The Complete Works, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and edited by Jonathan Bale and Eric Rasmussen, is a brilliant book.
Having read and enjoyed several of the RSC texts of individual plays,
As always with RSC editions of individual plays, the notes provided are excellent. Each play has a thoughtful introduction that explores key ideas and themes, as well as providing insights for dramaturgy, performance and production.
The printing is clear, and of a good size — not so small that it is almost impossible to read, as with many collected works editions — and the paper quality is beautiful.
In addition to the texts, there are pages of annotated photographs and illustrations to give added context and to highlight RSC performances of the plays.
Physically, it is quite a big book, so it is most comfortably used on a desk or table. The paperback is lighter in weight, but I am a little disappointed that I did not buy the hard cover edition, as that would make it more durable.
Even so, I’m delighted with this volume and have found it very useful thus far. Should I find that my paperback does not stand the test of time and regular use, I will definitely invest in a hard cover copy, as this is a book I will want to read and make use of for many years to come.
Pretty much anywhere you go, whoever you talk to, if they know only one thing about any play by Shakespeare, it’s the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It’s possibly the most famous scene ever written.
There’s just one problem with that: there was no balcony.
There. Never. Was. A. Freaking. Balcony.
In the script, the stage direction is clear: JULIET appears above at a window.
I don’t know who invented it, but it was a killer idea that I bet Shakespeare would wish he had thought of, were he still alive today.
Of course, directors can stage a play however they like, and make use of whatever structures, sets and furniture is available to them.
Filmmakers can do likewise, but one must keep in mind their tendency to just change whatever they want. Hollywood is notorious for that. The mayhem that comes from mass misunderstanding occurs when directors think they know better than the author, and when people watch a movie instead of reading the book.
It makes people and their assumptions about the original text wrong, and leaves them marinating in their wrongness until their wrongness is so commonly accepted that most people think it’s right.
It just goes to show that what your English teacher always said is true: there really is no substitute for reading the book.
‘Julius Caesar’ is a brilliant play in which Shakespeare demonstrates his genius is in taking a story we all know and making the characters familiar in a personal and almost tangible way. Shakespeare takes one of the most famous men in history and portrays him as fully human, flawed and even vulnerable in different ways. It’s not the way we’re accustomed to thinking about ‘historical giants’ like Caesar., but Shakespeare makes it all seem quite natural.
At the beginning of the play, even while he is being celebrated as Rome’s all-conquering hero, his first interactions cast him as a husband who is acutely aware of his wife’s childlessness. We don’t know if his instructions to Calpurnia and Antony are motivated by sorrow or by his desire for an heir to whom he might pass his empire, but either way, Caesar doesn’t miss an opportunity that might make a difference.
Before long, we see him as a man afflicted by disease when he is struck by a seizure, and is obviously bothered by the fact that is happens in public. He may control all of Rome and its empire, but he cannot control his illness. We also see him as a man keenly aware of popular opinion, sen in his public refusal of the crown not once, but three times, yet ignorant of the way his own senators feel about him personally. Regardless of his aspirations, he is astute enough to know that actually accepting a crown as Emperor is not the best move for him at this point in time.
In these things, the audience begins to see the great historical hero Julius Caesar as a complex, thoughtful man, one who holds a variety of responsibilities and obligations that he takes very seriously. He is very much human, in contrast to the Roman tendency to venerate their heroes almost as gods. We see his humanity rather than his pride, although we know that exists because it is his hubris that brings about his downfall.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of other characters is equally powerful.
Caesar’s assessment of Cassius is profound: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” In those few words, Shakespeare establishes a vivid image that shapes our perception of the man and positions the audience to distrust the character.
Brutus is shown as a moral man struggling with a dilemma that weighs heavily on him. A strong sense of foreboding settles on the audience when he puts his trust in Cassius, making himself vulnerable to a man whose thoughts and conspiracies are indeed dangerous, particularly for Caesar. At this point, even though both Caesar and the audience like Brutus, his destiny as one of the conspirators is sealed.
In all of this, Shakespeare makes expert use of dramatic irony and foreboding to keep the audience in suspense as Caesar’s train speeds ignorantly toward its derailment. This is established right at the start of the play with the mysterious soothsayer who delivers the warning, “Beware the Ides of March”.
While it is a history play, it has some elements of a tragedy in that Caesar is completely oblivious to the fact that his actions are contributing to his own eventual demise at the hand of the conspirators whom he still perceives as friends and allies. The pathos of his question to Brutus: “Et tu, Brute?” — “You too, Brutus?” makes the moment of his all-too-late realisation one of almost palpable betrayal and sorrow. In that moment, Caesar dies knowing that he is truly friendless and alone.
It’s important to note that the play makes it clear that assassinating anyone is not a good idea, and the assassins do not prosper as the result of their actions. It wasn’t in Shakespeare’s interests to be seen to promote or condone assassinating the established ruler, as he was reliant on the good favour of Queen Elizabeth I and, after her, King James. He wasn’t encouraging anyone to try to kill their leader: he was showing that, historically, doing so didn’t actually achieve what the conspirators hoped it would.
It’s a very direct and straightforward play – there are no real subplots and the political undercurrents are all really obvious because they are what drives the play. This makes it a great play for a “first Shakespeare play” for those who are just beginning their Shakespeare journey.
For the word-nerds, this is the text from which we get great, still commonly used phrases like “It’s all Greek to me” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. It’s also the source of the title of John Green’s enormously popular novel ’The Fault In Our Stars’.
I have loved ‘King Lear’ ever since I saw a performance of the play in my teens and was completely transported by it. I find it impossible to consider a parent being betrayed by their child without thinking of Lear, and am compelled to utter the quotation, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow!” at least once during every good storm I witness.
‘King Lear’ is the story of a king with one daughter who actually loves him and two who are the most selfish, greedy, and deceitful women the kingdom had ever seen. The problem was that he was unable to tell which was which. And so, his story turns to tragedy.
Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about being historically correct or pleasing the right people with this play, although it wouldn’t be right to show the king as being a bit of an idiot when it comes to his family relationships, so he was sure to stay safe by putting the blame on the king’s horrible daughters and their ambition to take what was not rightfully theirs. Loyalty and faithfulness were, after all, very important qualities and concepts for anyone living in Elizabeth’s England, and you couldn’t have people just seizing land and power that didn’t belong to them.
It’s not just Lear’s elder daughters, either, that turn on their father. The Duke of Gloucester, faithful supporter of Lear, also feels the dagger of betrayal planted firmly in his back Edgar, by his bastard son, Edmund, who is seeking to take all that rightfully belongs to his brother Edgar.
In all of this, there are valuable lessons to be learned about who to trust, how to discern who is really loyal to you, and the fact that some people are far more driven by greed and ambition than they are by familial love. Given that we live in a world where kids have been known to turn on their parents and even divorce them in some cases, and where families are divided and sometimes irreparably broken by disputes over money and property, ‘King Lear’ is clearly a play that still holds relevance for us today.
It is a beautifully crafted story, full of pathos and tragedy and heartbreak. The language and imagery is magnificent. The dramatic irony of Cordelia’s fall from grace and Lear’s subsequent fall from power at the hands of General and Regan is heartbreaking. Cordelia’s fate hangs in the balance right up to the end of the play while, it seems, the evil people win. That is another point of relatability for the audience: we don’t like seeing the evil people win, and we want to see them get their just desserts. It’s a theme that Shakespeare explores at length in this play, and he expertly positions the audience to keep hoping that Lear and Cordelia will win the day.
It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy, however, that pretty much everyone dies and there are a few minor characters left to pick up the pieces at the end, so the audience has to be content with the poetic justice delivered to some and the beautifully tragic ending that comes to others.
The fact that it doesn’t have a happy ending is one of the things I like about it. Life often involves less-than-happy endings, and it has always seemed to me that those who hope only for happiness are setting themselves up for an enormous struggle when adversity shows up instead. We can’t always have what we want, and Lear would have done well to remember that. Cordelia would have been better off if she had realised that not everyone who should recognise your integrity will do so, and that sometimes you need to play the game better than the cheats do in order to make them lose.
Sure, I believe in happiness, but I know from my own experience that life is generally far more complex than being able to achieve happiness and simply stay there. We are constantly challenged to maintain a balance between necessity and luxury, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, lest we be overrun by one or the other. Achieving that balance is the art of life.
Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.
It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would.
Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.
The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.
Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play.
Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it.
That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not.
Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.
There are a number of things in life that I’m passionate about. British history, especially the medieval period, has always been my favourite for reading and study, as have the works of Shakespeare, along with a good number of other writers. A teacher by profession, I love interacting with my students and leading them to those golden “penny drop” moments when something becomes real and meaningful. I have always loved reading. And as an Indie author who understands how hard it is to find readers, and how much harder than that it is to get reviews, I’m committed to reading, reviewing and sharing great Indie books of all genres.
I was very excited recently to discover, read and review an Indie novel about the life of Aethelflæd, the Anglo-Saxon queen. To my absolute delight, it was well-written and beautifully told. I thought then that several Christmases had come at once.
Now, less than a month after posting that review, it’s happened again, and I find myself at a quite magical point in time where my passions have met and over lapped, as though life has popped me into the middle of some invisible but very cool Venn diagram.
I’m currently teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ in one of my senior English classes. Not only is the writing and language incredible – there are curses and insult exchanges galore, along with some great monologues – it’s also the one with the hunchbacked evil genius who usurps the throne and has himself crowned king, the princes being murdered in the tower, and a fabulous haunting scene! The historiography of the play may be fairly tenuous, but the audience is left in no doubt of the creative genius of the writer. All of this means that I am getting paid to be an absolute nerd about the language, the writing and the history, all at the same time. That in itself is pretty darned great.
Tonight, though, as I was browsing through the Wordpress reader, I found an article about a great new Indie novel about the life of Henry Stafford, known in Shakespeare’s play as Buckingham, the ally and “other self” of King Richard III. When I went to a renowned global digital bookstore to check it out, I discovered the same author has also written a novel and several other books about Richard III.
That may not seem very exciting to some, but for me, it’s fantastic. I get to teach ‘Richard III’, indulge myself in Shakespeare and history to my heart’s content, and to read and review a couple of Indie books about two of the most fascinating characters in the play – and possibly in English history, it could be argued – at the same time.
My nerdy little mind is blown. I think I need to go and lie down.