Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two Lesser-Known Plays

In the last two days, I reread a couple of Shakespeare's less popular plays: Henry VIII and Pericles. They're unknown for a reason, I think. But I like Shakespeare enough, I've read each of them twice now in my lifetime.

I see Henry VIII sometimes ascribed to both the Bard and someone named John Fletcher -- the idea of a collaboration apparently a nineteenth-century theory. Sparknotes says that most present-day scholars don't hold to the idea that Fletcher wrote part of the work, but it wouldn't surprise me to find the old theory confirmed; Henry VIII just doesn't sound much like Shakespeare to me. The play is really more of a pageant, moving through the history and famous characters with all the motivation of a fact-laden schoolbook. Buckingham gets tried. Henry wants to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey's ambition is found out, and he falls from grace. Anne Boleyn (or "Bullen" as its spelled in the play) bears a child who "promises Upon this land a thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness" (the future Queen Elizabeth, of course). Twice the stage instructions describe an actual pageant: who marches when and wearing what symbol of authority. It all reminds me of the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland.

Because of the play's apparent purpose of merely commemorating famous episodes, neither the plot nor most of the characters have any true arc. Wolsey has something of a tragic arc; he frustrates his own ambitions by inadvertently including the damning evidence in a stack of documents he gives to the king. But his story comes to an end about halfway through, and then the rest of the play's scenes tick off like a string of loosely related codettas. Henry, mostly unanalyzed, just watches things happen and then demotes or kills people when he tires of them. Katherine (as Shakespeare spells it) is in, then she's out, and then she dies. Anne has no wish to be queen, and then she's the queen. The vignettes might as well be introduced by the old newscasters' cliche: "And now this."

The language is as prosaic as the plot. Consider this speech from Katherine's trial:
Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behaviour given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness,
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable,
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance--glad or sorry
As I saw it inclin'd. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew 
He were mine enemy?
The speech has only a few, weak figures. Compare "to your will conformable" to the famous sonnet's "the marriage of true minds." The enemies have no darkness for Katherine to shine on, no destroying flame for her to quench; she simply strives to love them. The passage has no archaic or newly coined words, not even any memorable combination of familiar words like, for instance, Hamlet's "outrageous fortune." The speech represents the play as a whole: the dialog has none of the wordplay Shakespeare usually offers. There are no clever uses of a word twice in rapid succession, no uses of an adjective as a verb. I started Macbeth this morning and quickly came across "kerns and gallowglasses," "doubly redoubled strokes," "screw your courage to the sticking-place," and "to glad her presence." Because of the dullness of the poetry in Henry VIII, the colorful king gets no arresting epithet that everyone now associates with him. If Mark Antony had been around, would he even have been able to say, "This was a man"?

By contrast, I didn't have to read far in Pericles to come across well-turned phrases like this one: "I leap into the seas, Where's hourly trouble for a minute's ease." This play has the language I expect from Shakespeare, even though scholars (even the current ones) think that he didn't write the first half, so it was much more rewarding to read. The problem is that some of the scenes and characters are distasteful. The play starts with an incestuous relationship between a king and his daughter. The story as a whole gets two things out of this situation: a reason for Pericles to flee (he finds out their secret) and a foil for happy families later in the play. Couldn't a secret adultery have served both purposes? Did it have to be child abuse by a father? Later, Pericles' daughter, poor Marina, gets orphaned, shipwrecked, captured by pirates, sold at auction, and then put into a brothel. This is the stuff of adventure yarns, and Marina shows and builds her virtue through this life of trouble, but do we really need to spend so much time with the thoroughly despicable married couple that runs the brothel?

Despite the problems, I've read both plays twice now and will probably read them a third time in another ten years or so. In any case, I should have more positive things to say about Macbeth in the next post.

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