I can safely say that March 2020 has been one of the weirdest months of my life so far. If you’d told me I’d ever experience a pandemic a few months ago, I would have said you were crazy. I’d have expected to be struggling to find spare time in March, not toilet paper. I was supposed to visit a friend in the Netherlands, and then spend a lot of time in the university library doing research for my upcoming exam. Obviously, none of that happened. For the first time in my life, the borders to other EU countries have been shut, and the university library closed down weeks ago. I only just managed to check out books in time, so that I could get my studying done at home. Most drastically, perhaps, Bavaria has been under complete lockdown for almost two weeks now. And, to be honest, I’m actually really enjoying it! I’m being very productive, and yet I finally also have tons of time for myself. Basically, my daily routine now looks like this: After breakfast, I practice doing old linguistics Staatsexamen, then I read something from the required reading list, and once I’m done with that, I do whatever I want to. I practice my instruments [By the way, did I tell you I got a ukulele for my birthday? – I love it, especially the fact that the F chord is so much easier than on the guitar 😉 ]. I re-read old favorites. I write stuff for this blog. I get caught up on old Netflix series (I’m only missing one more season of Outlander now). I play games with my family, and with friends over video chat. Honestly, I’ve pretty much been having an introvert’s dream vacation 😉
Anyway, since I’ve been re-reading so much, most of the new books I read in March are 16th and 17th century plays from my reading list. But, in case you’re interested, here are some of my thoughts on them nonetheless:
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (3/5 Stars)
This story, which follows a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power, is universal in European literature. It’s a tale that had been handed down for generations, even before Marlowe took it up. Quite honestly though, this version really made me appreciate Goethe’s Faust, which was written about 200 years later and is now required reading throughout Germany (at least if you attend a Gymnasium, the German college-track high school). Though I wasn’t the biggest fan of Faust when we covered it in school, I have grown to like it a lot more since then, and I must say, in contrast to Marlowe, Goethe at least had an intriguing plot throughout the story (at least in Faust I). While Doctor Faustus had a strong beginning and ending, the middle part, in which Faustus and Mephistopheles travel the world and play tricks on people, was not very exciting. It was a little better in the B-text (I read both the 1604 and 1616 versions), where we at least get an extra plotline following a rival pope, but still not that engaging. The ending, however, managed to redeem this in my eyes. It’s really dramatic and macabre, especially in the B-text, so right up my alley. In fact, there was even a staging of this scene, in which devils come to drag Faustus off stage, where there was said to be one more devil on stage than there should have been. This frightended the Elizabethan audience to half to death because they thought the staging had actually summoned the devil. And people say you only learn useless information studying literature… Anyway, that part was pretty cool. Also, I really liked comparing the two versions of this text side by side. If you had to pick one to read, I’d recommend the B-text, which is easier to follow, has some interesting additional subplots, and more funny side characters. But it was also nice to read both and observe the changes that were made. Some of them were absurdly random, for example, in the A-text, Mephistopheles first enters dressed as a devil. In the B-text, it’s a dragon. I couldn’t help thinking that even Elizabethan audiences were apparently easy to please with lots of action and drama. The bigger the better, right? Or maybe that was just an attempt to avoid more devil summonings. Who knows…
The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (3/5 Stars)
This is one of the earliest Elizabethan revenge tragedies, and it influenced and inspired countless others, most famously, Hamlet. It opens with the ghost of a Spanish nobleman called Don Andrea, who, together with the spirit of Revenge, has come back to observe the downfall of the man who killed him in battle. And let me tell you, this is bloody. There’s tons of intrigue and many misunderstandings, a Machiavellian brother who clearly doesn’t have his sister’s best interests at heart, and, at the end, nearly everyone ends up stabbing one another during a play that mirrors the plot of this one. Overall opinion: not bad, but could also have been better.
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore by John Ford (4/5 Stars)
After reading this, I’ve pretty much given up any notion of people in the 17th century being prude Christians. I mean – I’d kind of already given up on that after we covered John Wilmot’s poem A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover. If you want some good old-fashioned smut, just go ahead and google that. But this play was on a whole other level. To sum it up, it follows the incestuous relationship of two siblings, Giovanni and Annabella, and their tragic downfall after Annabella becomes pregnant. It is extremely explicit and would probably even be considered scandalous on today’s stages. I, however, had a great time reading this. It was totally different from anything else that I’d read from this time period, and it was funny. I think. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be, but I was both disturbed and grinning when Giovanni exploded into a fancy dinner with Annabella’s heart impaled on a dagger. Yes, I might have a dark sense of humor. I know this was all supposed to be very tragic. Still, all scandal and comedy aside, this play managed to make some very poignant points about what it meant to be a woman during this time period. How you were completely subject to the wants of men, but how you were the one who had to deal with the social reprecussions. The title, controversial though it may be, sums that up in a nutshell.
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (2/5 Stars)
One of my professors once described this play, which is one of Shakespeare’s earlierst and set in Ancient Rome, as “a massacre”. After having read it, it’s not hard to see what she meant. In the first scene alone, two people are slaughtered on stage. Titus Andronicus is brutal and extremely gruesome, even for my taste. I mean, there’s a pretty explicit rape scene, and two characters are baked in a pie and given to their mother to eat… Unfortunately, I didn’t really think there was much to the play apart from the brutality. The only characters who I thought were slightly interesting were Lavinia and Aaron, and they were pretty much the only thing I liked about this play. The rest was a bloodbath with little depth to it.
Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1) by James S.A. Corey (3/5 Stars)
Leviathan Wakes was the only thing I read this month that wasn’t a re-read or a play, so for those of you craving a review of something written later than the 17th century, here it is. The story is actually pretty well known thanks to the TV-Series The Expanse, which you can find on amazon prime if you want to check it out. I only saw the first episode, though, so I can’t tell you if its any good – what I can tell you about is the book. The thing I enjoyed most about it was definitely the world. This is a very political science fiction series that takes place in space – which humanity has long since colonized – and all the places described felt gritty, raw, and real. I had no trouble at all imagining that this is what space might look hundreds of years in the future, and that this is how humanity might be shaped by it. The plot, though it takes a while to get going, was also very interesting and unlike what I’ve read before. It’s a mixture of detective story, space opera, action and politics, and takes you along for quite the ride. However, the characters never really grew on me much. This is a dual perspective novel, following Detective Miller, who works on a space station in the Asteroid Belt, and Jim Holden, XO of an ice miner used to transport water through space. However, I never really felt that you get to know the two characters as well as you could have. You get a little bit about Miller’s past and how he’s struggling to cope with it, but nonetheless, you mostly feel cut off from experiencing his emotions. The same goes for Holden – even when you get to see what he’s thinking, you never really feel how it affects him. It’s all told in a very dry, detached style. And apart from Miller and Holden, I barely feel as though I got to know the characters at all. The only people who have a little depth to them are Havelock and Julie, and they’re barely in it. And Naomi, the only woman in this book who is really of consequence, was so bland and obviously perfect that this was one of the few cases that I’d say it really showed that this book was written by men… For me as a reader, characters are one of the most important parts of a story – you can give me a book with no action whatsoever and I’ll like it if there’s good character development. That’s why this book – despite its cool plot and setting – ultimately fell a little flat for me.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare (2/5 Stars)
The Taming of the Shrew is probably my least favorite Shakespeare play of the ones I’ve read so far. Both structure and content-wise, I had a lot of issues with it. First of all, the play starts off with a frame story: A local lord finds a drunk tinker named Christopher Sly in front of an alehouse and decides to play a trick on him. While Sly is passed out from all the alcohol he’s consumed, the lord takes him to his manor, dresses him in fancy clothes, and puts him in his own bed. When Sly wakes up, the servants tell him he that he is really a nobleman who has been suffering from a mental illness that made him think he was a tinker for the past years. That sounds interesting, right? The problem is that this frame story completely disappears and we never find out how it ends. A troupe of actors appears and stages a play for Sly and his “wife” (a disguised page whom Sly can’t wait to have sex with), and apart from one comment Sly makes at the very beginning of the play, he is never mentioned again. Which was extremely unsatisfying! The whole pauper-dressed-as-a-lord plot was way more interesting than anything that followed in the play within the play. Which was basically this: A whole bunch of men want to marry this rich Italian lord’s daughter, Bianca, but they can’t have her until her older sister Katherine, who is known to be horribly mean, rude and “shrewish”, is married. Luckily, they find a friend who will take Katherine simply because she’s rich, and he takes on the act of abusing – oh sorry, I meant “taming” – her until she does everything he says and ends the play with a speech about how all women should be obedient slaves to their husbands. Other than that and the other men wooing Bianca, absolutely nothing happens. Do I have to say anymore about why I didn’t like this?
The Rover by Aphra Behn (3.5/5 Stars)
I guess I just have a thing for plays that are a bit more scandalous, because this month I’m certainly liking them a lot more than the other ones I’ve read… The Rover is set in Naples during Carnival time and is mainly about love, lust, and marriage. It begins with a conversation between two sisters: Florinda is in love with an English soldier named Belvile, but her brother and father both want her to marry (a rich) someone else, and her sister Hellena is supposed to be sent to a convent. Together with their cousin, the two sisters decide to sneak out to the carnival in disguise, Florinda hoping to meet up with Belvile and Hellena to find love. There, they run into a group of men. One of them is “The Rover” Willmore, who basically just wants to sleep with every woman who crosses his path, among them Hellena and a famous courtesan called Angelica. A lot of chaos ensues, as do a ton of misunderstandings and lots of dick/sword jokes ( – honestly, I’m starting to think Sarah J. Maas just read too many 17th century plays when she came up with that velvet wrapped steel metaphor in Empire of Storms…). Overall, I thought this was highly enjoyable, and though it didn’t have a lot of depth to it, I’d love to see it on stage someday.
Henry V (Lancaster Tetralogy #4) by William Shakespeare (3/5 Stars)
I know, I know – I skipped the two parts of Henry IV. I intended to read them before this, too, but I needed to finish Henry V in time my study group’s skype discussion about it, and let’s just say I left it a little late… Thankfully, sparknotes filled me in about what I needed to know from the previous plays in order to understand this one, but I do intend on reading the rest of the tetralogy this week! As to Henry V, I thought it was pretty decent. Mainly, this is a story about war, since Henry decides to invade France on the claim that he is the true heir to its throne. Personally, I found Henry to be one of Shakespeare’s most interesting characters. Though he is depicted as a hero, he clearly also has flaws and struggles with finding the ideal role a king should play. I also really liked how culturally diverse this book was and how many plays on language that had to do with this diversity were made. The puns caused by /b/ being pronounced more like [p] in a Welsh accent were really funny, and I also really enjoyed the French scenes (Is it bad that I understood them better than the English ones? Shakespeare purposefully kept the language simple, probably so his English audience would understand it better, so then I wasn’t constantly trying to figure out what metaphorical meaning a certain image was supposed to convey…).
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (4/5 Stars)
Before March, I had already seen two productions of Much Ado About Nothing and loved both of them, but I had never actually read the play myself. And since it is a great drama to compare to The Taming of the Shrew in regard to themes, I decided I might as well read it to freshen up my memory and do some literary analysis in preparation for my exam. Okay, fine. Maybe I just wanted an excuse to read a play that I already knew I liked. And maybe having seen this on stage influenced how much I enjoyed reading it – but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. In my opinion, this is genuniely a great play. It’s essentially a comedy about two couples falling in love, filled with deception and misunderstandings. The plot is solid and engaging, and plus, I just love all the banter between Beatrice and Benedick. And the watchmen’s disastrous attempts to communicate what they know. This is just really funny, but still has a dark side to it that makes the plot intriguing. I highly recommend seeing it on stage if you ever get the chance!