that she is defiant at times, that still doesn’t redeem her for me, she’s far too subservient to her husband.

Iago is the saving grace for me. He is the plot. Re-reading the play certainly justified Ian McKellen’s claim, in my mind at least, that the play should have been called Iago. He is the ultimate malcontent, and has been brought to life by some of the best Shakespeare actors. He is, in my view, one of the most complex characters ever created by Shakespeare. I am not always such a sucker for a villain, I didn’t like Aaron from Titus Andronicus, didn’t enjoy anything in Claudius from Hamlet, and quite simply found Richard II boring. But there are some who stand out, and Iago is definitely one of those characters. He is always driving the play forward, and he makes it all look so easy.

Now for The Tempest, I was particularly dreading that. Ensuring that I’d had a solid eight hours sleep the night before and a large black coffee in my hand, I started to read what I always remember as being the worst thing I had ever read. Seriously. It was the text for my English Lit GCSE, and I hated every moment of studying it. To my surprise, I found the opening scene funny, and the first scene with Prospero and Miranda also got me thinking a lot. I began thinking a lot about broader themes, of empire and control, and what it means to be human.

I am a fan of moral ambiguity, and I am in a lot of things a subjectivist (too much Nietzsche at a young age), so revisiting Caliban was something of a field day for me. I have never been so torn over a character, because he’s clearly done an awful thing, but I think he’s also been subjected to awful things. Prospero is a pretty awful person, he loves the sound of his own voice and brings sanctimony soaring to new heights. Prospero came to a location and usurped it from the rightful owner, even after it was done to him. Caliban has some of the most poignant speeches in the play, and seems to genuinely delight in the island and wishes to be left alone. So it really isn’t as simple as viewing Prospero as the wronged father and Caliban as the antagonist. Prospero is affronted at Caliban’s attempt on Miranda, but thinks it is justifiable to use her virginity as a bargaining chip for his political gain.

I’m now in the midst of writing my last ever essay at uni, on both of these plays. I think it goes to show that sometimes it can be worth giving some books/plays/poems a second attempt, they have the potential to mean something completely different several years down the line.

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Visit to the John Rylands and some Shakespeare appreciation

Last week a friend and I went to an exhibition at the John Rylands library, owned by The University of Manchester. The exhibit was on witchcraft and the supernatural, and they had some fantastic documents on display. It is definitely the most beautiful library I have EVER been in, here are some pictures, for anyone who might be interested. Would recommend a visit as a must to anyone in or near Manchester, if they haven’t already been!

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Although we mainly went for my friend, who specialises in Italian Renaissance history, I also found a few things on display which were of particular interest to my degree. They had Shakespeare’s first folio on display, as well as a first edition of the sonnets (obviously open on Sonnet 18). Which got me thinking, which Shakespeare play is my favourite?

Don’t get me wrong, I am more of a Marlowe person, but unfortunately he never had the chance to produce as many plays as Shakespeare. I get that the language can make his work seem inaccessible, at first, but I think with a good edition and after reading a few of his plays, it gets much easier to get to grips with. Some people argue with me that he’s dated- I could not disagree more on this point, he is just as relevant (probably more so) now as he was in the 1600’s. His plays represent human nature, in all of its forms. I really can’t think of a personality which he has not covered, in some way. He also doesn’t get credit for his sense of humour, a lot of his plays are hilarious!

My favourite play by Shakespeare, however, is not very generously supplied with humour. I first read King Lear three years ago, and I absolutely hated it. I know all plays require a certain amount of suspending your disbelief, but this? From the first scene it hit me as being so blatantly ridiculous; he’s cast aside his loyal daughter and split his kingdom between the two evil ones instead, and it doesn’t necessarily get much more convincing after that.

But then I, for college, had to read it a few times, and it struck me that perhaps it wasn’t all so black and white. The play didn’t get more believable the more often I read it, I just stopped seeing the play as a plot that had to make sense, and started seeing it as a depiction of human nature. Take Goneril and Regan; they do bad things, but how would you feel if your father had declared in front of a room full of people that you were only getting a decent share of his will because his favourite child had displeased him, and the terms of this was that he was going to stay with you for six months every year, along with 100 of his friends? I thought so. Lear is a difficult man, and he shows himself to be rash. Or Edmund, he is a bastard and very much a product of his time. I was born out of wedlock, and I can safely say I have never even been asked about it, but back then it was considered a pretty horrendous social stigma. Plus, he is a lot more intelligent than Edgar, and ALWAYS cast as being the better looking brother. These characters are what makes King Lear so amazing- good and evil characters are ENTIRELY subjective.

I think the play took longer to grow on me, because tragedies are a genre I just find harder to like. Some do contain comic elements, like Romeo and Juliet (which was my close second favourite), which I think helps me to warm to them a bit more. After the second reading of King Lear I could appreciate the literary merit and significance. Then I began to see, it is just so incredibly relevant. There is no person who can be completely good all of the time, even the saintly (wet flannel, if you ask me) character of Cordelia shows herself to be very proud. Likewise, although Lear is rash and often cruel he is not an inherently evil character who can’t be sympathised with.

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