shakespeare reading month: january 2012

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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Shakespeare Reading Month: January 2012

Allie at A Literary Odyssey   is hosting Shakespeare Reading Month where the entire month of January 2012 will be spent honouring the Bard.

During the month of January, all a participant has to do is read anything Shakespeare! Besides his plays, one can read some of his sonnets, a biography, a book about Elizabethan times, or even a play by one of his contemporaries (Marlowe, anyone?). The goal is to learn more about one of the greatest English writers and spread the knowledge.

I have a few of Shakespeare’s plays on my shelf and I have yet to read any of them. I think this might be a good opportunity for me to finally read these.

Thanks to Allie for hosting this challenge!

Completed Books: 1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. William Shakespeare.

2. Twelfth Night. William Shakespeare.

3. Measure for Measure. William Shakespeare.

Challenge Completed: 31st January, 2012.