ONLINE COLLABORATIVE LEARNING ACTIVITY IDEAS

This list was created in April, 2020, when we first started Learning From Home. This year I am working from home as part of a large writing project for the Department of Education – it’s really awesome and whilst I am not in the classroom myself (or teaching from home as many of my NSW colleagues are), I am still working with teachers. Whilst revising my book On Teaching, I returned to my blog post with ‘lesson plans’ for learning from home (online learning, really, as it assumes students have access to a device). This list of strategies for collaborative learning online was hidden in the post, so thought I would bring it back to life. I think I am going to adapt it (and the lesson plan template) for my chapter On Lesson Design as it reflects how I traditionally structure my lessons as a high school teacher. Note: I’ve just copied and pasted from the original doc from over a year ago, I’m sure the tools teachers use are slightly different now.

Always plan your groups before a lesson, considering students’ interests, skills and needs. It is important to design a collaborative activity that is challenging, engaging, and meaningful and can be completed in 30 minutes. Activities could involve one or more of these cognitive processes/activities: analysing, investigating, creating, synthesising, problem-solving, critiquing, discussing, composing, performing, rehearsing, collaborating, evaluating, researching, designing.   

  • Tools: Encourage students to collaborate in online spaces visible to you: the comments feature or just typing together in a Google Doc, a comment thread in Google Classroom, the small group function in Edmodo, or breakout rooms in Zoom. 

Example activities: 

  • Collaborative questions: Put students in pairs or small teams. Give them a question/problem/challenge and have them add their response in a Google Doc table that the whole class can access. 
  • Collaborative presentations: Put students in pairs or small teams. Have students create a team presentation based on a given topic. They can create this using Google Slides, and put the link in a Google Doc shared with the whole class. This presentation could be delivered live via Zoom in the next synchronous lesson, or read through by students in the next asynchronous lesson.
  • Collaborative videos: Put students in pairs or small teams. Set students a topic to explain or skill to demonstrate and have them make a 2-3 minute video for the class. Individual student rolls would include writing the script, choosing images or short video clips, and editing the video together. This video could be delivered live via Zoom in the next synchronous lesson, or read through by students in the next asynchronous lesson.
  • Collaborative essay plan: Put students in pairs or small teams. Give students an essay question and have them work together to write a thesis and an essay plan, including evidence to support the thesis. Students can write collaboratively via Google Docs, and share a link to their plan in a Google Doc table shared with the whole class. 
  • Socratic seminars: In your asynchronous lesson allocate each student a text to read/view from a set of four or five. In a Google Doc shared with the whole class, have each student write one open-ended intellectual question they would like to discuss with their peers. In your synchronous lesson, have the students with the same text spend 10 mins discussing the questions set by their peers. Students not speaking in the Socratic seminar are to listen and take notes. Do this over a series of synchronous lessons until all teams have discussed their text and questions.
  • Collaborative text analysis: Put students in pairs or small teams. Set students a text to analyse using a set of questions. In a Google Doc table with headings (e.g. for English it might be characterisation, plot, setting, conflict, theme), have students work together to fill in examples and analysis.
  • Mini project challenge: Put students in pairs or small teams. Set students a creative challenge using the Discover/Create/Share structure and have them collaborate to complete it within the 30 minute timeframe. For example (Philosophy): Discover – biography of David Hume. Create – a 60 second bio doco. Share – link to video at the end of the lesson. 
  • Peer-assessment: This task assumes that students have a draft piece of work that they have worked on during their asynchronous lessons. Put students in pairs or teams of three. Provide the students with a marking criteria or product checklist via a Google Doc or PDF. Set each student the task of providing feedback on the piece of work using the provided criteria. If the work is typed in a Google Doc, feedback can be provided using the ‘comments’ feature. If the work is not written, students can use the criteria/checklist to give written feedback. Alternatively, students could go into a Zoom breakout room to give oral feedback. 
  • Project work: Put students in pairs or small teams. Set students a project that may take a few lessons or a few weeks to complete. A project outline or brief is recommended to help students chunk and manage their learning. Have students create a ‘to-do’ list for their project and use negotiation skills to allocate roles and responsibilities to team members – doing this via a Zoom breakout room is encouraged. This should be created in a Google Doc shared with the teacher. During the activity time, students work on tasks they have been allocated, collaborating when necessary. 

Love’s Labour’s Lost – and so was I!

Three comedies in a row gives me the opportunity to see both Shakespeare’s development as a playwright, and his diversity. Three comedies, and they are all quite different. Of all of the plays I’ve read so far, this is the one that tempted me to jump on the Internet and read the No Fear Shakespeare version. I didn’t, of course, because I am stubborn. This meant that there were quite a few scenes where I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening. This has, I think, more to do with the fact that a lot of this play relies on contextual knowledge, like it is really grounded in the time and place (late 16th century England) for a lot of the gags. My son was telling me that he’s starting to read bilingual manga (he is studying Japanese) and it reminded me of how I approach reading these plays of Shakespeare for the first time. For the most part I can easily understand what’s happening but then sometimes there is a reference, an image or a line that just totally bamboozles me. Instead of looking it up on the Internet (yes, I am stupidly stubborn), I just keep reading until it eventually makes sense from the rest of the dialogue. Unfortunately that approach didn’t help me at times with this play (pretty much the whole deer shooting scene went over my head).

What’s the play all about? Well, essentially it’s about a king and three of his mates who have decided to take an oath of celibacy and abstinence for three years. Deferring the pleasures of the flesh for pleasures of the mind (rationalism vs empiricism maybe?) Unfortunately for them a princess arrives with her three beautiful mates and this spells trouble for their oath. Given that, again, this is a comedy, we have the expected mistaken identities, silly slapstick moments, lots of witty banter, and some lower characters who are actually more insightful than their superiors (Moth and Costard are brilliant). Whilst we expect the play to end with the lovers all happily pairing off, Shakespeare does a super cool self-reflexive ‘gotcha’ moment and the men are sent off to retry their vow of abstinence for 12 months before their loves will accept them. Honestly, the ending moment with the poems about winter and spring when right over my head, which makes me feel a bit dumb but also just reminds me how complex Shakespeare can be. I will be reading up on that bit once I finish this post (yeah, sorry, you don’t benefit from my late Sunday night nerdy research).

One thing that fascinated me with this play was the use of the ‘three’ motif – like, everything is always about the number three. Again, I’ll have to read up some interpretations of this (numerology, anyone?) but it sure got me thinking about Lear right from the outset when King Navarre requests his three friends to swear to his oath of three years’ abstinence and study. From this opening scene, it’s clear that Shakespeare worked out that he can really deepen the ideas he explores even in comedy, giving really wonderful lines to (arguably his most developed character of this play) Berowne. Berowne’s wit is on display in his ‘Why, all delights are vain’ speech which is just so pretty to read with its twisting and turning of language (what is done with the word light really is remarkable) and this use of the language of reasoning continues throughout the play. I have found it really cool how central rhetoric is to comedy – it makes me think a lot about how I teach John Donne’s early poems – they really are so very light-hearted and it’s helps me better appreciate how well-loved those poems would have been by his small group of admirers. The word ‘conceit’ comes up a lot in this play, as each man and woman tries to outdo the other with more ridiculous lines of argument. Super fun! Of the words related to argument that I found used often, I list these: reasons, follows, manner, matter, form, define, contents, figure. I wish I knew more about the rhetoric taught to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as I bet Shakespeare has his characters use all of the different devices in this play!

I found the characterisation of Armado the Spaniard to be very, very amusing. Having read Wolf Hall, I can’t help but think of the Spanish ambassador who Cromwell (sort of) befriends. I imagine Shakespeare either watching or interacting with Spanish ambassadors in the pubs of London, and using this experience to inform his Armado, much to the amusement of his audience. His ridiculous overwrought style of language in his letters and even in his dialogue is just brilliant. The bit that made me snort was this: ‘Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise, wit: write, pen, for I am for whole volumes in folio.’ Shakespeare is totally taking the piss out of terrible sonneteers.

Two other scenes that gave me the giggles were Berowne’s rather unflattering description of Rosaline (‘two pitch balls stick in her face for eyes’ again reminding me of My Mistress Eyes) and the scene where all the lovers come on stage and read their (bad) love poems. I can only imagine that this scene is brilliant when performed on stage, and is testament to the playfulness and genius of Shakespeare’s stagecraft. Where are all the lovers hiding? Behind the pillars on stage, ducking down behind some cloth? I also am impressed by the variety of the poetry – it’s not all the same form, showing off Shakespeare’s own poetic skill, even if the poems themselves are a bit average. And of course, to continue the wit of it all, Shakespeare has his main character very self aware when it comes to the tacky poetry that love produces, with Berowne mocking himself in ‘Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affection, Figures pedantical–these summer flies Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.’ I don’t know why, but the ‘three-piled hyperbole’ just cracked me up – probably because I often make fun of Shakespeare to my class regarding his need to have his characters tell us the same thing in three different ways, just in case we miss it the first time.

Finally, Shakespeare ends his play with an anti-climax, refusing to adhere to the expected ‘all’s well that ends well’ trope, leaving his audience a little aghast but also laughing with his self-reflexive quip about comedies typically ending with love matches. Personally, I feel like this is Shakespeare testing the waters, seeing just what he can get away with in a play as he becomes more confident with his craft. This is not an ‘old play’ this is something new. Very cool.

Berowne
Our wooing doth not end like an old play.
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
King
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ’twill end.
Berowne
That’s too long for a play.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona – I didn’t hate it!

Currently I’m in the guts of a bunch of comedies as per the ordering of the plays in my copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It’s fine because they are pretty quick to read, and I’m pushing myself a little as I need to start focusing on writing my chapters of the Shakespeare book I’ve agreed to co-author (yes, I am insanely excited about this). I’ve set myself the goal of writing two chapters per month, starting August 1st – that’s tomorrow. Each chapter is about 5000 words, but I feel really confident I can do it. The first chapter is on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is just one play away in The Complete Works. I will *just* miss my goal of having read and blogged on all the plays before AMSND, so I can’t be too hard on myself.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of those plays by Shakespeare that you can have no knowledge of even existing, and yet I think it’s actually an important one. Why? Well, the title might give a bit of a clue – Verona. Which other famous play of Shakespeare’s is set in this fair city? Romeo and Juliet! I feel like a lot of the themes, characters, images and scenes from The Two Gentleman of Verona are recycled later in Romeo and Juliet – and also some finds their way into A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Unlike The Comedy of Errors, I thoroughly enjoyed this play. It’s a comedy, as I mentioned already, so you know it’s going to be a quirky story with some mishaps, mistaken identity and resolve itself in happy love matches. To that end, Shakespeare does not disappoint. However, what I like about this play is how he develops his characters a bit more than in CoE, and also definitely gives his characters more interesting, elaborate dialogue as they engage in discussing thematic issues. I mean, it still lacks the complexity of his tragedies and histories, but that’s to be expected since this is a comedy. Alright, let’s get into it.

The play opens with the two gentlemen of the title sparring over love – not over a woman, over the concept of love. Valentine thinks love is silly and distracts from a man’s ability to develop himself, and Proteus thinks love is what makes life worth living. The latter’s argument rests on the fact that he is in love with a noblewoman, Julia. When we meet Julia, we find her sparring with her maid, Lucetta, who has tried to deliver a love not from Proteus to Julia. This is a very funny scene involving a bit of slapstick with the letter – Julia ripping it up as she pretends to be disinterested in Proteus, only to throw herself on the floor and kiss each piece when Lucetta leaves the stage. The dialogue of the two women as they discuss the qualities of the ideal man reminds me of Austen, a lot. Later when we learn that neither parent of Julia or Proteus supports their love, we start to get strong Romeo and Juliet vibes, especially when Proteus climbs up to her balcony to say farewell (his father sends him off the Milan to follow Valentine who has gone there to spread his wings like all young men should, according to Valentine and Proteus’ father) and Julia refers to herself as ‘a true devoted pilgrim’ and Proteus gives her his hand instead of a kiss.

In terms of characterisation, I really enjoy the character of Speed, the servant of Valentine. Here Shakespeare again demonstrates his capacity to give great insight to his ‘lower’ characters, with Speed giving us the famous line ‘love is blind’ – an idea that runs through the whole play. Speed surely has some of the best lines in the play, and would easily have been the audience favourite if it wasn’t for the gorgeous clown-like Launce and his dog. Is there another dog in a Shakespeare play? I can’t recall there being one, but his dog Crab is easily my favourite. (His scene describing how he tried to give his dog to Sylvia is so funny – it reminds me of the mechanicals from AMSND.) We get to see more of Launce and Speed as they follow their masters to Milan. Turns out that Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia, the Duke’s daughter, much to Proteus’ amusement. I like the way with this comedy you don’t know what to expect (CoE was just so obvious) and I feel like Shakespeare’s real genius is in his capacity to confound his audience – he certainly does this when he makes Proteus reveal in soliloquy that he too has fallen in love with Sylvia, and plans to backstab his best friend to win her over. Whilst he does manage to get Valentine banished to Mantua (sound familiar?), Sylvia proves a constant lover and organises to run away to be with Valentine (I guess Shakespeare realises this is too easy an escape, and gives his Juliet the more bizarre idea to drink a potion that makes her seem dead). Before he leaves, Valentine delivers the most ridiculous monologue on love which clearly is Shakespeare satirising the overwrought declarations of love found in the poetry of his contemporaries, reminding me of his sonnet ‘My Mistress Eyes’.

Meanwhile, Julia has decided to run away from home in Verona to go and see her love, Proteus, in Milan. She’s worried about being caught by her father, so she disguises herself – wait for it – as a boy named Sebastian! Another idea to be recycled later by Shakespeare! Of course when she gets to Milan she is very shocked to find her man trying to woo another woman – literally singing to Sylvia, musical theatre style. Shakespeare does an excellent job of making us feel very sorry for Julia and very cross at Proteus. At this point I couldn’t really work out how I wanted the play to end. Somehow we end up with all the main characters in the woods (Valentine having been randomly asked to be the king of a band of outlaws who see themselves as Robin Hood characters) and it all feels very much like AMSND – lovers chasing lovers. I didn’t much care for the scene where Proteus tried to make Sylvia love him ‘like a soldier’ – forcing himself on her – and it reminded me of Demetrius telling Helena he was going to use her like a dog. Again, this character and scenario is recycled in AMSND but made more ‘believable’ by (ironically) adding in the ‘fairy’ element of the love potion. I liked how Julia stands up for herself for a moment (after unmasking herself) and tells Proteus that he’s an inconstant dog. Unfortunately she accepts his justification that men are always inconstant (sigh) and forgives him. Valentine unites everyone, even getting the Duke’s approval to marry Sylvia and allow the outlaws back into the city of Milan. So, I guess all’s well that ends well?

I liked this play because it kept me enthralled and wanting to find out what would happen at the end. I didn’t love the ending because Shakespeare did too good of a job at making me dislike Proteus, but I still enjoyed the experience of reading it. This one felt like a comedy you could read and enjoy, not just watch it performed (like CoE) which I think shows further growth in his skill as a playwright. Picking up on all the little things that he will being together so well in his later plays continues to make reading The Complete Works a genuine delight.

The Comedy of Errors – short, simple and silly

Do I like comedies? In general, yes. Early this year I watched the whole series of The Office, New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If I miss Mad As Hell, I make sure to watch it on iView, and I am completely obsessed with the 2020 adaptation of Emma which is the most sublime rom-com ever made. BUT, Shakespeare’s comedies? I’m yet to be convinced. And if I’m honest, The Comedy of Errors did not help me move to a positive conclusion. Possibly it did the reverse.

This review will be short, much like The Comedy of Errors (thankfully). I knew when I read the character list that this was going to be a very silly play – two sets of identical twins who (of course) have the same names, how could it not be? Shakespeare loves twins – he even had a pair himself, very clever. As I’ve said before, my little project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays chronologically is prompted by the fact that I have a bit more time on my hands this year, and because I want to see the development of his skill as a writer. The latter focus was very interesting as I read this play. I just couldn’t get over how simple the play is in comparison to the complexity (at least in terms of narrative and characters, but also, I think, thematically) of the preceding histories and tragedy. It’s just so simple. Obviously there are the two sets of characters with the same names and everyone on stage being confused, but I feel like the audience isn’t confused – right from the start we know what is happening (because Shakespeare has a character tell us) and we have a good idea how the play will end. Being a comedy, it’s going to end with laughter, forgiveness and marriages/new love. Those of us who have read Shakespeare’s more famous comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew) know this structure well, but in The Comedy of Errors what is missing is the big ideas and the clever, beautiful language.

If you haven’t read The Comedy of Errors, the plot goes like this: a merchant and his wife from Syracuse have twin sons and on the same day a poor woman also has twin sons. The merchant and his wife agree to take her sons and raise them with their two – presumably to be the other twins’ servants. As the family are sailing out on the ocean (I don’t know why), they get stuck in a tempest which destroys their boat. The merchant ties himself plus one baby son and one baby servant to a mast, and somehow the husband and wife (with their respective babies) get separated by pirates or mean sailors, so the children are raised in separate countries, not knowing if the others are alive. The play starts 30 years later with the father accidentally turning up on Ephesus (where two of the sons are, but he doesn’t know) and getting arrested because he’s from Syracuse and is banned from Ephesus. Little does he know, his other two sons – well, one son and one slave – from Syracuse (the ones he raises on his own) are also on Ephesus because they are looking for the other brothers. The rest of the play involves the identical twins (both the two Antipholus and the two Dromio) running into people who mistake them for the other which causes much frustration and bewilderment (and lots of being beaten for the Dromio slaves). As the audience we know why this is happening, but we also question how the Syracuse Antipholus and Dromio can be so stupid as to not work out what is happening given their purpose for being in Ephesus was to find their twin brothers. I assume that all this silliness being played out on stage would be very funny and whilst it’s obvious the actors would have had fun with the stagecraft (up on the balcony, hiding behind the pillars), I found reading this play far less enjoyable than I wanted to.

The language is very simple (in terms of the type of highly descriptive, inventive, evocative language we have come to associate with Shakespeare), with lots of shared couplets which makes the dialogue quick and presumably very fun to play with on stage. It’s obvious that it’s from the comedies that we get most of Shakespeare’s wonderful ‘insults’ – there are some very funny ones used in The Comedy of Errors, even if the ones about Dromio’s kitchen-hand wife are a bit cruel and fatist. Given that this is a comedy, and therefore it is light, quick and a bit shallow, the conceptual depth we come to expect of Shakespeare is missing mostly, except for a really great scene between Antipholus and Dromio of Syracus about Time. This was not only clever and interesting, but also really funny. It starts off with jokes about bald men (of course Shakespeare has his character advocate for the intelligence of bald men over those with hair, I wonder if that means he had started to lose a bit of his own hair by the time he wrote this play) and ends up arguing that Time is bald (‘Not a man of those but he hath the wit to lose his hair… Why, thou didst conclude hairy men plain dealers without wit… Time himself is bald, and therefore, to the world’s end will have bald followers.’). This reminds me, the interplay between the twins as sort of arguer and interlocutor is one of the strengths of the play – and I quite like that Shakespeare has the servant, Dromio, as the one with the better wit and arguments. There are a lot of references to the language of argument and logic (with the introduction of our common expression today ‘What is the matter?’ being used more literally to reference the ‘matter’ of the argument) and this reminds me of a lot of John Donne. In fact, there were a couple of lines where I was like ‘what?!!!’ is that from Donne or did Donne steal it from Shakespeare? It just really illustrates similarities between style amongst these two young writers. The one that really got me was Adrian’s argument about why she might be able to cheat on her husband if he is cheating on her – it’s basically Donne’s argument as to why he should be allowed to sleep with his love in The Flea, check it out: My blood is mingled with the crime of lust; For if we too be one, and thou play false, I do digest the poison of thy flesh, Being strumpeted by thy contagion. Oh, and Adriana and Dromio of Syracuse pick up on the theme of Time later in their own repartee:
ADRIANA.
As if time were in debt! how fondly dost thou reason!
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE.
Time is a very bankrupt, and owes more than he’s worth to season.
Nay, he’s a thief too: have you not heard men say
That Time comes stealing on by night and day?
If he be in debt and theft, and a sergeant in the way,
Hath he not reason to turn back an hour in a day?

Overall, I was glad this play was short because (as I’ve said in my title) it is silly and a little simple. I would love to see it live on stage as I know it would be hilarious, and I can understand why Shakespeare was such a popular playwright if he wrote scripts like this for his audiences to enjoy on a balmy English day, a little bit drunk, smooshed into a packed house with a bunch of other people, all looking for a good time.

Titus Andronicus – a tragedy, a farce, or a B grade slasher?

**Trigger warning** This review includes references to sexual assault and violence

I’ve never heard anyone speak about Titus Andronicus as a play they love. Maybe because I don’t know the play, I’ve just never paid attention when people talk about it, so coming to this play I had no preconceptions other than the title sounds fancy (Roman name?) and that it was an early play of Shakespeare’s, meaning I would likely be able to see him working through his apprenticeship as a playwright. Well, let’s just say I now have preconceptions! Wow! It’s a bit of a crazy work which took me on a complete rollercoaster and left me literally gasping out loud. Let’s get into it!

The play opens with a bunch of confusing named characters (how very Shakespeare) and a narrative context completely unfamiliar too me – what I gathered from the opening scene was that Titus is a hero, he has a lot of sons (I think 25 – 21 of whom have died in battle for Rome), there are two sons battling over who becomes emperor, and the enemy is a group of people called the Goths (cool name, yes, I don’t know anything about history – just letting myself be taught by a guy who’s been dead for 400 years). By the end of scene i, I honestly didn’t know which character I was meant to like – presumably Titus because he is the titular character, but he is far too arrogant to be likeable, so I decide maybe it was Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Titus’ hostage? Her (unsuccessful) pleading to save her eldest son, Alarbus, (who Titus orders to be killed and dismembered as a sacrifice to his own sons who died in battle – thankfully this murder happens off-stage, but the description is horrible) made me pity her, and she seemed really human. Well, I was wrong, OK? It becomes a pretty typical stylistic device of Shakespeare’s to intentionally disrupt his audience’s allegiance to characters. That’s the beauty of drama – there is often no single narrative perspective, so we see many sides to a story.

So Tamora turns out to be a bit of a snake, just like Saturninus (the brother who becomes emperor). You can see how Tamora fits into what will become a bit of a trope character for Shakespeare – the plotting, vengeful, ambitious, feisty woman – reminding me of Margaret from the Henry/Richard plays. Saturnius initially declares he will marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, but then his brother, Bassiamus (another great name) snatches her away (literally) because he loves her. Two of Titus’ sons support this, but Titus is outraged (Lavinia being his property and all) and kills one of his sons. Not even accidentally, full on intentionally and goes after another. Geez. Saturnius doesn’t care because he really wants Tamora anyway, and so the two couples get married. But, don’t get excited, this is no comedy so it doesn’t end with love and happiness. This (I think) is a tragedy so we are going to get blood, blood, blood. Shakespeare quickly introduces another important character, Aaron ‘the Moor’. I was intrigued to see how Shakespeare uses Aaron’s race as a point of characterisation (or not) because the only other play I know with ‘a Moor’ is Othello and as we all know, Othello cops some pretty nasty racism but (despite obvious flaws) he’s shown to be human and his death is really sad – we feel sorry for his downfall. Aaron is different. He’s more of an Iago than an Othello. He is definitely the villain; a mastermind. Aaron, we find out, is Tamora’s lover. What I love about reading these plays in chronological order is how it helps you see Shakespeare building up to his greatest characters – Iago is definitely the craftiness, cunning and cruelty of Aaron and the wit, intelligence and charisma of Richard. I also like watching Shakespeare test out his use of language – in this play he includes quite a bit of Latin. I can’t decide if it’s because the play is set in Rome back in the day, or if it’s because he wants to impress the ‘university wits’ and prove himself as capable as them. Maybe both.

Well, all I can say is that the next bit of action is the stuff of full-on slasher horror – I gasped and covered my eyes, for real. So Tamora has two sons and they have decided that they both love Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Aaron solves their quarrel by helping them plot to murder Lavinia’s husband, Bassianus, and rape Lavinia. Yeah, fucked up, right? So surely Shakespeare is setting us up to feel moral outrage and then show us that something so horrifying couldn’t come to fruition, right? Well, no. He’s following the classical tradition of Greek tragedy – this thing is going to be brutal and all on stage too. The horror-show takes place out in the wilderness whilst everyone is on a hunting trip and we discover that Tamora is in on the plot. Yuck. I don’t want to describe the scene, feel free to go to the source yourself and read it, but let’s just say that Shakespeare holds nothing back, and I can’t even imagine how they would have staged this back in the day. I have been to the Pop-Up Globe to see Macbeth and ended up covered in blood, so I’m guessing this too would have been a messy affair for the audience. The murder of Bassianus was a shock for me and reminded me of the killings in the Henry plays as both of the sons stab him – a duel murder. Then the sons are encouraged by their mother, Tamora, to take Lavinia off and rape her – despite Lavinia’s pleadings to be killed like her husband instead. They do as they are told, with Demetrius uttering a horrific line: ‘First thrash the corn, then after burn the straw’. I mean, Shakespeare? Why? Yuck. You’d think that was enough, right? Well, that is just the start. Next we see Aaron trick two of Titus’ sons into falling down the hole where Bassianus’ body has been thrown. The stagecraft of Maritius in the bottom (presumably down the trapdoor?) and his brother above trying to pull him out would have been impressive and enjoyable for the audience – especially when the second brother falls in head first. The description of Bassianus’s dead body is pretty gross too.

So, I had hoped that the villain brothers would just do their awful work offstage and that would be the end of it, but since Shakespeare had grown up reading the Greek tragedies, he couldn’t leave it there. Bringing the destroyed Lavinia back on stage to stand in her pain and anguish (having had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out) is, I suppose, Shakespeare’s equivalent of Oedipus with the jelly of his eyes tumbling down his cheeks. Vomit. The fact that Shakespeare brings Lavinia on stage whilst her uncle, Marcus, describes what she looks like just adds to the horror. I was so conflicted by this scene, I wanted Lavinia to die because how could she live like that but also why should she die? I don’t know, it’s so hard to read this scene in 2021, and I’m guessing it probably has been a hard one since it was first written and performed. All I know is that I didn’t like it, not one bit.

Following this the play gets more and more complicated and bloody. We have Titus being tricked by Aaron to cut off one of his own hands (trying to save his two sons) only to be sent his severed hand and the severed heads of his sons in a box. Yuck. One scene I did enjoy is the fly killing scene at the dinner table. I don’t know why, maybe just the absurdity of it? It really is a brilliant piece of absurdist farce.

[MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife]
What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

Marcus Andronicus. At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.

Titus Andronicus. Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy’d with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company.

Marcus Andronicus. Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.

Tamora gives birth offstage to a son, but a nurse comes on stage with the infant and reveals to Aaron and Tamora’s sons that the baby is black – clearly Aaron’s baby. This isn’t good for Tamora or Aaron – presumably the emperor will be pissed. Aaron plots to take the baby to a Goth family and then suddenly kills the nurse who brought the news – this made me gasp! Fully unexpected stabby stab. As one of Titus’ sons (Lucius) heads to the Goths himself to secure them as allies against Rome, we find Tamora and her sons plotting to take advantage of (what everyone thinks is) an increaingly insane Titus (the fly thing was the first hint he was becoming unhinged). There’s more than a little bit of Lear hiding in Titus. Tamora tries to trick him into believing she is the spirit of Revenge and her sons are Murder and Rape. This is a bit of clever stagecraft and wordplay from Shakespeare – I really liked the sort of horrific farcical nature of this scene. Initially Shakespeare has us too believing Titus has lost his mind, but then he reveals in a little aside (a bit like what we later come to associate with Shakespeare’s heroes and villains, chatting to themselves or the audience) that he knows it is Tamora. He asks to keep her sons whilst Revenge goes off to collect Tamora for dinner (lol) and somehow hatches the grizzly plan to have the sons killed, ground down into powder, and cooked into a pastie which he will then feed their mother. Fully disgusting, surely it won’t come to fruition? The set-up for the audience is glorious and you can just imagine how delighted the original audience would have been to watch and see if the plot comes good.

In a scene that is just beyond disturbing (seriously though, this comes from Shakespeare? The guy who Bloom said invented ‘the human’? Man… this is as inhuman as it gets.) Titus has Lavinia hold a bowl between her stumps to catch the blood gushing from the two men who raped and mutilated her as Titus kills them. I guess my problem is that I see characters as human beings, which probably wasn’t necessarily how Shakespeare’s audience saw them at this early stage of his writing career – they were more like symbols like you’d see in a morality or miracle play. I read this play and just feel awful for Lavinia. So next up is the famous dinner scene (never was famous for me as I hadn’t heard of it at all, but I’m guessing it’s pretty famous, how could it not be?) where Titus dresses as a cook and serves up a pie made from Tamora’s sons. Just before we get that beyond horrifying gratification of Tamora eating her sons (even gross to type out), we are shocked – absolutely shocked, more gasping and eye-covering from me – when Titus stabs and kills Lavinia at the table. Why does he do it? Because looking on her brings him shame. Yep. Messed up. So then he tells Tamora that she ate her sons in the pie before he kills her too, Saturninus then kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus. Marcus declares Lucius the new emperor and Aaron (who has been caught by Lucius in an earlier scene) is brought onstage with Lucius ordering him to be buried up to his chest and left to die from starvation. Aaron speaks and reveals himself to be pure evil – the only thing in life he laments is if he ever did a good deed. This is not a human villain like Richard III or even Iago (who has some justification for his evil plots but remains silent at the end) – you can see how much Shakespeare grows by reading Aaron here as being rather a symbolic or stock character more than human. And that’s the thing I take away from the play – that Shakespeare is testing out his skills with character, plot and language. It would have been a riotous play to watch live, and I suppose it still is – not sure I could handle it unless the director really played up the B grade horror elements.

Richard III – a tragic history with a very human ‘villain’

At my previous school, I taught Richard III as part of a comparative study with Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard. I was in the privileged position to select any texts I wanted to teach, and because I wanted to teach Orwell’s essays, it left me with Richard III as my Shakespeare option. Luckily for me, and my students, I loved it. Reading the play again over the last two weeks (I’ve been slack with my reading because the latest COVID outbreak in Sydney has distracted me), I feel like I was reading it for the first time. Why? Because of my reading of the Henry VI trilogy prior, and getting to see Richard in his earlier days and in a broader context. Given that Richard III is so well-known, I’m not going to bother with a plot overview like I did for the previous three plays. What I’m most interested in is how, dramatically, this play is quite a departure or evolution (dare I say improvement?) on Shakespeare’s early histories.

The Henry plays are surprising for how swiftly the plot moves and for how many characters traipse across the page/stage. The compression of time is so great that it feels like the action takes place over a very short period of time – maybe a few weeks – even though it is actually many years. Richard III, similarly feels swift (dramas like this documenting the rise and fall of a king have to compress time necessarily) but it also feels slow. Finally, Shakespeare is allowing himself time to unravel the private life (the interior mind I suppose the fancy thinkers would call it) of a character, and this, to me, is what makes this play so different. In the Henry plays I was impressed by the way Shakespeare juggled the different characters, showing sides both lamentable and likeable and thus making them inch their way towards being human (I actually thought of all the characters, Henry himself felt the most fully developed – having flaws, vulnerabilities, doubts, and being quite honest and authentic) and this was a sensible approach because almost all contributed to the life of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s monarch. But Richard is something else entirely. He opens the play talking directly to us, showing us his frustrations, anxieties, vulnerabilities, and his (immoral) desires. We know of what he has done leading up to this moment (his involvement in the death of young Prince Edward, and the killing of Henry VI) but our feelings about these deeds, before this play begins aren’t as negative as they will become. After all, he was working in the service of his king – his brother Edward who was considered more legitimate than Henry. What Shakespeare does, is he makes us question the morality of these actions (even if, as a servant of the king, they could be dismissed as reasonable?) and he shifts us towards a different view of how to determine right and wrong. I don’t argue this is a central theme of the play, rather I think the intrigue comes from how we are taken along with Richard, as his confidants, something not attempted in his earlier plays. For us, Richard isn’t a historical figure rushing from one fight to the next, avenging a king, he is a human being inviting us into his private thoughts, luring us to witness the way in which he quite ingeniously climbs his way to the crown.

Personally, I find the first half of the play the most compelling. Richard’s famous opening monologue is one of my favourite pieces from Shakespeare, as too is the incredible dialogue between Richard and Anne. It’s not just the quick dialogue between them – which at times is so formal and then so natural – but the stagecraft, with the body of Henry VI on stage bleeding from his wounds as Anne falls for Richard’s wooing. It’s so great, Shakespeare must have been super stoked with himself after writing that scene. Oh, and then Margaret! Honestly, having read the previous plays and knowing her story just makes her entrance and cursing so much more powerful. The conflicting feelings towards her are so well developed – it’s like Shakespeare is delighting in playing with us. How can we like her after what she did to Rutland and York? We can’t. Yet how can we not be moved by her incisive intellect as she describes and dooms everyone on stage? We must be. I love, love, love the scene with Richard and his mother. It’s soooo sad! Richard’s hurt is so evident, and his bewilderment at his own mother’s hatred and scorn clearly comes through. And yet you can’t feel anything but sympathy for her, given all she has lost to the English crown. Gosh, Shakespeare is good!

I do, however, find that some of the scenes are too stylised at times, lacking that authenticity and flow, that naturalism (is that the right word??) of Shakespeare’s later plays. This is evident in his scenes with the weeping women and children – all that formal, repetition and structured verse. Like, on stage it could look great, but it doesn’t work for me in terms of evoking an emotional response. The same can be said for the staging before Bosworth. Like, I get it – the setting up of the tents and the current vs future king being visited by the ghosts of those the former has killed, in terms of stagecraft it’s very cool, but I just feel that it slows the action too much. The first half is just so intense, the language moves so quickly, Richard’s wit dominates, he is an enormous figure right up until he becomes king, and then he just shrivels. We lose him after that, and everything becomes structured, formal, dry. Perhaps it was intentional, but I feel like if you compare it to a tragedy like Macbeth, where the energy and authenticity is sustained right until the end, I think it’s weaker for the diminishing of Richard. We don’t really get any real direct engagement with Richard after he is king – we miss out on a genuinely reflective soliloquy like we get from Macbeth after the death of Lady Macbeth. All we have is a little bit of anxiety and paranoia, a touch of self-pity after his nightmare, and a brief rush of confidence and self-awareness on the battlefield before he is killed. Also, I don’t like Richmond. He is boring and that’s all I have to say about him.

Richard III is easily one of my favourite plays, and it’s almost entirely because of the charismatic titular character. From Richard comes all of the other characters we come to know and love – hiding in his words we have hints of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. I think the representation of women in this play also makes my review of it so positive – those women are badass! So far, having read the first four plays of my Collected Works, I think Shakespeare has done a great job representing women as fierce, intelligent, capable and really just as human as his men. So that’s my review of Richard III – it’s bloody awesome. My favourite quotes from the play are below.

Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the death of him
Than I am made by my young lord and thee!

Dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells;
Thy deeds inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.

GLOUCESTER. Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
ANNE. Some dungeon.
GLOUCESTER. Your bed-chamber.

Speak it again, and even with the word
This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love;
To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary.

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.

I cannot tell; the world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.

Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?

I was born so high,
Our aery buildeth in the cedar’s top,
And dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Princes have but their titles for their glories,
An outward honour for an inward toil;
And for unfelt imaginations
They often feel a world of restless cares,
So that between their tides and low name
There’s nothing differs but the outward fame.

O, do not slander him, for he is kind.

When clouds are seen, wise men put on
their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.

Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

Since you will buckle fortune on my back,
To bear her burden, whe’er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load;

O, would to God that the inclusive verge
Of golden metal that must round my brow
Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brains!

But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues, and kneels, and says ‘God save the Queen’?
Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followed thee?

Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burden was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desp’rate, wild, and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirm’d, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful-kind in hatred.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.

Henry VI: Part III – The Rise of Richard

If you didn’t guess it, my title is a reference to Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker. On Monday night I watched Episode IV for (what I believe to be) the first time the whole way through. Last night I watched Episode V and I’m really enjoying them – very confident I’ve never watched that whole one either. I always thought that I had watched them, but I definitely did not know what was going to happen, indicating I might have just assumed I’d seen them for my whole life. I’ve watched all of the prequels and later sequels, which I very much enjoyed. That gets me to my title and the relationship between Shakespeare’s history plays and Star Wars (and the MCU). Basically what he’s doing, intentionally or not, with the first Henry trilogy is he’s beginning a franchise. No, seriously. Hear me out. He’s establishing all of these characters and relationships and expectations which he then goes on to elaborate on (exploit?) in later plays. I know I’m making this up, but I like to imagine that after he moves away from the histories, and starts writing and staging comedies, that the audience are like ‘we need more of that franchise, man’. That maybe there was a petition of some sort requesting that he write a play about Henry V or IV. What about Richard II? He needs to get a voice, after all he’s been mentioned a lot already, show us his backstory! We wonder how could the audiences deal with all of these characters, but yet we accept that contemporary audiences will deal with the intricacies of the Star Wars world or the MCU (and all its phases!). In the final instalment of the latest Star Wars trilogy, we saw the rise of a new Jedi – Rey Skywalker – and in the final instalment of the Henry VI trilogy, we see the rise of both King Edward and (more importantly) his brother Richard, Duke of Gloster.

So what did I think of this play? I actually found myself really captivated by the plot and read the entire play in one night. I stayed up way later than I normally do just so I could finish it. This surprised me because the first couple of plays were much harder going just in terms of working out who the characters were, what was happening and where the action was set. I suppose the ease of this play is a testament to the effectiveness of Shakespeare’s characterisation in the previous plays – he really built the main players up pretty slowly over the course of the plays, which I think I mentioned in my last post. For me the central characters of the plays are York, King Henry, Queen Margaret and Richard. Obviously Richard isn’t in the first play, but since I confused him with his dad back then, it feels to me like he’s been a constant presence in the whole narrative.

Richard has the final lines in Henry VI: Part II, foreshadowing to the audience his continued rise into the next part of the story. However, it is Warwick, a York ally, who opens Part III. I think this is a clever decision because Warwick’s role in the play is significant and he highlights the fickleness of loyalty in the context of a civil war – something Shakespeare depicts across the three plays as a feather stirred and redirected by the lightest of breath. It’s this key concern – really almost like a subtle mockery of loyalty as an impossible ideal – that I think would resonate with contemporary audiences. The concept is used like a tool for politicians and even corporations, but really what is it? Shakespeare’s characters demonstrate that it’s just a word to be used but when it comes down to it, what matters most is pride and power. Warwick is an excellent example of this.

There is a lot of quick dialogue in this play, and it’s easy to see Shakespeare testing out his skills with language. He builds tension between the two factions in the opening scene, with a heated exchange between York, Clifford, Henry and others. York demands that Henry yield the crown and (surprisingly, I thought) Henry does. He agrees to let York’s sons become heirs to the crown as long as Henry can rule peacefully until his death. Wishful thinking. Personally, I found the characterisation of Henry here to be clever – his capitulation is based on his comprehension of York’s stronger claim to the throne, which casts him in a pretty good light from the outset. Like he has the moral high ground, in a way, but so too does York because he has a legitimate claim – all this is essential given where this story goes… all the way to the legitimacy of Elizabeth I and thus Tudor line. He doesn’t want his audience to despise either of these two men, but he does have to show them to be enemies. Interesting.

Well Queen Margaret is super pissed that Henry capitulated, because it means their son (the Prince of Wales) has been disinherited. The Prince is also mad, but it’s really Margaret who grows with the intensity of her fury – she has this powerful speech about being abandoned and then storms off, promising to lead an army against York. I really enjoy the scenes with Margaret, even if I don’t particularly like her. The next thing we know, we’re on the battlefield and Margaret’s army (led by Clifford) is dominating. I found this scene and the following to be really intense. Basically Clifford encounters Rutland, the youngest son of York, and despite Rutland’s pleas for mercy, Clifford stabs him and then Margaret mops up his blood with her handkerchief. The next moment the two have captured York and begin to taunt him. It’s pretty horrible really, and remembering now reminds me of why I don’t like Margaret. They tell York about how they killed his young son and dipped the cloth in his blood, pushing it on York to wipe his tears, then finally they put a paper crown on York’s head. Well, if you want to read a heartbreaking speech, read the response of York to this cruelty (‘see, ruthless queen, a hapless father’s tears’). It reaffirms my comments above about Shakespeare’s generous characterisation of him. They end up stabbing him whilst he weeps for his dead son.

Upon hearing the news of their father’s death, Richard and Edward are devastated, but both quickly realise it means they are in line for the throne. Warwick joins them, and so does their other brother George (Duke of Clarence) and they all agree to avenge York. The battle goes their way – lots of description about how scary they are, fury driving their actions and all – and we see Henry being taken hostage (after a rambling, reflective, super emo walk alone on a battlefield, reminiscent of King Lear) and Margaret and the prince flee to France. Meanwhile, Edward has crowned himself king and all the common people seem to just accept this change of monarch pretty readily. Warwick heads to France to try and woo King Charles’ sister for Edward (and therefore create an alliance with France) but unbeknownst to him Edward sets his eyes on a beautiful widow, Elizabeth Grey (she is super sassy, I like her – some great dialogue with Edward establishes her as someone to watch, which we know is important given her role in establishing the Tudor line) and decides to marry her instead. Warwick learns this from a messenger in front of King Charles and it’s crazy how his hurt pride (but to be fair Edward was a massive dick) catalyses his about-face and he professes his loyalty to Margaret and Henry! Crazy! They all head back to England and seek to set Henry free and put him back on the throne. Does this happen? Why yes, of course it does! Who knows what the timeline is for this play, but it certainly is much longer than the couple of weeks it feels like pass – compressed time is a total head fuck!

Whilst Henry is being released from the Tower, Edward is escaping the Tower, and Clarence has decided to join up with Warwick and the Lancastrians (Henry’s team) – why? Because he didn’t agree with Edward’s choice of wife. Another battle erupts between the two factions and in the course of it Clarence jumps back to the York side… and Warwick is killed. And then, suddenly, so bloody suddenly, you have the main players meet on the field – Henry, Margaret, their son Prince Edward, King Edward, Richard and Clarence. The result was always going to be a bitter bloodbath and really sort of sad. Margaret has a genuinely stirring speech about the likelihood that their campaign is going to fail, with Shakespeare just building and building the extended metaphor of their campaign (and monarchy, I suppose) as a ship being buffeted by a tempest. It’s all to nothing though, because in the end her young son is killed in front of her – stabbed by Gloster, Edward and Clarence as revenge for the killing of Rutland and York. Margaret is hysterical, cursing the brothers, and asking to be killed herself. And then there is Henry. The final scene takes place in the Tower, alone with Gloster. Henry’s grief for his son and for his tragic life in general is beautifully captured in an analogy to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus: ‘I, Daedalus; my poor boy, Icarus/ Thy father, Minos, that denied our courses/The sun, that sear’d the wings of my sweet boy,/ Thy brother Edwards; and thyself the sea,/Whose envious gulf did swallow up his life.’ Urgh. It’s so sad but soon his lament turns to scorn directed at Gloster, manifesting in some memorable insults about his scoliosis (as a fellowscoliosis sufferer, I find them harsh but as a lover of language, I find them fascinating): ‘The owl shriek’d at thy birth,–an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.’ But, the insults are too much and Richard stabs Henry to death before he can finish. Before the scene ends, we get a full glimpse of the Richard III we know and love – a soliloquy about his loneliness and his determination to get the crown for himself. The play ends with an ascendent Henry allowing Margaret’s escape to France, and a declaration that from now on he will have ‘mirthful comic shows’ instead of war.

I loved this play. It’s got everything you could want – heaps of action, strong characters, pathos, tragedy, and a little hint of what is to come in the next instalment. Top job, Shakespeare!

Henry VI: Part II – the story just gets wilder!

I’m definitely getting into the rhythm of this play now. I can’t believe it has three parts – it’s pretty wild to think that an audience would roll up (on successive days or like over a period of months, years?) to see this history played out on stage. But then I think about my obsession with the MCU, and maybe it’s the same thing? Perhaps audiences had their favourite heroes of history – maybe they turned up rooting for York and the Plantagenets like I turned up rooting for Loki? (Parallel between those two entirely unintended but if you know Loki and Richard III, maybe you’ll find something in the comparison that you like.) At some point I will do some research and find out when and how these plays were staged but for now I’m just enjoying reading them like they are a series of novels – each ending on a cliffhanger, urging me to continue reading the next one.

So, what happens in this play? If you remember from my last post, the first play is about establishing the rising tension between two factions – the York/Plantagenet team, symbolised by the white rose, and the Suffolk/Pole/Lancastrian (I think?), symbolised by the red rose. Basically both have a claim to the throne, and Shakespeare characterises them both as ambitious. The last play ended with Suffolk successfully getting his love Margaret to marry the young King Henry (Suffolk is already married so he can’t have her for himself so of course he marries him to his mate, of course!), and the final scene of the play is his – patting himself on the back and predicting his rise. In the second play Shakespeare continues to focus on this idea of conflict between nobleman which stems from their individual ambitions or claims to the throne. Poor King Henry – he’s so young, believes his new wife loves only him, and doesn’t have very much experience as a ruler because he’s been under the protection of the Duke of Gloster, the Lord Protector, since he was nine months old. One thing I enjoy about this three-part story is the way in which Shakespeare slowly builds his characters. Admittedly it can be a bit frustrating with so many different characters – this play again has heaps of new ones and also jumps through time in a crazy way, making it a bit tricky to keep up with sometimes. In fact, I’ll probably stuff up the chronology of what happens in the play as I try to summarise the plot in my next paragraph. Wish me luck!

The play opens with (aside: this writer isn’t sure, so she goes to flick back through the fake gold-edged Complete Works) the crowning of Margaret as Queen. Suffolk gets the opening lines, like he gets the closing lines of the previous play, foreshadowing that a big part of the narrative arc will be his rise and fall (spoiler). The Cardinal (now named Beaumont, previously Winchester when he was a bishop) is very pleased with himself because he is in Suffolk’s pocket but York is pissed off because Suffolk, in organising for Margaret to marry Henry, has given away two big chunks of land in France. York had been instrumental in securing that land for England, so of course he’s not happy. Duke of Gloster is happy because Henry is happy, but his beef with Beaumont continues because the latter wants more control over Henry and sees Gloster as being in the way. Big Henry IV vibes here but I do like the introduction of the religious element as it reminds me of Wolf Hall and the attitudes towards cardinals, bishops and the political power they wield. Interesting. Anyway, next thing we know we are at home with the Glosters and it turns out that Beaumont is sort of right, Gloster does have a claim to the throne but he’s not really interested in acting on it because he is loyal to the king. His wife, Duchess of Gloster, on the other hand, is far less loyal. She smacks of an early Lady Macbeth character and this becomes more apparent later as she dabbles in some witchcraft – raising spirits and seeking prophecies – which again just brings up Shakespeare’s ongoing connection between powerful women and witchcraft (remember Joan of Arc in the first play?). Gloster shuts down his wife and tells her to forget her ambitions, what will be will be, not before a scene very reminiscent of Macbeth where she belittles him and talks about his dreams.

It turns out that there is a lot of sneaky talk going on back at court as well. Suffolk and Beaumont have a discussion with Margaret about the threat that York and his buddies pose to the crown, and also tells Margaret about Duchess of Gloster’s ambitions. This gets Margaret going cos she doesn’t like the Duchess because she dresses better than her and treats her like a child – there is a funny scene where Margaret hits the Duchess with her fan! Meanwhile York and his mates are discussing his claim to the throne – York has this huge speech where he basically just outlines the family tree and the history of his family, justifying his claim to the throne – he is the descendent of the third son of old King Edward (I think that’s his name, too lazy to check but it’s an old king who was blessed/cursed with heaps of sons) whereas the current king descends from the fourth son. Ah, primogeniture, so bloody confusing and weird. York’s speech is hilarious, because it’s like Shakespeare has gone ‘I need this history in here, let’s just get him to blab it out like a school boy’. I actually was convinced though and by the end felt like York was right in his claim. So York starts planning a way to get Suffolk’s ambition seen by Henry, and in doing so hopes to bring down the cardinal with him. Luckily for York, Suffolk and Beaumont decide to have Gloster murdered, giving him an opportunity to scream treason and get them both executed. The murder of Gloster reminds me of the murder of Buckingham (I think?) in Richard III when he gets drowned in a barrel of wine and one of the murderers starts getting all guilty about it. Shakespeare always does interesting things with murderers, they are either money-oriented with zero guilt, or they are guilt-addled and hesitant (like Hamlet?). There is an excellent moment where York’s buddy reveals the dead Gloster in his bed (fun staging I imagine) and then goes on to describe in great detail what his face looks like in death to prove that he has indeed been murdered – a bit of Elizabethan sleuthing!

Within a scene of Gloster’s death we have the decision for Suffolk to be killed which distresses Queen Margaret, proving her loyalty to him over the king (and yet the king keeps her as queen) and the cardinal dies presumably by poison. The death of the cardinal is fascinating – basically it is represented as though he was a man of great sin who died afraid of meeting his God. Surely a comment on the corruption within the church at the time. Pretty brave. Sometime after this we find Suffolk on a boat on the way to France – I was confused by why he was on a boat to be killed. Anyway, he tries to argue for his life but the captain and the executioner are disinterested, and it’s obvious their actions are based on class resentment and they take great joy in their wielding power over him at the end of his life. He gets his head lopped off, and then a pardoned gentleman takes it back to Queen Margaret who carries it around with her – so messed up!

Phew! You’d think I’d be almost finished but I’m not – so much for a quick synopsis in one paragraph. After all of this backstabbing and treason and death, we have a civilian-led uprising! We are introduced to a guy named Jack Cade who imagines himself as a descendent of Mortimer – telling the tale that he was a twin who was taken at birth and raised by a lower class woman. Anyway, he and his mate Dick are pretty funny. We see them moving through different locations in England, winning battles and making fun of people who can read and speak Latin. There is a great bit of dialogue where Cade is cranky at a nobleman for introducing printers and setting up a paper mill – Cade hates books and education (see funny quote at the end). He takes a swipe at universities too, which gave me a giggle because later the university-educated playwrights would give Shakespeare a hard time because of his lack of education. So what happens to Cade? Well he and his huge band of rebels make it to London in an attempt to get the king and claim the crown. Unfortunately they meet their match in a guy called Old Clifford. Clifford convinces the rebels that they should be loyal to the king and that if they leave off fighting they will be forgiven. Cade runs back to Kent where he hides out in the forest for five days until, starving, he climbs into the yard of a very strange guy called Iden. The two have some banter before they fight, with Iden killing Cade and declaring to cut off his head and take it to the king (who promised 1000 marks or crowns or gold bits, whatever, for Cade’s head).

Meanwhile, York has been in Ireland fighting for England to quell an uprising. When he comes back to England he brings with him his soldiers and threatens to bring his power against the crown unless Somerset (an ally of Suffolk) is put in the Tower. Henry agrees to this and York is happy but then he sees Somerset is still at large (Margaret tries to hide him) and this causes York to let loose his true feelings. He details his own claim to the throne and requests Henry to hand over the crown – everyone is dumbstruck. York calls in his supporters, including his sons Edward and Richard. Now, finally, I think that THIS Richard is actually King Richard III, not the York in these plays. Why do I think this? Well because of the insult Clifford uses against him, calling him a ‘foul indigested lump as crooked in thy manners as thy shape’. Sounds like our Richard III, right? Anyway, this erupts into another battle with York and his crew fighting Clifford and his son. York kills Old Clifford and young Clifford is sad and angry, vowing revenge. The king and queen realise this isn’t going to end well for them so they run away to London. The play ends with a valiant and determined York, ready to march to London and claim his crown. It’s very reminiscent of the cliffhanger ending of the first play, but now it’s York on the ascent, not Suffolk.

I was joking with my son that reading/watching these plays is like watching the MCU films (particularly the last few in phase 3) where you really need to know the relationships between the characters to understand the narrative. There is definitely a thesis in the parallels between Shakespeare’s history plays and the MCU, I reckon! I’m really looking forward to the finale of the Henry VI trilogy – given that I don’t know the history myself, I’m keen to see who wins in the end and who comes to a dramatic and swift end.

Favourite quotes from this play:

‘Pride went before, ambition follows him…
Oft have I seen the haughty cardinal,
More like a soldier than a man o’ the church,
As stout and proud as he were lord of all’

‘Put forth thy hand; reach at the glorious gold./What, is ’t too short? I’ll lengthen it with mine’

‘Could I come near thy beauty with my hands/I’d set the Ten Commandments in they face!’

‘ and Gloster’s show
Beguiles him as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow snares relenting passengers,
Or as the snake roll’d in a flowering bank,
With shining checker’d slough, doth sting a child
That for the beauty thinks it excellent.’

‘It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.’

‘Was ever feather blown to and fro as this multitude?’

Henry VI: Part I – a reader’s review

If I didn’t know this was a Shakespeare play, I would think it was a teenager’s attempt to write like Shakespeare. I found it pretty surprising how sort of not great this play is. Have you read it? I’m going to assume that most people reading my blog (and that’s about 80 or so people – I’ve been looking at the stats over the last couple of days) haven’t read Henry VI: Part I. According to the version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that I am reading, this is Shakespeare’s earliest play. Knowing this probably has coloured my reading of it, but I’ll pretend it hasn’t and that I’m just an excellent judge of quality drama. (Spoiler alert: I’m not.)

The narrative of the play goes a little like this: King Henry V has died, he leaves behind a young son who is being ‘protected’ by his uncle, Duke of Gloster. Gloster is fighting with Bishop Winchester (which incidentally reminds me a lot of the niggling between Cromwell and Gardiner in Wolf Hall) because both of them want to have control of the new king. Winchester seems like the dodgy one though, and it feels like this conflict will be part of the next play too. England is at war with France – the English troops are in France still, I suppose they’ve been there since Henry V took them there? Not sure. Basically Shakespeare represents King Charles of France as a bit of an idiot and quite weak. The play jumps between battlefield action in France and the court of England in the early scenes, so it’s a bit confusing. I’ve become so accustomed to Shakespeare being this master of time and place that reading a play of his that jumps all over the shop like a primary school narrative is quite amusing.

In France we are introduced to Joan of Arc, which is super cool. She’s absolutely characterised as a witch, which again is amusing. Shakespeare does represent her as super feisty and brave though – she isn’t interested in taking shit from Charles (even though at some point they do seem to get rather intimate and he asks her to be his queen??) and she goes into physical combat with all the confidence you would expect or Joan of Arc. It just sucks that ultimately she is reduced to a sorceress of some form, talking to spirits and such. Anyway, before that happens we see some very quick battles between the English and French armies – how that would even be staged back in Shakespeare’s time I have no clue – with them alternating in success.

Back in England (I think) we are introduced to Richard Plantagenet and Duke of Suffolk. They are not friends but to be honest I couldn’t work out why not – some ancient grudge I suppose – and basically they decide to show their factions by plucking a white rose (York) or red rose (Suffolk) from a bush. It is very cool that Shakespeare includes this scene in his play, and I’m sure it would have been a popular one back in the day. We learn that Richard has had his title of Duke of York taken from him because his father was a traitor against Henry V (something to do with Mortimer – oh, that’s right, Mortimer is in prison and Richard visits him, gets an apology from Mortimer who then dies). In the quickest scene you’ve ever read, Richard appeals to young Henry VI and gets reinstated as Duke of York. We then head back to France where the hero of the battles, a guy called Lord Talbot, meets Joan of Arc and they bang on about who is the most courageous. Then there is a lot of choppy short scenes, alternating between the French with Joan and Charles, and the English with Talbot and some other Lords whose names don’t seem that important. Basically what happens that does matter is that Talbot is caught in the field in a massive battle when his young son arrives, and then they do this really long bizarre rhyming dialogue about bravery – just weird because Shakespeare’s verse rarely rhymes and this scene just rhymes in couplets the whole time. It’s actually super off putting, and undermines the supposed heroism of these two men. Anyway, they need extra supplies and they’re meant to come from either York or Suffolk but both of them stuff up, each trying to make the other look bad, but what happens is Talbot and his son are killed and as Talbot dies he blames both Dukes. I think that moment must be important later but in this play it all just seems so bitsy and lacking cohesion.

Somehow York ends up confronting Joan of Arc, capturing her and essentially condemning her to burn – not before she gets to curse him though. Again, I don’t know this history well so I can’t comment on how accurate it might be. If York is the future Richard III as I first thought, this is a really interesting pairing! I sort of don’t want to Google it though because getting the history from Shakespeare like this makes me feel like a real Elizabethan, haha. Whilst York is battling Joan, Suffolk has got his eyes on a French woman, Margaret, who is supposedly the daughter of the King of Jerusalem (I know right? What?!) but Suffolk is already married so he decides to match her up with King Henry VI. Never mind the fact that a scene or two earlier Henry had agreed to marry someone else! The play ends with France conceding defeat as part of a peace treaty demanded by Henry, and then Henry agreeing to marry Margaret based on Suffolk’s description of her. The last line belongs to Suffolk who claims he’s going to have Margaret for himself as well as controlling Henry and the crown. It all sounds very familiar for someone who has just finished reading the Wolf Hall trilogy!

As a whole, the play was super easy to read and there were a few nice lines in there but mostly it was a lot of ‘telling’ which is unlike the Shakespeare plays I’m familiar with. There isn’t much in the way of imagery or conceptual depth, it really is just like an action film with heaps of characters and jumping from scene to scene. It didn’t take long to read and wasn’t hard to understand. Oh, I almost forgot to say that Sir John Fastolfe is a character in this play and I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be Sir John Falstaff who latter becomes one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions. Fastolfe is a cowardly knight who abandons his post and men to save himself. He ends up having his knighthood stripped off him by Henry VI. Same guy as our old mate Falstaff? I reckon it is but a quick Wikipedia entry skim read doesn’t help with an answer.

I’ll try to pick a favourite line from each of the plays I read and review. For Henry VI: Part I, it’s this line: ‘O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turn’d,/That I, in rage, might shoot them at your faces!’

Reading Shakespeare for pleasure…

What is this reading for pleasure thing I am referring to? Sorry, dear teacher reader, but this year I am in a non-school based teaching role and you know what that means?! It means no marking! It means no working on the weekends or after work. It means… reading for pleasure without any guilt! I’m not writing this post to rub in the fact that I have time (glorious, luxurious, precious, not taking it for granted, time) to read for pleasure, I’m writing it as a reminder and a record for myself that I HAVE TIME TO READ FOR PLEASURE!! I’m not going to waste this absolute privilege – I’m going to do what I did as a child, pre-teen and pregnant-with-my-first-child adult: I’m going to read everything I can.

So far this year that has included reading my first Murakami book ever (now that I know what magical realism is, thanks HSC marking, I figured I should read some) – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Super weird but cool. I’ve also read an entire textbook (Teaching Language in Context) on writing – from cover to cover. Yes, it’s related to work but I also read it in my free time because I loved it. Recently (as in over the last four weeks) I read the Wolf Hall trilogy which is brilliant but I’m sure everyone knows that already. Prior to these reads, I’d been busily using my spare time to finish writing my latest book (it’s called On Teaching – content matches the title, surprisingly) and binge watching all the TV series people reference on social media – Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, Parks & Rec, and New Girl. Yes, I’ve managed to watch four entire television series in the first half of the year. Insanity.

Anyway, now that I’ve moved on from my book writing and my Netflix binging, I’m going to hunker down and focus on reading. There are so many ‘classics’ that I’ve not read; mostly the books I’ve read (adult fiction books, I mean) are those which have been set for the HSC – either because I have taught the book or I’ve had to write about it for my HSC Excel study guides. I’m really keen to be able to tick more books off when I read those lists of Top 100 literary texts of all time. Anyway, that brings me to the title of this post – reading Shakespeare for pleasure! I’ve decided to start my reading with the big gun, Shakespeare. Last year my beautiful mentees gifted me a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works (see photo below) and I’ve decided to read it from cover to cover! The only Shakespeare I have read is, again, the plays and sonnets that I have had to teach or write about. I’ve never sat down and read Shakespeare for pleasure in the way you sit down to read a novel. Why? I’m not sure. I no longer find the language difficult, after having taught his plays for so many years, so I suppose it’s just not feeling like I had the time. Having just finished the Wolf Hall trilogy, I feel like staying in that era and that mode – not to mention the fact that last year I read a fantastic biography on Shakespeare (Genius by Jonathan Bate) and one on John Donne (by John Stubbs) which just made me super enjoy reading about that time in England.

I started reading it yesterday, and am loving it. I thought I might just document my reading here on my blog. Why? I don’t know but I think mostly it’s because I miss writing – plus I miss talking about literature which I guess is what I did on a daily basis for 16 years up until this year. The Complete Works opens with letters from Heminge and Condell – the guys who put together the First Folio (1623) – to their benefactors and to the reader of the folio. It’s just sweet to think these were real live human beings who knew and loved the real live William Shakespeare. Then there are a couple of obituaries to Shakespeare – again, just sweet and humanising the man who wrote these remarkable plays and poems. Then there is Ben Jonson’s poem ‘To the memory of my beloved, the author, Master William Shakespeare and what he hath left us’ which is just, urgh, it actually is heart-wrenching! I cried as a read it, and look, it’s probably a lot to do with me having just finished Wolf Hall and being pretty tender – I just imagine Jonson so clearly as a real man thanks to Mantel’s incredible portrayal of life in this time (well, 100 years earlier but whatever, same place and stuff). I must admit that I’d never read Jonson’s poem about Shakespeare on his death and it was cool to see those two famous phrases ‘soul of the age’ and ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’ in context. Actually, the former quote is even better in full (which I don’t think many people know): Soul of the age, The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage, My Shakespeare, rise!

The Complete Works is set out in chronological order, so the first play I’m reading is Henry VI, Part 1. It’s funny, because I usually teach Henry IV: Part 1 to year 12, and this play opens with the death of Henry V, who I know as Hal, obviously, and the characters refer to him as this brave, fighter king. There are references to my beloved Falstaff being a coward and hated – clearly he has abandoned his post again and it’s led to some sort of defeat in France. There is also Richard III popping up but in the early guise of Richard Plantagenet – he just gets given back his title of Duke of York, and we get the scene where the War of the Roses begins – they literally pluck the roses in the garden and use them to show their sides! Cool! I used to teach Richard III, so this is so interesting! Oh course, I don’t know the timeline or the family tree well enough to say these are the same characters but I think they are, I’ll find out soon. Finally, I was absolutely surprised but delighted to discover that Joan of Arc is in this play! For real! Shakespeare’s first play has Joan of Arc as a character?! And she’s a badass too! Incredible.

So, that’s where I am at so far. I think I’ll keep writing about my reading of Shakespeare for pleasure. Hope I don’t bore you!