Tag: The Western Canon

Reading Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1

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I continue my reading through the Western Canon with Shakespeare’s A Midsummers Night’s Dream. A magical romantic comedy about two pairs of lovers lost in an enchanted fairy forest filled with strange characters that cross each others path.

I’ve always had an attraction to stories that featured Fairies, of the old European variety. The mythological Titania, Oberon, and Puck, all-powerful and living in enchanted forest kingdoms. Jack Vance’s recently read and well loved Lyonesse features dark Fey creatures living in parallel worlds akin to Avalon and other Arthurian myth. Neil Gaiman’s best stuff is when he focuses on Fey worlds like in Stardust or his best work in Sandman: Dream Country where Dream has Shakespeare write and perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Oberon and Titania. Also, in my opinion, and I’m going to get some crap from the hardcore OSR fans that read this blog, I think that one of the best tabletop RPGs ever written was White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming, an amazing game that unfortunately I rarely ever got to play.

The idea of magical alternate worlds filled with creatures like puck where humans get lost and enchanted as always been one of my favorite themes in Fantasy, so I figured that I would go to the play that is the modern foundation for so much of the stuff I enjoy.

Scene 1

 

HermiaandHelena
Hermia & Helena

Summary: In Theseus’ palace in Athens Duke Theseus (the mythological founder of Athens who slew the minotaur) and Hippolyta (queen of the Amazons who Theseus just defeated in battle) are discussing their upcoming wedding. They are interrupted by an older man Egeus along with his daughter Hermia and two young men named Demetrius and Lysander.

 

Egeus came to Duke Theseus to petition invocation of Athenian law. He demands his daughter Hermia be wed to Demetrius but she loves Lysander and wants to marry him instead. Athenian law states that if a daughter disobeys her father he has the right to kill her and she is disobeying him by refusing to marry Demetrius. Theseus listens to all arguments, specifically the one made by Lysander who states that Demetrius already has a lover, Helena, a woman who loves him but which he has taken advantage of. After a bit of deliberation, Theseus rules that by the day of his wedding Hermia must either marry Demetrius, accept death, or become a vestal virgin nun exiled to the mountains.

After Theseus dismisses them, Lysander and Hermia are left alone and they agree to run away together through the forest where they can get married and not be under Athenian law. Helena comes along and whines about Demetrius not loving her back so Hermia tells her about their plan to run away and get married but to keep it secret.

Left alone Helena decides to tell Demetrius about Lysander and Hermia’s plan to elope, hoping that she would win his favor.

Commentary: The play starts off with a complicated double love triangle and one potentially deadly harsh situation. Hermia and Lysander are planning to escape into the woods to get married against her father’s wishes and on the pain of death due to the harsh Athenian law. M, meanwhile Helena is in love with Demetrius, who wants to marry Hermia, so she sells them out in order to become closer to him. The whole plot is framed by the upcoming wedding of the mythical Theseus to Hippolyta.

Of course, whenever you have lovers that shouldn’t be together my mind jumps to Romeo and Juliet, but here you actually have three couples and a complicated layer of attraction.  I’m curious to see how this plays out.

Scene 2

Summary: A bunch of Athenian workers gather for a meeting to put on a play for Duke Theseus’ wedding. Quince hands out the roles and the principal actor Nick Bottom hams up the lines requesting more and more parts. The play that they will perform is “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”.

After they assign parts they agree to meet at midnight outside Athens in the forest so

Simmons-Hermia_and_Lysander._A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream
Lysander and Hermia

they can rehearse undisturbed.

 

Commentary: This is a great scene which introduces the best character, Bottom. It’s a comedic scene that needs to be read aloud or seen because it’s a complete gag set. I can imagine a bunch of Elizabetheans Londoners laughing at this scene in the smoky Globe Theater a few hundred years ago.

Thematically the choice of play that they decided to rehearse shadows scene 1 and also has a bit of meta-commentary allusion to Shakespeare’s own career. Pyramus and Thisbe is an ancient story first found in Ovid that is the inspiration for Romeo and Juilette about two lovers that end up committing suicide due to a tragic misunderstanding. So, is this foreshadowing? Will Hermia and Lysander share the same fate as Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliette?

Then, of course, the drama intensifies with the decision to go into the forest at night, the same forest that our characters from the last scene are heading into.

 

Reading Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare: Part 1

Reading Shakespeare: Part 2

Macbeth: Act 1

Macbeth: Act 2

Macbeth: Act 3

Macbeth: Act 4

Macbeth: Act 5

Reading Shakespeare: Moving on from Macbeth

 

Reading Shakespeare: Moving on from Macbeth

I finished The Tragedy of Macbeth about two weeks ago. I took a break from Shakespeare to indulge my current obsession with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. But now it’s time to move on and continue with my Shakespeare read. Because Macbeth was a dark tragedy and this month I’m feeling rather jovial I’m going to read the only Comedy on my list, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Macbeth was an amazing character piece about the descent into evil that greed and wickedness bring. A decorated hero succumbs to pride murdering his King, sending him and his wife down a spiral of murderous evil and eventual destruction. Lady Macbeth stole the play with her evil. From now on every female antagonist will be judged against her. The obvious comparison that springs to mind is GRRM’s Cersei Lannister, but even her incestual evil is no match. Cersei loved her children and her actions can be framed as protecting them, but Lady Macbeth was barren evil, stating that she would willingly dash her infant’s brains against rocks to have her way.

Before I move on I wanted to also mention that I highly recommend the 2015 Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.  It’s dark, moody, and violent, capturing the feel of the play exactly how I pictured it. The soundtrack is also really excellent and worth giving a listen, the title track a Swans song.

The other Macbeth movie I plan on watching is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. It’s Macbeth played by the great Toshiro Mifune is rewritten to take place in feudal Japan and stylised as a Noh drama. As soon as I have some free time I’m going to give it a watch.

Reading Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare: Part 1

Reading Shakespeare: Part 2

Macbeth: Act 1

Macbeth: Act 2

Macbeth: Act 3

Macbeth: Act 4

Macbeth: Act 5

Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth Act 5

Scene 1

Summary:  Back at Inverness Castle a Doctor and a Lady attendant watch Lady Macbeth sleepwalk, an act she has been performing nightly since her husband has been out in the field. She walks around the castle with her eyes open but asleep, the whole time rubbing her hands and lamenting un-washable blood.  The Doctor exclaims that she is sick spiritually more than physically.

tomorrowCommentary: In past acts, we have seen Macbeth breaking down mentally now Lady Macbeth is tragically cracking from the guilt of murder. In her sleep, she mentions the murder of Duncan but also feels responsible for the murder of Banquo, and Macduff’s family. So far she’s been the strongest character, steeling herself for the original murder and even controlling Macbeth during the banquet. But now left alone in the castle she is falling apart.

Scene 2

Summary: A bunch of Scottish nobles are riding together and discussing the upcoming battle. They are rising in rebellion and heading towards Birnam Wood to join up with the army led by Malcolm and Macduff. They discuss Macbeths tyranny and how he has fortified himself in the royal castle surrounded by people that obey him only out of fear.

Commentary: All of Macbeth’s enemies are gathering and heading towards the forest mentioned in the second prophecy. The standout line in the scene came from Thane Angus dissing Macbeth, “Those he commands move only in command, noting in love: now does he feel his title hang loose about him like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief.” The basic trait of a tyrant.

Scene 3

Summary:  Back at Macbeth’s castle he is surrounded by his men and the doctor. The men are telling him that 10,000 English are on the way led by Malcolm, Macduff, and all the rebel Thanes. Macbeth is not afraid, tells them about the prophecy how no man born of woman can kill him, and requests his armor. Then he yells at the Doctor commanding him to find a cure for Lady Macbeth’s illness.

Commentary:  The Macbeth portrayed in this scene is manic with madness, raging at his men calling them pasty faced cowards. He truly believes that the prophecy will protect him and even with the rebels marching thousands against him he is ready to go out of the castle and fight.

Scene 4

Summary:  The rebel Scottish meet up with Malcolm, Macduff, and the English soldiers in Birnam Wood. Malcolm orders all the soldiers to cut down pieces of the trees and use them for concealment.

Commentary: Cutting down the trees and marching with them for concealment fulfills the prophecy of Birnam Wood coming to Macbeth’s castle.

Scene 5

Summary: Macbeth is rallying up his troops as the enemy approach, suddenly women scream, and he is told that Lady Macbeth has died. He reflects on her death but is interrupted by a guard that tells him it appears Birnam Wood is marching towards them. Furious, he realizes that this means the end for him. He decides to leave the castle and meet his enemies in battle.ladymacbeth1

Commentary:  This is a critical scene and where Macbeth speaks the famous “and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..” soliloquy.

She should have died hereafter,

There would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

to the last syllable of recorded time,

and all our yesterdays have lighted fools

the way to dusty death. Out, Out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Nihilistic and dark. If Shakespeare was alive in the 1980’s he would be smoking cloves with Andrew Eldridge and writing lyrics for the Sisters of Mercy. But then at the end of the scene, he decides to go out fighting against all odds, ordering his men into the field.

Scene 6

Summary: All of the Thanes and Malcolm prepare to attack Macbeth. The battle begins.

Scene 7

Summary: The battle is raging, Macbeth comes across Young Siward the son of the British commander. They fight and Macbeth kills him while boasting about not being vulnerable to any man born of woman. Meanwhile, Malcolm takes over the castle and most of Macbeth soldiers surrender or switch sides.

Commentary: This is a simple battle scene also used to illustrate that Macbeth still believes that he is invincible due to the prophecy. It’s the scene before the final fight where the villain is surrounded but still extremely dangerous, shown by how easy he kills Siward.

Scene 8

Summary: Macbeth and Macduff finally meet on the field of battle. They fight back and forth and Macbeth taunts his opponent with the prophetic fact that he is invulnerable to any man born of woman. Macduff then lets him know that he was ripped from his mother’s womb thus not technically born of woman. This drains Macbeth of courage as he realizes that it’s over, but he refuses to give up so he fights on until the very end when Macduff kills him.

Off by the castle Malcolm tells Siward(young Siward’s father) about the death of his son and appraise the battlefield. Macduff arrives carrying the head of Macbeth and shouts, “hail the King of Scotland!” Proclaiming Malcolm the rightful king.

Commentary: The final scene and the final battle. It opens up with Macbeth thinking “Why should I play the Roman fool and die on my own sword? While I see lives, the better gashes upon them.” He’s referring to the act of suicide fashionable with the Romans when losing on the battlefield, a direct reference to Brutus in Julius Cesar. Basically saying, why should I kill myself when I can take out a few of these guys with me. He’s not going to go quietly.macbethmovie

The part where Malcolm tells Siward about his son’s death has a few good lines when Siward asks if his son’s wounds were in front or the back. Asking did my son die a man or a coward.

Then the play ends with Macduff holding the severed head of our main character. Always a good way to end a play in my opinion.

The End

Macbeth was an excellent play, masterfully plotted and written. I enjoyed reading it over and over, absorbing the language. I’m going to let it stir in my mind a bit, filling it with scorpions, then write a final review post. Next week, I’m starting A Midsummers Night Dream.

 

 

Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth Act 4

Scene 1

Summary: In a dark cave the Weird Sisters are chanting vile incantations around a bubbling cauldron. Macbeth enters and demands that they give him more prophecy. They agree and show him three visions. The first is a floating armored head that warns him about Macduff. The second is a bloody child that tells him no harm will come to him from any man born of woman. Finally the third is of a young child with a crown who holds a piece of yew wood and the witches state that he will be King until Birnam Wood a local forest comes at him. Not fully satisfied with what he sees he demands to know who will be future kings. The witches agree and show him a series of apparitions representing future kings of Scotland that all bear resemblance to Banquo. When they finish the witches begin to dance around the cauldron and disappear into thin air.macbeth-and-the-witches

At the mouth of the cave Thane Lennox greets Macbeth with the news that Macduff has left for England and is in rebellion. Macbeth orders an attack on his castle and that his family should be put to death.

Commentary:  I really like this scene for both the imagery and the language. Probably the most supernatural scene so far, with the witches chanting and throwing bizarre ingredients into the bubbling cauldron, summoning apparitions, and vanishing on the wind. This scene also has some awesome lines. For example the famous “Double double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is the repeated refrain chanted by the witches. This play is obviously the origin of the whole witches brewing eye of newt in a giant cauldron. They list all the crazy stuff that goes into it, now a staple of Halloween imagery.  Another great line, “Something wicked this way comes.” Spoken by the witches as Macbeth approaches the cave. Or one of my favorites, “How now, you secret midnight hags!”

At this point in the play we see Macbeth not only broken mentally but fully embracing evil. In Act I he stumbles across the witches who offer the prophecy in passing tempting him towards darkness. Here Macbeth has fully embraced the evil of the Sisters, seeking them out and demanding more from them. After they disappear he doesn’t even seem fazed by the supernatural black magic on display, instead he focuses on Macduff, ordering death to his family.

Scene 2

Macbeth_illustration12_midSummary: Thane Ross is with Lady Macduff and her son at their castle. She’s mad that her husband has run away to England and left them behind and considers him a traitor. Ross tries to convince her that he isn’t a traitor and that what he is doing is noble. After Ross leaves a messenger arrives and warns her to get out because she is in danger, but before she takes off murderers arrive and kill her and her son.

Commentary: This scene is very similar to the scene where Banquo is murdered. Side characters talk, murderers appear, and killing commences.

Scene 3

Summary: In England Malcolm(Duncan’s son that ran away) and Macduff meet at the English Kings court. They have a long conversation where Malcolm checks to see if Macduff is loyal to him or an agent of Macbeth. Ross arrives with bad news informing Macduff about the destruction of his castle and murder of his wife and children. Malcolm tells Macduff that he should channel his rage into fighting Macbeth and that the English King is giving them thousands of men to go fight.

Commentary:  A somewhat tedious scene bogged down by a long discussion on the evils of tyranny and what a good king should be. I’m guessing this is a bit of commentary aimed at the present that falls a bit flat four hundred years later.

In Act 1 when we come across Macbeth and the witches he is an innocent man, a victorious hero, who anguishes at the thoughts that the witches give him. But by Act 4 he has become a monster not thinking twice about ordering the murder of women and children.  Act 4 is basically illustrating Macbeth at his most depraved.

 

Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth Act 3

We continue the play with Macbeth crowned King.

Scene 1

Summary: Scene one starts with Banquo alone, contemplating his plans. He is strongly suspicious of Macbeth and at this time believes that he is the true murderer of Duncan, but he recalls the prophecy which stated that his own sons will become kings. His thoughts are interrupted by King Macbeth and Lady Macbeth walking up. After a bit of small talk about the sons of Duncan Macbeth invites Banquo to a feast in his honor. Banquo says he has to leave but he will attend if instructed. After a bit more small talk he takes off.

After Banquo leaves Macbeth dismisses the Queen and servants and summons two men who are described as murderers. He tells them that Banquo is their enemy and instructs them to kill him and his son.

 

Banquetscene

 

Commentary: Banquo’s opening is interesting. In the previous acts, he appears to be unfazed by the Witches prophecy, but this opening reveals otherwise. From his inner monologue, he knows Macbeth is the true murderer but he won’t do anything about it because after all if that part came true that means that eventually, his children will be kings. So just like Macbeth, he is also tempted by the lure of the supernatural.

The rest of the scene is your typical tyrant king hires killers to kill his old friend. Ruthless because he also includes his children but it makes sense due to the prophecy.

Scene 2 

Summary: Lady Macbeth is trying to comfort her husband who is clearly not at ease with the murder of Duncan and also worrying about Banquo. She knows the prophecy and equally worries about what will happen in the end.

Commentary: This scene has my favorite line, O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife. Both Macbeth and his wife are starting to lose it, on one hand from guilt at the murder on the other with paranoia. An interesting point here is that Macbeth does not tell her that he already hired men to murder Banquo and his son.

Scene 3

Summary: The murderers wait for Banquo and his son at twilight. When they finally approach in the middle of the night they fall upon them and murder Banquo. But, Fleance, his son, manages to escape.

Commentary: Not much to say about this scene except that it marks the beginning of the end for Macbeth. It’s the first time in the play where something does not go according to plan. It’s a basic trope scene where the father is murdered by the evil king’s men while banquomurder.jpgthe young son escapes so he can one day return as king. Pretty much Lion King.

Scene 4

Summary: All the lords are gathered at Macbeth’s castle for the planned banquet. After the introductions, Macbeth notices that one of the murderers has arrived. After a brief conversation, he finds out that Banquo was murdered but Fleance has escaped. When he returns to the banquet he starts to have a breakdown when he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting in his chair. Lady Macbeth calms him down and takes control of the situation but when the time for the toast arrives the ghost reappears and Macbeth beings to address it directly even tho nobody else can see it. He starts incriminating himself so Lady Macbeth calls the banquet over and sends all the lords away.

Commentary:  This is the best scene of the play. Here is the full-on breakdown of Macbeth. He starts having a freakout and speaking the invisible ghost of Banquo like a lunatic. Lady Macbeth tries to control the situation but he is too far gone. The scene is great, a full royal banquet and the king has a supernatural freakout. I can picture the other nobles grinding their teeth as they realize that this guy is most likely a madman and possibly a murderer.

Scene 5

Summary:  The three witches have a conversation with Haecte.

Commentary: When I first read this it made absolutely no sense so I looked it up based on the commentary in my copy. All scholars believe that this scene was inserted by another writer and not original to the play so it’s always skipped and never portrayed on stage.

Scene 6

Summary: Lennox(one of the Thanes) and an unnamed Lord are sarcastically discussing the murders and the tyranny of Macbeth. They mention that Macduff has taken off to England and has linked up with Duncan’s son Donalbain to raise an army so they could liberate Scotland from Macbeth.

Commentary:  This scene is almost identical to Act 2, Scene 4, where Ross is talking to an old man about all the ills that befell Scotland after Duncan’s murder. Both of these scenes are used to illustrate the larger world outside. We find out that most of the Lords now believe Macbeth murdered Duncan and that one of them MacDuff even took off to raise an army with Duncans son.

I like these scenes because they are extremely utilitarian. They paint a picture of the setting through several lines of quick conversation. We know that everything has fallen apart, bad omens abound, the peasants are unhappy, and the nobility is on the verge of revolt. Macbeth is ruling a crumbling kingdom and is openly seen as a tyrant. Shakespeare lets us know all of this through a quick efficient conversation between two minor characters.

Here is a bit of the Banquet scene from the recent MacBeth movie: