play

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare was written in 1603 or 1604.

The duke of Vienna leaves the city for a short while and puts Angelo in charge in his absence. Isabella, a novice nun, goes to plead with Angelo for the life of her brother, Claudio, who is accused of ‘fornication’. Angelo, taking advantage of the situation tries to blackmail Isabella into sleeping with him. But the Duke, who is observing everything in disguise, comes to the rescue. With his help the virtuous Isabella saves the life of her brother and keeps her honour intact.

Measure for Measure reads like a comedy but many think of it as a ‘problem’ play. I guess it may be classified as a problem play as it shows the rampant licentiousness and the appalling corruption of the rich.

The central theme of ‘illicit’ sex (even though by law at least both Claudio & Juliet and Angelo & Mariana are considered to be married) was unique for me. I have read many Classic plays where only ‘villains’ engage in ‘illicit’ sex. But in Measure for Measure Claudio & Juliet are not portrayed as immoral people or as villains. In fact a lot of later productions of Measure for Measure toned down these elements by showing everyone to be either secretly married or by showing Angelo as a good person who was only testing Isabella’s virtue.

This was one of my more unsettling reads by Shakespeare. Themes of debauchery, prostitution and corruption are not really fodder for comedy. Angelo’s abuse of power and the apparent helplessness of the common people when faced with this kind of corruption rings really true even today.

Overall, Measure for Measure is a good read but I will not call it light entertainment.

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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

 

Twelfth Night, also known as  What You Will, by William Shakespeare was written sometime between 1601 and 1602. It was written as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment for the close of the Christmas season.

Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria. Believing her brother to be dead, Viola disguises herself as a young boy. Now going by the name Cesario, she becomes the page of Duke Orsino. Duke Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. Matters get complicated when Lady Olivia falls for Cesario (who is actually Viola in disguise) and Viola secretly loves the Duke, who believes that she is a ‘man’.

Like many of Shakespeare’s other plays the main theme of Twelfth Night is ‘mistaken identities’. Plays like The Comedy of Errors  and to a certain extent A Midsummer Night’s Dream employs the same plot devise.

Viola’s cross-dressing reminds me of Portia’s exploits in  The Merchant of Venice. Portia, though, was much more assertive than Viola. Female’s disguising themselves as males is another common theme in Shakespeare’s plays. Their disguises give both Viola and Portia freedom normally not granted to women. They can voice their opinions without the fear of repercussions and take part in the proceedings of the play much more actively than ordinarily possible. I find this implicit hint of female emancipation to be quite remarkable.

Sir Toby Belch, Maria, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste the fool are involved in a separate childish plot against Lady Olivia’s steward Malvolio. This sub-plot is a bit sillier than the rest of the story. Surprisingly, this part of the narrative takes up more space than the central story.

Overall, I enjoyed Twelfth Night. Seems like Shakespeare’s comedies are the thing for me!

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare’s comedies. The witty dialogues, the general air of light heartedness and above all the wickedly funny plots suit my taste quite well. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so far my favourite among these.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare was written sometime between 1590 and 1596. This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. I myself have watched its many incarnations from the traditional to the modern, including at least two different modern versions and one animated version.

Four young lovers, Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and Helena, venture into the woods due to complicated matters of the heart. A group of amateur actors choose the same secluded woods to rehearse their upcoming play Pyramus and Thisbe. As the hapless mortals wander in the woods, the fairies that dwell in the forest play havoc with their feelings and manipulate them. The wedding of Theseus & Hippolyta and the conflict between Oberon & Titania serve as a background to all of this.

Most actions of the play take place in the in woods, in the realm of the fairies. This supernatural setting leads people to behave in extraordinary ways and leads to events that otherwise may not have been possible. The dreamlike atmosphere is what makes this play unique.

The way Shakespeare portrayed the mortals is interesting. They come across as confused and at times naive but never needlessly foolish.

The characters although fictional always feel real to me. The young couple’s convoluted love life and the discord between Oberon & Titania serve as an image of the complicated lives that all of us lead. Love and marriage are, as always, thorny issues.

Among the supernatural characters Puck is one of my favourites. Much of the commotion of the play stems from his mischievous nature. In a way he is like the soul of the play. I don’t much care for Oberon and Titania. Among the mortals I liked the amateur acting troupe. The way they butcher Pyramus and Thisbe is priceless!

What lies behind the enduring appeal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is hard to tell. Maybe it is the dreamlike world that the fairies inhabit that draws us to it. Maybe it is the comforting notion that no matter what problems the mortals face a magical solution to it all may be right around the corner. Maybe it is the characters that reflect our own inadequacies and fears. I think it is a combination of all of these that make A Midsummer Night’s Dream a timeless classic.

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A Kiss for Cinderella by J.M. Barrie

Not many today know that J.M. Barrie, famous for creating Peter Pan, also wrote a string of popular plays during the late 19th and early 20th century. A Kiss for Cinderella is a three act play by Barrie. It opened on Broadway in the December of 1916.

A Kiss for Cinderella is a fantasy/romance set in London. The time is during WWI. Food and genuine human affection are scarce. In this bleak time, a girl named ‘Miss Thing’ works as a domestic help. Hungry and alone most of her life, it is her imagination that helps lessen the pain. She believes that she is the fabled ‘Cinderella’ and waits patiently for her invitation to the Royal ball.

The play’s first two acts are sparklingly fresh. The first act introduces Miss Thing or Cinderella, her master Mr. Bodie, the artist and David, the policeman. The policeman wants to find out why Cinderella has been lifting wooden boards from her employer and what she has been doing with them.

The first act contains some witty exchanges between Mr. Bodie and the policeman. It is evident that Mr. Bodie has a great sense of affection for Cinderella. Also, the policeman is portrayed as a thoroughly unimaginative and unromantic man, a paradox to Cinderella’s imaginative and romantic nature.

The second act begins at Cinderella’s home. It is revealed that she is a jack of all trades of her poor neighbourhood. She works as a tailor, a doctor, a barber, etc, etc. all for a penny. The policeman follows her home and discovers the reason she needs the wooden boxes. It is to accommodate a group of war orphans she has been secretly taking care of. After a pretty festive supper with the policeman and the children, Cinderella goes outside to wait for her fairy godmother.

In the second part of the second act we witness Cinderella’s spectacular ball. It is complete with food and ice cream and above all, a prince. A prince who surprisingly looks a little like our policeman.

In the second act the policeman is slowly drawn in to Cinderella’s world. His transformation is remarkable. Also, Cinderella becomes more and more unbalanced as the act progresses.

The third act is set in Dr. Bodie’s country practice. Dr. Bodie is the sister of Mr. Bodie. Here we find out that Cinderella, whose real name is Jane, was brought to the hospital by the policeman after nearly freezing to death. Dr. Bodie makes a gloomy prediction about Cinderella’s fate but she does get her happy ending in the end.

The third act is, unfortunately, not as good as the first two. The introduction of the unnecessary characters of Danny, the wounded soldier and Charlotte, the probationer really dampens the mood of the story. Fortunately, these diversions don’t last for long.

Among the characters the children under Cinderella’s care are absolutely fresh and funny. They make their presence felt in just one act. The central figures of Cinderella and the policeman are good. The policeman’s increasing tenderness towards Cinderella is so moving. His eagerness to make her happy and comfortable really touched my heart. Mr. Bodie is an affectionate, if slightly narrow-minded, man. Dr. Bodie, I really admired. Such a strong female character is very good to see.

I really loved how Barrie portrayed Cinderella’s dream ball sequence. As an extremely poor girl, she has obviously never been to a real ball. Her perceptions are so well imbued in to her dream that not for one moment did I forget that this is Cinderella’s dream. The product of a poor girl’s imagination. Her dream is filled with the things she knows, things that are familiar to her. Only they are tinged highly with an unreality that comes with dreams. For example, she has never seen real royalty. So, the king and the queen in her dream looks like the king and queen from playing cards. Even her fairy godmother is seen wearing a Red Cross Nurse’s uniform, the only caring and kind elderly women she knows.

One thing that really bothered me was the way Dr. Bodie was derided for being a female doctor. It is implied that being a doctor is non-feminine. She needs to be reminded that she is, after all, a mere woman. I know it is a product of its time. But still the derogatory tone used to describe her really irritated me!

It was a little difficult to read the play because every little detail of how the play should be staged is discussed at length. Also, the way some of the minor characters may end up or how their lives are like outside of the time line of the play is really unnecessary.

What I really love about this play is that even though it is essentially a romantic fantasy, it never leaves reality. Especially, the scenes where Cinderella and the policeman converse. The policeman is so sincere in his love but is hopelessly tongue tied and inarticulate. That is what real life is like. People don’t have ready made dialogues for expressing their feelings.

The play is incredibly short. An hour is more than enough to finish it.

A Kiss for Cinderella certainly has its flaws. But the way Barrie provides the reader’s with a happy ending while retaining its closeness to reality is remarkable. I admire this play for that.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller premiered in 1949 at the Morosco Theatre, New York City. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan and ran for 742 performances. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1949.

Death of a Salesman is the story of unreal expectations and shattered dreams. Willy Loman, a salesman, approaching the dusk of his life, starts fearing that his whole life has been one big failure. He also secretly blames himself for the lackluster and unsuccessful lives of his two sons, Biff and Happy. With a blurring sense of reality he begins to slip between the past and the present, trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

I was and still am greatly impressed by how as the state of Willy’s mind deteriorates the line between the past and present fades away. Towards the end the past and present begin to coincide with one another.

Willy Loman, chasing the impossible and unattainable dream of greatness, remains convinced that greatness comes from personal appearance and popularity. To be well liked by everyone is all that matters.

Willy is so caught up with his own ideas of greatness and success that he fails to recognize himself (or his son) for who he truly is. The unrealistic goals he sets for himself and his sons, especially for Biff, ultimately blights everyone’s happiness and destroys their lives.

The way Willy leads Biff towards all the wrong things and all the wrong paths in life is really very unsettling to watch.

Willy’s wife Linda is kind and affectionate but ultimately a weak person. At one point when Willy is having a conversation with his dead brother Ben about the possibility of going to Alaska with him it is indicated that Linda may have held him back from moving forward in his life. Their younger son, Happy, is very determined not to notice the terrible dreariness of his life and tries to drown its futility with a lot of bluster.

Willy’s older son Biff is constantly idealized by his father. Biff was a bright young athlete in high school and was well liked (popular). But since then he has done nothing and that crushed his father more than anything else. He keeps wondering why Biff ended up where he is today. On the other hand, Biff, who once admired his father for being a great man is now disillusioned by him. He is angered by his father’s constant misconceptions about him and tries to show him the reality of their lives but fails. It is interesting how each of them put the other up on a pedestal and how their mutual disillusionment contributes to the other’s failure.

Arthur Miller’s writing is simply great. Saying anything less than that would be an insult.

In the end, it is not just the death of Willy Loman’s dreams that makes me sad but the fact that it could all have been prevented. If only he had focused on what he had and not on what he wanted to have, his whole family could have been saved from their slow descent towards the abyss of discontent and misery.

Death of a Salesman is a beautifully heartbreaking work of art It is possibly the best play I’ve ever read. A true masterpiece!

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.