Henry the Fourth, Parts I and II

Image result for Henry IV part 1 and 2Henry the Fourth, Parts I and II by William Shakespeare

If I look at the table of contents in my Norton Shakespeare, there’s a pink X next to both 1 and 2 Henry IV, which would leave me to believe that I’ve read these plays before.  However, there’s not a note to be found in the text of either play, so that most likely means that I was assigned these plays but didn’t actually read them.  I did an independent Shakespeare study as an undergrad, and I know that I wrote a paper on Richard II–something to do with language and gender and Richard II being one big girly-man.  And I took a semester long Shakespeare seminar in graduate school, but it was with one of those insufferable professors who basically only read Shakespeare to deconstruct him and explain why he was really nothing more than a tool of the Western-colonial-hetero-normative-patriarchy and therefore must be destroyed.  I pretty much left that semester with my unsophisticated love of Shakespeare beat out of me.  So coming back to Shakespeare’s histories twenty years later with the stink of critical theory washed away, what strikes me most is how little the world changes:  Men fight for power, betray other men, and in the end any force that threatens the status quo must and will be banished.

Shakespeare’s history plays all deal with power and how kings maintain, lose, and pass on that power in what they’d like to think is an unbroken line of divine will manifested.  However, kingly authority really amounts to brute force. Who is best able to manipulate existing power structures and bend them to their advantage? In Richard II that, of course, is Henry Bolingsbroke, soon-to-be King Henry IV.  Henry IV hears the former king’s curse/prophesy that “The time shall not be many hours of age / More than it is, ere foul sin gathering head / Shall break into corruption” and takes it to heart (V, i).  And this lies at the heart of Henry IV’s anger with Prince Hal at the beginning of I Henry IV. The king sees his errant son as another potential ineffectual ruler, who underneath it all is showing the same effeminate nature as the unfortunate Richard II.  When the King bemoans that his enemy Lord Northumberland “Should be the father to so blessed a son/ A son who is in the theme of Honor’s tongue,” the “Riot and dishonor [that] stain the brow/ of my young Harry” becomes more noticeable and more grotesque (I, i).  Hotspur is a manly-man who is out there fighting battles and taking prisoners, who makes fun of men like Mortimer with his face “fresh as a bridegroom” and his “chin new-reaped […] and perfumed like a milliner” (I, iii). It’s hard not to take Hotspur’s bashing of the feminine Mortimer as a simultaneous stab at Prince Hal who is out thieving, whoring, and drinking sak with Falstaff.

But Prince Hal knows better.  He’s playing to the masses just like his father did.  The common people are dupes and are quick to fall behind a leader who pretends to have their best interest at heart.  But it’s all fake; it’s all theater.  The Prince tells us from the get go, that he isn’t as far gone as he’s pretending.  It’s all for show.  He’s a politician and knows that “like bright metal on a sullen ground/ My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,/ Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/ Than that which have no foil to set if off” (I, ii). And this is what strikes me about both these plays.  Power is for those who wield it, and people who seek it are always corrupt no matter their stated intentions.  None of the “heads that wear the crown” in the whole of the Henriad cycle are anything but corrupt, and they all know it.  And this is Shakespeare’s point all along.  We of the masses would do well to heed his warning.  Those in power are only out to maintain it at our expense.  Which brings me to Falstaff…

Nowadays Falstaff is seen as a drunk and a coward, as someone who is out to use the influence of the Prince to further his own selfish goals.  This interpretation is quite obvious in the 2013 version of the Henriad plays, The Hollow Crown.  Falstaff is pretty well reduced to a stinky oaf with huge chunks of his brilliant wit and wordplay totally cut from the production. However,  Harold Bloom is absolutely correct in his brilliant (albeit long-winded) essay in his 1998 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Bloom argues that Falstaff is the ultimate nod to freedom: “Sir John is the representation of imaginative freedom, of a liberty set against time, death, and the state, which is a condition that we crave for ourselves. Add a fourth freedom to timelessness, the blessing of more life, and the evasion of the state, and call it freedom from censoriousness, from the superego, from guilt” (289).  We should like Falstaff because he knows that the crown/the state is corrupt.  He refuses to be bowed by it and ultimately has no problem using it for his ends.  When the now Henry V rejects Falstaff with his famous “I know you not, old man,” it’s nothing but a win for the status quo, for state power and state corruption.  Existing power structures are maintained and Falstaff and his minions are carted off to prison and cast aside.

So I guess it’s not surprising that modern audiences reject Falstaff.  He’s messy.  He’s politically incorrect. He’s gross, silly, and has bad hair… He’s Trump? Perhaps.  And if we have put Falstaff in power then social order has indeed turned topsy-turvey, the old guard is out and “The laws of England [America!] are at [his] commandment.  Blessed are they that have been [his] friends!” (V, iii).

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I’m admittedly late to the party with this book. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf since 2010 when I permanently borrowed it from a former English teacher colleague of mine who flung it at me with nothing short of a command that I must read it and that I too would be knocked flat by its brilliance. And, yes, it is absolutely brilliant. Irritatingly so. And Chabon is definitely aware of his own brilliance as he weaves his different narratives together with these seamless metaphors that drip and ooze off of every page. At it’s core this a novel about storytelling, about the power storytellers have to speak worlds into existence with words and images.

The novel begins with Josef Kavalier escaping Nazi occupied Prague in a coffin that hides a Golem, and this Golem becomes the key metaphor that ties everything together. It’s the creative spark that ignites the superhero The Escapist who he creates with his cousin Sammy Clay, and it becomes the literal hero who frees both Kavalier and Clay at the end from their own self imposed prisons. This motif of escape and imprisonment runs through the entire novel. Sam Clay is trapped in various ways throughout the novel by his polio shrunken legs, by his absent father’s overwhelming memory, by Empire Comics crappy contracts, and by denying his sexual orientation. Joe Kavalier is equally trapped by the memory of his family who are literally trapped in Europe, and the only way he can deal with his failure to free them is to escape from the new ties of love and family that he cannot accept. It’s these parallel stories of escape and entrapment that hold the novel together.

And the language… This book is just beautifully written. Chabon describes “the clammy residue of sleeplessness” on Joe’s skin; the secretary who occupies the immigration office Joe frequents as he’s trying to free his brother and get him to the U.S. is “pinned to a hard chair by a thousand cubic feet of smoky, rancid air that caught like batter in the blades of the ceiling fans”; and Joe “stands in the cold shower” of Rosa’s “imagined anger” while the “Spanish moss of her lingerie dangle[s] from the shower curtain rod.” Sentences like these are everywhere, on every page, and in between them Chabon jams historical cameos of Orson Wells and Salvador Dali and all these little tidbits of realism that make this truly an immersive read.

I can’t remember the last time a book so completely consumed me or better yet, allowed me to escape so fully from reality. And I think that is what Chabon is getting at here. The Escapist is more than just the masked superhero. It’s art itself, whether that be pulpy sci-fi or comic books or my favorite bodice ripper romance novels–it’s escapism. Joe ruminates as he’s surrounded by his boxes of comics–“truly to escape, if only for one instant, to poke his head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond [….] As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.” And this is why I read and why, for me, storytellers will always be the true superheros.

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Crime and Punishment

 

Crime and PunishmentCrime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So before this, the only Russian novel I had read was Anna Karenina. I’d heard great things about this book, so I decided to give it a try. I won’t lie: I struggled with this one. Be prepared for excruciatingly long monologues, three page paragraphs… It’s not an easy read. But the underlying point about the emptiness of nihilism, how annoying theories of the human condition are when separate from love of your neighbor, and the overall power of redemption are worth the sloggy bits. It’s incredibly relevant to today’s embrace of postmodern moral relativism.

Raskolnikov definitely reminds me of the stereotypical, I’m-so-brilliant-and-know-everything liberal progressive: “Religion is dumb, values are unnecessary and bourgeois. Look at me! Don’t me and my cool kid opinions totally rock?” He’s obviously disgusted by those around him and utterly convinced of his own intellectual superiority. What does it matter if individuals get trampled on the road to utopia as long as society moves in the right direction? Or as the student who Raskolnikov overhears says of Alyona Ivanova, “Kill her and take her money, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think? Wouldn’t thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime?” And so the seed is planted in Raskolnikov’s brain and, of course, he follows through with the murder of the old woman, which leads to the unexpected murder of her sister. Watching his decent into madness is interesting–his justifications, his disdain of anything and everyone, a disdain which widens the gulf between connections with family and friends and further contributes to his mental breakdown.

Raskolnikov is convinced that great men don’t follow society’s moral rules. He brings up  great leaders like Napoleon who are rewarded for their crimes because for them “everything is permitted.” Society celebrates them. The irony, of course, is that Raskolnikov isn’t some amazing military leader or a brilliant scientist or a great man by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a poverty stricken student who can’t pay his own bills, who has written one often misunderstood, lousy paper. His one “great” act is to kill an elderly pawnbroker and he fails at that. He’s not great. His friend Razumikhin is a better man than he, mainly because he can actually connect with others. And Sonya the fallen prostitute has more understanding of what it means to be human and to have a conscience than he does.

I could’ve done without the epilogue. For me this novel is all about the confession and what brings Raskolnikov to the point where he is actually able to account for his crime. Seeing him just as misanthropic in Siberia is at this point unnecessary, and I found his final conversion at the end a bit hard to accept. But overall this is an important and powerful book. This book was written in 1866 and here we are over 150 years later still arguing these same issues. Yes, human beings are more important than ideas, and, no, despite all of our best intentions, man can’t be perfected.

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Vanity Fair

Vanity FairVanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can never precisely lay my finger on what it is about British lit, especially Regency/Victorian British lit, that I love so much. Maybe its the novel of manners aspects, their understatement, or how good British authors can have an acerbic wit that burns anyone who crosses it. If British literature is about the community and American literature about the individual, then Vanity Fair may well be the first 19th century British novel that I’ve read where the individual seems to reign and where the lead’s (can’t call her a heroine) main function is undoing/displacing the social order. What is Becky Sharp if not a true individual who seeks to create herself, who pulls her identity out of thin air and who for a while, it seems, totally uproots and subverts social class? Becky is part Melville’s Confidence Man and part the invented/perfected self that Ben Franklin writes about in his autobiography. In short, she’s awesome and for all her evil conniving ways, I was truly rooting for her in the end.

From the get go Becky has to create herself. She looks out for herself and her own interest, she uses her brains and lack of fear to get ahead. When she first sets her sights on Jos Sedley at Amelia’s house, she claims, “I must be my own Mamma.” She doesn’t have anyone to arrange marriages for her or guide her through all the rules of Vanity Fair, so she does it herself. She takes on the role. None of the other characters have her ability to take advantage of situations, to manipulate their finances, to play society’s games, and to briefly land on top. She’s the one who gets Rawdon to marry her and while her designs on Miss Crawley’s fortune don’t pan out, you can’t blame a girl for trying.

Becky Sharp also makes for some interesting feminist interpretations. She’s the exact opposite of the Victorian “Angel in the House.” She hates motherhood and her own child. She has no problem lying to get ahead, being forward with men (Jos, Rawdon, Lord Steyne, and of course, George Osborne). However, she does seem to represent all those fears of the sexually free predator woman in the Basic Instinct vein who brings men to their knees and to their death with their evil, sexy ways. As many critics have pointed out, the charade scene where she performs as Clytemnestra, the wife who kills her own husband Agamemnon, plays on Victorian fears of female sexuality, fears that definitely seem to come to fruition at the end with Jos’s suspicious death. Did Becky kill him? I think most likely.

So, yes. This book is great. At the end of the day, all the characters (except maybe Becky?) get what’s coming to them. Amelia is annoying and part of me was half hoping that Dobbin would dump her and join forces with Becky, but that was not to be… So this now leaves the 100 Million Dollar Question: in the land of English governesses who is better off in the end? Becky Sharp or Jane Eyre? I think I may just have to go with Miss Sharp. She has more fun.

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The Good Earth

The Good EarthThe Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before I read this book, I truly had no idea what it was about. I think I knew it was about China… or the Dust Bowl. Seriously. I knew it was written in the ’30s so for years I assumed it was about farmers a la the “Grapes of Wrath” (another freakin’ novel I haven’t read, and yes, I call myself an English teacher). I started this book last year, and then for some reason I put it aside. I’m not really sure why. It’s not boring, by any means, and the writing is lovely. You can see how Buck is imitating stylistic tropes of Chinese literature–short direct sentences, simple earthy images. It is just impossible anymore to read a novel about a non-white culture, written by a white author (albeit an enlightened one as Buck assuredly was) and not see neon lights flashing “Colonialism!” “Racism!” “White Privilege!” everywhere. So is this a racist novel? Is it’s portrayal of Chinese culture accurate? I have to say “it doesn’t mean to be” to the first question, and “I have no idea” to the second.

Buck goes out of her way to present a non-judgmental view of Chinese culture. I mean she doesn’t hold anything back when showing the reader’s Wang Lung’s opinions of his wife, her lack of beauty, her big unbound feet. The woman gives birth alone and then heads out to the fields to help him farm. Clearly Buck is showing the readers the heavy burden that Chinese women carry. And Buck is definitely critical of Christian missionaries and their total lack of interest in the brutal poverty that the very people they were trying to convert lived in. But I also have to agree with much of what Stephen Spencer wrote in his essay “The Discourse of Whiteness: Chinese-American History, Pearl S. Buck, and The Good Earth.” He makes excellent points about how characters with dark skin (O-lan in particular) are characterized as ugly and of lower social status, claiming that “these descriptions privilege light skin, associating dark skin with rural life, poverty, and labor, and, in short, equating dark skin with lower-class status.” So, yeah, there is some problematic descriptions of race happening here. But I also have a truly hard time painting Buck with the broad brush stroke of white imperialist, especially since her public life is full of activism against racism. She spoke out against Japanese interment, was active in the Civil Rights Movement (see Spencer’s essay). So I would argue that any racism is a product of how racial privileging happens even when we are trying so hard to avoid it.

I can see why this book was so popular in the ’30s and why it remains so now. Wang Lung achieves the American Dream. He pulls himself up by his own boot straps (and with the help a handful of stolen gold and jewels) to be a successful land owner who basically has his own little empire. And his sons behave just like most second generation offspring of American robber barons. They reject their father’s values while benefiting from them. In the end when the two brothers eye each other over their father’s head who is pleading with them not to sell the land, it’s the story of every small town kid who wants nothing more than to leave his parents in the dust and move on to bigger and better things.

So this is a good book and definitely worth the read, but I have no desire to follow this family into the rest of the trilogy and I am not 100% sure that it will in the end hold up and remain part of the canon.

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