Reading Adler's List

An attempt to read all the titles in Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of Western Civilization.  And some other stuff in between.

 

Pericles - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare There are hints of Greek tradition in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Pericles wanders in his own odyssey and Euripidean pathos soaks everything. At least until the end. Pericles dries out to a stiff end. The good are rewarded and the bad punished. The trials endured by Pericles and his family lead to reward in very unGreek-like form. Then again, this is not a Greek tragedy nor an attempt to be one. It is action and endurance. It is drama. Uncomplicated and satisfying in that it’s a story which ends with just deserts.

Entertaining enough, but it appears to be a slide from his best writings.

Timon of Athens (Shakespeare, Pelican)

Timon of Athens - William Shakespeare From one extreme to the other, Timon goes from beloved and gratuitous gift-giver to famed misanthrope. The connection between these two extremes is the selfishness of his friends. Those willing to take from him express no genuine willingness to give back.

I didn’t walk away with much from this play. The only real interesting characters are Alciabiades and Flavius. Alciabiades only because his role in the play seems unnecessary yet Shakespeare spends a good amount of time on his part. Flavius stands out simply because he appears to be the one true friend even though he is Timon’s servant. I suppose one could dwell on whether loyalty is the sole expression of friendship.

Maybe I’m missing something deeper here, but the gist seems to be that people generally suck.
Coriolanus - William Shakespeare Shakespeare reimagines Caius Martius (Coriolanus) as a man who prides himself on excellence but is brought down by the mediocrity of those around him. A famed soldier, Martius attempts to bring the same martial discipline and terse communication to the Roman consulship. Unsurprisingly, politicians fail to yield to such drive.

Unlike Shakespeare’s psychological tragedies written prior, Martius conveys his thoughts by his actions rather than soliloquies. He falls victim to the conspiracies of others because he deems it beneath him to play politics. He is arrogant and impatient, not out of misplaced vanity, but because he does not suffer fools. The same qualities that make him an invaluable military commander make him insufferable to the Roman people.

Coriolanus is neither well known nor often produced. However, it is an excellent play. Martius is no less a fascinating character than Hamlet or King Lear or Macbeth. His contradictions and struggles are simply found behind the acts than through his speeches. With incredible restraint, Shakespeare’s mastery with words is put on hold so we can appreciate his mastery of silence.
Antony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare, Cynthia Marshall, Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine “I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.” Act 5, scene 2, lns 344-345. So begins Cleopatra’s suicide. Though a legendary queen, she is a willing servant to her own passions. She identifies with them and lives according to their whims. Even Antony’s Roman discipline cannot resist their demands.

However, grand gestures and grand ambitions lead to little depth. Their love is a public, and political, affair. There are no private moments that suggest that there is anything more to their connection other than power, office and lust. It’s a love that is designed to be worn by The General and the Queen. One of the most tragic moments, Cleopatra’s suicide, seems more about avoiding humiliation at the hands of Octavia than an expression over Antony.

It is, in the end, a history. More similar to the Henry tetralogies than the tragedies. Had this been one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, I may not have minded it as much. But, to come to this after Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, it seemed considerably dryer and superficial.
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms - Ethan Gilsdorf There’s a moment when the author hesitates before he opens up a box he finds in his parents’ house. A box containing all of his D&D books, maps and dice. A moment, twenty years after they had been stowed away, in which he reflects whether he wants to reopen the obsession of living in fantasy worlds.

I totally get it. I don’t know why, but I fell for that too. The thought that the nerd loves of our teenage years had to be packed tightly and discreetly away so that we could begin living adult lives. Of course, we didn’t realize that sacrificing that fantasy world just replaces it with another, much less exciting one.

After awhile, the author gets a little too intense about his man/boy dilemma. The focus becomes less on venturing into the heart of the Gygax jungle, LARPing barracks and WoW guilds. It becomes more self-help than adventure. Nevertheless, it doesn’t become so serious as to completely take away from the fun of the book.

And it‘s a little inspiring. One wonders, with the explosion of console and computer games, whether my generation of tabletop gamers will be the first and the last to reach middle age and beyond en masse. I guess we need to stick together.

Which is conveniently another justification for going to Gen Con.
Macbeth - David Scott Kastan, Jesse M. Lander, William Shakespeare The reluctant tyrant. The once honorable Macbeth acknowledges the overpowering evil of his ambition and yields to it regardless. As he murders and plots, he finds no satisfaction in the deeds, only a desperate attempt to bring peace after his usurpation. In the end, he recognizes the horror he has brought to Scotland, and himself, yet he refuses to submit. A refusal not rooted in any hope of success or redemption. Simply constancy. The man who had lived his life full of honor up to his fall commits to his depths with the same single-mindedness.

Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness dominates in the scenes which she appears, but the best parts are the moments when Macbeth comments on his own failings. Almost like an audience member to his own play, his detachment emphasizes his surreal observation of his own evil. He makes no justification nor apology for his actions. Macbeth is painfully aware of his own failure to live up to his own moral code. And, in true Greek tragic form, he resists a fate that was clearly foretold.
Edith's Diary - Patricia Highsmith Mundane acts, slightly warped, build the tension in Edith’s Diary. You know something horrible is going to happen and as the days… as the years… pass, the anticipation builds. It’s not horror, it’s discomfort. Knowing that something is out of place and that there will be consequences for this disorder. Highsmith holds our hand and gently guides us through Edith’s life but all the while you know she’s just waiting to trip you and probably stab you in the face or something.

The final chapters left me somewhat wanting for more. However, as I think back, it all seems to fit together better the way she wrote it. In the end, it’s all mundane unease.

King Lear (Barnes & Noble Shakespeare)

King Lear - David Scott Kastan, Andrew Hadfield, William Shakespeare I’ve read some great interpretations of King Lear. It’s an allegory of Reason’s descent to immorality. It’s about accepting death. It’s a Freudian tale of seeking a maternal bond. However, as I read the play, I kept coming back to Sophocles. Shakespeare creates an English Oedipus.

It’s not a direct connection. Lear is not necessarily Oedipus nor is Cordelia another Antigone. The similarities are diffused throughout the play. Gloucester’s blinding and being led by Edgar is reminiscent of Antigone leading Oedipus in the opening scene of Oedipus at Colonus. The sin of Gloucester, though much more tame than Oedipus, leads to the curse that destroys his family. Meanwhile, the children of a banished king (Lear/Oedipus) fight over the kingdom but a dutiful Cordelia/Antigone remains true to filial duty.

The insignificance of all this turmoil is expressed in both plays. After Gloucester’s blinding he states:
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods: they kill us for their sport.” Act 4, Scene 1, 36-37.
Similarly, Oedipus remarks to Theseus:
“Most gentle son of Aegeus! The immortal Gods alone have neither age nor death! All other things almighty Time disquiets. Oedipus at Colonus, Scene 3.
However, there is a distinction in the end. Sophocles represented the Greek tragic tradition. One cannot defy fate. There are rules to follow, but if you are destined to break them, you will break them even if you don’t want to. And, in the end, you will be punished. That’s just the way it is.

In King Lear, there is no overpowering sense of Fate. Just failure and wickedness. Those good (Cordeila) and bad (Goneril and Regan) all suffer for the failings of the father. There is no obvious violation attached to the punishment. The punishment is dispensed and life continues.

Othello

Othello - William Shakespeare Othello is unrelenting. Unlike most of his other plays, Shakespeare does not spin-off on side plots nor introduce moments of comic relief. This is about Iago’s decision to destroy a man.

I can imagine some actor attempting to play this role begging the director- “What’s my motivation?” Is it revenge for the thought that Othello might have slept with Emilia? Envy over Cassio’s promotion? Lust over Desdemona? Lust over Othello? All motivations are arguably present, but none seem convincing. Even Iago, when he articulates reasons, seems half-hearted about them. Occasionally, he feeds the audience in an aside before resuming his hunt for Othello’s destruction. But that’s all he’s doing. He’s tossing us some of the broken chips at the bottom of the bag. Iago, and his reasons, exist outside the play and he treats the audience just as dismissively as those in the play.

The play’s overriding psychological drama is about Othello’s gnawing jealous suspicion. However, it is Iago’s ruthless manipulation that makes the play brilliant. I know of no other villain that matches Iago in Shakespeare or elsewhere.

Not even Richard III.

Measure for Measure (Penguin) (Shakespeare, Penguin)

Measure for Measure - J.M. Nosworthy, William Shakespeare The pride and hypocrisy of ideologues fill Measure to Measure. As the title implies, moderate sensibilities become the virtuous ones by the play’s end. The extremes are rounded. The cracks in Angelo’s strict piousness are revealed and Isabella’s chaste virtue is tarnished by her pimping of Mariana. The Duke’s behind-the-scenes machinations are the actions of a sensible, but morally ambiguous, man.

Though Troilus and Cressida shows it’s Aristotelian influences more overtly, Measure for Measure acts out the golden mean. The cost of imposing our morality sometimes escapes us and Shakespeare is more than happy to tally the bill.

Also, in all honesty, who doesn’t like to see stuck-up, self-righteous people look bad?
All's Well That Ends Well - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare Another jaded love story that comes after Shakespeare’s Troilius and Cressida. Helena has eyes for Bertram and Bertram has his eyes on war and glory and, in short order, an Italian girl. Helena pursues, Bertram evades, Helena conspires and Bertram is won. But it is a pyrrhic victory for Helena. She comes across far more admirably than Bertram. In the end, she succeeds, but is now saddled with a man who is unworthy of her.

My girlfriend can relate.

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida - William Shakespeare Shakespeare and Chaucer both wrote about Troilus and Cressida but for very different themes. Chaucer’s poem took the disillusioned and heartbroken boy warrior and focused on the absurdity of human endeavors. For Chaucer, love is fleeting except the love one gives and receives from God.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, wants us to wallow in worthlessness. Unlike Chaucer, who was more forgiving of Cressida in portraying her betrayal as more a resignation in response to her situation, Shakespeare gleefully makes her love as a meaningless as the Trojan War. He amplifies this by reducing Troilus and Cressida’s courtship to a day and a night. Her betrayal follows the next day. Promises of forever seem excessively juvenile and naïve in such context though Shakespeare was able to make a similar romance sincere in Romeo and Juliet.

The remaining Homeric cast is left with little dignity. Ajax is stupid and vain, Menelaus a desperate cuckold, Diomedes a cad and Ulysses is conniving. Well, he was conniving in the Iliad too, but he’s really kind of a manipulative jerk here.

Achilles contemplates getting Hector drunk before fighting him to increase his odds. Even when that renowned battle finally occurs, Hector bests Achilles at first. However, Hector gives him a noble reprieve, only to be murdered later, outnumbered and unarmed, by Achilles and his Myrmidons. A Middle English equivalent of making Greedo shoot first. (It was, undisputedly, Han Solo for any young’uns out there.)

Is it satire? Sure, I guess. The Greek and Trojan debates reflect on the rather meaningless interpretations of obedience, honor and glory. The psychological side of pride is also probed. And Aristotle is mentioned so I guess it gets its philosophy cred as well. The edition I read had an appendix spending considerable time parsing out passages which correspond with the Nichomachean Ethics. Overall it seemed a little too ambitious and overreaching, though some tenets were expressed fairly overtly in the play.

It all ends on a note of pointlessness. If the purpose of the play is an intellectual exercise, I can appreciate it. But Shakespeare doesn’t strike me as the kind of playwright who would create an intellectual exercise. So does it fail as a tragic play by just being satirical?

Would it matter?

Nihilism takes all the fun out of everything.
Eleven - Patricia Highsmith I was won over as I read the Foreword by Graham Greene:
Her characters are irrational, and they leap to life in their very lack of reason; suddenly we realize how unbelievable rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z, like commuters always taking the same train. The motives of these characters are never inexplicable because they are so drearily obvious. The characters are as flat as a mathematical symbol. We accepted them as real once, but when we look back at them from Miss Highsmith’s side of the frontier, we realize that our world was not really rational as all that. Suddenly with a sense of fear we think, ‘Perhaps I really belong here,’ and going out into the familiar street we pass with a shiver of apprehension the offices of the American Express, the centre, for so many of Miss Highsmith’s dubious men, of their rootless European experience, where letters are to be picked up (though the name on the envelope is probably false) and travelers’ cheques are to be cashed (with a forged signature).
Eleven short stories comprise Eleven. Each original, some creepy and all unable to be discussed here because it doesn’t take much to reveal spoilers in a story 10 or 15 pages long. She can capture anxiety and suffering better in a few paragraphs than many can do with a novel. But, without wanting to reveal too much, included are two fantastic stories about snails and a warning to moms who make their sons wear short shorts.
The Merry Wives of Windsor - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare Falstaff, the famed scoundrel from Shakespeare‘s Henry IV, is reincarnated as a lecherous buffoon. His quest to bed two wives at once sets him up for shenanigans and humiliation. The merry wives repeatedly trick Falstaff to punish him for his mischievous ways and to eventually expose him to the townsfolk. Which, when done, doesn’t really seem to bother him. A legitimate side love-story between Anne Page and Fenton is thrown in to give it all happy ending.

I’m way too fond of the Falstaff in Henry IV to appreciate him in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He lacks the quick-witted charm that allowed him to go head-to-head with a future king as well lead a crew of thieves. Shakespeare now reduces him to an old fat fool.

It all seems rather uninspired and used for a quick laugh. The consensus seems to be that this is not one of Shakespeare’s better works, so I don’t feel that uncultured not liking it.
Hamlet - Jeff Dolven, David Scott Kastan, William Shakespeare It’s pretty much impossible to do a meaningful review of Hamlet. It’s one of those pieces of art that has become iconic art. One could do just as well critiquing the Mona Lisa or the Great Pyramid of Giza. Some things just become the standard, flaws and all.

Prince Hamlet is a brooding, angsty guy torn between the idea of avenging his father’s death and the reality of doing so. Hesitant to make that final plunge from the murderous thought to the act. Hamlet is unusual in comparison to Shakespeare’s previous works simply because of that intense introspective drama. He struggles with his own failed sense of duty, his own fear and his own encroaching madness. A madness that begins feigned but becomes questionably more real.

I’m sure it’s harder for those of us today to appreciate the impact of this play at the time. Every teenager has an existential crisis, Freudian concepts are commonplace and we are all weaned on J.D. Salinger. But, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, this must have seemed brilliant. And we will all acknowledge the same because, you know, it’s Hamlet.

Twelfth Night (Barnes & Noble Shakespeare)

Twelfth Night (Barnes & Noble Shakespeare) - David Scott Kastan, Claire McEachern, William Shakespeare Twelfth Night is a mash-up of other Shakespeare comedies. Combining the hijinks of Much Ado About Nothing, the cross-dressing infiltration of As You Like It and the fickle infatuations of A Midsummers Night’s Dream (minus the fairy dust), we are left with this Frankensteinian play. A patchwork of parts that lumbers along. But it lumbers with some rhythm. Twelfth Night is a play filled with music which I’m sure makes the stage production much more enjoyable than simply reading the printed page.

The cast lacks the spark of their counterparts elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work. Sir Toby is a watered down version of Falstaff. Malvolio is arrogant, but too submissive and gullible to be thought of as a real villian. And Feste, the jester who is probably the sharpest of the lot, never really puts his hand into the action.

What’s best about Shakespeare’s romantic comedies is the repartee between the couples. An element that is noticeably lacking here. In the end, as I read, I spent more time thinking about his other plays than this one. So, even though I give it a lower rating than most of his other plays, keep in mind, this is Shakespeare. He’s still better than most even when he’s bad.

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