Shakespeare, Jonson & Co. Module

Second year, second semester of my degree and I’ve been really enjoying my English literature module, Shakespeare, Jonson and company. Since I do book reviews anyway, I thought I’d start creating pages dedicated to particular modules! 

Reviews of each Text in the Module:

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The last book I read in January was Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is one of the easiest Shakespeare texts I’ve read. The characters are quirky and the bawdy humour shines without reading it in a contemporary accent. Although I’m searching for the comic discourse because I’m reading this for an English Literature module, Shakespeare, Jonson and Company, it’s hard not to enjoy this play. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of many Shakespeare plays which has heavily influenced culture. For example, in many films, tv shows and books we see the love spells being cast on the wrong person, which ends up leading to all sorts of curfuffles and laughs. This is where it came from, in perfect tragi-comedy full of zany fairies in a nearby Athenian wood.

I really enjoyed the play-within-a-play element. Bottom and Quince were great to read. I also watched the Globe Theatre on screen’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Quince was an absolute delight to watch! The way he has to keep the mechanicals organised, particularly the Kemp clown Bottom, was priceless.

If you’re a Shakespeare fan and have read Romeo and Juliet, but not A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, I would highly recommend it. It’s so funny to see how Shakespeare takes the idea of star-crossed lovers and parodies it, just a few years later. Although A Midsummer Night’s Dream is much more light-hearted than Romeo and Juliet, throughout the text there is a theme of growing up and experiencing liminial change. (Not quite a coming of age text though!) Overall, I really enjoyed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, particularly after reading it a second time watching the plot unravel. A trippy, zany but wholesome text, great for a quick read. 7.5/10.

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After reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wanted to re-read all of the other books for my Shakespeare, Jonson and Co. module, especially since I last read most of them in summer, which was a while ago now. The Shoemaker’s Holiday is my first Dekker text and I really enjoyed it, up until the last scene (I’ll get to that…). The play is fast-paced and witty, whilst also being sombre, discussing issues and attitudes towards class. The moments of disguise, although somewhat implausible, looking past it are comic and witty. I found the characters were developed well, and I didn’t find that any characters were overtly overlooked.

However, the moment that made my jaw drop in awe and disappointment was the seemingly lazy attempt to conclude the play. This is one scene I can’t wait to discuss with my peers and tutor, who will probably shed light on Dekker’s choosing, but I just couldn’t believe how easily the fathers’ minds were swayed at the idea of Lacy and Rose being married. Throughout the entire play, the father’s express their utter contempt for the idea and for them to just change their minds so instantly because of a change of status! It wasn’t half anticlimactic after anticipating the final scene’s action. Perhaps the knighting of Lacy symbolises much more about class than I realise – perhaps it shows the sheer amount of judgment the fathers place upon the working class Shoemakers and just because of a title it satisfies them? I’m not sure. Even so, to me, it comes off as theatrically anticlimactic.

Overall I really liked this play, as usual with this English Lit module, these ‘comedies’ are more than just comedy plays. Looking forward to reading more of Dekker’s work, any suggestions would be great! 6.5/10

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Like A Midsummer Night’s DreamTwelfth Night is one of those Shakespeare plays that has influenced Rom-coms centuries after its first performance. Although I found keeping track of who was dressed in disguise a little difficult this element of the play is so perfectly comedically timed and paced.  After watching a performance, the Globe on Screen’s 2011 production, it really aided my perspective on the comedic elements of staging, space and conversation.

The 2011 Globe production made an amazing choice by having Stephen Fry as Malvolio. I’d love to see him play Sir Politic Would-Be from Volpone after that hilarious performance! He played the oblivious Malvolio perfectly, he really made me laugh. My favourite characters were Feste, Malvolio and Olivia. Each of them is so well written in their individuality highlighted by the comedic timing. As well as being hilarious, each of the characters has serious lines in the play too, for example, Malvolio exits the play in ‘revenge’…which somewhat disturbs the harmony in the scene. I feel Malvolio is a character that could easily be played as a ridiculous villain, but his character has so much more depth that productions have explored.

The final scene was magnificent. The way all of the characters hurry on stage and face hilarious shock (or anagnorisis if you’re being fancy), is just brilliant to watch. Realisation after realisation, the scene is timeless.

Overall, Twelfth Night is a great influential play packed with mockery and laughter, and I can’t wait to watch more productions and learn more about it in class. 7.0/10

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Before reviewing this text, I wanted to watch the Globe On Screen’s Production from 2015 … so I bought the DVD! I’ve watched it twice now (I know, I’m crazy!); the first time I watched it without the text and the second time I watched it I made notes on the changes they made to the text. My favourite scene that they added was the final scene. WOW. It was SO full of emotion and it really made me feel for Shylock during both of the viewings. I would highly recommend this production, although it is the only production I’ve seen of it thus far.

For me, this play is a genre-bending Tragi-comedy. Shakespeare’s undoubtedly amazing use of disguise of Portia and Nerissa, his excellent pacing and ability to change the mood from scene to scene is wonderful. The relationships and how they were concluded within the play echoed A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s exploration of love. However, in The Merchant of Venice, an alternative perspective regarding the morality of these lovers’ relationships is added with the addition of Jessia and Lorenzo. Their characters seem to be the least toxic of the whole play and thus demonstrate Shakespeare’s (possibly) progressive thinking. I love this play and its full of awful anti-semitic people with power complexes. Normally, particularly with YA novels and contemporary books, I find horrible characters horrible to read. But, it’s just not the same in a play, particularly The Merchant of Venice. Although the characters are awful, they’re human and well developed rather than being cruel for cruelty’s sake. We see their motivations – but Shakespeare presents them in a way that is unbiased and interesting. He almost, dare I say – uses these characters to discuss themes in an intelligent and entertaining manner. Genius!

The Merchant of Venice is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays I’ve read/watched so far. But to be honest, each time I read a play that’s new to me, I feel the standard is constant. It’s so hard to place this play next to other plays I’ve reviewed because they’re all so beautiful. They’re poetic, highly detailed and incredibly entertaining – always leaving me with questions. A highly engaging and thought-provoking read that discusses racism (trigger warning for antisemitism) and authority. 7.7/10

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After studying Volpone; or The Fox by Ben Jonson at A-Level, I was delighted to see that I could experience the play again in my university studies! This play is SO funny. The self-depreciating, satirical dark humour that Jonson exerts shines through the vivid and engaging characters.

Watching Mosca and Volpone prance around the stage as they deceive the vultures preying on the opportunity to be Volpone’s heir is so witty. I’d even go as far as to say that Mosca is one of my favourite characters of all time. Jonson is so intelligent and creative; he creates such brilliant personalities that one’s own morals are thrown out of the window because you believe this character’s motives and want to watch the plot unravel. But then, Jonson does this amazing thing and gets you to actively question whether these characters choices are moral. He takes you a step away from the stage and back to reality – leaving you thought provoked regarding good and evil, vice and virtue.

Jonson’s language is so dense, but not to the point at which it becomes dull or flowery. His manipulation of verse is so rich that there are often multiple interpretations of a line. He makes it so that so much can be stated in such a little amount of text, it’s astounding.

Another of my favourite things about this play is that it never seems to fall flat; the plot is fast-paced as are the characters as they run around creating their cunning plans; the tension always had me on edge, wanting more of their deceptive plans – it’s just so enjoyable.

Volpone is the first Jonson text I’ve read and I can’t wait to read more of his satirical plays! For this module Shakespeare, Jonson & Co, another of Jonson’s plays, Bartholomew Fair, is on the syllabus! 8.5/10

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Volpone, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bartholomew Fair

Barholomew Fair was a tricky one. Perhaps the hardest read in a long time, especially considering I was also reading the Illiad by Homer simultaneously (review coming soon)! As well as being one of the hardest texts I’ve ever been faced with, it was also one of the most bizarre texts I’ve ever read, consequently, I gave this one a second reading before writing about it…

I basically couldn’t grasp some of the scenes in my first reading for my course. Simply, I just didn’t know what was going on! Things like this were constantly floating around my head: Why are the characters saying all of these things?? Who is that character again?? What are their motivations?? Why do the characters have names like ‘Zeal-of-The-Land Busy’ and ‘Trash’?? Why is there a Wasp and a gingerbread lady?? The carnivalesque nature of the play surely came through here.

Upon my second reading I realised, like many of the characters who undergo the carnivalesque space of the Bartholomew Fair, entering a world they have no grasp of, confronting people, situations and objects they may not like but also desire to do, I also felt the process of carnival by being so overwhelmed with what on earth was going on! Unline Quarlous, I exited the play unsuccessfully…wondering what the heck I’d just read.

After being enlightened by my seminar group and enthusiastic seminar leader, I found the play much more enjoyable to read the second time around. Not only did I understand what was going on, but I found it utterly hilarious. I feel like myself and Jonson share a similar humour, satiric and disgusting humour. Jonson is absolutely brilliant at creating imagery, for example, when Knockem says that Busy ‘eats with his eyes as well as his teeth’ it’s very bodily, echoing the essays of Bakhtin.

Jonson definitely has a distinct style. After reading two of his plays I can see the similarities of his humour, his dedication to the classics and his huge ego! The mockery of characters in their blind stupidity at the presentation of their personality of a plate is devoured by the audience/reader. He is just fantastic at writing satire! I would highly recommend reading this play if you enjoyed Volpone. Be prepared for some incredibly bawdy humour from every single character in the play.

 

Further Reading and Recommendations

20180210_144019Last week I read Shakespeare and Carnival edited by Ronald Knowles. I read a few chapters and found chapter four, The Carnivalesque in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by David Wiles was a particularly enlightening and engaging essay on liminial spaces and the Bhaktinian grotesque.

I also read some of the essays in the Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies, by Penny Gay. The chapters, Courtly Lovers in the Real World and Romantic Comedy were particularly relevant for my module. I focused on the analysis of the texts The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The essays give a clear introduction to the genre of courtly love and where it emerged as well as how it developed. The writer engages with Shakespeare and his reflection on the realm of courtly love and Petrarchan lovers. His plays are full of genius comic timing and ‘lamentable and cruel’ mockery. But not as much as Ben Jonson’s plays. In later chapters, the writer discusses the variation in Shakespeare’s comedies, ranging from light-hearted to tragi-comedy, for example, he states that The Merchant of Venice adds a ‘very dark strain to the mix’ of Shakespeare’s comedies. Although, 90% of the time, you can guarantee a happy ending in Shakespeare’s comedies.

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