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Shakespeare wrote four plays covering the reigns of three English kings – Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. They are without doubt the greatest of his history plays, and some would argue that these four plays, known as the Henriad, are the greatest plays he ever wrote.

I do love these plays, though I wouldn’t put most of them at the very top of Shakespeare’w work. Richard II is lyrical and beautiful. It is essentially the portrait of a spoiled brat who, upon losing his kingdom, plumbs the depths of self-pitying poetry and melodrama. Sounds terrible, but it is a triumph of language and portraiture, again showing Shakespeare’s overriding theme – kings are just people, trying to do an impossible job.

Henry V is powerful stuff, with a hero king who leads his country into battle with words that still resonate in our culture today.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry IV part 2 contains the rejection of Falstaff. More on that below. All three are wonderful plays, among Shakespeare’s best – and that is saying something. But for me those three come short of what I feel to be Shakespeare’s very best history play, Henry IV part 1. This play is only number 7 on my list, but I honestly think of it as number 1(g). If we were somehow missing all the great tragedies and comedies, and Henry IV part 1 were immediately promoted to the best play Shakespeare ever wrote, I would still consider that one play to be a miraculous achievement and Shakespeare one of the world’s great artists.

The traditional analysis of Henry IV part 1 pairs Prince Hal (the future Henry V) with his rebellious rival Hotspur (Harry Percy), and King Henry IV (formerly Henry Bolingbroke, who deposed Richard II) with the fat knight Sir John Falstaff. It’s an obvious comparison: Hotspur is the son Bolingbroke wishes he’d had, and Falstaff tries his darnedest to be Hal’s surrogate father. But I want to go in another direction, thinking not about the influences that tug on Hal and his father, but rather those that tug on me, the reader and playgoer.

For that reason, I’d like to compare Falstaff not with the dour and depressed Henry IV, but with Harry Percy, Hotspur himself. The contrasts are obvious. Falstaff is a confirmed coward, while Hotspur is anything but. Falstaff famously rails against honor, while to Percy there’s not much else to live for. Most obviously, Falstaff is old and fat, while Hotspur is young and vital.

But for me these differences are overwhelmed by one inescapable similarity. Both Falstaff and Hotspur are fabulously, undeniably, gloriously alive.

Despite being myself a confirmed coward, and therefore of Falstaff’s persuasion, Hotspur may be my favorite character in the play. OK, not just Hotspur, but also his wife Lady Percy, whom Hotspur calls Kate even though (historically, at least) that’s not her real name.

Kate (that’s what I’ll call her, too) adores Hotspur and wants nothing more than for him to come back to their bed. Hotspur, on the other hand, is more interested (at least on the surface) in war and riding his horse. Based just on the text, the scene could be played to make Hotspur a bore and a heel. But in the recent series The Hollow Crown, Kate (Michelle Dockery) and Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) play it steaming hot, making it clear that Hotspur is just as into Kate as she is into him, but that he’s got this other passion, this other demon, that he can’t escape.

bedroom kate hotspur

Personally, I would’ve stayed with the lady, but let’s be honest, part of the reason Kate is so crazy for Hotspur is because he’s such a warrior.

The next scene with Kate and Hotspur is even hotter, as they tease and play until they rush out together, barely able to control themselves.

kate hotspur glendower

So Hotspur has plenty to live for, and yet he rushes off to this dangerous and hopeless rebellion. Pretty foolish. And yet . . .

As I said, I’m a coward at heart. Yet I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for the sort of courage and honor Hotspur displays. It doesn’t look to me much like the honor that Falstaff describes in his famous speech:

What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.

Rather, Hotspur’s sort of honor seems to have little to nothing to do with what other people think (merely air, or a scutcheon, a painted shield to display to the world). Hotspur’s honor is more internal. It reminds me of nothing so much as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Lieutenant Worf’s sense of honor. If you’re not a ST:TNG fan, you’ll have to trust me on this. Yes, Worf is obsessed with honor. But for Worf, honor is not what you show the world, but what you know of yourself. Just like Hotspur, Worf would rather die than lose his honor. Even more than that, though, Worf would rather lose his reputation for honor than his own internal sense of honor. Again, if you’re not a fan, you’ll have to take my word for it, because this is about the Henriad, not TNG. (Did I mention that Patrick Stewart played Prince Hal’s grandfather John of Gaunt in Richard II? Patrick Stewart is the greatest. OK, enough of that.)

Worf

As the battle approaches, Hotspur has multiple opportunities to back down. Both the Welsh warlord Owen Glendower (more on him to come) and Hotspur’s own father back out of the fight, turning the odds very much against the rebels. Everyone else wants to end the expedition, but Hotspur won’t hear of it. You get the distinct feeling it’s not reputation he’s interested in protecting. Instead, he just wants to fight, for the sheer joy of the battle. If he were to back off, everyone else would forgive him, but he would never forgive himself.

Not exactly noble, maybe, as for Hotspur fighting is his crack, but also not someone who craves honor as a word or a scutcheon. There’s something beautiful (if dumb) about fighting the unwinnable fight.

Maybe the real reason I love Hotspur is his smackdown of the blowhard Welshman Glendower. When Glendower goes into his song and dance about the heavens being on fire and the Earth trembling at his birth, and how he “can call spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur responds:

Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?

For an atheist like me, this is meat and drink. I love any character in Shakespeare (like Edmund in King Lear) who rails against superstition and in favor of a rational view of the world. This fits Hotspur’s character, as he trusts himself, and only himself. More than that, though, he refuses to back down to anyone, even if (as is likely the case here) his arguing costs him the support of Glendower later.

So Hotspur pulls at me. But then there’s Falstaff. Yes, I do love and adore Falstaff, again because he is so indisputably alive. No, I wouldn’t want him in charge of the Mint, or even have him over as a house guest. He’s a pirate. Did you ever notice how pirates don’t steal useful things like ships or food? Instead, they steal gold. Why gold? Because they can use gold to buy things. But they’re pirates! Just like a pirate, Falstaff lives outside society’s rules, and yet depends on the very society he refuses to contribute to. Regardless of this, his fun, his aged youthfulness, his ability to turn every situation into a game, a play, a pun, or a romp, make him irresistible.

falstaff

Long ago when I was very young, I decided that, unlike all the adults around me, I would never lose my love of play. And I never have. Of course, play for me includes reading and analyzing Shakespeare and doing math problems. So I’m not typical. But, like Falstaff, I love to play. So when I first encountered him, I of course recognized a kindred spirit.

And so we have these two wildly different, fully living characters tugging at me. What sort of life do I want to live? What sort of person do I want to be? Do I follow Hotspur, with his commitment to the cause of self-affirming honor, courage, and action, or do I worship Falstaff, with his pragmatic cynicism regarding honor and courage, but his love of play, fun, wit, humor, food, and drink?

In the end, of course, Hal destroys them both, killing Hotspur at the end of part 1 (producing the quote in my title) and all but killing Falstaff at the end of part 2. In a sense, he is robbing the world of youth, both the youthful exuberance of Hotspur and the playful fun of Sir John.

Hal (being an early study of Hamlet and so containing multitudes) can see both the wisdom and the folly in Hotspur’s path as well as Falstaff’s. He seems to blend the two into something that works for him in Henry V. But what about me?

I’m no Hal (and certainly no Hamlet), but like Hal I feel the pull. I am a science teacher (who happens to also teach math). Many and many a day it feels like a hopeless battle, and yet I fight on, fighting the good fight because it simply is who I am. Teaching is my crack, I guess. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. So there’s a little Hotspur in that seemingly hopeless battle.

But I also love play (and plays), I love eating and drinking and thinking and learning and wringing every bit of fun I can out of life. So there’s some Falstaff there, too.

In the end, there is of course no answer. As Joseph Campbell said (and I wonder if he was thinking of Shakespeare when he said it),

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive. . .

Experiencing Shakespeare, and all the glorious personalities he gave us, is, I think, the sort of experience Campbell was talking about. And alive is the best word I can think of to describe these two characters, and these four amazing plays.

Of all the arts, I confess that writing is my favorite. Of all the writers, I believe William Shakespeare to have been the greatest who ever lived. And so I have focused my exploration of art, and of writing, on Shakespeare’s plays. After a marathon plow through the lesser-known of these, I’ve now read 36, nearly the entire canon. I’ve left out Henry VIII, mostly because I’ve heard bad things, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, mostly because I’ve heard Shakespeare didn’t write most of it. I’m sure I’ll get to those two eventually, but I don’t expect they’ll displace many of the 36 from their current locations.

For now, though, I present my totally biased and non-professional list of Shakespeare’s plays, in reverse order from 36 to number 1. I could be argued out of any of these unschooled opinions, and I’ll probably change my mind several times before I’m done. Here goes:

36. Timon of Athens

I didn’t like this at all. Timon was first a cartoon of generosity, then a cartoon of miserly grumpiness. No characters stood out, and I was glad when it was done. Maybe there’s more here than I realize, but I don’t plan on returning to this one any time soon. ‘Nuff said. Grade D

35. Henry VI part 2

I read all the Henry VI plays together, and while elements of I and III stood out, from this one I barely remember a thing. Let me make a plug, though for The Hollow Crown series by the BBC. This recently-released series condenses the four plays of the minor Henriad into three episodes, with all the important events of parts 1, 2, and 3 in the first two episodes leading up to the glorious Richard III (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard). Grade C

34. The Merry Wives of Windsor

When I saw this performed at Schiller Park, it was laugh-out-loud funny. But the writing itself isn’t up to Shakespeare’s standards. The way this play undoes Sir John Falstaff’s wit makes it one of my least favorite to read. But I would’t mind seeing it again. Grade C

merry wives of windsor.PNG

above: Michelle Weiser and Elizabeth Harelik in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Schiller Park in 2014

33. Troilus and Cressida

I love the premise of undoing the cardboard heroes of the Iliad. Achilles as mob boss, Helen as airhead, and the nasty honesty of Thersites are great fun. The two title characters didn’t do much for me; this one may deserve another reading, as the language is dense and rich. For now, not one of my favorites, but not bad. Grade C

32. Taming of the Shrew

The language is rich and evocative and the characters are complex, but I can’t get past the fact that this is essentially a tale of spousal abuse. If someone treated one of my daughters this way, I’d want him in jail. One of the recurring themes in my study of Shakespeare is that he helped us become better people. This early work shows men in particular at their abusive worst. Kate’s final speech can’t be excused away, though one scholar I encountered makes the interesting point that because Kate’s argument is secular, rather than religious, we in the audience are free to disagree. Maybe, but whatever Elizabethans thought, we’re better than this now. Grade C

31. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

After reading many of Shakespeare’s late plays, this early effort was refreshing in its simplicity. Like Shrew, however, this effort plays fast and loose with the idea of men owning women as trinkets, to be given away at will. It’s silly and unbelievable, but touches on many of the themes Shakespeare will revisit to better effect. Launce and his dog are hilarious and move this up a few spots in the rankings all by themselves. Grade C

30. Pericles

Marina in the brothel is brilliant and fun, and the reunion scenes are gratifying, but the beginning part of this play is dull as dishwater. Once you get through the first two acts (which are irredeemable), the play is better seen than read. The BBC version, in particular, has the romance between Pericles and Thaisa unfold slowly and deliciously, making her “death” that much more tragic and her reunion scene, while understated, deeply moving. Speculation is that Shakespeare only wrote the second half of Pericles; if so, he wrote the better half by far. Grade C+

29. Henry VI part 1

A good deal of this play is silly male bravado, but when Shakespeare introduces the French warrior Joan la Pucelle (whom we know as Joan of Arc) everything changes. She is alive – her character fairly jumps off the page, and suddenly Shakespeare is writing something very different from any play I’ve so far reviewed. Joan dominates this play, even though she fights for the hated French and in the end is burned as a witch. A portent of things to come. Grade B

joan la pucelle

above: Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) in The Hollow Crown

28. The Comedy of Errors

Despite being totally unbelievable, I liked this play a lot. The complex plot comes together in (for me) surprisingly satisfying ways. The romance between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana is fun, and the two Dromios play up the confusion about their identities to great effect. There’s a lot here, and somehow Shakespeare makes it all work well. A fun and funny, if not particularly meaty, play. Grade B

27. Coriolanus

And so begins the enigma of the Roman plays. All of them are written well, but they all feel cold to me. Coriolanus, the anti-democrat, feels the coldest of the four. There’s nothing wrong with this play, I just can’t get myself to care about the world Shakespeare describes here. All four Roman plays probably deserve more of my attention; I just can’t get excited about them. Grade B

26. Julius Caesar

Mark Antony’s famous speech is the best thing here. Caesar is amazing – deeply flawed and yet still regal. Brutus is a bore. The only interesting thing about Brutus is how bad his instincts are. He’s literally wrong about everything – killing Caesar, not killing Antony, letting Antony speak at the funeral, and all his military decisions are disasters. Another Roman play, another well-written play, but another play that left me cold. I just couldn’t care about anyone once Caesar and Brutus’ wife Portia left the stage. When Brutus died, I was glad it was over. Grade B

25. Titus Andronicus

I expected to hate this play, but despite its grisly reputation I found parts to be interesting and fun. Titus himself is incomprehensible, reminding me of nothing so much as Jim’s caricatured vision of Abraham chopping children in two on a whim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But tragic Lavinia is interesting (until Titus unaccountably kills her – what?) and Aaron the Moor is a great early villain. Nothing next to Iago, of course, but here you find hints of what Iago will be. When Aaron defends his infant son against the world, I found myself rooting for him to win. Revolting in its brutality, but otherwise not as bad as its made out to be. Also, Julie Taymor’s faithful-to-the-text movie Titus is definitely worth watching. Grade B

Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor

Above: Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor in Julie Taymor’s excellent Titus

24. Henry VI part 3

This is just a great story, picking up where part 2 left off with non-stop action. By the end Richard of Gloucester has burst into life to take over the play, easily dominating Henry VI and the other bland characters that ran the show in part 2 (other than Queen Margaret, that is. She’s awesome). Richard will, of course, become the title character in the brilliant Richard III (see below); he was worth waiting for. Grade B

23. All’s Well That Ends Well

I liked this play a lot. It’s similar in many ways to another play (Measure for Measure) that is one of my surprise favorites, but not quite as good, I think. Helena is a strong female character, but why is she so enamored of the sullen and stupid Bertram? Loud-mouth Parolles is hilarious. Grade B+

22. Cymbeline

This is probably Shakespeare’s most complicated plot, mixing magic, folklore, Renaissance and Roman motifs, mistaken identities, feigned death, war and peace, gambling over a woman’s fidelity, voyeurism, and probably a dozen more that I’m not thinking of now. Through it all, the female lead Imogen stands out as one of Shakespeare’s best characters. It feels as if near the end of his career Shakespeare emptied the cupboard, taking all the ideas he’d ever stored up and tossing them into this play. It’s a little overwhelming, but Imogen saves it. Grade B+

imogen

Above: Imogen being peeped at in her bedchamber by the devious Iachimo

21. King John

In the first act we meet Philip Faulconbridge, soon recognized as the natural son of Richard the Lion Hearted and renamed Richard the Bastard. In this otherwise dreary play (with one exception that I’ll get to), the character simply labeled “Bastard” in the stage directions steals the show. He is funny, irreverent, brave, wise, loyal to a fault and yet able to see through the posturing and evil intentions of all those around him.

Faulconbridge makes this play worth reading, and you wish his character could reappear in a better play. You always want to hear more from him. The only other memorable moment comes when young prince Arthur pleads with his captor to not put out his eyes. You’ll have to read King John to find out what happens. Another quick note, the Catholic Church comes off looking really bad here. You wonder if that was Shakespeare or some outside pressure. Grade B+

20. Antony and Cleopatra

And finally the last of the Roman plays. This is supposed to be a masterpiece, but other than the wonderful fifth act I just don’t see it. We never get into Antony’s head, and the promise he showed in Julius Caesar is just a shadow now. I did love the character of Enobarbus (played by Patrick Stewart in the BBC production), and his description of Cleopatra’s appearance on the Nile is one of the great passages in Shakespeare.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.

But Cleopatra’s performance in Act V saves this play for me. Her interaction with the clown giving her the fatal asps is both funny and touching. We get to see her as a real person for the first time, and her character is both strong and frightened, vulnerable and regal. The politics give way to a real person before us, looking at her life and making choices for herself. Grade B+

19. Love’s Labour’s Lost

Deeply silly and at times hilarious, I almost love this play. The only reason it isn’t an A for me is that I find the play within a play at the end rather dreary and hard to get through. In performance it is better than when read, and the version of the play I watched (on video) in the reconstructed Globe theater did this section justice. I could listen to Rosaline all day, and the scene in which the four men are all revealed to have broken their vow to forego women is one of the funniest in all of Shakespeare. This is the last play on my list that doesn’t get at least an A, and I could be persuaded to move it up. Grade B+

rosaline

above: Gemma Arteton as Rosaline in a 2007 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the restored Globe Theatre in London

18. Much Ado About Nothing

I love, love, love this play. The main plot is silly and unlikely, but still satisfying. The main attraction, though, is the slow unfolding of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. The Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie of this play is one of my favorite Shakespeare movie adaptations, taking place in a sun-drenched Tuscany with stirring music and a brilliant supporting cast including Kate Beckinsale and the gorgeous Denzel Washington (I’m hetero, but wow). Michael Keaton as Dogberry is one of the greatest clowns in Shakespeare. I’m also a fan of the Joss Whedon version. It’s just a great play. Grade A

much-ado-about-nothing

above: the cast of 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing

17. Henry V

Henry V (once Prince Hal) is terrifying (“your naked infants spitted upon pikes”). He’s also deeply motivating (“We band of brothers”). The play is elitist (hardly anyone “of name” is killed on the English side), but also populist (“I think the king is but a man as I am”). When Henry V orders his old drinking buddy Bardolph hanged, you know he’s stepped as far away as he can from Falstaff (see the Henry IV plays to come). Henry V (the play, rather than the king) is at once pro-war and anti-war, highlighting the importance of growing up and the inevitable regret for what is left behind. You have to read all the Henriad plays in order (starting with Richard II) to see how triumph and tragedy are far from opposites, but inevitable bedfellows. As always in Shakespeare, but rarely as poignantly as here, we see that kings for Shakespeare are just people, humans thrust into this impossible tragic comedy called life – and so are we all. While I can’t say I love this play, I see it as the meaningful end of a powerful journey. Grade A

16. Richard III

The other Henriad, beginning with Henry VI part 1, ends here in brilliant technicolor. Richard III is a cartoon, but what a cartoon! The promise he shows at the end of Henry VI part 3 is fully realized in this play. Sir Ian McKellan’s portrayal as a Nazi-like Richard is beyond brilliant and so much fun that you’ll wonder how any Shakespeare villain can ever be better. And yet they are. This play is a guilty pleasure – ridiculous in the extreme, but if you don’t find yourself laughing evilly, you’re not human. If you liked Frank Underwood in House of Cards, you will love Richard III – Kevin Spacey, who had just finished playing Richard when House began, essentially borrowed Richard’s character and gave him a southern drawl to make Frank. Just like in House of Cards, it’s more fun to watch Richard rise to power than to see his inevitable downfall, but it is a wild, fun ride all the way to “My kingdom for a horse!” Grade A

15. Richard II

The recent BBC series The Hollow Crown starts with Richard II and goes all the way through the Henry plays to end with Richard III. They’re all worth seeing, but for sheer revelation of what its play is about, I think Richard II might be the best of the bunch. The language in Richard II is simply stunning, the poetry setting the scene and the character of Richard so utterly that you feel like you know him. He is melodramatic, overwrought, childish, and self-centered, and then he falls and you find yourself in deepest sympathy for one who only found himself when it was too late. Also in this episode Sir Patrick Stewart plays John of Gaunt, who gives the play’s most famous speech:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

That Patrick Stewart, he is something.

Richard II has his share of memorable speeches, himself. In fact, “the hollow crown” a fitting name given to both halves of the BBC series, comes from Richard himself:

for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Grade A

seizethecrown

above: Ben Whishaw as Richard II prepares to hand over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke

14. Henry IV part 2

Though this play pales a bit in comparison to part 1, it further explores one of Shakespeare’s great characters, the fat knight Sir John Falstaff. The older (and fatter) I get, the more I appreciate Fat Jack. Here we get an often more subdued, but still hilarious, Falstaff as he struggles to stay relevant in Prince Hal’s evolving circle. When Hal, now Henry V after his father’s death, finally rejects Falstaff (as was foreshadowed in the brilliant tavern scene in part 1, more on that below), we feel it as deeply as if the rejection were our own. A great play in its own right, and a bridge to the very different character of Henry V. Grade A

13. The Winter’s Tale

How can a play I love this much be only number 13? King Leontes’ jealousy hearkens back to that of Othello, but with the king playing his own Iago. Hermione’s pain is matched by her grace, as once again Shakespeare gives us a female character who has much to teach the silly men around her. Leontes, in his madness, loses wife, son, and daughter, and the future seems bleak.

When the play moves from Sicilia, a land that seems to be in perpetual winter (hence the title) to the endless summer of bucolic Bohemia in Act IV, we meet Hermione and Leontes’ lost daughter Perdita, whose charm and beauty make us all wish to be young again. The crazy characters, the dancing, the singing, the food, and most importantly the blossoming relationship between Perdita and Florizel make Act IV as different from the first three acts as anything in Shakespeare. When the two worlds come together in Act V, Shakespeare gives us his most moving reunion scene and one of his happiest endings – except, of course, for poor Mamillius, showing, maybe, that there’s always a price to be paid for irrational behavior. There is so much richness in this play, and I’ve barely reached the surface here. The Winter’s Tale is one of a kind, and I could easily be persuaded to move it higher (but what could possibly go down?) Grade A

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Above: Perdita by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys

12. Romeo and Juliet

What can be said that hasn’t been said a thousand times over? Everyone knows the story, of course. Besides (arguably) Hamlet, it is the most famous of all Shakespeare’s plays. The crazy thing to me is that it’s become such an integral part of our societal fabric. It’s a story of teenage lust, disobedience to authority, murder in the streets, and suicide. And we teach it in high school? It must be pretty good, then.

Juliet is the center of this play. Romeo is a pretty strong character, but he’s totally overwhelmed by this young girl in love. When she says, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” you get the feeling that she (and Shakespeare) have tapped into the ultimate mystery and power of the female. All men know instinctually that women are by far the superior sex; Juliet is the very essence of that superiority.  I marvel at her words and her thoughts throughout the play – and yet she’s not even my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters.

I can’t leave without mentioning Mercutio, whom it is said Shakespeare had to kill off lest he take over the play. Mercutio is imagination run rampant – you’d love to read a book that was just his stream of consciousness. He is raunchy and hilarious, and the perfect foil to the depth of feeling expressed by Juliet – though of course the two never meet. Such a magnificent play, and yet it’s only number 12 on my list! Grade A

11. Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on!” Most of the plays I love include a truly remarkable character. In Twelfth Night, that character is Viola, who disguises herself as Cesario, who happens to be a dead ringer for her supposedly-drowned twin brother Sebastian. Viola/Cesario is charming, clever, and provocative as she/he goes between Orsino, whom Viola loves but who thinks himself in love with the cold Olivia, and Olivia herself, who thinks she loves Cesario. The whole thing would devolve into a silly soap opera but for Viola, who helps us all explore and experience this love-filled landscape.

But what puts Twelfth Night into the category of a truly great play is the supporting character of Malvolio, whose silly puritanism is challenged by his fellow supporting cast as they trick him into believing his mistress Olivia is in love with him. We think he’s gotten a good comeuppance, but then Shakespeare turns it all around and we find ourselves with an unsettling feeling that Malvolio has been badly misused. Suddenly and unexpectedly we feel sympathy for a character we all thought was just a malevolent (though harmless) clown. Grade A

10. The Merchant of Venice

And so we come to probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play, and one that could have easily gone in a very different direction in my list.

The main story is ok. There are three pairs of lovers, one of whom is blocked by a dead father’s demand that the man solve a riddle involving a gold, silver, and lead casket. There’s also an obviously gay “merchant” (he of the title) who borrows money to give to his best friend (and unspoken love) to help him win said woman. There are some truly funny scenes and plenty more evidence of female superiority as the female leads, Portia and Nerissa, easily get the best of their prospective husbands. It would probably rise up to the level of The Comedy of Errors or maybe even Love’s Labour’s Lost. Except.

Except for another character, the villain of the play, a character whose very name (Shylock) has become essentially a racial epithet. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who has had many battles with the merchant (Antonio) and has suffered many degradations at his and others’ hands. Antonio has apparently spat on Shylock and called him a dog, all for the “crime” of charging interest for his loans. Antonio, by contrast, has loaned out money interest-free, essentially undercutting Shylock in one of the only endeavors the law allows him.

The play has a checkered history. The Nazis loved it, playing up to the hilt the anti-Semitic elements of the play. The play is not really about a Jewish person, of course, as Shakespeare knew little about the Jews. They had been expelled from England over two hundred years before Shakespeare’s birth. Instead, this is a play about the Other, with Shylock as representative. Still, there is no doubt that Elizabethan audiences howled and shrieked at the portrayal of Shylock as a monster with a misshapen nose and a weird, otherworldly accent. They likely cheered at Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, seeing it not as a punishment, but rather as a better fate than he deserved.

But still. But still but still but still. The text is ambiguous. No doubt Shylock can be played as a pure villain, as bad in his way as Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus (though Aaron is also, at least a little, ambiguous in this role). But that pesky text. Just one example. In the play, the brain dead men Bassanio and Gratiano cannot help but give away the rings given to them by Portia and Nerissa respectively – rings that Portia and Nerissa insisted they never part with. And yet when Shylock discovers that his own daughter Jessica has run away to marry a Christian he finds that she has taken a ring left to him by his dear wife (and Jessica’s mother) Leah. Jessica, it is reported, has traded the ring for a monkey. “I would not have given it,” Shylock says in agony, “for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Again, this could be played for great laughs, particularly for an audience that enjoyed such treats as dogs ripping up bears, cats being burned alive, and humans being disemboweled while still alive (all still public spectacles in Elizabethan England). We are better now, and we cannot watch The Merchant of Venice without a deep, painful, guilty sympathy for Shylock, no matter how unpleasantly he behaves. We are better now. And I can’t help thinking that Shakespeare put these tidbits, these pieces of Shylock’s character into the play not for his Elizabethan brethren but for us, for a time when we could appreciate that the Other is, in fact, us. It is for this suspicion, this belief that Shakespeare gave us a play that we can reinterpret to fit our own, better time, that I place The Merchant of Venice in my Shakespeare Top Ten. Grade A

9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Many of Shakespeare’s best plays require some preparation. Don’t show me Measure for Measure, or Macbeth, or certainly King Lear, without allowing me to brace for impact. They are too powerful.

Not so with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that’s not a disparagement. This is just a different sort of play. I could watch it, read it, listen to it morning, noon, and night. The rude mechanicals themselves are worth the price of admission, so full are they of silly humor enclosing profound wisdom and worldly knowledge disguised as ignorance. But the leads, who so often take a back seat in Shakespeare’s humor to the minor characters, here are equally laugh-out-loud funny. Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander wrestling in the woods is one of Shakespeare’s greatest scenes anywhere both for rich language and for the opportunity it gives for actors and directors to make comic magic.

Every moment of this play is a joy; every character brings a new bit of fun to the intricate, spiderweb-like four-part plot. Silly? Maybe, but so much fun.

As a post-script, I have to mention that the final speech, delivered by Puck through the fourth wall as an apology for the magical, dream-like quality of the show, always puts me in mind of this scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robert Sean Leonard (later to play Claudio in my favorite Much Ado About Nothing movie) apologizes to his father for deceiving him. The apology is rejected, and the boy kills himself that very night – a reminder that art is not ever frivolous, not ever just nice to have, but an absolute necessity for human existence. Art is, and must be, a part of who we are. Grade A

puck

above: Robert Sean Leonard performing as Puck in Dead Poet’s Society

8. The Tempest

I recently saw Christopher Plummer as Prospero and the performance brought tears to my eyes. Even though the old legend of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater has been pretty well debunked by now, you still can’t read Prospero’s most famous speech without recognizing that Shakespeare was giving us some of his own wisdom from a life spent in the magical world of the theater.

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-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye 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.

I think this is a warning. This life is all we have. Don’t expect another. From sleep we came, to sleep we shall return. Make much of this life we have today, for it will all melt into air, into thin air.

Prospero is the center of this play, but it is how he deals with three characters in particular: his daughter Miranda; his spirit Ariel; and his part-human slave Caliban that define him in this play.

I love the way Plummer interacts with Miranda (played by a lovely Trish Lindstrom). His relationships with Ariel and Caliban are more problematic. Ariel has been promised freedom, as he (she?) must remind Prospero again and again. When Prospero finally lives up to his promise, Ariel vanishes without a word. I love how this ambiguity gives directors the freedom to choose how Ariel leaves. In the Plummer version, there’s great affection there, even though Ariel longs for freedom.

Caliban is more problematic. Once again we have a villain that Shakespeare can’t leave villainous. He invites us to sympathize with Prospero’s slave, even though Caliban became so only after trying to rape Miranda. Caliban’s words are poignant, often poetic, always get under your skin, and I have to wonder if once again Shakespeare hasn’t left us something to grapple with now that we are better. Grade A

TEMPEST - PLUMMER

above: Christopher Plummer and Trish Lindstrom in The Tempest

7. Henry IV part 1

There are now only seven plays left on my list. Quite frankly, I could have put them in any order, as every one of these remaining seven is in its own way the best thing I’ve ever read. They are to me Shakespeare’s supreme achievements, and as far as I know the best things ever written in English.

Henry IV part 1 is of course Falstaff’s play. The play within a play, in which Falstaff speaks as Prince Hal to Hal as his father the king is at once deeply funny and painfully real. When Hal admits that he will, he must, eventually reject his foster father Falstaff we realize just how close joy and pain can be.

But there’s so much here than Falstaff, as great as he is. Henry IV himself is a character of deep thought, and his powerful words to Hal almost make us wish him to abandon Falstaff then and there. Quite a trick to breathe life into such a vibrant character and then make the audience see him through the eyes of one for which he is nothing but a dire threat.

Henry Percy, called Hotspur, is another unforgettable character, and his relationship with his wife Kate is one of the most passionate and sexually fun in all Shakespeare. They rival the Macbeths for hotness. Apparently Hotspur’s real-life wife was named Elizabeth, but Shakespeare called her Kate just because he loved that name so much.

Hotspur and Kate

above: Joe Armstrong and Michelle Dockery as Hotspur and Kate in The Hollow Crown

When Prince Hal kills Hotspur in battle, we are genuinely devastated that Kate has lost her husband, even though we don’t see her again until the next play. Naturally we want and expect Hal to win, but nonetheless the death of Hotspur (who doesn’t remotely fit the role of “villain”) we see as tragic at the same time.

But what we remember first, last, and always is Falstaff. His destruction of the concept of “honor” is one of Shakespeare’s great gifts to the future. If Falstaff, the lover of life, can see just how ridiculous this concept of honor is some six hundred years ago, surely we have no excuse today. But, of course, Shakespeare is never simple, Falstaff’s words are not the last on the subject, and the world cycles on. For me, older and fatter by the day but still in love with life and love, food and drink, words and ideas, Sir John becomes more and more my model of how best to get old with grace and humor. Grade A+

6. As You Like It

Give me just one Shakespeare character that I will listen to forever and it’s not Falstaff. Instead it is Shakespeare’s greatest female in his greatest comedy, Rosalind in As You Like It. Like Faulconbridge, like Joan la Pucelle, like Viola, and like Falstaff himself, Rosalind leaps off the page to take on a life of her own. My words can’t do justice to her, so read hers instead:

      men
are April when they woo, December when they wed:
maids are May when they are maids, but the sky
changes when they are wives.

Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

My affection hath an unknown
bottom, like the bay of Portugal.

your brother and my sister no
sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but
they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed,
no sooner sighed but they asked one another the
reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought
the remedy.

And so many more. And finally, in an epilogue, which I think is just Shakespeare giving us one last taste of his most witty and teasing character.

I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women- as I perceive by your simp’ring none of you
hates them- that between you and the women the play may please.
If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that
pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied
not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces,
or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy,
bid me farewell.

If there’s a criticism of Rosalind, it is that she, like Maria in All’s Well that Ends Well, has chosen a man who isn’t remotely her equal. Yet who would be? At least Orlando has the sense to fall in love with Rosalind, unlike the clod Bertram in Maria’s play.

This play also contains the Ages of Man speech by Jacques, one of the many windows Shakespeare gives us on his view on the “meaning”* of life. More on that to come.

*Actually I follow Joseph Campbell’s example, who said we’re not looking for the meaning of life, but rather the experience of being alive. I think Shakespeare would agree.

Most of As You Like It takes place in the Forest of Arden, a wilderness that, like Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, invites us to forget the troubles of civilization and live unfettered and in love with love. Maybe unrealistic, but listening to Rosalind for a while you just might believe it possible. Grade A+

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above: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind

5. Othello

Again, I can’t believe this one is only number 5. Reading and watching Othello is in many ways one of the most moving, evocative, emotional experiences of my life. Both Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian McKellan have played the villain Iago brilliantly; watching how each subtly manipulated their Othello into a murderous rage is frightening and utterly mesmerizing.

It’s said that Iago was Milton’s model for Satan in Paradise Lost. While I’m a big fan of Milton’s Satan, I think Iago is better, more evil, more guilty of “motiveless malignity” as Coleridge said. Othello is s Iago’s play, and his brilliant portrayal is one of Shakespeare’s crowning glories. I can almost say that Iago is Shakespeare’s greatest villain, except that I think I like Edmund from King Lear even a little bit better.

Looking at this list of Shakespeare’s (I believe) true glories and (perhaps) missed masterpieces, I notice something interesting about “the Other”. In particular, three plays address this very subject, each showing a gradual evolution of the artist and, perversely, with each evolutionary advance the outcome getting worse for the protagonist.

First consider Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t like this play, because “the Other” here (Kate, the woman when Shakespeare was just beginning to explore the power and potential of his female characters) is utterly subjugated. She survives, and we are meant to believe in her happy ending. From a modern perspective, though, I think we see a being whose spirit has been crushed.

Next, The Merchant of Venice. The Other is now of course the moneylender Shylock. Shylock is, to put it bluntly, not a nice person. His otherness has separated him from society, and society and he have agreed on a pact of mutual hatred. In the end, Shylock loses nearly everything, though he is allowed to live. The ending is deeply ambiguous for a modern audience, as, somehow, I think Shakespeare meant it to be.

Finally is Othello. The Other is the black Moor, our gallant tale-teller who won the love of Desdemona with his stories from afar. He is supremely confident in his abilities: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ’em”. He loves Desdemona with a passion that invites madness: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul. But I do love thee! And when I love thee not. Chaos is come again.” He refuses to back down in fear of what his hasty marriage might bring: “Not I, I must be found. My parts, my title, and my perfect soul Shall manifest me rightly.” He is the best of the Other that Shakespeare has ever presented. And he is destroyed utterly.

“I HATE THE MOOR!” Iago shouts to us (and us alone) in the one moment in which the character loses control. Why? Though we can’t say that it was Othello’s Otherness that brought on this loathing, it would be naive to claim that Shakespeare created a shining, near-perfect Other only to have him irrationally hated, and not have that hate linked to Othello’s very other-ness.

My thesis is this: in each of these plays, Shakespeare presents us with The Other. In the earliest (Shrew), The Other is subjugated, and we’re supposed to believe that is good. In the middle play (Merchant), The Other is very nearly destroyed, and how we feel about this destruction is a gauge of how far we’ve come as a society. In the final play (Othello), the other is utterly destroyed and dies at his own hands in deepest shame and damnation, and we the audience love him for what he was and mourn him what has been lost.

This is not to say that Othello was purely the victim. His sterling qualities as a general and as a man ill-prepared him for the malignancy that was Iago. Another character, Hamlet, say, or Rosalind, would have turned aside Iago’s deadly poison. But Othello, the Other whose good qualities we most admire, fell to an evil we know all too well. Grade A+

4. Measure for Measure

This play, of which I had no knowledge before my first reading, is my dark horse candidate for Shakespeare’s best. The play, quite simply, is about sex. It is the raunchiest, most rancid, most openly sexual of all Shakespeare’s plays, and I love it. And it stars a nun.

OK, not quite a nun. Isabella is a nun in training. She wants the strictures of a simple convent life, away from the temptations of the world. The stricter the better, as Isabella wants nothing to do with the filth and sin all around her. A smart move, perhaps, in the world Shakespeare has created, for in his Vienna to commit any sex act outside of marriage is punishable by death.

Isabella’s brother Claudio has been caught violating just this law, impregnating his fiancee Juliet before their marriage is official. Isabella learns of his brother’s fate and, despite her own revulsion at his act, goes to beg the acting Duke Angelo for forgiveness. Angelo, supposedly a straight-shooter put in charge due to his zeal to clean up filthy, fornicating Vienna, tells Isabella that Claudio can go free if only Isabella will “make the beast with two backs” (OK, that’s a quote from Othello, but I love it too much not to work it in here) with him.

A clear case of sexual harassment, right? Open and shut case, right? Not so easy. As Angelo points out, no one will believe Isabella if she makes such a claim. Angelo has spent a lifetime building a spotless reputation just so he can cash in his chips, as it were, with Isabella.

What to do? Isabella goes to her brother Claudio to discuss the situation. At first incensed, after a while Claudio starts to think, well, better than me getting my head lopped off, right? His musings on death are chilling:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

But Isabella won’t give in. She’s rather see her brother die, her niece or nephew grow up fatherless, than to give up her virginity to Angelo.

Well, there’s complications galore from there, as the real Duke (the one who supposedly put Angelo in charge to clean things up) has been lurking on the edges all this time, and comes forward with the most harebrained plan ever devised. It involves a character named Barnadine, who in only a few lines very nearly steals the entire show, and a long-lost fiancee of our very Angelo.

Describing the richness of this play feels a little like Stefon’s description of the latest night club in New York City. There are brothels and pimps (quite a risky endeavor in a city where fornication equals death), bed tricks and head tricks, a forced marriage to a pregnant prostitute, and perhaps the most ambiguous ending in all Shakespeare. This play is outrageous; the injustices should make you scream out loud. It is raunchy, rancid, and wonderful. If there was one Shakespeare play I could get everyone to read, it would be Measure for Measure. Grade A+

3. Macbeth

OK, now we’re getting down to it. Give me one play, just one, that I could see at any time, with any cast, on any stage. Measure for Measure would come close (maybe with a young Jennifer Connelly as Isabella). A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be right there, too. But if I really could choose anything, I’d choose Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wish for it. I’ve got it right here, on DVD. Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth, Rupert Goold directing. And it remains the favorite Shakespeare title I own.

macbeth-2010.8345

above: Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart in Macbeth

Even though it’s only 3 on my list, if you push me I have to say that Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play. It was the first Shakespeare play I ever really understood. It is short, spare, not a word wasted or out of place, manic in its intensity from beginning to end. Far simpler than the two plays I have ahead of it, Macbeth revolves around the title character, his wife, and the three witches (the weird sisters) that appear like bubbles from the earth on a blasted heath.

Macbeth is bleak. It is frightening. It is bloody and makes no apologies. The porter imagining he is staffing the doors of Hell is as close as the play comes to humor (though in the Goold/Stewart/Fleetwood version the porter is as funny as a disemboweling – and wow does it work). We are essentially squeezed into the mind of a man who, step by bloody step, transforms into a mass murderer. By the end, when Macbeth gives his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, we’re ready to accept his bleak and blasted view of life. Macbeth is a descent straight into the bowels of Hell.

And then. And then and then and then. At the end of the play, when Macbeth has lost it all – his wife, his kingdom, and soon his freedom and his life – he has one final opportunity to kill. Macduff has hunted Macbeth down and revealed to him that the witches’ final prophesy, “No man born of woman shall harm Macbeth” is, like the others, just another equivocation. Macduff was ripped from his (presumably dying) mother’s womb before he could be born. Macduff goads Macbeth into fighting, and . . .

in the text, Macduff kills Macbeth off stage. We don’t know what happens after Macbeth’s final words, except that Macduff wins. But Stewart and Goold, in their brilliant version, have something else in mind. Macbeth says,

“Lay on, Macduff, and damn’d be he that first cries hold”

and then Stewart pauses. The two men draw knives and fight, viciously, at close quarters. Macbeth gets the upper hand. He’s about to kill Macduff. He’s about to keep the cycle of violence going. He’s about to claim another victim. And then he looks up. And he sees the witches moving toward him. And he says,

“enough”

and drops his knife.

The next time we see Macbeth, his head has been cut roughly from his body and is held in Macduff’s victorious hands.

It is an ending that leaves me breathless, speechless, in awe of how, all these years, that ending was just sitting there, waiting in the text to be found. I’ve since learned that Goold and Stewart weren’t the first to use that ending, but I don’t care. To me, it was a revelation. In that moment, Stewart stopped being bloodthirsty Macbeth and became, instead, Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. Enough with the violence. Enough with the killing. Enough with the ancient sacrifice to the bloodthirsty gods of earth and sky. Enough.

How can this not be number one? Grade A+

2. Hamlet

Here’s how. Hamlet (the person) is, as far as I can tell, the supreme achievement in the history of fiction. It really is as if Shakespeare has somehow taken a real person and placed him on paper, a living, breathing human, composed, as Hamlet would say, of “words, words, words”, now living inside a play. How did Shakespeare do this? Hamlet is the closest I’ve ever seen to true artificial intelligence. You feel that Hamlet is there with you, creating the play as you read it. It’s the most extraordinary feeling.

However, as amazing as Hamlet (the person) is, I believe Hamlet (the play) to be “only” Shakespeare’s 2nd best work. Why? There are couple of things that bother me about Hamlet. I’ll list them, and then come back to the list when I get to the real number one on my hit parade.

a) I don’t like what Hamlet becomes in Act V. His whole “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” nonsense. Before this moment he was a free agent, a questioner, curious about everyone and everything, and then, after being abducted by pirates, narrowly escaping execution, and finding his way back to Denmark, he suddenly decides to “let be.”

b) In a similar vein, I don’t like that Hamlet just trots off down the stairs to duel with Laertes under the watchful eye of Claudius. He knows Laertes and Claudius have every reason to want him dead, yet he just walks willingly into their trap with no plan. Let be.

Now, if you buy my initial argument, that Hamlet is a real person trapped in a play, then what choice do we have? This is how Hamlet, this real person, reacted to these events all around him. This is how he changed. What is there to be done? Let be.

No! Rage, rage against the dying of the light! There is no providence! We make our own future, we create our own world by the choices we make and the questions we ask. I hate this sort of fatalist thinking. Stand up, Hamlet! Remember what you said in the graveyard? It is I, Hamlet the Dane! Where’d that guy go?

Now you shouldn’t take from this that I don’t like this play. I LOVE this play. It is deep and mysterious and I discover new truths every time I go back to it. I’m perfectly willing to accept the idea that I’m completely wrong about Act V, and I’m willing to listen to arguments.

There are lots of other things that I love about this play. The famous “To be or not to be” speech, didya know that it’s NOT about suicide? It’s about Hamlet deciding whether to live a long, happy life with Ophelia or live the (probably short) life of murder and revenge the ghost wants him to live. By the way, didya notice that Ophelia was pregnant? There’s no textual support for it, but it makes things like her flower talk and sexualized singing make so much more sense.

I have lots of questions, too. Why did Hamlet turn on Ophelia? Why was he so sad, even before encountering the ghost? What exactly was going on between those two? Was Claudius actually Hamlet’s father? Who knows when Claudius and Gertrude started their relationship – maybe it had been going on for decades. Did Gertrude drink the poison to protect Hamlet, to show him what was going on? If so, she failed, just like he did, to recognize how treacherous Laertes and Claudius were. Why didn’t anyone suspect them? Why didn’t Horatio do something about it? Of course, if we knew all these answers, it would just “take the piss right out of the whole thing.”

There are some brilliant versions of Hamlet on DVD, but my two favorite both involve (surprise) Patrick Stewart as Claudius. In the Derek Jacobi version, Stewart plays Claudius so honestly that you really want Claudius to win. Maybe old Hamlet was a crappy king. Maybe Gertrude hated him, and wanted Claudius, instead. Maybe the young Hamlet really is a nutter, and we’d be better off with him out of the way. This Claudius can make you believe it. In the second version, with David Tennant as Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius is just as good, but a lot smarmier. Stewart also gets to play the ghost and, guess what, I like the ghost a lot better in this version.

OK, on to number one. But first, Grade A+ (of course)

1. King Lear

And then there was one. I know Hamlet is supposed to be number one. I know everyone says Hamlet is the greatest play ever written. I prefer King Lear. Because I’m an optimist.

What? The bleakest, darkest, saddest, most disturbing of all Shakespeare’s plays is your number one because you’re an optimist? What have you been injecting?

Nothing. (Get it?) Here’s why King Lear is the greatest of all Shakespeare plays. It is the anti-Hamlet. I believe that any time one reads Hamlet, one should instantly read King Lear, as well, as an antidote against Hamlet’s fatalistic failings at the end.

Listen to my very favorite character in the play, the bastard Edmund, talk about fate.

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising.

Of course, Edmund is the villain, but isn’t it remarkable how often Shakespeare puts great wisdom in the mouths of villains?

Later on in the play, Edmund’s father Gloucester makes the same mistake Hamlet makes when he says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; They kill us for their sport.”

No, Gloucester, no! This is why you are blind (literally this time instead of just metaphorically). We don’t need the gods to rip off our wings and slowly pull us apart. We are perfectly capable of doing that to ourselves. There is evil in the world, and we are its source. As we learn in William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies”, the beast is not an outside entity to be hunted and killed. The beast is us.

But we are not only capable of great evil. We humans, we fallible, mortal, debased and debauched human beings, are capable of the greatest beauty this universe has ever seen. Here’s one example, Lear’s reunion with Cordelia, one of the most beautiful scenes ever written.

LEAR
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause; they have not.
CORDELIA
No cause, no
cause.

It is we who create the beauty. It is we who create the forgiveness. It is we who create the ugliness and the evil. No one else. No gods. No God. No special providence. Just us. Deal with that.

That is Shakespeare’s message in King Lear, and that is what makes King Lear the anti-Hamlet and the greatest work (as far as I can tell) ever created.

King Lear is painful. Cordelia’s death is possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever encountered in art. King Lear is ugly. Gloucester’s blinding on stage is perhaps the most horrible moment. (After coming close in King John, Shakespeare went all the way this time. Out, vile jelly!) King Lear is the stuff of nightmares. Lear’s comment about life (one more in the long line of Shakespeare’s powerful pronouncements):

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

But what we do on that stage, once we stop crying and get hold of ourselves, well, that’s up to us. As that other poet, Dr. Carl Sagan once said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.”

By the way, if you’ve read carefully, you’ve likely noted a particular fondness on my part for a certain bald English Shakespearean actor. I do think Patrick Stewart is the greatest, and I’d love to see him as Lear before he (or I) shuffles off this mortal coil. In a sense, I already have, as Sir Patrick starred as John Lear in a movie called King of Texas. While they didn’t use Shakespeare’s words, they did hew fairly closely to the story (with cowboy hats and Smith and Wessons instead of shields and swords). I thought it was great, but it only whetted my appetite for the real thing. Sir Patrick, if you’re out there somewhere, please!

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above: Patrick Stewart in his first (hopefully not last) Lear

Post-Script

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I hope you enjoyed my list, but more importantly I hope it inspires you to begin your own exploration, whether of Shakespeare or of some artist you feel passionate about.

I’m just a science teacher (who happens to be teaching math!), but I’ve learned in this process that art isn’t optional. It isn’t a nice to have. Art is part of what makes us human (OK, so are science and math – there, I said it!). We need to find beauty in the world, and when it isn’t there, we need to create it ourselves. It’s the most human thing we do.

As for me, this isn’t the end of my exploration of Shakespeare, but merely the beginning. True, I’ll never again have the pleasure of discovering a hidden jewel like Measure for Measure. But maybe I’ll be gobsmacked by another actor/director team, the way I was when Stewart and Goold showed me a new way to see Macbeth’s final line. Maybe I’ll discover some hidden truths in Hamlet, and finally understand him a little better. Maybe I’ll find enough in Love’s Labour’s Lost to put it over the top for me, or catch another nuance of how Iago poisons Othello’s mind. Or maybe I’ll just fall in love with Rosalind in the Forest of Arden one more time.

Shakespeare is a part of me now, as indelible as my sea turtle tattoo or my scar from when I sat in a pool of sulfuric acid (bet that sentence has never been written in the history of the world before!) I’m starting with Measure for Measure again this week; I wonder if it will move up or down in my list?

Jacques in As You Like It says, “All the world’s a stage.” To me it’s more like a canvas, vast and boundless. In some places you see what fellow travelers have created there, but in others the sheet is blank, like a great untrodden field of new snow. As Calvin once said to Hobbes, “Let’s go exploring!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s easy to forget what an amazing time we live in. Today I took a bike ride while listening to a book being read through my smart phone. Just think for a moment how many lovely technological advances had to occur for the above sentence to be true. Most obviously the bicycle, and the good roads to go along with it, had to be invented. Even before that, though, the health, safety, and prosperity of a society that allows a luxury like a bike ride had to come to be. Next the smart phone, with all the technology that allows it to store an entire book (many books, actually) and the voice reading it in a box that fits in my pocket – not to mention the speakers, volume control, rechargeable battery and so on that allow the book to be played back over several hours as I pedal through the neighborhood.

And then, of course, there’s the Internet, with innovative services like Audible.com that allow me, for a minimal cost, to download a fantastic selection of books. My latest downloads include two books by Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World and the original Cosmos.

Today I was listening to Cosmos, read by Geordi La Forge himself, LeVar Burton. It’s wild to hear Geordi reading Dr. Sagan’s words about futuristic spacecraft and travels to the stars. But what I want to write about today is the enthusiasm, the utter joy, with which Carl wrote about the search for planets around those other stars.

When Cosmos was published in 1980 the search for extra-solar planets was in its infancy. Sagan wrote at some length about the prospects for the search, which he judged to be very good. He had lots of reasons to believe that there would be many, many planets out there. But of course he did not know. And the excitement he felt about this soon-to-be-gained knowledge is palpable in his words.

Since the writing of Cosmos, scientists have discovered literally thousands of extra-solar planets, and based on the percentages of stars with planets so far identified, estimates for the entire galaxy run into the hundreds of billions. Sagan would be overjoyed by this number.

The latest additions, found in the data of the now-disabled Kepler Space Telescope, include ten Earth-sized planets found in the habitable zones of their planets. If the raw materials are there, any or all of these planets could have liquid water in the form of rivers, lakes, and oceans. We don’t know yet if they do, but, like Carl in 1980, we today stand on the edge of the future. In not many more years, we will not only know about Earth-like worlds around other stars, we will have peered at them and learned their secrets. What will we find there?

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Above is Kepler-186f (artists concept) We of course have no idea if this is really what the planet looks like, but its distance and size make this conception a possible reality. Someday we will know.

 

Carl Sagan was eternally hopeful that not only planets, but life would be a commonplace in the cosmos. I agree with him that while life itself may be quite common (after all, life on our planet began almost as soon as it could have), complex life equivalent to animals and plants might be relatively rare (as these took billions of years to appear on Earth). Unlike Sagan, however, I actually hope that this is the case. That’s because I’m an optimist.

When I look at the advancements humans have made – not the least of which, as I mentioned above, is a relatively safe, stable, law-abiding society that is positively exploding with technological advancement – I believe that human potential is unlimited. If we can find ways to not destroy one another and our planet (and of course we can), then there is nothing we can’t achieve. We can venture from “the shores of the cosmic ocean” as Carl said, and carry the human adventure to the stars.

And if we can do it, then of course any other intelligent life form could, too. The fact that (apparently) they haven’t, the fact that, as far as we can tell, our neighborhood is without any sign of a galactic civilization, should give us pause. The universe is very old, much older than ourselves, or even our planet. If no one is yet master of the galaxy, then my optimistic hope is that intelligent life is almost impossible to evolve. We may be the only one.

Otherwise, if complex life, and then intelligent life, are commonplace, it means virtually every intelligent species runs into some sort of wall, some obstacle that keeps them from moving out into the galaxy and leaving their tell-tale signs. If, instead, the problems of civilization are soluble, then we may well be alone. I hope so, anyhow.

 

As important, varied, and wondrous as the beach is the dune directly behind it. All along Sanibel, dune vegetation separates roads and structures from the sands and shells of the beach.

Today I walked 2 miles to the Sanibel Lighthouse.

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While there, I followed one of the many paths through the dunes to the lighthouse base. In the shadow of the lighthouse itself, I came across a sign all about gopher tortoises.

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I thought, wouldn’t it be great to see one. I turned around, and there one was, munching on a plant directly behind me.

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Even crazier than that, when I went to take a picture, who should hop into the shot but a marsh rabbit!

 

And here you see the two of them, practically in the shadow of the Sanibel Lighthouse as the Sun rises over another perfect day. Maybe they’re getting ready for their big race.

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Gopher tortoises can live up to 80 years in the wild. Unlike sea turtles, which lay hundreds of eggs in a season, gopher tortoises produce only 3 to 15 eggs in a clutch. The eggs take about 90 days to hatch (as opposed to 60 for the much larger sea turtles). Like sea turtles, though, hatchling gopher tortoises have a lot of predators. Only about 1 in 100 will live to reproductive age.

The tortoises are herbivores. They munch on many different plants found in the dunes, including prickly pear cactus and the various berries and fruits that the dune plants produce. Occasionally the tortoises will munch on dead animal bones, probably for the calcium they provide.

Gopher tortoises are diggers. As such, they play a vital role in the dune ecosystem. Many other animals, including the marsh rabbit, use old gopher tortoise burrows for shade, protection, even nesting. These include the Florida mouse, the burrowing owl, the threatened eastern indigo snake and, yes, the marsh rabbit, too.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of dunes to a place like Sanibel. The protection the dune affords works both directions. The dune protects the beach from landward runoff erosion by capturing and slowing the moving water. It also protects the land from saltwater intrusions during hurricanes or storms. The beach grass digs down into the soil, creating a network of intertwined roots that holds the loose soil in place. Here you can see that near the lighthouse those roots are helping slow erosion, keeping the lighthouse and its surroundings stable.

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While the dunes are vital, the beach itself will always be my first love. So let me finish this entry with one final picture, a lovely sanderling reflected the sunrise over my favorite island. You can see the lighthouse away off to the left – I still had some walking to do.

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In the wee morning hours, an ancient reptile left the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and trudged up a long, low stretch of beach on Sanibel Island, using a back-and-forth gait that left telltale comma-shaped marks in the sand. Once she reached the vegetation that marks the end of the beach and the beginning of the dune, the loggerhead turtle began to dig. She dug into the wet, hard-packed sand with her back flippers, scooping the sand up with a gentle curve and flinging it aside with a delicacy surprising for a 300-lb sea creature unfamiliar with gravity’s insistent pull.

Once she had sculpted the egg chamber to her liking (a pear-shaped cavity wider at the bottom and narrowing to a neck), the turtle began filling her nest with leathery, white, ping-pong ball sized eggs. She placed perhaps 100 or more tiny potential turtles into the nest. While she worked, tears streamed from each eye, concentrated salt water leaving her body to keep her internal chemistry (the chemistry of a creature descended from land-dwellers) in balance.

Finally, the turtle covered her nest, hiding the signs of her work from the myriad potential predators of baby turtles, and headed back toward the Gulf. She struggled over the land (it was low tide), but once she reached the water her powerful flippers soon had her floating, soaring, gracefully maneuvering past hidden sandbars and into open waters once more. She would likely never see any of the babies she’d left behind.

Later that morning, as the Sun was beginning to peak above the Ft. Myers coastline to the East, a volunteer turtle walker from SCCF spotted the loggerhead’s distinctive comma-shaped tracks in the sand. The volunteer placed an orange flag between the up-beach and down-beach tracks. And not long after that I showed up to take pictures, as the tracks ended almost directly in front of our condominium!

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When the next set of SCCF team showed up with their yellow stakes and yellow tape, I was there, full of questions, excited to know if this was a true nest or just a false crawl. One of the SCCF turtle experts dug into the center of the turtle’s excavation and uncovered a perfect egg right on top. (I was so excited to see the egg I forgot to take a picture!) The team of two then set to work, in between putting up with my million questions with calm and grace.

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Here’s one, placing the wire mesh over the eggs. I learned that the mesh is there not to keep out raccoons, as I had guessed, but to thwart the coyotes that have become a larger danger to turtle nests in recent years.

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Here’s the other, using a gps device to record with exacting precision the location of this, next 61 on East Sanibel this season. In about 60 days, if all goes well, 100 or more tiny loggerhead hatchlings will boil from the sand and scramble toward the surf. Finally, here’s the nest as seen from the balcony of our condo Through the screen. To think that less than 24 hours ago an enormous sea turtle was crawling across that very sand!

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Humans have always been awed by nature, and have struggled to express their feeble, but growing, understanding of it. This is the origin of science, of course, but also of so much of the world’s great art. In Southern Ohio is one such expression, called Serpent Mound:

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No one knows its true meaning, but recent evidence suggests that it may have been built around 1070 CE. Interestingly, this corresponds with a spectacular appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066, the same appearance captured in the Bayeux Tapestry. Could Serpent Mound be an artistic representation of this most famous of comets?

The human form itself is, of course, part of the natural world, and artists have often created art to celebrate and wonder at our own bodies. My favorite of these can be found in Florence, Italy at the Galleria dell’Accademia. The most famous work there is, of course, David:

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But even more compelling for me are the Michelangelo works to be found in the hallway leading to David. These are the “unfinished statues” that show figures seeming to emerge, struggling, from marble.

Perhaps I am in awe of sea turtles for the same reason I am awed by these sculptures. Like Michelangelo’s figures trapped in metamorphosed stone, sea turtles emerge, as if by magic, from a nest built in sand. Like a comet in the sky, like a human growing into the world, the metamorphosis from tiny egg to majestic sea giant is the stuff of wonder.

I’m not alone in thinking so. Near another Sanibel nest, an emerging artist, agog with the wonder of sea turtles and their mysteries, has created a sculpture in sand that reminds me of both Serpent Mound and Michelangelo’s Unfinished Statues. This sculpture points directly at the nest, in the same way that Serpent Mound points toward the cardinal directions in the sky, in the same way that Michelangelo’s Unfinished Sculptures point toward his masterpiece, David. And again, I am in awe:

The beach is full of stories. Maybe the story is the graceful pelican, flying along the surf’s edge in search of fish. Perhaps there’s a nest of hungry chicks nearby, waiting for breakfast. Or perhaps this is a lone bird with a long and complex history.

Maybe the story is the young girl who just caught the largest fish of her life, a wide-mouth ocean monster called a snook.

Maybe the story is the couple volunteering with the SCCF, walking the beach each morning of nesting season for the past 12 years, looking for turtle tracks. I talked with them about the two false crawls they’d found that morning, the signs they see that help them identify the turtle as a loggerhead, and their hope that the turtles may once again this year set a new record. “If we can avoid any big storms,” one volunteer says, “It’s all about hatchlings, not nests.”

Maybe it’s a tiny story, like the auger snail I observed.

Every day, every moment, the beach changes. Tides and waves sculpt the sand. Sandbars develop and disappear. This morning I watched water pouring over a lip of sand and into a tide pool, creating a miniature Niagara that would last for less than half an hour, then disappear.

In one of these tidal pools, I saw long, winding tracks.

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Following these tracks, I came to an end, and at that end I found a perfect little auger snail. She had been sculpting the seascape, searching for food and leaving a record of her journey. I snapped a blurry picture and placed her back where she belonged.

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But the story I want to tell today is about my friend the reddish egret.

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I met this charismatic bird just at sunrise. We were both standing in a tide pool. At first I assumed the bird, because of its dark color, must be a heron.

Next, the oddest thing happened. As the sunrise appeared behind me, the bird started doing a crazy dance. You can see a little bit of it here:

What in the world was this bird doing?

I got out my handy-dandy beach guide book (Florida’s Living Beaches by Blair and Dawn Witherington) and found that the bird wasn’t a heron at all, but instead was a reddish egret. Even more exciting, “(r)eddish egrets,” the Witheringtons tell me, “run in circles and flail their wings to herd fish.” Further research informed me that the wing spreading creates shade, into which small fish swim for cover. The egret then has easy pickings. What an amazing adaptation, one that I was able to observe first-hand as the sun rose over another perfect day on Sanibel.

The birds here are endlessly fascinating, from the ospreys and pelicans pulling fish from the waves to the sanderlings and ibises probing the edge of the surf for food to the crows and gulls foraging through the detritus in the wrack line. But when you consider how these birds got here, they become even more incredible.

Birds first appeared from dinosaur ancestors more than 150 million years ago. But evolution never happens in sudden jumps. There was never a dinosaur mother that gave birth to a bird offspring. If you could see the actual sequence of events, generation after generation, you’d see a continuous line of tiny, almost imperceptible changes from dinosaur to bird. In this sense, birds are dinosaurs, living today in virtually every ecosystem on Earth (including, of course, the beach). Those behaviors of the reddish egret you can see in the video above run in a direct line, from the hatchling in its nest through all its ancestors until you come to a creature that that looks like this:

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Though the birds are just one branch of the dinosaur tree, they form a massive branch – there are more bird species on Earth today than mammal, reptile, or amphibian species, and the total number of birds, around 300 billion, also outnumbers the other four-limbed vertebrates. Among all vertebrates, only fish have done better than the birds. And as Sanibel mornings show, these modern-day dinosaurs are doing their best to even that score.

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Only a short beach walk today, as we left early to explore the wonders of Cayo Costa State Park. Incredible shelling, and lots of live animals including blue crab, sand crab, mole crab, living whelks and Florida fighting conch. We also saw a turtle nest that had been raided by a group of ghost crabs. It’s a rough world out there for baby turtles.

I managed to grab some amazing sunrise photos before my walk ended.

Like a rainbow, a sunrise (or a sunset) is a beautiful example of the deep mystery of color.

Sunrises are orange because white light from the Sun is broken up by our atmosphere. Any sunbeam is actually made up of myriad photons, or pieces of light. Each piece has its own wavelength. Blue and violet photons have tiny wavelengths, while orange and red photons have longer wavelengths. The oxygen and nitrogen in the air are more likely to interact with the shorter wavelength photons, sending them bouncing off in all sorts of crazy directions (that’s why the sky is blue!) At Sunrise, the beam we see has passed through all the air over the Atlantic, so that most of the short wavelength blue and purple photons have been scattered out. What’s left are the longer photons, which we see as orange.

But there’s the real mystery. There’s nothing inherently “orange” about an orange photon. It’s just a wavelength. What makes the photon orange is that it excites one kind, but not another kind, of light-sensitive cell in our eyes. In a certain sense, the sunrise isn’t orange (the experience of orange) until you look at it.

Why, though, do we see in color at all? Why those beautiful blue skies and emerald green water I can see from the beach? Why red flowers, yellow bananas, and, well, orange oranges? Why isn’t the world, like 1939 Kansas, all in black and white?

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Our ancestors were fruit eaters. Being able to spot the ripe mango or strawberry or blackberry might have given us a selective advantage. But another theory I recently ran across is that we evolved our color vision to help us read emotions.

The idea is that a potential rival (or a potential mate) will show you their feelings in their changing skin tones. A blush, a flash of anger, or a moment of fear can all show up on our faces, and our exquisite color vision seems to be especially tuned to these subtle color variations.

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So when you enjoy your next sunrise, consider for a moment that you might be doing so because you’re so good at knowing when that cutie across the room is flirting with you!

 

At least one mother turtle in the waters near Sanibel has a lovely sense of aesthetics. Her nest is in one of the most beautiful spots ever seen.

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Nestled at the top of the beach between the sea grapes and the beach spiderlilies, this nest is the work of a master egg-layer, part of an unbroken chain of nest builders stretching to the time of the great dinosaurs.

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Labeled “nest 21” by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), the information on the cart informs the beachgoer that this is a loggerhead nest (almost every nest on Sanibel will be from a loggerhead).

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Baby loggerhead turtles grow under the sand for around 60 days. Under the sand, the turtles develop those traits – powerful flippers, salt excretion glands, even a compass in the nose – that will help them survive for 100 years or more – if they are very, very lucky. The sand temperature itself determines if this nest contains any future nest builders. Particularly warm sand will produce female turtles, future sculptors in sand. Cooler temps will brood male turtles, who may never touch the land again once they leave their birthing beach.

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When those turtles emerge as hatchlings, all 110 or so of the siblings “boil out” of the nest at the same time. This is an adaptation to overwhelm the hatchlings’ many predators, which include ghost crabs, sea birds, and predatory fish. It is estimated that only 1 in 1000 will survive to adulthood, meaning for every baby turtle buried below this very sand, there’s still a chance.

Good luck, baby turtles! I hope some of you are as brilliant as your momma!

PS Here’s the sunrise this morning. Perfection!

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The Moon is just past full, which makes the tides particularly extreme. This evening the receding tide exposed the far sand bar, creating a tide pool with crystal clear water that was shallow enough to wade across.

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We found a nine-armed sea star

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dozens of crabs, dozens more onion anemones exposed on the sandbar, and a purple sea urchin.

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Also lots of lettered olives, whelks, and scallops, both living specimens as well as empty shells. Pretty amazing, and all thanks to a nearly full Moon and the almost magical ability of gravity to move water. Can’t wait for tomorrow!

The entire Ft. Myers area was immersed in rain as we flew in on Saturday. The result was flood waters all over Sanibel. We were amazed to see catfish slithering along in parking lots and roadsides. In heavy rains, the inland waterways on Sanibel overflow their banks, and out come the catfish.

By Sunday morning the rains had ceased, and the weather was calm and beautiful. A nearly full moon tried to peek through the thick cloud cover as I began my first beach walk of the season. I didn’t have to go far to find the first turtle nest – it lies right at the end of our beach access path.

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Two more nests are marked nearby. I sat between them and watched the sunrise, thinking about these ancient reptiles and their journeys through the sea and up its edge to find the perfect place to build their nests.

Sanibel loggerheads have broken records the past two seasons for number of nests. Biologists speculate that the rules about shrimp trawling, first vigorously enforced 20-30 years ago, are finally showing an effect. Loggerhead turtles that would have drowned in shrimp nets are today alive in the Gulf, and are building nests in record numbers. A success story, and a lesson – sometimes success takes a long time to appear.

20170611_062956Unfortunately, many of the nests the past two seasons have not hatched. It is believed that the greater than normal sand temperatures have baked many of the baby turtles inside their eggs. Will the turtles adjust to these higher temperatures? Will the center of loggerhead nesting move away from Florida, and onto cooler beaches? Of course, if warming continues unabated, Florida itself will disappear beneath the waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic – an unhappy ending for a place as beautiful as this.

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Turtles weren’t the only story on Day 1. While standing in the surf, I saw a dolphin spinning about for breakfast. Marsh rabbits were busy nibbling on the water-softened plants near the beach. I even saw our first lizard of the season. Usually the lizards are thick; the wet and relatively cool weather must have kept them undercover. Maybe today they’ll appear.

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My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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