I usually have to force myself to read poetry, especially sonnets about romance that seem contrived or sentimentalized. Also, I am not very good at understanding and explaining the various metaphors, hidden meanings and so on. Sonnet 18 is so famous that it has long since turned into a cliche ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") and would simply not go over very well is a more cynical, less romantic age. I know that I have never met anyone who made me feel like they were a summer day, not in this world. Reading and rereading all of them, however, I began to wonder if Shakespeare was even writing these about a woman. Some of them I had never read before, such as Sonnet 20 which is far riskier since the writer states openly that he loves a young man who is a beautiful as a woman. I had never read this one and it still comes across as something quite startling for the 17th Century, including the regret that "for a woman thou wert first created" and that nature "pricked thee out for women's please." For whatever reason, I do not think that I had ever realized this before, but Shakespeare expresses this quite openly in ways that would not have been allowed in more 'modern' literature, at least not until fairly recent times.
It makes me wonder how the readers of 400 years ago would have reacted to this, and if they found the idea unsettling, including the use of a term like 'pricked', which had the same double meaning then as now. Even though our society is not particularly enlightened in these matters, I have always thought that Shakespeare's world would have been far more conservative and religious on the subject of openly-expressed homosexual desires -- not that the term even existed them. Number 29 also has the same theme, of the poet's love for a young man of higher birth and status and it promises that "so long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee." He describes himself as a "slave" to his master in Sonnet 57 and again in 141, like a vassal or a serf to his lover, although 130, 135 and 138 are clearly written about a woman and in the last one he says that "therefore I lie with her and she with me, and in our faults by lies we flattered be." I also wonder who he refers to in Sonnet 116 when he talks about the "marriage of true minds," since I suspect that this person might not be his wife. In modern terms, does this mean that Shakespeare was bisexual? He must have been, although I can't say that I ever gave the idea much thought before. Of course, he may not even be writing about himself at all in any of these, but it certainly sounds like he was. Much to my surprise, I found them more interesting than I at first imagined.
9/21 & 9/28 Othello (1 page)
I've read the play Othello before and have seen film versions of it, so I was generally familiar with the plot and the main characters, especially Iago, one of my favorite amoral and sociopathic villains. I like the part at the end when he finally drops the mask and reveals his true (evil and twisted) character, shocking everyone when he tries to draw his sword to kill a woman. This was just not the action of a chivalrous gentleman but a true monster. Iago hates Othello and wants to destroy him, but plays the part of a trusted friend and confidante. He is cunning and manipulative, and makes the entire play worth watching, for none of these tragic events would have transpired if not for this malevolent influence. I wonder if he hates Othello only because he was passed up for promotion, or because he was black and a Muslim. Surely racism in some form existed in Shakespeare's time since this was the period when European empires were involved in the African slave trade and exterminating the Natives in the Americas.
Othello is an outsider in this white world, by religion, culture and color, and it makes him edgy, nervous and insecure. Perhaps this is why he was so quick to believe the worst about Desdemona, even though she dies proclaiming her innocence. Michael Cassio was a white man, after all, powerful and well-connected in Venice, while Roderigo was really in love with Desdemona and resents the fact that a man like Othello could marry her. Othello probably has no real friends at all in Venice, even though they use him because his military skills are valuable against the Turks. Desdemona's father Brabanto openly hates him because of his color and religion and wants him put in prison for daring to touch his daughter. Iago is well-aware of all this jealousy, resentment and prejudice against Othello and uses it to his own advantage. He tries to murder Cassio as well, and actually kills Roderigo and Emily when they are about the reveal the truth about them, but Othello only realizes what has happened far too late, and he commits suicide.
10/5 Henry V (half a page)
I have read Henry V before and seen film versions of it, so I understood that it was set in the Hundred Years War and described England's greatest victory at Agincourt, and featured the famous inspirational speech of the king just before that battle. Of course, the English lost that war, ultimately, and in general I have always felt a vague sympathy with the French since they were trying to liberate their country after all. I realize this was an age before modern nationalism existed, although many of the ideas expressed in this play are very nationalistic.
One memorable scene before that always stands out in my mind, involves treachery and conspiracy, with the underhanded French paying three of Henry's 'friends' to assassinate him -- including one man who evidently shared the king's bed. In those days, the penalty for treason was drawing and quartering, although naturally this was not shown on stage or in the films. Overall, he is a far more impressive ruler than the French king, who is insane much of the time.
On the night before the battle of Agincourt, the king walks around in disguise among his troops, trying to determine their morale and what they really think of him. Basically they expect to die in the morning but they will stand by Henry V and do their duty. In this battle, the French knights marched directly into the English crossbows and thousands of them got massacred, compared to very light casualties for the English. It was not simply a victory it was a catastrophe and humiliation for the French, who were so supremely confident of winning -- overconfident as it turned out, since they lost against an enemy they heavily outnumbered, whose army was sick and in retreat.
10/12, 10/19, 10/2 As You Like It (1 page)
Romantic comedies are really not my type of play (or film) and left to my own devices I would not normally watch a play like As You Like It, and I think the ending with four romances ending up in a big wedding is carrying things too far. Also, the fact that Rosiland and Orlando have both been persecuted and exiled by powerful relatives and both ended up in the Forest of Arden and the same time is a little too much of a coincidence, and overall this comedy requires a great deal in the way of suspension of doubt and disbelief. I suppose that it should all be taken in fun, though. Orlando's younger brother Oliver also just happens to appear in the forest and Orlando then saves him from a lion, although these seems to be a very unlikely type of animal to appear in France. At any rate, they are reconciled and Oliver falls in love with Celia at first sight. All of this could only happen in a magical or enchanted forest, which is what Arden really -- a place outside of time and not part of the real world. This play did have overtones of Romeo and Juliet, in which one couple falling madly in love at first sight was at least plausible, and the audience is actually hoping that things will somehow work out for them. It was also reminiscent of Hamlet in that the younger brother Duke Frederick has sent the Duke Senior into exile, just as Orlando's younger brother has taken over as well. Roslind and Orlando are the victims of this family treachery, in which vicious and ambitious younger relatives resented being denied their fair share of whatever wealth and power was available, but in this case it turns out to be the key to true happiness for the victims. I imagine that…