Category Archives: Shakespeare

Il trovatore

Maria Callas sings “D’amor sull’ali rosee” — on the rosy wings of love — from Il trovatore

On this date in 1853 Verdi’s Il trovatore premiered in Rome.

John Ayre in his biography describes a stopover in Rome during Frye’s 1937 visit to Italy, including an opportunity to take in a Verdi opera:

After the exhilarating taste of Tuscany, Frye was thoroughly dismayed.  “History of Roman art: bastard Etruscan, bastard Greek, stolen Greek, bastard Oriental, bastard Northern Italian, bastard copies of bastard Greek, bastard Dutch, and various kinds of eclectic bastardy.”  In viewing the “junk piles” — the Thermae, the Vatican, the Laterine — he caught a glimmer in the development of Greek sculpture but most everything disappointed.  Even what was good was diminished by irritants.  The Vatican obsessively plastered fig leaves on nude sculpture.  An Italian mania for “restoring” friezes had even spread to the supposedly inviolable Sistine Chapel.  There was opportunity, however, of seeing a more enticing contemporary side of Rome — in its opera and ballet — but on the pretext of disliking Verdi, Frye passed up the chance to see a production of Rigoletto.  Although he was still suffering a degree of intolerance (Beethoven good, Verdi bad), there was undeniable considerations of money and his still insistent desire to keep working on Blake. (136)

Frye on Shakespeare and opera in A Natural Perspective:

The only place where the tradition of Shakespearean romantic comedy has survived with any theatrical success, as we should expect, is opera.  As long as we have Mozart or Verdi or Sullivan to listen to, we can tolerate identical twins and lost heirs and love potions and folk tales; we can even stand a fairy queen if she is under two hundred pounds.  And when we look for the most striking modern parallels to Twelfth Night or The Tempest, we think first of all of Figaro and The Magic Flute.  (25)

Richard II

Mark Rylance performs Richard’s prison soliloquy in a 2003 BBC broadcast from the Globe Theatre

Today is Richard II‘s birthday (1367-1400).

Frye in On Shakespeare:

A lawful king, as Shakespeare presents the situation, can be ruthless and unscrupulous and still remain a king, but if he’s weak or incompetent he creates a power vacuum in society, because the order of nature and the will of God both demand a strong central ruler.  So a terrible dilemma arises between a weak king de jure and a de facto power that’s certain to grow up somewhere else.  This is the central theme of Richard II.  Richard was known to his contemporaries as “Richard the Redeless,” i.e., a king who wouldn’t take good advice, and Shakespeare shows him ignoring the advice of John of Gaunt and York.  His twenty-year reign had a large backlog of mistakes and oppressions that Shakespeare doesn’t need to exhibit in detail.  In the scene where his uncle John of Gaunt is dying, John concentrates mainly on the worst  of Richard’s administrative sins: he has sold, for ready cash, the right of collecting taxes to individuals who are not restrained in their rapacity by the central authority.  This forms part of what begins as a superbly patriotic speech: Shakespeare’s reason for making the old ruffian John of Gaunt a wise and saintly prophet was doubtless that he was the ancestor of the House of Tudor.  We also learn that Richard had a very understandable lot of court favorites, spent far too much money on his own pleasures, and at the time of the play was involved in a war in Ireland that had brought his finances into a crisis.  (57)

TGIF: “Forbidden Planet”

“Miranda” and “Ariel”

Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen (brother of former Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen) died this week.  He was most famous later in his career for his deadpan comic style, beginning in 1980 with Airplane.  But he started out as an aspiring leading man in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

Frye on at least a couple of occasions refers to the movie as a science fiction adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A compilation of Nielson comedy clips after the jump.

Continue reading

Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway

“A man who is clearly an idiot”

On this date in 1582 William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway put up a bond for their pending marriage.

Frye in The Educated Imagination reminds us once again not to indulge in biographical fallacy:

We know nothing about Shakespeare except a signature or two, a few addresses, a will, a baptismal register, and the picture of a man who is clearly an idiot.  We relate the poems and plays and novels we read and see, not to the men who wrote them, nor even directly to ourselves; we relate them to each other.  Literature is the world that we try to build up and enter at the same time.  (42)

Orson Welles

Welles as Othello at the end of his tether: “nothing extenuate”

On this date in 1985 Orson Welles died (born 1915).

Frye’s attitude toward Orson Welles seems to have been somewhat iffy.  He alludes to Welles on a few occasions, but they are not especially friendly.  Frye and Welles were exact contemporaries (Frye born in 1912 and Welles in 1915), but Welles appears to have got under Frye’s skin as a callow interpreter of Shakespeare — a “boy genius” who perhaps earned the title prematurely.

Frye in Fools of Time:

In my own graduate-student days during the nineteen-thirties, there appeared an Orson Welles adaptation of Julius Caesar which required the hero to wear a fascist uniform and pop his eyes like Mussolini, and among students there was a good deal of discussion about whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of, say, Coriolanus showed “fascist tendencies” or not.  But fascism is a disease of democracy: the fascist leader is a demagogue, and a demagogue is precisely what Coriolanus is not.  (18)

Henry IV

The closing moments of Shakespeare’s Richard II: the death of Richard and rebellion against the new king, Henry IV

On this date in 1399 Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV of England after deposing Richard II.

Frye on Shakespeare’s Richard II and 1 Henry IV:

Richard II was, we said, written entirely in verse, the reason being that the action is centred on what is practically a ritual, or inverted ritual: the deposing of a lawful king and the crowning of the successor who has forced him out.  At the beginning of Henry IV, the hangover has set in.  Bolingbroke, realizing that there is nothing worse for a country than a civil war, has determined at the outset to get started on a crusade.  The idea, we said, was partly that God would forgive anyone anything, even the deposing of an anointed kind, if he went on a crusade.  But even more, an external enemy unites a country instead of dividing it.  Shortly before his death, Henry IV tells Prince Henry that when he becomes king he should make every effort to get a foreign war started, so that the nobles will be interested in killing foreigners instead of intriguing against each other and the king — advice Prince Henry is not slow to act on.  But at this point the new king’s authority is not well enough established for a foreign war, much less a crusade.  Henry finds that there are revolts against him in Scotland and Wales, and that many of the lords who backed him against Richard II are conspiring against him now.  So Henry IV contains a great deal of prose, because this play is taking a much broader survey of English society, and showing the general slump in morale of a country whose chain of command has so many weak links.  Falstaff speaks very early of “old father antic the law,” and both the Eastcheap group and the carriers and ostlers in the curious scene at the beginning of the second act illustrate that conspiracy, at all levels, is now in fashion.  (On Shakespeare, 69-70)

Henry V

The hanging of Bardolph in Shakespeare’s Henry V

Yes, there has been a recent post about Henry V, but today is his birthday (1387-1422).

Frye in “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres” on Shakespeare’s Henry V and the distinction between comedy and tragedy via irony:

There seems to be a far less direct connection between history and comedy: the comic scenes in the histories are, so to speak, subversive.  Henry V ends in triumph and marriage, but an action that kills Falstaff, hangs Bardolph, and debases Pistol is not related to comedy in the way that Richard II is related to tragedy.

But tragic myths are significant in shape as well as social function, as tragedy selects only myths that end in catastrophe, or near it.  Tragedy derives from the auto [mythical Eucharist] of its central heroic figure, but the association of heroism with downfall is due to the presence of another element, an element which, when we isolate it, we call irony.  The nearer tragedy is to the heroic play, the more we feel the incongruous wrongness of it.  These two attitudes are complacency: the feeling of rightness produces terror and the feeling or wrongness pity. The nearer the tragedy is to auto, the closer associated the hero is with divinity; the nearer to irony, the more human the hero is, and the more the catastrophe appears to be a social rather than a cosmological event. Elizabethan tragedy shows a historical development from Marlowe’s demigods in a social ether to Webster’s analysis of a sick society; but Greek tragedy, which never broke completely from the auto, never developed a social form, though there are tendencies to it in Euripides. (CW 21, 108)

Henry V

Shakespeare’s Henry V, the St. Crispin’s Day speech before Henry and his outnumbered English forces win the Battle of Agincourt: “We happy few, we band of brothers.”  Once again, like Edward III’s victory at Crecy (post here), this is an English victory in the Hundred Years War with France they will eventually lose.

On this date King Henry V died unexpectedly (1387-1422), throwing England into a virtual state of civil war for the next sixty years.

Frye in The Critical Path offers some incisive comments on the finely woven subtext of wanton violence and destruction beneath the nationalistic bravado of Shakespeare’s play:

Shakespeare also shows the identification with the audience’s attitude that the oral poet has.  On the level  of explicit statement, or what the play seems to be saying, he seems willing to accept the assumption, or implication, that Henry V was a glorious conqueror and Joan of Arc a wicked witch, that Shylock is typical of Jews and Judaism, that peasants are to be seen through the eyes of the gentry, that the recognized sovereign is the Lord’s anointed and can cure diseases in virtue of being so. . . . When we examine the imagery of Henry V, and listen carefully to the moods and overtones which that imagery suggests, we realize that the play is very far from expressing the simple-minded patriotism that it appears to be expressing.  (CW 27, 46-7)

In A Natural Perspective he reminds us that, thanks to the archetype of the wheel of fortune, the apparently comic resolutions of history are an illusion:

The wheel of fortune is a tragic conception: it is never genuinely a comic one, though a history play may achieve a technically comic conclusion by stopping the wheel half-way.  Thus Henry V ends with triumphant conquest and a royal marriage, though, as the epilogue reminds us, King Henry died almost immediately and sixty years of unbroken disaster followed. (120)

And in Words with Power he observes that a “history play” has ultimately very little to do with history and much more to do with play:

So we cannot say that, because it is a historical play, Henry V is “following” history, with a few alterations allowed only to poets.  If we look at the total myth, or whole story, of the play, we get a history with another dimension of meaning.  As he goes on, Shakespeare tends to leave English history for the more remote and legendary periods of Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, where the titanic figures of tragedy can emerge as they could not have emerged from the battle fields of Agincourt or Tewkesbury.  In time these periods are more remote from us; in myth they are far more immediate and present. (CW 26, 46)


Ian McKellen as Macbeth: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .”

August 15th offers two significant and uncannily symmetrical Macbeth anniversaries.

On this date in 1040, Macbeth saw his cousin and rival, Duncan 1, killed in battle, making Macbeth King of Scotland.

Seventeen years later to the day, in 1057, Macbeth himself was killed in battle by a force led my Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm III of Scotland.

Frye on Shakespeare’s Macbeth as one of the “tragedies of order”:

In each of Shakespeare’s three social tragedies, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet, we have a tragic action based on three main character groups.  First is the order-figure: Julius Caesar in that play; Duncan in Macbeth; Hamlet’s father.  He is killed by a rebel-figure or usurper: Brutus and the other conspirators; Macbeth; Claudius.  Third comes the nemesis-figure or nemesis-group: Antony and Octavius; Malcolm and Macduff; Hamlet.  It is sometimes assumed tht the hero, the character of the title-role, is always at the centre of the play, and that all plays are to be related in the same way as the hero; but each of the heroes of these three tragedies belongs to a different aspect of the total action.  The nemesis-figure is partly a revenger and partly an avenger.  He is primarily obsessed with killing the rebel-figure, but has a secondary function of restoring something of the previous order.  (Fools of Time, 17)


Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, act II, scene 2Enobarbus’ famous speech (“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, burned on the water”) begins at 7.30

On this date in 30 B.C. Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Egypt, committed suicide.

Frye on Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in The Return of Eden:

Cleopatra in Shakespeare is all the things that the critics of Milton say Eve is.  She is vain and frivolous and light-minded and capricious and extravagant and irresponsible and a very bad influence on Antony, who ought to be out chasing Parthians instead of wasting his time with her.  She is morally a most despicable character, yet there is something about her which is good: we cannot feel that Cleopatra is evil in the way that Goneril and Regan are evil.  For one thing, Cleopatra can always be unpredictable, and as long as she can be that she is human.  Goneril and Regan are much closer to what is meant in religion by lost souls, and what that means dramatically is that they can no longer be predictable . . . At the same time Cleopatra is part of something far more sinister than herself: this comes out in the imagery attached to Egypt, if not in the characterization attached to her.  Putting the two together, what we see is the human contained by the demonic, a fascinating creature of infinite variety who is still, from another point of view, sprung from the equivocal generation of the Nile.  (CW 16, 52)