book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton




THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton
★★★☆☆
Tor, 2018


The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear, focusing on the young generation characters (primarily Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) in a fictional kingdom called Innis Lear. It starts off as a faithful adaptation (think Lear but with magic)–the titular King is abdicating the throne, and he makes a shocking choice to split the crown equally between his three daughters, provided that they pass the test he sets out for them: to each declare that they love him more than their sisters. Goneril (Gaela, in Gratton’s novel) and Regan (still Regan), manipulative and self-serving, both pass his test, but his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia (Elia), refuses to participate and is banished.

To say I love this play is an understatement (hi, if you’re new here, King Lear is my favorite play) and I’m finding it nearly impossible to untangle my thoughts on how I feel about this as a novel from how I feel about it as a retelling, so we’re just going to go into an aggressive amount of detail and hope something coherent materializes. Mild spoilers forthcoming (mostly about the narrative roles of the characters within the novel, not about specific plot points).

Tonally and thematically, Tessa Gratton accesses a lot of what makes Lear so special and I found that I mostly enjoyed my reading experience for that alone. I always say that Lear is a simultaneously cosmic and intimate play, concerned both with Nature and human nature, and the way Gratton literalizes these themes into her magic system and her worldbuilding is done tremendously well. The writing too has a rich, indulgent quality that suits the tone of the book; it’s slowly paced and thoughtful, which felt appropriate to the story, though I imagine others may get bored early on without a love of Lear driving you forward.

Though, that love of Lear (along with how intimately well I know this play) did end up being a double-edged sword. Gratton had my investment from the very first page without really needing to earn it, and that certainly helped me devour this 600 page book in a little over a week. But on the other hand, I started to become more and more frustrated with the ways in which Gratton engaged with this play.

First is a rather specific annoyance, that luckily only occurred four or five times, but it was jarring enough that I have to mention it. The first half or two thirds of this novel follow the plot of Lear very closely, to the point where entire scenes from the play were acted out in this book. In theory that’s not something that bothers me; what does bother me is Gratton taking word-for-word dialogue from the play and modernizing it so I felt like I was reading No Fear Shakespeare. 

Here are a couple of direct side-by-side comparisons so you can see what I mean. Gratton’s sentences are first, Shakespeare’s are second:

“He has always loved Astore rather more than Connley.”
“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

“Nothing will come from nothing. Try again, daughter.”
“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth, Father. I love you… as I should love you, being your daughter, and always have. You know this.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less.”

“It is only a note from my brother, and I’ve not finished reading it. What I’ve read so far makes me think it’s not fit for you to see.” 
“I beseech you sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.”

It’s this but it would go on for entire conversations. Here’s the thing: this is pointless and distracting and when you go up against Shakespeare on a sentence by sentence level, you’re going to lose every time. 

Now, let’s get into the characters, because that’s where my real problem with this book lies.

I found Gratton’s portrayal of the Edmund character (Ban) endlessly frustrating. You could see her bending over backward to humanize Edmund, making these minor, pointless adjustments (Ban being older than his legitimate brother rather than younger, meaning his bastardy is the only thing standing in the way of his inheritance; Gloucester [Errigal] insisting that Edgar [Rory] inherit even after his alleged betrayal of his father) to amp up the reader’s sympathy, but frankly, a lot of Edmund’s charm was lost in the process. Edmund is my favorite character and I know I’m not alone in holding that opinion: the reason people love Edmund is because of his complexity and contradictions; he’s already deeply human in the play and I felt that Gratton flattened that out of him in an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.

The parallel/inversion between Edmund and Cordelia in the play is fascinating to me–both youngest children, both loved by their fathers, one good, one evil, their fates intertwined in a chilling way. That Gratton chose to explore this connection was an exciting choice for me, but I felt that turning it into a romance added nothing, and in fact lost quite a bit, especially when it came at the narrative expense of what I think a lot of readers find to be a much more compelling dynamic; that between Ban and Morimaros (the King of France figure). (That’s another thing. This book had every opportunity to be explicitly queer, but there were only ever hints and whispers of queerness on the page, which I found frustrating.) 

If I were to detail every single character-related annoyance I had we’d be here for a while, so here are some other highlights: I felt that Edgar (Rory) was underutilized and misrepresented when he was on the page. Aefa is the single most pointless character I have read in anything, ever, and the fact that her POV chapters weren’t cut suggests to me that the editor just gave up. The old generation characters were all incredibly one-note; if you want to write a retelling focusing on the younger generation, that’s fine, but King Lear himself shouldn’t need to have a POV chapter to be a complex and interesting character. 

But we’re getting rather nitpicky now so let’s zoom back out. This book was marketed as a “feminist King Lear retelling” and a word that I’ve seen a lot of people use to talk about it is “subversive.” But my issue is that it was not, at all. As I mentioned above, the first half of the book follows Lear with dogged faithfulness, and after that, things start to go off the rails. Which is fine, fun, exactly what I’m here for! If I wanted to read King Lear I’d just read King Lear. But when Gratton started taking control of the narrative, her choices, to me, started to become more and more unwieldy. Nothing she did felt to me like a direct, deliberate subversion of the play; it felt like she had more interest in telling her own story with these characters than doing so as a means to engage with the original text, and that’s something that I think makes for an unsuccessful retelling. I don’t think you need to have complete and utter reverence for the original, but I think a love for the play coupled with a clear vision for how to engage with it is necessary. I felt–especially after reading an interview with Gratton–that her aim here was as nebulous as ‘King Lear but with better female characters’, and as a staunch Lear fan, I was rooting for this book but it really let me down in the end.

But I will end on a positive note (sort of): while I felt that Elia was as stiff and uninteresting as cardboard, I thought Gratton succeeded in doing some very interesting things with Gaela and Regan; Gaela particularly. The ways in which Gratton played with gender in Gaela’s chapters were dynamic and exciting and I think that along with the aforementioned magic system, Gaela’s character is this novel’s primary strength. 

This is already the longest review I’ve written in ages and I’m not sure how to end it. Bottom line, do I recommend this book? While I appreciate you sticking with me for this long, probably in hopes of me answering that question, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t know. I think you should be interested in Lear but not love Lear, maybe that’s the key to unlocking the optimal reading experience.

book reviews: two pieces of Shakespearean nonfiction




THIS IS SHAKESPEARE by Emma Smith
★★★★★
Pantheon Books, 2019



This Is Shakespeare is an essay collection by Shakespeare scholar and Oxford lecturer Emma Smith, whose work I first encountered on her excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare. In each lecture-turned-podcast-episode she dissects a different play through the lens of a very specific question (“what is the narrative and thematic role of Antonio in Twelfth Night,” “why does Bassanio choose the lead casket in Merchant of Venice,” “why doesn’t Marcus offer Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus“).

This Is Shakespeare is basically just her podcast in book form and slightly condensed, but you certainly don’t need to be familiar with her already (and in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t–I didn’t mind the repetition between this book and her podcasts, but for someone even marginally less invested, these essays might feel extraneous). An interest in Shakespeare, whether you’ve read all of his plays or only read one, is really the only requirement to picking this up. Smith doesn’t give broad strokes overviews of the plays, but instead she zeroes in on details that stick out to her in each one, which start to tie into one another with the more essays you read. This was an incisive, thoughtful, and ultimately fun read that certainly helped augment my understanding of each of the 20 plays she covers.



THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 2015
★★★★☆


The Year of Lear focuses on one specific year as it pertains to Shakespeare’s life and works–1606, the year he wrote Antony and CleopatraMacbeth, and King Lear. This is a historical rather than literary text–Shapiro doesn’t give a line-by-line analysis of any of the aforementioned plays, but rather, he fills in the historical context surrounding their respective compositions, particularly highlighting the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. 

It’s an interesting text as long as you’re compelled by this level of historical specificity. If you’re looking for a literary analysis of Lear or a biography of Shakespeare’s life, look elsewhere, but as a piece of historical nonfiction this is a fascinating snapshot into a turbulent piece of early modern history and the literature it directly and indirectly inspired.

Every Shakespeare Play Ranked

Well… WE DID IT, KIDS. I finished the Complete Works about a month ago, and I’ve been SO excited to write this post but I wanted to hold off and give myself some time to marinate on the last couple that I read and not let the recency bias effect win out. But I feel ready to commit to this list as is, so LET’S GO!

Disclaimers:

  1. I’m only including the plays included in my Complete Works, plus Two Noble Kinsmen – I’m excluding the Apocrypha – so no Edward III, etc.
  2. This is in reverse order, worst to best.
  3. I reserve the right to change my mind in 5 minutes. As you may have seen, I will be reading through the plays AGAIN in 2021 (only in the context of performing them on Zoom once a week – I won’t be reading them ahead of time to prepare like I did this year). So I think that makes it particularly likely that my opinions will change over time.
  4. This list is just my personal opinion and if you don’t agree that is a-okay. Very excited to have some interesting discussions after I post this but if you feel the need to yell at me or tell me how badly I misunderstand literature, please just take a deep breath and do literally anything else with your time, thank you! I promise we’re all gonna get through this together.

38. Henry VIII

We’re starting this list off on the wrong foot because I actually love the histories with only a couple of exceptions, but my god, Henry VIII is dreadful. If you’ve read this play, you get it, so I won’t belabor this point, it’s just… duller than it has any right to be for centering on one of the most eventful moments in British history.

37. Henry IV Part 2

There are exactly two things I like about this play: the scene between Hal and Bolingbroke at the end, and Kate Percy’s monologue. Otherwise I find this play painfully tedious. I can’t stand Falstaff and I can’t overstate just how much the comedic subplot drags this down for me, and I find very few characters in this story compelling enough to invest in.

36. All’s Well That Ends Well

This play just doesn’t come together for me. I think it’s got some great characters but the central plot is just… tremendously uninteresting. One thing you’ll see me come back to over and over with the comedies is that for them to succeed for me, I need there to be something of consequence at stake, and there really isn’t in All’s Well.

35. Two Gentlemen of Verona

… And there isn’t in Two Gentlemen, either. The funny thing about Two Gentlemen of Verona is that I saw a very charming production in college and consequently have had a lingering fondness for this play for years; it wasn’t until I reread it this year that I was shocked to discover how… bad it actually is. It’s possible that it was Shakespeare’s first play, and it shows; it’s just less cohesive and coherent than similar plays he wrote later, so there simply isn’t a whole lot to recommend this one.

34. Timon of Athens

There are a lot of things I almost like about Timon but in the end it always underwhelms. This play reads more like a fable than a tragedy to me and while that could be cool in theory, its language is so static and unmoving that it just… doesn’t really achieve a whole lot. But it’s a thematically interesting enough play.

33. Henry IV Part 1

The framing of Hal and Hotspur as foils is just brilliant but nothing else about this play is. This is how I feel about the whole Henriad – Hal is a fantastic character whose arc throughout the plays is wonderfully crafted, I’m just… personally very unmoved by it. And again, I hate Falstaff enough that what would be an inoffensive play to me otherwise is really dragged down.

32. Much Ado About Nothing

Sorry. I have tried to force a love for Much Ado onto myself but it just isn’t there. Do I think this is objectively terrible, not at all; I just do not vibe with this play. Again, here’s the problem – there is nothing at stake. Sassy banter just… really does not move me. Once I watched the David Tennant/Catherine Tate production and didn’t crack a smile the entire time I realized things were never going to work out between me and Much Ado. I do like Hero though.

31. The Winter’s Tale

I wish I liked this play but it just feels like two halves that don’t come together into a single whole. In theory I should like the cold palatial setting and I should also like the jaunty forest shenanigans but this play is just so tonally dissonant that I find myself not fully enjoying either. I do see where this is sweet and charming and magical and moving for the right audience, but I’m just not that person. (I watched a ballet adaptation of The Winter’s Tale on Marquee.tv that blew my goddamn mind and made me like the story a lot better than I had originally, but then we read this for Project Shakespeare round 2 a few days later, and while I liked it a lot more than I had in round 1, it cemented the fact that I just don’t love the way this story unfolds with the way Shakespeare structured this play. If I were ranking it off the ballet or even off the core elements of the narrative, this would be a lot higher.)

30. The Taming of the Shrew

On the other hand, this is a play that I want to hate but I just don’t. Yes, Kate’s final speech is a hard pill to swallow, but a) I think it opens up some fascinating discussions, and b) it doesn’t overpower my experience with the play as a whole, which I largely find witty and charming and entertaining. Its dark undertones actually make me like it even more than I probably would otherwise because I do find myself drawn to thematically thorny texts. Not a favorite since it doesn’t really do anything for me emotionally, but intellectually it’s a winner.

29. As You Like It

Kind of similar to The Winter’s Tale, actually – this is one where I strongly enjoy elements but it doesn’t fully come together for me. I do think this is a lovely and charming play and I’m happy to read or watch it, it just doesn’t make a huge impression on me.

28. Henry V

Have I mentioned how underwhelming I find the Henriad? Ok, good. This play has a lot going for it so in theory it has no right to be as forgettable as I think it is, but nothing about it really stays with me except for the French scene between Catherine and her maid, which is one of my favorite ever Shakespeare scenes.

27. Merry Wives of Windsor

I actually loved this when I read it, but it’s faded a lot in my estimation since then, because there’s honestly just not a whole lot there. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do, which is entertain the reader/viewer, so I can’t fault it. It’s just up again some plays that have much loftier ambitions.

26. Coriolanus

If I had to pick out one Shakespeare play that I find the most frustrating, it would have to be Coriolanus. This play has the potential for greatness written all over it but it just misses the mark. The conflict that it sets up is SO compelling but it takes an agonizingly long time to get there (acts 1-3 are painful) and then the resolution is incredibly rushed. I just want to take this play by the shoulders and shake it until it sorts out its horrendous structure, because somewhere in there is a masterpiece that gives the seductive dynamic between Coriolanus and Aufidius ample time to breathe.

25. Love’s Labor’s Lost

This is cute and charming and harmless until it isn’t – but the incongruously abrupt and sad ending makes me like it a lot more than I would otherwise. This is another one that I don’t find particularly groundbreaking, but which I thoroughly enjoy for what it is.

24. Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night… is a tricky one for me. I like it a lot and it also annoys me, and I think I’ve bounced my Goodreads rating of this play around from 2 to 4 stars and back so many times I’ve lost count. I think if Malvolio were removed from the play I would probably adore it, but I can’t help but to find the narrative treatment of Malvolio curiously cold and not addressed in any kind of way that I find satisfying. But I also think the problem is probably me for not attempting to engage with this play the way I should? I don’t know. I’m running a book club discussion on this play in two weeks and I intend to do a lot of research ahead of that so stay tuned. I feel like it should probably technically go higher than this but we’ll sort that out another day.

23. Two Noble Kinsmen

This play is just… fun. It’s not as well-written or well-crafted as a lot of others but it is simply a good, solidly entertaining play. I enjoy it and I have absolutely nothing else to say about it.

22. Othello

In a lot of ways, I actually love Othello. I mean… the characters and the conflict and the speeches are all SO good and I’ll happily watch any production of this play. My issue is that reconciling Iago’s racism with the fact that Iago is the character through whom the story is filtered for the audience is a fool’s errand and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth in this year of our lord 2020. However, this is a play that I find myself thinking about often and one that I find particularly challenging to place on a list like this.

21. Henry VI Part 2

I am looking forward to waxing eloquent about this loose trilogy higher up on my list, because I ADORE the Henry VIs, but for now I’ll say that this is my least favorite because it’s a little more unfocused than the other two, but it also has one of my all-time favorite monologues from Margaret, so there’s that.

20. The Comedy of Errors

This is, hands down, the stupidest thing I have ever read, but it’s also kind of excellent? You know that thing I keep saying about comedies needing high stakes – believe it or not, Comedy of Errors actually has that. Framing this play with the looming execution of Aegeon is a BRILLIANT choice because it underscores the whole play with a seriousness that offsets the absolutely bonkers mistaken identity shenanigans. It’s only this far down on my list because everything above it is so good, but I honestly love this play.

19. Cymbeline

Cymbeline is like if you took every single Shakespeare play of all genres and put them in a blender. The result is occasionally baffling but most of the time just brilliant. This is definitely one of the most structurally interesting plays, but it’s also just entertaining as hell.

18. Troilus and Cressida

This play has no business being as high on this list as it is. It’s not good. If you’re a Shakespeare newbie, do not start here. But what can I say – you say Trojan War, I say yes, it is what it is. I adore these characters so much and I find Shakespeare’s take on them both weird and fascinating. Achilles is beyond insufferable – as he should be – and I absolutely love it.

17. Measure for Measure

There are long stretches of this play where I simply zone out, but I cannot bring myself to move it any lower because everything with the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella is so obscenely good. This play is just… so dark, so twisted, so thorny, and I really love it for that.

16. Titus Andronicus

Everyone says that if you like slasher films you’ll like Titus Andronicus, which is absolutely true, but my personal angle here is more: if you like the Oresteia, you’ll like Titus Andronicus. I am all about a good old fashioned revenge saga and this absolutely delivers. It’s dark, it’s twisted, it’s entertaining, it’s funny – it’s not as well-crafted or emotionally resonant as his later tragedies, but it’s a great time.

15. Richard III

I have flipped Richards II and III around on this list so many times I have whiplash. I still don’t know which order they should be in. My general assessment of this play is at odds with… pretty much everyone else’s on earth: I love this play but I do not enjoy Richard III as a character. I think this play is chock full of fascinating and tragic events and complicated characters, and I ordinarily love a good old tragic villain, but Richard’s motivations are so profoundly uninteresting that he really does nothing for me (though I can see where a great performance could really bring him to life).

14. Richard II

This is the problem with comparing the two Richards – this play is the exact opposite for me. This narrative itself is largely a slog, but Richard himself… what an absurdly clever creation. I think he is one of the most complex and interesting characters in Shakespeare’s canon, and “for god’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” is without a doubt one of the best monologues Shakespeare ever wrote. So which do I prefer; the one where I like the play and find the titular character underwhelming or vice versa? I have no idea. But I do love both of these plays on the whole.

13. Henry VI Part 1

I’m going to save most of my gushing for 3H6. But I love this one too. I just love the Wars of the Roses and find the characters and conflicts SO compelling. I mean, this one has Joan of Arc, how can you not love it.

12. The Tempest

I did The Tempest dirty by reading it so early on in my Shakespeare journey before I had adequately managed my genre expectations. I liked it a lot at the time but I suspect I may love it now. It’s such a thematically rich play and Prospero is a brilliant creation. It’s serious and sad but also funny and moving and whimsical and I do think it’s one of Shakespeare’s best plays if we’re attempting objectivity.

11. King John

King John missing out on my top 10 was… a Sophie’s Choice situation. So make no mistake: I LOVE King John. The characters and the conflicts in this play are just top tier and I just cannot rank any play that has Constance of Brittany any lower, what a legend.

10. Pericles

I’m sorry but if you don’t love Pericles WHY IN THE HELL NOT?! This play is absolutely bonkers. Incest, pirates, and brothels, oh my, but it also has one of the most genuinely moving resolutions ever. This is probably the most consistently entertaining Shakespeare play from start to finish, yet Pericles’s journey is absolutely devastating to follow at the same time. This play is so fun and clever and quietly sad, I really adore it.

9. The Merchant of Venice

This play is not at all what I thought it was going to be, in the best way possible. This is one of those plays like Measure which is structurally a comedy but which is actually dark as hell and I love it all the more for that. I think Merchant has some of the most vivid and complex characters in all of Shakespeare’s canon – there’s Shylock, of course, a fantastic character as everyone knows, but he’s really only the tip of the iceberg. I’m really compelled by the way this play depicts otherness and community identity and the way it uses a fairytale-esque structure to tell its urban, feudal story. I haven’t been able to get this one out of my head since reading it – I just find it complex and fascinating and bizarrely haunting on an emotional level.

8. Henry VI Part 3

THIS PLAY. I get why the Henry VIs are so rarely staged, I do; none of them really works as a standalone and asking the audience to attend 6+ hours of a single narrative is… a lot. But when you’re reading them in succession, ugh, this play hits so hard. It’s such a glorious and devastating culmination – I mean, has there ever been a more savage monologue than Margaret’s paper crown, has there ever been anything stranger or more moving than Henry VI’s gentleness in the face of battle – I JUST. Richard III is a much more interesting character to me here than he is in his titular play as well, and that final scene between Richard and Henry is just… ugh, chills. This is the best history play, hands down, and there are a lot of good ones to choose from.

7. Antony & Cleopatra

This is such a bizarre play, structurally – the way it bounces back and forth between Rome and Egypt is chaotic, and the fact that Antony and Cleopatra are never on stage alone together is a fascinating element that seems kind of at odds with what a lot of people want this play to be. It isn’t an epic romance and it isn’t a grown up Romeo & Juliet – instead it’s a phenomenal portrait of two deeply flawed rulers navigating a series of external conflicts (Rome vs. Egypt, old Roman values vs. new Roman values, fame, publicity), together and separately. It’s as flawed and brilliant as its two titular characters and I just love it.

6. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This was the first ever Shakespeare play that I read when I was eleven and I fell in love. So there’s that nostalgia element that makes it impossible to shake this from my top 10, but even so, I firmly believe that Midsummer is the best comedy by a mile. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s romantic, it’s kind of darkly savage, and all of these elements cohere into something that works perfectly for me.

5. Hamlet

I have the hardest time talking about Hamlet – I feel like I always just say something along the lines of ‘it’s Hamlet, what’s not to love?’ and I ultimately sound kind of dispassionate, but I do adore this play and I think it’s easy to make the argument that it’s Shakespeare’s best work (which I honestly think is what partially makes it so difficult to talk about). I am also, unfortunately, one of those annoying people who thinks Hamlet is one of the most #relatable characters ever written.

4. Romeo & Juliet

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. If you simply do not vibe with Romeo & Juliet I could not care less, but I have not heard a single criticism against this play that isn’t utterly inane. ‘It’s just instalove!’ Plays have different storytelling conventions, next. ‘They’re just horny teenagers’ If you still refuse to accept that they’re in love when it’s demonstrated throughout the play ad nauseum I don’t know what to tell you, next. ‘Romeo and Juliet actually would have had a miserable marriage if they lived’ Ok I get it, you’re edgy and you hated your 9th grade English teacher, next. Anyway, the only reason the frequent disparagements of R&J get my goat is because this play is so fucking good. It’s cleverly constructed and deliciously tragic and the writing is sublime – when I read Romeo’s final monologue I decided that if I did not play Romeo in Project Shakespeare I would simply die, it’s that brilliant.

3. Macbeth

God. I really thought nothing would be able to shake Macbeth from its #2 spot on this. This is one of the plays that I’ve loved the longest and am most familiar with (I’ve had ‘is this a dagger’ memorized for years for quite literally no reason) and I adore just about everything about it – the darkness and the brutality but the complex characters most of all. I think Macbeth the man is one of Shakespeare’s best creations. I love Lady M too (how can you not) but Macbeth’s journey is so darkly compelling and haunting.

2. Julius Caesar

It was always going to take a really fucking good play to displace Macbeth, but then Julius Caesar came along and here we are. This play is so ridiculously up my alley it’s not even funny. Aside from loving all things Ancient Roman history, I’m particularly drawn to the theme of human fallibility and narratives about people making impossible decisions and being forced to live with the consequences of the choices they’ve made, and that’s Julius Caesar to a T. This play is just masterfully constructed, too – “Friends, Romans, countrymen” is my favorite monologue and Brutus is one of the absolute best characters. His entire arc devastates me more than words can say.

1. King Lear

On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer that after reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in 2020, my favorite play didn’t change from what it already was before this year; on the other hand… nothing was ever going to top Lear, not in a million years, so here we are, and happily too. I don’t even know how to describe what this play means to me. There’s something so cosmic about Lear – it’s a high-stakes family drama but it also feels fiercely personal and universal simultaneously. The way this play grapples with human nature (and the interplay between humans & nature) is so singular and striking, as is the contrast between its depictions of brutality and tenderness. I think this is inarguably the most devastating Shakespeare play, and I see why for some people it’s simply too sad, but I think it really earns its emotionally impactful conclusion. The tragic inevitability is executed seamlessly, and that final scene just… ugh, “never, never, never, never, never” hits like a punch to the gut every single time, it doesn’t matter how many times I read or watch it. And every time I do read it I get something new out of it – I notice a new parallel (Cordelia and Edmund’s “Nothing, my lord” – one speaking truth and one concealing it) or a new motif (Gloucester’s phrasing in the gouging scene – “Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature/ To quit this horrid act” perversely echoing Edmund’s own commentary on his own nature) or a line hits me in a new way (“O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven” got me in the gut last time I reread it) and I just feel so enriched for every minute I spend with this gloriously devastating play.

I will leave you with the final lines of Lear which are incidentally my favorite words Shakespeare ever wrote:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


So THERE WE HAVE IT. Reading all of Shakespeare’s works (yes, I read the sonnets and the poems too) in 2020 is one of the best things I have ever done and I’m tremendously proud of myself and really looking forward to seeing how my relationship with each of these plays evolves over time.

Talk to me about Shakespeare in the comments. What’s your favorite/least favorite play, how many have you read, do you plan to read more, why King Lear is one of the best things ever written, etc etc.

Project Shakespeare: month #9 wrap up

Well… we did it! We have officially performed every* Shakespeare play in quarantine over Zoom. We started this in March – my friend Abby had the idea to invite a group of her friends to read Midsummer together, and then it just… blossomed into this constant and extraordinary thing that I am so grateful to be a part of.

(*except the ones with non-white characters. As a predominantly white group we opted out of performing Othello, Antony & Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus – instead I ran book clubs on each of those over the last few months.)

So without further ado… the final Project Shakespeare wrap up of Round 1 (more on that in a minute). See all wrap ups here.

Macbeth
★★★★★
my roles: Third Witch, Duncan, Siward, Second Murderer, Porter, Old Man, Third Apparition

For the eagle-eyed among you: yes, we already did Macbeth back in April. But as Halloween fell on a Saturday this year, we thought what could be more appropriate than doing Macbeth again? We did the casting a bit differently too – ordinarily Abby and I cast the plays every week (taking people’s preferences into consideration and also making sure to alternate people playing leads vs. ensemble), but for Halloween Macbeth we decided to make the casting entirely random. This actually resulted in Abby playing Macbeth, which ended up being such an extraordinary performance that I think we were all thrilled with that outcome – and I ended up with the Old People Track, which I found rather amusing since I almost always play young gen characters. This was a great time.

Henry VIII
★★☆☆☆
my roles: First Gentleman, Duke of Suffolk, Porter, Brandon, Servant, Vision

I fucking hate this play. What a SLOG. Our performance was as good as it could possibly have been given that the material is hot garbage. But there was plenty of silliness and an amazing performance as Katherine, as well as an utterly bonkers interpretation of the vision scene, so, still a good time. (Oh, and Biden had been declared the president elect a few hours before so… very good, very weird energy that night.) But if I never have to read Henry VIII again it will be too soon.

Troilus and Cressida
★★★★☆
my roles: Achilles, Paris, Boy, Andromache

I love this play, but not because it’s particularly good – I’m just a big Iliad nerd (I don’t know if you know that about me) so I’ll take any excuse to spend some time with these characters. Playing the little bitch himself, Achilles, was a DREAM – and my friend made me armor so… what more could you ask for.

Richard III
★★★★☆
my roles: Lady Anne, Sir Richard Ratcliff, Second Messenger, Second Citizen

And… the last one! It felt fitting to end Project Shakespeare as a tragic history woman when they have consistently been my favorite characters to play throughout this whole thing. Anyway, as everyone knows Richard III is a fantastic play and it was a great one to end on.

Now let’s take a quick walk down memory lane. Looking at these photos is just… I don’t know; I know I’ve already talked a lot about how shy I am and how outside the box this has been for me, so I don’t want to belabor the point, but also, if you had told me a year ago that I was going to spend 2020 acting and being silly on camera I’d have told you to get your head tested. This has just been such a special and unexpected thing in my life.

So… THERE WE HAVE IT.

But it’s not quite the end. As anyone living in the U.S. knows, quarantine does not appear to be ending any time soon, so we are… diving right back into the plays and beginning Project Shakespeare: Round 2 this weekend. What can I say – the consistency is nice.

Now my question for you all is whether there’s any interest in me continuing to do Project Shakespeare wrap ups for Round 2? On the one hand, I think the majority of my blog audience could do without these in their lives (trust me, no hard feelings – none of us signed up for this); on the other hand, it might be cool to document my evolving relationships with the plays…? Anyway I’m on the fence so let me know! See you soon for my (ir)regularly scheduled blog content.

Project Shakespeare: month #8 wrap up

Can you believe I’ve done so many of these I just forgot about this one…

Anyway, here we go: see all previous wrap ups here.

Two Noble Kinsmen
★★★★☆
my roles: Wooer, First Queen, Prologue, Epilogue, Messenger, First Countryman, Third Countryman, First Knight, Taborer

This was a lot of fun! I like this play, and I couldn’t even tell you why; I just think it’s a bit fun and stupid in a way that really charms me (similar to Comedy of Errors and Merry Wives of Windsor). Arcite and Palamon are such a charming and dynamic duo and our two actors in those roles did such an amazing job coordinating that it was such a pleasure to watch. And shoutout to Abby for playing Jailer’s Daughter as Eponine, a truly inspired choice.

Henry VI Part 2
★★★★☆
my roles: Queen Margaret, Mayer of St. Albans (lol)

As discussed in my last wrap up, I LOVE the Henry VI plays. This one is actually my least favorite of the three, but only narrowly. I find it a little more unfocused than the other two but its saving grace is Margaret of Anjou, simply one of the BEST female characters, and I had such an amazing time playing her. This monologue is one of my favorites:

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“Die, Margaret! For Henry weeps that thou dost live so long.” I LOVE HER. Also, Suffolk 😦

Two Gentlemen of Verona
★★★☆☆
my role: Thurio

Guys… I don’t even know what to say. We cracked. Project Shakespeare finally cracked.

Well, first off – this play is not very good at all. It’s funny because I saw a production of this in college, I remember very few details but I do remember being VERY charmed by it (in hindsight I think it was just the dog…). So, this ENTIRE TIME that I’ve been reading Shakespeare this year I had in the back of my mind that Two Gentlemen of Verona was one of my favorite comedies. Then I finally read it and… yeah it’s absolutely one of the worst. 3 stars may be generous actually but I’m going to revisit all of my star ratings at the end of this project anyway so take them with a grain of salt.

Anyway, I don’t even know why but a few minutes into this play we all just… lost our goddamn minds. Every single person was laughing so hard that we had to stop for like five minutes which has NEVER HAPPENED, IN 8 MONTHS OF DOING THIS!!! So this actually ended up being my second favorite Project Shakespeare experience (after King Lear), it was just… very very joyous. For reasons I absolutely cannot explain.

Henry VI Part 3
★★★★★
my roles: Henry VI

UGH THIS PLAY. The thing about the Henry VI cycle is that none of these plays really works on stage as a stand-alone; you have to perform them all in succession which is a lot to ask of an audience and so I understand why these aren’t exactly crowd-pleasers, but… ugh, this play, these characters, this story. In my opinion this is hands down the best history play. It’s brutal, it’s devastating, the characters are all flawed and heartbreaking. The Margaret/Richard of York scene in act 1 is almost painfully savage but it’s also one of the most compelling scenes of all time – the paper crown, ugh, I just —

Also I ADORE Henry VI as a character, flawed as he is as a ruler – I’m charmed and saddened in equal measure by his gentleness. I had a blast playing him.


We’ve done a couple more since 3H6 but those will have to wait for the next post. Stay tuned for the 9th and FINAL WRAP UP of Project Shakespeare: Round 1…

Project Shakespeare: month #7 wrap up

Mamma mia here we go again…

Henry IV Part 2
★★☆☆☆
my roles: Lady Percy, Francis, Bardolph, Prince John, Servant, Harcourt, Porter, Simon Shadow, Second Groom

I have made no secret of the fact that I kind of hate the Henriad – sorry @ all of Shakespeare scholarship but Henry IV Part 2 is hands down my least favorite play of the 31 that I’ve read so far. The thing about this play is that I just don’t care – I know that’s on me and that it’s not an objective criticism in any way, but it is what it is. I think Hal is a tremendously well-written character whose arc is decently compelling (and those scenes with Henry IV at the end of this play are god-tier as far as emotional devastation goes, which isn’t even to mention Henry IV’s final lines – sob), but that just isn’t enough to really earn my investment in this nearly 3-hour long affair. And as I mentioned in my review of Henry IV Part 1, I find Falstaff insufferable and the comedic subplots in these two plays are frankly painful to slog through.

ALL THAT SAID I haven’t even mentioned the LIGHT OF MY LIFE, Kate Percy. She only appears in one scene in this play and still she delivers what has to be in my top 10 Shakespeare monologues, roasting Northumberland for letting his son Hotspur die in battle 1H4 at the hands of Hal (Monmouth) without sending backup:

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MIC DROP. I ADORE HER.

Anyway, this wasn’t my favorite Project Shakespeare simply because it’s so Falstaff-heavy (though our Falstaff was brilliant so plenty of credit where it’s due to her) and because I was really failing to follow along with the story even though I’d already read it (I don’t think ANYONE was following along with the story that night, idek), but the individual performances were really shining! Oh and I had something like 16 costume changes and my bangs were a complete mess by the end of the night from swapping John’s crown with Bardolph’s baseball cap.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
★★★★☆
my roles: Caius, Pistol, Anne Page, Servant, First Servant, Second Servant

Yes, I know, I just said that I can’t stand Falstaff – no one is more surprised than I am that I didn’t hate Merry Wives. And actually, far from it – it’s probably one of my favorite comedies. It helps that even though Falstaff is the protagonist he is very much the butt of the joke, and it’s lively and refreshing and downright charming to watch all these clever women playing tricks on him. This one was very, very fun to perform.

Coriolanus
★★★★☆
my roles: Menenius, First Roman, Citizen, Seventh Citizen, Third Lord

I might change my rating of this one to 3 stars… I don’t know. I firmly believe that Coriolanus is the single most frustrating Shakespeare play. This play has greatness within its grasp and it is so close to achieving it but it just misses the target. The conflict it sets up is brilliant but it takes an agonizingly long time to get there (I have yet to find a single compelling reason why acts 1-3 can’t be condensed), the play never justifies its length, and the titular character’s lack of interiority can make the reader/viewer feel as though they’re running up against a brick wall. What I do adore about this play though is the dynamic between Coriolanus and Aufidius which I think is one of the most fascinating things Shakespeare ever wrote (I mean… this monologue…..!!) I don’t know – on the one hand this play just has this je ne sais quoi that hooks me and on the other I find it dull and tedious.

Anyway, when I read this play and subsequently watched two different productions Menenius didn’t make much of an impression on me despite his 500+ lines, but I unexpectedly loved playing him, so this was a lot of fun.

Henry VI Part 1
★★★★☆
my roles: Suffolk, Vernon, Bastard of Orleans, Third Servingman, First Warder, Porter, Scout

As my unconventional taste in the histories continues to thrive, I loved the first installment of the Henry VI saga. This play arguably suffers from a lack of a central, cogent narrative conflict (while England v. France is obviously that conflict in a broader sense, it’s rather sweeping in scope), but for whatever reason I find all the mini-conflicts to be equally fascinating, and I thought this play was incredibly entertaining from start to finish. Also, the two back to back scenes where Talbot urges his son to flee when he knows he’s at the brink of death but his son refuses to leave his side are legitimately DEVASTATING. I mean:

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It’s just one small moment in the play but I also think it effectively captures the tragedy of war better than anything.

I also loved playing Suffolk and I think his scene with Margaret is just delightful and utterly absurd and I cannot wait to see her character development over the next two (well, three) plays.

Next up – Two Noble Kinsmen which will surely be a delight. Stay tuned to hear about that in four more weeks.

Project Shakespeare: month #6 wrap up

This is my first ever post with the block editor so… oy, bear with me, confused is an understatement.

Anyway, that’s right, we’ve apparently been doing this for SIX MONTHS (read: 4 calendar weeks x6 – not quite six months but close enough). You know the drill by now. Previous wrap ups here.

The Taming of the Shrew
★★★☆☆
my role: Lucentio

This is a play that I want to hate for obvious reasons, but the reality is that I don’t, at all. It’s lively and charming – the B plot with Tranio, Lucentio et al is nothing short of delightful – and I actually find it more (a) entertaining and (b) intellectually stimulating than the vast majority of the comedies that I’ve read. That said, the misogyny is, obviously, a hard pill to swallow, and I find it almost impossible to navigate that element in a contemporary production in a way that feels palatable without going against the text. (Incidentally, The Public Theatre’s recent radio play of Richard II includes an interview with a professor who mentions her opinion that we should halt all stagings of Othello, Merchant of Venice, and Shrew until we figure out a way to navigate their unfortunate optics, and the more I think about that comment the more I agree.)

There’s been a recent trend of playing Kate’s final speech (an infamous ode to patriarchy which, addressed to a group of other wives, literally contains the line “place your hands below your husband’s foot”) as sarcastic; implying that the shrew has not been tamed, she has merely learned to perform subservience. It’s a reading that doesn’t totally sit well with me – I just have to wonder, if Kate is performing, to what end? She’s still tied to a marriage with an abusive man, and if her spirit has been broken enough to even perform sincerity rather than continuing to obstinately refuse, to me that feels like a hollow triumph. Of course, watching the alternative, where the shrew has been tamed and Kate’s spirit is irrevocably broken, kind of feels like swallowing glass, especially in the context of a play which is otherwise jovial. It’s hard to walk away from this play feeling the sort of warmth you’re generally meant to experience while watching the comedies.

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, Project Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio were actually cooking up a third avenue: they choreographed it so that after Kate’s final speech and Petruchio’s final lines, Kate murders Petruchio. (Click that link to witness 10 people’s complete and utter shock unfold in real time, and scroll down to watch the full 30 second video.) Is it tonally incongruous, PERHAPS, but it was wonderfully cathartic when performed to an audience of feminists and staunch Petruchio haters. This was honestly the only acceptable way for this night to end.

Henry IV Part 1
★★★☆☆
my roles: Lady Percy, Vernon, Francis, Carrier, Welsh Lady

Probably my most noteworthy unpopular Shakespeare opinion thus far is that (with the exception of Richard II) I strongly dislike the Henriad. (Seriously side-eying everyone who promised me that Henries IV-V would be my favorite history plays, when they are all… solidly my least favorites. JUSTICE FOR KING JOHN.) This one gets a generous 3 stars because I find the conflict between Hal and Hotspur decently compelling, but otherwise… there is not nearly enough here to hold my interest. I also have to confess to zoning out every time Falstaff opens his mouth.

Cymbeline
★★★★☆
my roles: Queen, Guiderius, Lady, First Brother, First British Captain

I really love Cymbeline. I’m not sure I could argue that this is one of Shakespeare’s better plays – it’s a bit of a mess in the same way Pericles is a bit of a mess, which I adore it for – but god it’s entertaining. I’m weirdly charmed by the genre-hopping in his later plays. Also, this was one of my personal favorite Project Shakespeare performances. Even though it lasted three whole hours (it’s the third-longest Shakespeare play), I was weirdly sad when it ended. The ghost sequence is the hardest I’d laughed in ages.

Julius Caesar
★★★★★
my roles (first show): Calpurnia, Cinna, Second Citizen, Soothsayer, Second Commoner, Lucilius, Ligarius, Lepidus
my role (second show): Brutus

When I first read Julius Caesar earlier this summer, it quickly became one of my favorite plays; I’ve since read it a handful of times, watched three different productions, and now performed it twice, so… it’s been a whirlwind love affair. One of the reasons I love it so much is purely sentimental so let’s just get that one out of the way – I have never loved anything academically as much as I loved all four years of my high school Latin class, so part of what I love about Julius Caesar is simply that it continues the dialogue around a historical event that I first learned about in a context that I adored. But beyond that, I just think it’s a damn good play. The theme of human fallibility is one that I particularly gravitate toward – and I love the inherent ambiguity built into this play. Whether the assassination of Julius Caesar was ‘correct’ – morally or politically – is a question that has given historians pause for centuries, and what I love about this play is that it has no interest in answering that question. This isn’t a play about heroes and villains, it’s about people making impossible choices and suffering the consequences. And getting to play Brutus was a dream. What a role.

Next up: Henry IV Part 2 – solidly my least favorite play of the 25 I’ve read so far – and then I can be done with the Henriad ONCE AND FOR ALL (we’ve already done Henry V).

Project Shakespeare: month #5 wrap up

I’d like to point out that I’m titling these wrap ups somewhat misleadingly: I’m not going by calendar months, but rather, posting once every 4 performances.  So we haven’t quite been doing this for five months… but we have been doing it for a pretty damn long time.  Previous wrap ups here.

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King John
★★★★☆
my role: Constance

I think King John is a marvelous hidden gem; I’m sure it’s one of the less popular ones for a reason, but I don’t care, I honestly love this play.  Part of that is simply down to what interests me (I love a good succession drama and find the central conflict in this play so much more compelling than the histories which have a bigger focus on battle), and part of it is how insanely brilliant this ensemble of characters is.  Philip the Bastard is great fun, the Arthur/Hubert scenes are filled to the brim with pathos, Elinor/Eleanor has some of the sassiest banter, and my fierce, prideful, savvy girl Constance is – I am not exaggerating – my favorite female character that Shakespeare wrote.  I read this monologue and decided that if I didn’t get to play her I WOULD DIE:

Thou mayst, thou shalt; I will not go with thee:
I will instruct my sorrows to be proud;
For grief is proud and makes his owner stoop.
To me and to the state of my great grief
Let kings assemble; for my grief’s so great
That no supporter but the huge firm earth
Can hold it up: here I and sorrows sit;
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.
[Seats herself on the ground]

But that’s not even the best one!  I MEAN:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

If that’s not the most gutting thing you’ve ever read I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOU.  (I wrote about the potential influence of Hamnet Shakespeare’s death on this monologue here.)

I think the titular character is probably one of the weaker titular roles in all of Shakespeare’s canon and perhaps that is the reason why this play is so oft-overlooked, but weakness is an intrinsic part of John’s character in a way that I find very effective.  So yes – I really really love King John and playing Constance was a personal highlight for me.

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Evening of Scenes & Othello Book Club

I talked about this in my review of Othello, but since our small group is mostly all-white, we will not be performing the plays with non-white characters.  Instead, we did two things: we had a bookclub discussion of Othello on Sunday, and on Saturday night, we had what we called an ‘Evening of Scenes’.

In the weeks leading up, Abby (our fearless leader) and I probably spent about five hours on Zoom reading and acting out various scenes from various plays.  We then chose a selection of scenes that stood out to us, had everyone in the group request a scene they’d like to do, and divvied them up.  I think we ended up doing fourteen scenes in total, from the following plays: Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Much Ado, Hamlet, and Othello (Iago/Cassio and Iago/Roderigo scenes only), and in between scenes we also had people perform monologues.  We had: Viola’s “I left no ring with her,” Malvolio’s “O, ho! do you come near me now?”, Lady Anne’s “Set down, set down your honourable load,” Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger,” Hal’s “Once more unto the breach,” something of Queen Margaret’s, Macbeth’s “To be thus is nothing,” Miranda’s opening monologue, and of course “To be or not to be.”

The whole thing was a goddamn delight.  I ended up playing: Olivia in Twelfth Night, Titania in Midsummer, Cassio in Othello, and Gertrude in Hamlet, and I did Macbeth’s “is this a dagger” monologue (which I’ve had memorized for about a decade for no particular reason, so I finally got to put that to good use).  I think everyone had an amazing time and we will definitely be doing this again.

As for Othello: you can read my review if you’re interested in my thoughts, but in short: I think it’s an incredibly engaging and dynamic play but the racial optics are a nightmare to untangle, to say the least.

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Richard II
★★★★☆
my role: Aumerle

It was Abby’s birthday this week, and her birthday present to us all was playing Richard and doing a really really really extraordinary job.  We took inspiration from the David Tennant RSC production (which you can watch on Marquee.tv – it’s a paid subscription but there’s a free trial) and erased Sir Pierce Exton entirely – I just read his lines still in character as Aumerle.  While the Richard/Aumerle romance from that production was really shoehorned in there (in a way that I didn’t mind!) I feel like the decision to have Aumerle kill Richard actually works well with the text and is a much more compelling end to the arc of the Richard/Aumerle dynamic, and more narratively satisfying than some rando off the street killing Richard.  Anyway, I like this play; it’s not my favorite, I find the ensemble characters uniformly uninspiring, but Richard is a tremendously compelling character and the language in this play is outstanding (‘for god’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings’!!!!!)

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Love’s Labor’s Lost
★★★★☆
my roles: Maria and Holofernes

What a bizarre play.  When I inevitably do a ranking of all Shakespeare plays at the end of this, I already know that Love’s Labor’s Lost is the one that’s going to give me the most grief.  I don’t think this is a good play, at all – I think it’s disjointed and a structural mess and the narrative is incredibly flimsy and it feels insane that I’m giving it 4 stars when I gave 3 stars to Twelfth Night and Much Ado… but for a comedy, I actually really, really enjoy this?  I love the characters and the wordplay and the incongruously somber note at the end.

This is also a really great ensemble show; we all had such fun performing this one.  I also created a whole schtick where I performed Maria as Maria from The Sound of Music… even though my character’s name was technically supposed to be pronounced Mariah, but, you know.  Artistic liberties.


What’s your favorite Shakespeare scene?  I need inspo for Evening of Scenes round 2!

book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

book review: Othello by William Shakespeare

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OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
★★★★☆
first published 1603

 

Othello is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of literature and theatre; it’s a riveting story about the worst parts of human nature that culminates in a satisfyingly tragic conclusion.  And Iago is undeniably a brilliant character; his masterclass in manipulation is mesmerizing to watch.  But it was also a particularly interesting play to read amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as discussions about Black representation in the media are currently in our cultural foreground.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of Othello that makes for unsettling reading: Iago, while ostensibly the villain to Othello’s tragic hero, is also the character that the audience has the strongest connection with through a series of prominent soliloquies (that Othello himself is denied); Iago is also a flagrant racist.  Reconciling these two truths about Iago is a challenge, and no matter which way you look at it, it doesn’t sit comfortably as we circle the ‘is this play racist’ question.

On the one hand it’s easy to argue that because Othello is the hero and Iago is the villain, the play itself has (what we would call in our contemporary terminology) anti-racist intentions.  But I also think that largely discounts the shocking, brutally violent act that Othello commits on stage in (spoiler) killing his white wife Desdemona, the archetype of the waify ingenue.  Even if you know it’s coming, the optics of this scene are shocking and hard to stomach.  In the 1990s British-Ghanaian RSC actor Hugh Quarshie actually argued that Othello is the one Shakespeare role that should never be played by a Black actor; he then surprisingly went on to play Othello in 2015 (incidentally in the first RSC production to cast a Black actor as Iago as well), stating “Only by black actors playing the role can we address some of the racist traditions and assumptions that the play is based on.”

If there are any hard and fast conclusions to be drawn here regarding Othello and representation, they’re certainly not meant to be drawn by me as a white person.  This was just on my mind as I read and I’d find it disingenuous to pretend my overall feelings on the play weren’t at all affected by considering this question and its implications.

However, on an entirely separate note: one thing I don’t love about this play is how utterly ambivalent I am to the characters’ inner lives.  I do think there’s depth to be added to these characters by good actors and good directors, but I also think a lot of that depth is not necessarily present in the text itself.  What’s compelling about this play is the interpersonal dynamics, not the characters individually.  I almost feel like everyone’s character is inextricably tied to the events of the play, in a way that feels almost the antithesis of Hamlet or Lear, where all of the characters’ inner lives and motives are so intricate.

But, as I said, the interpersonal really shines here.  Othello and Iago positioned as mirrors to one another’s jealousy is done expertly.  And Emilia is a fascinating character to me as well as she relates to Iago and Desdemona, with the apparent contradiction in her actions and loyalties.  Anyway to say I have mixed feelings on Othello is an understatement, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it or haven’t enjoyed the time I’ve spent wrestling with it.


NB.  Project Shakespeare, in which a small group of friends and I perform a different Shakespeare play each week over Zoom, is mostly all-white, which is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, and we have collectively made the decision to not perform the plays with non-white characters: Othello, Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and Antony & Cleopatra.  I was planning on making a single blog post about these 4 plays in the vein that I’ve been doing my monthly Project Shakespeare wrap ups.  But this weekend some of us from our group had a mini book club session on Othello and it got my mind racing and I knew if I held off until I read all 4 of these plays I’d have a lot less to say – SO, it looks like you’re getting individual reviews!