Summer Breaks Over, Time for More Shakespeare

The Two Gentlemen of Verona 

Yet another harshly criticized gem from the master that everyone wants to cut down so that he/she will gain the top of the mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is considered another apprentice piece or possibly a cowritten play due almost completely to the ending: wherein Proteus (one of the Verona gentlemen) falls for Silvia, who loves Valentine (Verona gentleman number two), and attempts to rape her; Valentine jumps out and puts a stop to it; Proteus apologizes; Valentine accepts his apology; Julia shows up and forgives Proteus for attempting to cheat on her; the two couples live happily ever after. All of which takes place in the last and very short scene. There is an abruptness and finality to all of this that every critic gets stuck on when reading the play and forgets that the reason for it rests in the constantly reinforced subject of masters and servants.

Speed comically serves his master Proteus. Proteus’s father, Antonio, has Panthino call him master. Proteus gains another servant in Lance, who himself is a master and servant to his dog Crab (it really is a beautifully sad and funny combination of the two). Other servants and masters abound along with numerous lines from the gentlemen and ladies about who serves whom in relationships. So why do few critics even acknowledge the importance of this theme? Because very few people recognize the prevalence of master and servant relationships that exist today let alone the ego crushing realization that most of us are not the masters of our outer and inner lives as we so often believe.

Proteus falls perfectly into this mold with his first lines of the play. Valentine is off to see the world and Proteus replies

Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu!

Think on thy Proteus when thou haply see’st

Some rare noteworthy object in thy travel.

Wish me partaker in thy happiness

When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,

If ever danger do environ thee,

Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers,

For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine.                    (I.1.78)

Proteus gives well-wishes, but really states that he will forever be the servant, who partakes in his master’s happiness and prays for his master’s grief, of Valentine. Valentine is keenly aware of Proteus’s shortcomings and wants Proteus to come and enjoy the world for himself, but it has to be Proteus’s choice or it will be more servant status only abroad. A last pinch of wisdom cannot but escape from Valentine as he warns Proteus that “Love is your master, for he masters you” (79). Proteus quips that he is no fool but wise because some writers support his servitude to love. Valentine brings up a better counterargument reinforced with some more writers, but cuts it off recognizing that he must literally step away from being Proteus’s master if Valentine really wants to see his friend develop.

Shakespeare then gives the reader many different scenarios and wrinkles of the master/servant dichotomy through the characters I already listed above with one important distinction. In Act I Scene three Antonio shows us what a master type Proteus could evolve into. Proteus’s father is straight to the point with his servant Panthino in asking what he spoke about with Antonio’s brother a moment ago. It concerns, of course, Proteus and his unwillingness to travel and experience the world. Panthino includes his own opinion on the matter, while Antonio quickly agrees to the advice to force his inexperienced son out into the lessons the world will certainly teach. Again, Antonio doesn’t play with his words.

I like thy counsel. Well hast thou advised,

And, that thou mayest perceive how well I like it,

The execution of it shall make known.

Even with the speediest expedition

I will dispatch him to the Emperor’s court.                   (I.3.83)

Although it seems Antonio is not making this decision under his own free will but under the servitude of his servant, Shakespeare undercuts this immediately by having Antonio speak with that all-important pronoun ‘I’ in the beginning. The one true inner identification, the master of all thoughts and decisions, the singular ‘I’ enjoys Panthino’s counsel and advice and will use that advice to create an action supported by the top most decision-making intellect in Antonio. He could have mulled it over to see what the other parts of his mind might have to say about it or even what his son would think about it, but that would have devolved into inaction and the stumbling over the correct course to follow in order to meet all of the expectations and desires of countless voices. Antonio asked for counsel from a trusted servant, agreed with it as it fit with his master plan and then executed it. If that wasn’t obvious enough, Shakespeare adds the definitive note to Antonio’s singular existence ruled by himself and no other with the line “Muse not that I thus suddenly proceed, / For what I will, I will, and there an end” (83). Antonio’s willpower is absolute and absolutely under the guidance of that one master ‘I’. He governs his inner life, thoughts, desires, and emotions with the unbreakable fixture of identity that reflects in his outer life wherein actions complete and accomplish because they are under the servitude of one master.

Of course Proteus is not yet his father, because he has not yet been tutored through direct experiences only venturing out into the world delivers. That is why his first love crumbles in the presence of a just as beautiful Silvia, why his plans to woo her fall apart, and why he acts upon a fleeting thought of violence to then wrap it all up as complete. These outward actions can only fail because they are administered by many ‘I’s’ jostling for mastership within him, which makes him merely a servant to whatever new idea pops up. Valentine saw this in his friend when he left and sees it again as a prophecy fulfilled. What else would a man holding no clear identification of self inside do but bumble around until the failures developed enough frustration and anger for him to lash out with violence? And in this moment of delusion over who he is, Valentine reminds Proteus that he is a friend. A friend that can’t be trusted, or more specifically a servant that can’t be trusted. Proteus speaks swiftly of how guilty he is, and how he is willing to suffer in his sorrow for moving against Valentine. Yet Valentine has shown that he is still a master that has taken Proteus for a servant and if both of them are to move forward, swift and decisive judgments must be made. Valentine grants Proteus an “honest” place by his side that is free of doubt or other fleeting thoughts that may usurp this feeling of trust by stating one of the most troubling lines for critics, “And, that my love may appear plain and free, / All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” (106). The constant and free from feelings of guilt love Valentine showed to Silvia throughout will also be given to Proteus. If Valentine didn’t proclaim such a “plain and free” decision on their relationship, then where would his servant go? Proteus would degenerate further and into the faults and sins of his inconstant nature as Shakespeare reminds the audience,

Oh, heaven! Were man

But constant, he were perfect. That one error

Fills him with faults, makes him run through all th’sins;

Inconstancy falls off ere it begins.                                  (V.4.106)

Instead the master, Valentine, has come to a conclusion based on his will that he will see through completely less he lose his servant, Proteus, forever, and the chance to grow further. As troubling as the almost rape is, a less violent action would not be enough to convince the audience that these two could be separated or convince the audience that Valentine has evolved enough to be a strong enough master to quiet down second guesses about their roles. The servant must give opportunities to the master to demonstrate his command over the multitudes of voices wishing to usurp. While the master must also act as a guide for the servant to emulate until the servant can obtain his own mastership of the self. Valentine sees now that he must stay next to and treat Proteus as a part of him for both of them to reach something higher and Proteus sees it is in his best interest to follow Valentine honestly and unfaltering if he wants to gain as much as his friend.

Everyone is a servant to some master and believing otherwise quickly creates inconstancy in identifying ourselves. You can’t change identities until you first recognize what yours is. I am and hope to always be a servant to Shakespeare’s mastery as following him will take me far above any place I blunder to under my own guidance.


Love’s Labour’s Lost Review: The Continuation of the Complete Shakespeare Read-Through

Love’s Labour’s Lost

There is something truly curious about this play that I’m having a difficult time putting a finger on. I believe Shakespeare is sharing more about knowledge and wisdom than at first glance and it is making my brain itch in trying to pin point a conclusion about it.

Beyond the amazing word play that paints too perfectly how knowledge, especially only found in books, is not the concrete end goal to happiness or even wisdom there are so many more parts which contribute to a philosophy about learning that I must focus on one. Shakespeare gives us a key to true wisdom in Act III, Scene 1 through a moral and l’envoi or postscript/explanation. Armado says, “The fox, the ape, and the humble-bee/Were still at odds, being but three” (46). Mote adds the explanation to it, “Until the goose came out of door,/And stayed the odds by adding four” (46). Some scholars explain this away as a topical joke about certain officials in governing positions at the time, but an easier explanation can be found when applying these creatures to characters in the play as well as influences governing decisions inside of us.

The fox is known for its wit and problem solving especially when seeking a way out of circumstances that don’t agree with its natural way of living. A perfect fit for this quick animal is Berowne as he has wit to spare and is very good at finding pathways out of the secluded study quest that the King proposes at the beginning of the play. Another suitable way to see Berowne as the fox figure is through his sonnet.

“If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?

Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed!

Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove;

Those thoughts to me were oaks, to thee like osiers bowed                 (IV.2.52)

The first four lines eloquently restate the logical flips Berowne is so adept at to achieve his goals. He is a problem solver that will sprout up as many thoughts as possible to find a way to get out of the latest foxhole. And thinking is the point for this influence. Berowne represents the part of us capable of connecting and twisting what we see into something according with our desires. We can’t expect to get far without first knowing what we want and having the capability to manipulate knowledge towards getting it.

Then there is the ape. An animal long connected with the concept of imitating or copying, but more specifically reflection. In this mirror we see everything about us, good and evil. Again Shakespeare makes plain the King’s role in his sonnet.

Nor shines the silver moon one-half so bright

Through the transparent bosom of the deep

As doth thy face, through tears of mine, give light;

Thou shin’st in every tear that I do weep                                 (IV.3.53)

The King shows his love to the Princess with words that emphasize reflection like a mirror. He believes her face better reflects light than the water does the moon and tells of how every tear of his will also reflect her face. Together they can be each other’s mirrors and help each other see the good with the intent of emphasizing it and the bad that they can hopefully stifle or obscure.

Shakespeare doesn’t follow the simple route in applying the last two beasts to the other men in the quartet, rather the two leading ladies symbolize the humble-bee and the goose. Rosaline best plays out the role of the humble-bee: a bug that diligently out works any other in the insect world for the good of the whole. Although she limits her speech, insight towards this outlook can be found in her appeal to Berowne or rather her appeal to put his great wit to a more diligent and humbling form of work.

How I would make him fawn, and beg, and seek,

And wait the season, and observe the times,

And spend his prodigal wits in bootless rhymes,

And shape his service wholly to my hests,

And make him proud to make me proud that jests!                 (V.2.61)

Rosaline is going to make Berowne into a working man that will conform to not only nature, time, but of course her own behests. Along with making him use his great wits and jests, she will teach him how to use them for the services of others and be proud/humble that it is for someone else’s benefit and not his own. Rosaline doesn’t just say this, she demands to see him put his wits to humble work of making the “speechless sick” (V.2.73) smile for a year before she will even consider him for marriage. A humble-bee indeed.

The Princess, lastly, is the goose. From her introduction outside the gates of Navarre’s court, to the end of the play when she learns of her father’s death the Princess is the epitome of perseverance in the face of everything, especially nature. She is also the one that gets the boys to literally come out of doors to pursue the women. Her speech is filled with nature references and her will cannot be stopped even by the sudden news of her dead dad. She sets on her way to fill her mourning duties and gives the King a way to show he still has a chance if he preservers with his original oath “Remote from all the pleasures of the world;” (V.2.73), in other words a more natural and isolated setting. And just to make it more clear, she tells him

If frosts and fasts, hard lodging, and thin weeds

Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,

But that it bear this trial, and last love,

Then, at the expiration of the year…

I will be thine;                                                              (V.2.73)

If nature doesn’t cool his love for her, she will know that he is worthy of it.

So is this the philosophy of wisdom Shakespeare so cunningly hid in his play for other curious young men and women to follow when that onset of adulthood approaches? Wisdom is yours if you can set the different pushing and pulling thoughts inside of you into a triad of problem solving, reflection, and diligence; then set that triangular perspective on the world outside of you with a perseverance that won’t be stopped by the spring, winter, birth, and death. Speaking of spring and winter, Shakespeare gives us plenty to fear and look forward to when they come around as sung in the closing of the play.

But whether my interpretation stands the test of time or not I also imagine there is a lot to be read into the gifts or love tokens the men gave to the women. Perhaps there is something more about knowledge and how we view the world upon closer inspection of the suitors’ four attempts at making a match. As always, Shakespeare has more on his plate to offer than I can digest. Hopefully with the second complete Shakespeare read-through I’ll be ready for more.

The Complete Shakespeare Read-Through

I’m doing it. Even though I’ve read most of his plays and poems, I haven’t read his complete works and what kind of fan can I call myself if I have yet to read everything the greatest writer has put down. So using my David Bevington The Complete Works of Shakespeare I plan to put to rest the nagging feeling in the back of my head. I will go in the order that Bevington laid out with the comedies first, then the histories, and finally the tragedies before finishing up with the sonnets. In between each play, I will read other novels that have been piling up on my bookshelf and plan to write reviews for the good ones, but every play and eventually every poem will get its own proper elaboration as they travel through my mind and eventually my fingertips to show up here. Here’s to the beginning of a long and illuminating journey!

The Comedy of Errors

My mind must be focused in on the topic of communication because that is again the dominant theme I read from Shakespeare’s supposedly earliest and supposedly weakest play. Well, communication coupled with identity. Shakespeare gets these ideas about communication and identity clearly across from the outset with a plot centered around two sets of identical twins. Even without this device characters express a wish for identity immediately by attaching themselves to their home country or a search for a new home in the case of Antipholus of Syracuse.

But let’s start it all with the communication part. At the beginning Egeon tells his story of woe to the Duke in order to be granted a day to pay off a fine that if not met will lead to Egeon’s execution. Words mean everything here as they stave off the law, which is in itself words that do not lead to the best results but still can create great damages as the rest of the play demonstrates. Then Shakespeare truly drives home the point when S. Antipholus and his slave/best friend S. Dromio take the meaning behind words to a ridiculous level. The two barely keep up with each other in double entendre, puns, and references that aren’t entirely clear to the audience or even the characters speaking them. This furthers into mistaken identities because of S. Antipholus and S. Dromio’s identical twins walking around the same market streets. Words create massive confusion and chaos for every ear that is around to take them in and misconstrue the meanings and intents.

The greatest part of all the misperceptions and misunderstandings is how they are ingrained with characters lacking identity. It might be a stretch to state that Shakespeare is clearly telling us that if you don’t know who you truly are then you can’t say anything with clear meaning because Shakespeare is here and in every piece of writing absent, which would preclude we can’t trust his words. The loop is as endless as any of his other plays and makes me think that he titled the play more deliberately than at first glance. This is ‘The’ comedy of errors. No other mistaken identity work gets at the essence of not knowing who you are. When that known core of the self is unclear to you then there is no possible way you will clearly express anything. Did Shakespeare know himself well enough to completely disappear in his work, so that we would not be caught up in creating identities reflective of his but rather reflective of ourselves? So we can then take his words as something true coming from an unassailable essence of a human soul, maybe? I think I need to be surer of whom I am first or I might just keep seeing the same themes in all literary work over and over in an endless loop.

Lastly, how can you hit it out of the park so well on the first try (supposedly) like Shakespeare did? I’m hoping my last at bat will come somewhere close to his worst.

Sorry for the baseball analogies; I’m coaching softball right now and it seeps out.