Friday, November 09, 2007

Themes Revisited

So far, we have read Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, Henry IV, Part One, Macbeth and Othello.

I was thinking just this morning -- about five minutes ago, really -- about the themes of these plays. Shakespeare had a wonderful way of revisiting themes with entirely different results.

For instance, take Much Ado and Othello. These two plays are written about trust and all of her cohorts -- vulnerability, suspicion, betrayal, redemption. Without a central theme of trust, these auxiliary themes would be meaningless. So, Shakespeare uses the theme in one play to create the lightest and most delightful of comedies (Much Ado) and then turns around and plays with the idea of trust in one of the most heartbreaking tragedies (Othello). Poor Desdemona could have used a Beatrice and Benedick pairing to come to her aid -- and, of course, the excellent sleuthing of Dogberry's men to discover the treacheries of Iago.

And then, as I've written of and posted before, Richard III and Macbeth were both portraits of ambition run amok -- the results of which in Richard were quite funny, while in Macbeth were absolutely horrifying. Richard's demons were all in his head, but they were a cheerfully depraved lot. Macbeth's demons were quite material -- whether witch or wife -- and their destructive force was most complete for they ravaged the man that was.

Now, Henry IV, Part I is in and of itself a thorough examination of the theme of honor. In the characters of Hotspur and Falstaff, Shakespeare has painted two opposite views of the importance and glory of honor. Prince Hal stands on the cusp of responsible adulthood and looks at the two -- his father's former favorite, the valiant, serious, and hot-tempered Hotspur and the jolly, drunken, thieving, but oh-so fun Falstaff. In the climactic battle scene, Hal wins his father's approval at last by coming to fight and then saving the King's life, and, eventually, he also kills the rebellious Hotspur; but has choice between honor and roguery really been made? For, when Falstaff counterfeits death to escape completing a duel and then later claims that he was the one to kill Hotspur, Prince Hal agrees to further his deception and falls back in with his disreputable buddy.

Ambition, honor, trust . . . I look forward to seeing what other themes Shakespeare will address as I finish the plays required for this class and continue to read the rest of his work on my own.

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