Hello, Fellow Hypocrites! Tartuffe (1664), by Molière

tartuffeThis book is #31 on my Classics Club list. There’s also some spoilers below.

Molière was a French actor and playwright who was popular with the French aristocracy. At the time he was considered a comedic genius, presumably because he had impeccable timing. You can tell because he died after collapsing onstage during a performance of a play entitled The Imaginary Invalid, in which he played a hypochondriac. You can’t make this kind of stuff up, people.

Tartuffe is one of Molière’s best-known plays. It’s basically about a brilliant and witty housemaid called Dorine who works for a family of absolute nitwits. Or at least it would be, if I had my way. In actual fact, Dorine, while being the only character in the play I didn’t actively fantasise about drowning, is not the main character in this particular story. Instead, that honour perhaps goes to Tartuffe, although the man doesn’t actually make all that many appearances onstage. Continue reading

Knaves and Fools: The Revenger’s Tragedy, by – Thomas Middleton? Or Cyril Tourneur? – (1607)

Four Revenge TragediesWarning: murder, mayhem, and spoilers ahead!

A man walks onstage holding a skull. He starts to speak.

No, you’re not watching Hamlet – though there’s little doubt that it is a cheeky reference to one of the most recognisable scenes in English dramatic history.

The play is The Revenger’s Tragedy, written either by Cyril Tourneur or crowd favourite Thomas Middleton, depending on which scholar you believe. It is a confusing, bloody, and at times hilarious look at the revenge tragedy genre and, like all good revenge tragedies, there are gory deaths aplenty.

The story’s protagonist is Vindice, the aforementioned skull-handler. The skull belongs to his love, Gloriana, who was murdered by an unscrupulous Duke some nine years ago. As you can probably guess (based on the weird and obsessive hoarding of his beloved’s bones) Vindice has had a little bit of trouble getting over it. So he devises a scheme to avenge Gloriana by disguising himself as a servant and insinuating himself with the Duke’s son, Lussurioso. The usual murder, mayhem, and sexual escapades ensue. Continue reading

So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse?: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor FaustusThis book is #41 on my Classics Club list.

Shakespeare’s identity is so contested in some circles that scanning a list of possible alternative ‘real Shakespeares’ these days can feel a little like watching audition videos for Big Brother (or just about any reality TV show screened after 8pm). There’s so many wacky and even worrying choices that you begin to wonder if you’ll ever reach the end of them. Christopher Marlowe is somewhat of a crowd favourite on both So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse? and Who Wants to be Shakespeare?*. His is a tale of trial over adversity, mostly because he died in 1593, about twenty years before Shakespeare’s last known play was performed.

Other than this slight mortuary hiccup, however, the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare story is attractive to many because it would be a fantastic tale if it were true. Continue reading

An Amateur Enthusiast’s Guide to Shakespearean Insults: King Lear (c. 1606), by William Shakespeare

King LearIn honour of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it was high time to get around to some of the Shakespeare plays I’ve been putting off reading for a while now. And since I’ve been making my way through Shakespeare’s plays since the age of about thirteen, the play at the top of the list is now King Lear (currently #42 on my Classics Club list). I’ve always had an idea of what King Lear looks like; for some reason, I’ve always imagined the titular character of Shakespeare’s play to be a big, bear-like man, perhaps because of the similarity in the words Lear/bear, or perhaps because I watched too much Blackadder as a kid and my idea of a Shakespearean king is basically Brian Blessed in chainmail.

King Lear tells the story of Lear, King of Britain, who has three daughters. Being a whimsical and, one might argue, politically naïve monarch, he decides that he will hold a talent contest to determine how much of the kingdom each of his three daughters will inherit. Since the kind of clothing worn by Shakespearean women was not exactly suited to Britain’s Got Talent-style acrobatics, Lear decides he will go for a less physical approach. So he asks each of his daughters how much they love him. If you’re curious as to how this might play out, just imagine the spoiled rich girl from any 90s teen comedy ever. Continue reading

Things I Thought About Before I Watched ‘Shakespeare Lives!’

Shakespeare FireworksThis year, the world is going Shakespeare-mad. Or, at least, that’s what British tourism companies and theatre troupes the world over are hoping as we mark four hundred years since the Bard shuffled off this mortal coil, and about four hundred and fifteen years since he wrote the phrase “shuffled off this moral coil”. Last Saturday, the 23rd of April, was the official date, which by all accounts was met with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for football matches or the final episode of The Great British Bake-Off.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a two-hour event to celebrate the work of Britain’s best-known playwright. As I settled in to watch a show which featured British theatre royalty (and, indeed, some actual royalty too), I began thinking about the way that Shakespeare has settled into our collective understanding of literature, culture, and art. Continue reading