Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1610-1611

I have to preface this review with a confession. I am not qualified to judge Shakespeare on his language, style or choice of words. I'm a very casual reader of the Bard and I simply don't have the authority to critique Shakespeare on more scholarly grounds.

What I read Shakespeare for (other than looking smart in public, of course) are the stories. It's easy to forget, what with all the thee-ing and thou-ing and archaic language, that Shakespeare was first and foremost a fantastic storyteller.

Just last year, I read and loved Richard III (1591), which was a wonderfully subtle character portrait and a fast-paced narrative of politics and betrayal. I really enjoyed the play as a story.

The Tempest really didn't impress me, from the perspective of storytelling. It was too simply plotted, too much like a fable. Unlike Shakespeare's witty comedies and penetrating dramas, The Tempest is far more interested in pageantry and spectacle than character.

Obviously, the man can write just about any human being on the planet into a corner. His speeches and dialogues are still crisp and clean today, even if the language has me going for the footnotes.

I know it's an old favorite, but take Prospero's speech from Act IV, Scene 1:

Prospero: Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. ----- (Signet edition, pages 103-104)

I mean, it's clear to everyone that William Shakespeare is a beautiful writer. That one speech works on three different levels. From an in-universe perspective, Prospero is explaining the end of a revel of spirits at his command. It is also a commentary on the nature of theater, and if you dig a little bit deeper, life itself, too.

But my problem with The Tempest is that it didn't engage me emotionally. The play itself is kind of an odd duck. It's not a comedy or a drama, but a kind of broad melodrama. The characters and their situation are painted with such broad strokes that it's impossible to get too involved.

The plot: Prospero, a wizard and the ousted Duke of Milan, lives on a deserted island with his virginal daughter Miranda. Prospero employs a host of supernatural beings as servants. When a ship bearing the new Duke of Milan and assorted other bigwigs passes by, he raises a tempest and crashes them on the island, where he can exact revenge at his leisure.

There are three main groups of characters: Prospero, Miranda, Ariel (a spirit) and Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, who all mostly stay near or around Prospero's house. Alonso (King of Naples), Antonio (the new Duke of Milan, and Prospero's brother) and a few other political types, just wander around the jungle, while Caliban (a misshapen monster and one of Prospero's servants) joins forces with a jester and a drunken butler from the ship to conspire against Prospero.

There's a lot going on, and not enough time to really develop the characters. Miranda, for instance, has only a handful of lines even though she plays a key role. Likewise, Antonio, who is the most obvious main villain, is not at all fleshed out and doesn't even do anything overly villainous.

And since Prospero's pulling the strings throughout the entire play, there's little suspense as to how it'll all turn out. He's an all-powerful magician that never faces any kind of real threat from anyone, which makes the play's dramatic tension nonexistent.

Take the subplot of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano bumbling around drunkenly, plotting Prospero's death. The fact that the three least-important characters in the play are wandering around under the impression that they're running the show is an obvious source of comedy, but the play doesn't really need a comic-relief subplot that goes nowhere. They present no threat to the main characters and they are quickly dispatched at the end of the play with no real payoff.

Or take the fact that the conflict between Prospero and Antonio is never addressed at all. Antonio plays no significant role in the play's action and gets no comeuppance during the climax, which makes the overall plot of the play feel a little sloppy.

I know that criticizing Shakespeare on his storytelling is tough. He's an absolute master, and reading The Tempest from a literary perspective is rather awe-inspiring. But story-wise the play has more in common with fairy tales or parables than with the more emotionally mature work of Shakespeare's earlier period. Perhaps as he got older the Bard just didn't put as much effort into his plots.

But despite my problems with the play's story and structure, it's still Shakespeare. It's still amazing and funny and poignant and lyrical. There's such beauty and depth in the language. It never ceases to astonish me how readable and relevant Shakespeare's plays still are.

NEXT TIME: I'm still reading The Host and I should be done by the end of the week. I'll post my thoughts as soon as I'm done.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds by P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds by P.G. Wodehouse, 1971

For those unfortunates who have not encountered P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), here's a brief summary of his genius: Wodehouse was a fantastic writer and novelist who specialize in comic depictions of upper-crust British life (which, I know, doesn't automatically scream hilarity). He is hysterically funny and his best series--he had an entire universe of recurring characters, locations, events and themes-- follows the misadventures of idiotic aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his brilliant valet Jeeves.

No writer makes me as out-and-out happy as Wodehouse. His characters are always safe from any kind of real misfortune and the very worst threat that anyone in the Wode-verse faces is the anger of aunts or uncles.

The stories are hilariously complex and the language is incredibly witty. The jokes are pitch-perfect and laugh-out-loud funny. Once, while reading a Wodehouse story in public, I burst out laughing and got some very strange looks.

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds (1971) is the second-to-last Jeeves novel, and is the fourth or fifth that I've read. It was originally published when Wodehouse was in his nineties, which is pretty astonishing in and of itself.

The book finds Wooster trapped in a complicated tangle of problems at his Aunt Dahlia's house in Market Snodsbury. He becomes engaged (twice, both times unwillingly) while attempting to canoodle money for a friend from a rich businessman and get another friend of his elected to office.

The plot really doesn't matter in a Wodehouse novel; what does matter is the hysterical predicaments that the characters find themselves in. My personal favorite from this book? The incident in which Bertie Wooster goes canvassing for his politician friend and unwittingly knocks on the door of the opposition.

Or consider this exchange between Bertie and Jeeves, which should strike you as funny if you have a soul:

"These eggs, Jeeves," I said. "Very good. Very tasty."

"Yes, sir?"

"Laid, no doubt, by contented hens. And the coffee, perfect. Nor must I omit to give a word of praise to the bacon. I wonder if you notice anything about me this morning."

"You seem in good spirits, sir."

"Yes, Jeeves, I am happy today."

"I am very glad to hear it, sir."

"You might say I'm sitting on top of the world with a rainbow round my shoulder."

"A most satisfactory state of affairs, sir."----- (US edition, page 7)

In a lot of ways, Tie that Binds is a very average Jeeves and Wooster adventure. All the comfortable elements are in place and there continues to be fabulous dialogue and deliciously witty jokes.

But the novel also lacks a little of the clearness and crispness of prose that earlier Wodehouse books possess. The man was in his late eighties when he wrote the book and that comes through in the prose.

There's a spot of laziness in the characterizations this time around and each character's particular traits are emphasized over and over again (Jeeves is brainy, Aunt Dahlia is loud, Spode is irredeemably wicked). Certain recurring elements, like Wooster's Scripture Knowledge Prize, are referenced far too often, as though Wodehouse is running out of fresh ideas. The central plot is also highly derivative of earlier entries in the series.

Despite these flaws, the book is still largely terrific. Wodehouse at his weakest is better than most authors at their peak. I love Jeeves and Wooster, and I love the fact that there's a touch of sweetness between them at the end. Like Holmes and Watson, they endure many adventures together, but it's always nice to be reminded that there's a bond between them.

For those unacquainted with Wodehouse, Tie that Binds is a poor place to start. It relies too heavily on knowledge of the previous installments and is clearly one of the series' weaker links.

But for those who already know and love the series, it's a glorious two hundred pages of reading pleasure. Thank goodness there's so many books in the Wodehouse canon. I could easily spend many more books with Jeeves and Wooster.

NEXT TIME: I'm currently reading (and yeah, I know this is quite a contrast) Shakespeare's The Tempest and Stephenie Meyer's sci-fi novel The Host. I'll review whichever I finish first next.

OHara's Book Reviews

Books just don't get enough attention these days.

I mean, if a movie star goes to get a burger, everybody knows. A new show premieres and everyone's sharing their opinions. Movie and TV show review sites are a dime a dozen. But novels and books kind of get short shrift. Aside from a few giants like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, books and their authors are sort of ignored by pop culture at large.

Don't get me wrong; I love movies and TV, and I love reading reviews and opinions about them. But books are just-- better. As a whole, literature is deeper, stranger, more varied, more moving, funnier, more exciting and more fun than movies or TV shows.

I'm a big reader. I read everything I can get my hands on. Popular fiction, classic fiction, literary fiction. I'm not as big on non-fiction, but I read a few books of it a year. I like Shakespeare and Dickens, but I also like Twilight and The Shining. So I think I have a good range of interests, which should keep things varied (spice of life and all that, you know?).

As I read, I'm going to post reviews on this blog. Maybe somebody will read it. Maybe nobody will. I just want to have fun and share my opinions.

So without further ado, let's move on to our first book. . . . . . .