The Real Red Wedding 2 : Christopher Marlowe – “The Massacre at Paris”

ABOVE: Paris is Well Worth a Massacre

Christopher Marlowe: Spy. The idea that Shakespeare’s nearest Elizabethan competitor had an action-packed life in the political stage is too fun to dismiss, slight as the evidence of Marlowe’s adventures are. Sometimes the theorists cling to such minor details as the fact that Marlowe inserts an “English Agent”/ spy / self-portrait at the end of “The Massacre at Paris.” Marlowe’s less-beloved play is a minor burst of chaotic violence, dealing with the same bloody  events as Alexandre Dumas’  “Queen Margot” and extending to the latter part of the Wars of Religion (up to the assassination of the Duke de Guise by Henri III, an act which dismayed Catherine de Medicis.) The play was far more influential politically than aesthetically: it was used in England as anti-Catholic-refugee propaganda during the 1590s. The fact that Marlowe was uncharacteristically dealing with recent, still controversial history is of interest to scholars, but try as I might, I cannot see here the poetic power or theatrical inventiveness of the author of “Dido, Queen of Carthage” and “Doctor Faustus”… Although the character of De Guise does ocassionally show something of the dare-devil, fate-tempting nature that Marlowe favored in characters. Not only is De Guise Faustian, he’s downright Miltonian:

What glory is there in a common good,

That hangs for every peasant to achieve?

That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

Set me to scale the high Pyramides,

And thereon set the Diadem of France,

I’ll either rend it with my nails to naught,

Or mount the top with my aspiring wings,

Although my downfall be the deepest hell.

But for the most part, whatever enjoyment I extracted from this brief play came from re-encountering the characters from the Valois Trilogy, albeit here in paler, far less charming versions.

ABOVE: De Guise De-Dies



Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings : William Shakespeare – “Richard II”

Second in the monarchic Histories, (after “King John” ), William Shakespeare’s “Richard II” chronicles the forced 1399 abdication of that mediocre-yet-poetic titular king before Henry Bolingbroke, (soon to be Henry IV.)

ABOVE: “I can’t remember… did I turn the oven off before I left the palace??”

“Richard II” aims at pure poetry: about a third of it relies in couplets. The rest slides into blank verse, not always in a smooth or logical transition. Bardolaters might believe Shakespeare’s inspiration inexhaustible, but you can certainly spot the moments where Will throws up the quill: “Can’t think of a rhyme/So it’s blank verse time!” It’s not the only schism in evidence: the play is also half dutiful textbook account, half lyrical attempt at metaphysical poetry.

A third schism runs through the play: We’re supposed to accept that Richard, (whom the plot requires to be a rash, unthinking fool) is also somehow one of the greatest philosophers to ever wear a crown. Shakespeare never manages to reconcile the external, historical, blundering Richard with the internal, invented, meditative poet who could give John Donne a metaphorical fit of envy.

Richard is not very heroic: his plight (losing the throne after he’s created enemies left and right, and then developing a fallen-Messiah complex) hardly gets our sympathy; and yet he  is the only character whose emotional life we can access here. “Richard II” has no Faulconbridges to amuse us, no worthwhile female roles to break through the martial ranks. The closest thing to a secondary character of worth is Old John Gaunt, who at least has enough personality to pun on his own name.  I find this dearth of character atypical for Shakespeare, who can usually conjure unforgettable people out of two-line cameos.

For me, there are three truly memorable moments in “Richard II”:

-the highly dramatic bit in which the deposed Richard II asks (Lear-like) for a mirror that will show him what his own face looks like, once drained of its Kingliness

ABOVE : “Mirror, mirror in my hand/ who’s the worst king in the land?”

– the “sceptred isle” speech, a jingoistic anthem of England uber alles that would make any slightly susceptible audience break into salvoes of “God Save the Queen”

– and the stand-out speech, a high epic poem that doubles as a manifesto for the Shakespearean Histories, since it purposes to

“…tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,

Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,

Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,

All murther’d. For within the hollow Crowne

That rounds the mortall Temples of a King,

Keepes Death his Court, and there the Antique sits

Scoffing his State, and grinning at his Pompe,

Allowing him a breath, a little Scene,

To Monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with lookes,

Infusing him with selfe and vaine conceit,

As if this Flesh, which walls about our Life,

Were Brasse impregnable: and humor’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little Pinne

Bores through his Castle Walls, and farwell King.

Couer your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemne Reuerence: throw away Respect,

Tradition, Forme, and Ceremonious dutie,

For you haue but mistooke me all this while:

I liue with Bread like you, feele Want,

Taste Griefe, need Friends: subiected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a King?”

That’s absolutely beautiful stuff!!! ( Being Shakespeare, there’s a couple of other great turns of phrase here, my favorite being “the purple testament of bleeding war.”) Still, “Richard II” is more prologue than it is play. Many things are set-up here for the future: the rest of the “Henriad,” the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian segment of the Hundred Year’s War. But few things actually HAPPEN, and when they do, it’s off-stage.

ABOVE: It is good to be king.

The conclusion to Act V is particularly frustrating, with Henry IV passively listening to the rapid report of all sorts of decisive off-stage events. Towns consumed in fire! Dozens of important parsonages are mutilated and be-headed! Except  we were barely introduced to any of them and so do we do not care about them. They’ve taken the heads of

Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt and Kent/

The manner of their taking may appear/

At large discussed in this paper here.”

That’s four guys whose deaths were apparently very dramatic- but Shakespeare withholds the drama with that line. The Bard might as well have walked in from the wings: “Folks, you missed out on a lot of super-cool action scenes I couldn’t really work into the plot. Real HEART-POUNDING, EDGE-OF-YOUR-GLOBE-SEAT stuff! Trust me, you wish you had been watching THAT play instead!”

To add some sort of visual interest to this scene, a coffin gets dragged on stage. WHO’S IN IT, you wonder in suspense?

“Great King, herein all breathless lies

The mightiest of thy greatest enemies:

Richard Bordeaux.”

(WHO? We have no clue, because this great nemesis WAS NEVER ONCE MENTIONED BEFORE.)

“Richard II” can accurately be described as: “King realizes he’s just a human being; gets bummed about it.” I do not, if you noticed, rate “Richard II” high on the Shakespearian scale.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH (on the Shakespearian scale)

Signifying Nothing: William Shakespeare (and Joss Whedon) – “Much Ado About Nothing”


ABOVE: Oh, they’re NEVER going to find you THERE.

Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare are, like, two of my favorite dudes in the history of ever, so I liked Whedon’s low-budget, intimate adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,”  but most people can be excused for feeling like they’re watching a student film. I mean, it’s an A+ student film for sure, but a student film nonetheless. Beatrice is arguably Shakespeare’s best female character- so Amy Acker fails her by being a little too frail, too wounded. She’s wounded by Benedick’s hinted-at dip-and-rip, (the play’s Beatrice is just annoyed). She’s wounded by Claudio’s slut-shaming of Hero (the play’s Beatrice is righteously pissed.) She even seems wounded and defensive in her “skirmish of wits” (the play’s Beatrice took no prisoners.) Acker is still a highlight- she clearly knows what her lines mean, which may not be true for everyone else in this non-Shakespearean cast culled from the Whedonverse, (although I found Nathan Fillion hilarious with his surprisingly subtle Dogberry). A good chance for subversion was lost here: Whedon may have made some nods to a current atmosphere of financial distrust with the character of Don John the Bastard, but what he needed to modernize was the absurd gender politics in the Hero-Claudio plot-line. Even Shakespeare found THAT brouhaha about Hero’s virginity ridiculous, (it’s nothing to make ado about!)  so why would Whedon, who’s very attuned to the battle-of-the-sexes, not even blink when Hero and Claudio get reunited? Claudio didn’t deserve the girl. What a dick.

Sorry, was that a spoiler? It’s been 400 years!

The Kenneth Branagh version remains the gold standard despite its quirks *cough*keanureeves*cough*

ABOVE: “Whoa, dude. Thou are, like, making much ado nothing. Hang loose.”

The Hungry, Thirsty Ass : Alexandre Dumas – “The Tower of Nesle”


ABOVE: Queen Marguerite of Burgundy was so shy she rarely went in public without having her eyes modestly covered.

Celebrity scandal preceded supermarket tabloids by many centuries. In 1314, long before there were blogs to weigh  in, Queen Marguerite of Burgundy was communally trashed for her sexual transgressions. The affair of the Tour de Nesle puts to shame any of our modern, prudish presidential sex scandals. Marguerite, dissatisfied with her husband Louis X the Hutin, became an adulterous party gal, frequently indulging in orgies in her richly-furnished tower of sin, located a hop and a skip away from the Louvre. There, “courtly love” found its most carnal expression. But (goes the speculative premise of Alexandre Dumas’ early stage hit, “The Tower of Nesle”) since the Queen had too much to lose should a boastful lover report on their shared night of passion, she routinely had her boyfriends killed post-coitus and dropped into the Seine.

Dumas’ play (written in collaboration with Frederic Gaillardet, with whom Dumas would eventually duel over royalties) is a lurid and exciting melodrama, and must have made many a Parisian critic of 1832 polish their accusations of “Grand Guignol”. The plot has been often imitated (by the Michel Zevaco dyptich “Buridan, the Hero of the Tower of Nesle/ The Bleeding Queen”); novelized ( into an archaically grandiloquent Henry Llewellyn Williams translation); filmed ( into a competent Abel Gance costume piece);  and downright exploited ( there’s a bizarre pastiche out there that inflates Dumas’  two-hour show into a 1,760 page mammoth.)

ABOVE: Tower not affiliated with the Nestle chocolate brand.

“The Tower of Nesle” is perhaps of most interest to the Dumas fan because Marguerite of Burgundy, monstrous and sensual, presages Milady from “The Three Musketeers,” while the hero, Dom Jehan Buridan, (a witty swordsman/ scholar/ master of disguise) has all of the romantic traits that would later split into the characters of D’Artagnan, Montecristo, and Chicot the Jester.

Jean Buridan was a real person, and since he happened to be alive in the same century as Marguerite de Burgundy, Dumas decides to involve them in a tempestuous dalliance, because why not? There was some romance in the life of the historical Buridan, but no sword-wielding escapades or royal affairs: he was a philosopher/ scientist/ priest, and a pupil of Occam (he of the famous razor.) Buridan set the stage for Copernicus and anticipated the idea of inertia, but is now mostly famous for his ass.

This is Buridan’s hypothetical “poser” in its simplest form: an ass is placed between equal, equidistant stacks of hay. The ass, unable to decide between them, will starve to death. Anyone can easily see what the ass would choose between hay and poison; but between hay and hay? What makes an individual choose between equally good alternatives? Baruch Spinoza dedicated some dismissive words to this problem of determinism and  free will. (To the effect of: “Who can say what’s going in the head of an ass? A sane person will just PICK ONE.”)

Here’s the more interesting take on the exercise: what if the poor animal is hungry and thirsty, and is torn between a pail of water and a stack of hay? If he decides to move toward the hay, he will eat but die of thirst. If he eases his thirst, he dies of hunger.

Nobel-Prize-winner Camilo Jose Cela used the header “Buridan’s Ass” for an anthology of political writing. Politics make asses of us all. How DOES one happily cast a vote for either hunger or thirst? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously eliminated the animal with his quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Two ideas? How unimaginative. First rate intellects balance dozens of nuanced view points  in their heads.

But sympathy with every side leaves our asses dead.

Dumas offered a jocular solution to the paradox, BTW: the ass should go for the hay, take the hay to a bar, trade it for beer, drink the beer to kill the thirst, and use the beer carbs to kill the hunger.


Mad World! Mad Kings! Mad Composition! : William Shakespeare – “King John”


ABOVE: “When is that pizza going to get here?”

When picking a Shakespeare play to teach or produce, the Histories seem to sink to the bottom of the raffle box. “The Comedies are funnier, the Tragedies more powerful,” goes the general feeling. They are as a rule, stodgier, more bound to the demands of a historical account, but in “The Life and Death of King John,” the Bastard Faulconbridge gets to deliver some knee-slapping digs, and the death of cowardly King John is unexpectedly mournful:

“What surety of the world, what hope, what stay/ When this was now a King, and now is clay?” 

“King John,” one of two Shakespeare plays entirely in verse, was written sometime between 1587 and 1596, and is chronologically the first in Shakespeare’s unofficial, majestic saga of the British monarchy. It covers the unloved reign of Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s less liony brother, which concluded in 1216. King John matters to history as the ruler so distrusted that feudal barons forced the Magna Carta on him; he is perhaps best known in pop culture as Robin Hood’s thumb-sucking antagonist in the Disney movie, which as far as petty usurpers go, is not a bad ending.

ABOVE: “I command you to do the Hamster Dance!”

 The plot concerns the struggle between England and France over succession in the form of John’s nephew, Arthur (not the Holy Grail dude.) Arthur’s mother Constance allies herself with France; proud, petty John tells off  the French (and the Pope, whom he calls a meddling Italian priest.) Then John captures young Arthur, and coldly orders a conflicted chamberlain, Hubert, to poke the kid’s innocent eyes out with a hot stick. In one of Shakespeare’s moments of right-for-the-tear-ducts sentimentalism, Hubert breaks down crying before being able to complete the grim gouging task.

ABOVE: “Awww, don’t cry Hubert, I’m sure you’ll get to poke plenty of eyes out in the future!”

Historians knows nothing of the fate of the real Arthur. Did he die in prison? Shakespeare happily fills in the gaps with too many odd plot twists (cursed be history!) But the final two acts are incongruous with what came before, and ask from us an undue sympathy for a King who’s into kid-killing. Not many would argue that “King John” makes the Top 20 in the Shakespeare catalogue. It’s still Shakespeare; the Bastard Faulconbridge is a lively character; the whole thing is bejeweled with moments of wit and beauty. Even the common phrase “to gild the lily” is “King John” botched: 

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

My favorite casual description here is:

“The day shall not be up so soon as I/To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.”

“The Fair Adventure of Tomorrow”! How awesome is THAT?

RATING: COOL!!! (In the Shakespearian scale.)