What happens in King John

I’m doing King John this month because it was time to kick off the histories and I needed an organizing system. “The histories,” as no normal person knows, are Shakespeare’s plays about the English monarchy. Don’t get muddled; Antony, Cleopatra, Troilus, Cressida, Caesar, and a man who powerfully resembled Falstaff might have really lived and gotten Shakespeare plays written about them, but only the English histories are “histories.” I decided to go in king order. John was the earliest king who got a play. It would make more sense, maybe, to go in order of publication date, but I didn’t do that with the other plays. Sorting Shakespeare by date written is a game for actual scholars, and the histories were threaded in among the “tragedies” and “comedies” (the tragedies are pretty tragic as a rule, but they usually have jesters or joke-telling nurses. The comedies are not always funny, but they are often deeply disturbing and occasionally tragic) from the very beginning.

On to King John. No one’s ever seen it. There are no popular movies of it. Theater companies can barely sell tickets to it. The two things you might know about the real King John are 1) he signed the Magna Carta and 2) he was the King John in Robin Hood. Neither thing shows up in the play. It’s a dry-ish text and it’s all in verse. No clowns making NSFW jokes in paragraph form here. But the plot is rock-solid, and as everybody who’s ever written a personal essay or a breakup letter knows, telling a true story well is incredibly hard.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When writing a play about somebody, don’t leave out the most interesting things (Magna Carta) they did.”

What happens in King John
(King of England from 1199-1216)

King John’s nephew Arthur is plotting with the King of France to overthrow the English throne.

The King of France (his name is Philip, but we’re going to refer to him as “the King of France” here because more than one character is named Philip) demands John’s surrender. John responds by invading France.

There is a subplot involving an English Philip, nicknamed “the Bastard” to distinguish him from the other Philip. He’s a wonderful character. But we can’t slow down for subplots on the Shakespeare TLDR, not even subplots from real history.

The English and French armies fight, but neither side is the clear winner. John makes a peace settlement by arranging a marriage between his niece and the heir to the French throne, known hereafter as “the Dolphin.” (If you’re the heir to the French throne in the 1200s, in most histories your title is the super-fancy “Dauphin.” But some Shakespeare editions use “Dolphin” for the purpose of delighting your inner 6-year-old girl.)

John, in the meantime, disobeys the Pope and gets excommunicated. The church is a massive political power in 1200s Europe. Not being on its good side is dangerous.

The Pope’s representative, Pandulph, threatens to excommunicate the French king for making an alliance with England. Pandulph supports the Dolphin and convinces him to break the truce with England. The fighting starts again.

During a battle in France, John captures Arthur (the backstabbing nephew). John orders Arthur to be executed. John’s representative disobeys and hides the boy instead.

John goes back to England and celebrates by throwing himself a second coronation, a confident act of leadership that definitely proves no one is doubting you at all, certainly not the Pope, the Dolphin, or anybody named Philip.

Arthur tries to escape and falls to his death. The English nobles think John murdered him. They defect to the French side.

John, who is now outnumbered and looks like a prat, has no choice but to negotiate with Pandulph. John agrees to reconcile with the Church. Pandulph agrees to convince the Dolphin not to invade England again.

The Dolphin, beefed up by his new English nobles and their troops, totally invades England again.

The nobles hear a rumor that the French king is going to have them all killed when the war is over. They return to John.

Having lost his allies, the French king gets Pandulph to negotiate peace with England. But it’s too late for John, who had gotten sick and gone to an abbey to rest (remember his new bestie, the Pope?), only to have a monk kill him with poison.

John’s son, Prince Henry, succeeds him as King Henry III. Apparently this Henry did not lead the kind of flashy life that merited a Shakespeare play, but assorted later Henries did.

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To find out more about the real King John and how he got his embarrassing nickname, read Marc Morris’ post Why Was King John Known as Softsword?

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What happens in Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a comedy the same way oral surgery is an afternoon at the spa. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” may be the most famous line. Plenty of sin to be found here. Virtue, on the other hand, you couldn’t find with a flea glass. Any good Shakespeare nerd will tell you about the “problem plays,” where Will took on a moral problem, which he didn’t solve 10 times of out 10 (okay, there are only 3 problem plays). Measure for Measure even ends with an unanswered question, the question, the pop-the-question question. All moral problems more or less remain in their original state.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Dukes suck. MORAL: Don’t get someone else to do your dirty work.”

What happens in Measure for Measure

The Duke of Vienna announces he is going away and puts his deputy Angelo in charge. The duke is not actually going anywhere, but instead hides in plain sight to find out what happens in Vienna when he’s not around.

Angelo is a moralistic prig, and like all moralistic prigs, he has hidden depravities. His first decision is to shut down the brothels and strictly enforce the laws against sex outside marriage. He has Claudio arrested and sentenced to death for getting his (Claudio’s) fiancée pregnant on a technicality (the lawbreaking. The pregnancy came about the usual way).

Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, pleads for his life. Angelo (and I love that his name is Angelo) agrees to let Claudio live if Isabella sleeps with him. She refuses.

Angelo once had a fiancée, Mariana, but he dumped her when her family lost all their money. The Duke of Vienna, who is by now disguised as a friar, suggests a bed trick. Isabella would agree to sleep with Angelo, but then Mariana would secretly take her place. Having slept with “Isabella,” Angelo would then have to pardon Claudio. Plus he’d have to marry Mariana according to his own law.

Isabella and Mariana agree to the plan. The bed part goes off just fine. But after the deed, Angelo still gives orders for Claudio to be executed because he is afraid Claudio will try to get revenge.

Angelo demands proof that Claudio has been executed. The duke sends him the head of an already-dead pirate who looks faintly like Claudio (Bardaholics call this…wait for it…the head trick). Angelo buys it.

The duke-in-disguise tells Isabella that her brother Claudio is dead. He suggests she complain to the “duke,” who is about to return to Vienna.

The duke “returns.” Isabella tells her story. He pretends not to believe her. Eventually he reveals that he was in Vienna the whole time and knows everything, which forces everyone else to be honest. He also announces that Claudio is alive.

Angelo confesses to the full menu of crimes. The duke sentences him to marry Mariana and then be executed, which would mean Mariana would inherit his money but not have to be his wife.

Mariana and Isabella plead for Angelo’s life. The duke pardons Angelo.

Then the duke asks Isabella to marry him. She never answers. This sparks 400 years of was-it-yes-or-no Shakespeare nerd battles.

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If you want to indulge your curiosity about the bed trick, or anything bed-related, and who doesn’t, I recommend Jeannette Winterson’s article Bed tricks and broken women: Shakespeare’s guide to love.

 

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Wordy news

Friends! I’m reading at Literary Speakeasy next week alongside these wonderful writers. Come have a drink with us and I’ll tell you the story about the girl with the magic eyeballs. Or the one about the DJ who gets kidnapped by the fae for a dance underneath the Van Ness Muni station. I haven’t decided.

Literary Speakeasy
Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.
Martuni’s | 4 Valencia St., San Francisco
No cover charge, no drink minimum
Facebook event here.

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What happens in The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play Shakespeare nerds everywhere are proud to hate. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I wanted a play about her favorite character, the sloppy knight Falstaff from the Henry IV plays, but “to show him in love.” And to deliver it in fourteen days.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Prequel to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Don’t mess with the ladies.”

What happens in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff arrives in the town of Windsor. He is broke. He is known for his outsized personality and his…appetites. He devises a plan to kill a few birds with one stone by seducing two different rich women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page.

He sends the women identical love letters. The letters get intercepted by their husbands.

The women, who are friends, compare notes and have a good laugh. They decide a little revenge would break up the dull afternoons.

There is a subplot with the Pages’ daughter, who wants to marry a man her parents don’t approve of.

Mr. Ford puts on a disguise and tells Falstaff he is himself interested in Mistress Ford, but first he wants to pay Falstaff to seduce her so she won’t be so…virtuous. Don’t think about that too hard. The point is, someone is offering to help Falstaff have sex. Falstaff tells Mr. Ford-in-disguise that he and Mistress Ford already have an appointment. Mr. Ford, who was already jealous and had a rage problem, flies into a jealous rage.

Falstaff goes to meet Mistress Ford as arranged. She and Mistress Page trick him into hiding in the laundry basket. Then they throw him into the river. It doesn’t faze him very much.

Falstaff goes back to meet the wives again. This time they trick him into dressing up as an elderly aunt whom Mr. Ford can’t stand. Mr. Ford comes home and sees the “old woman” he hates. He beats her and throws her out.

The wives let their husbands in on the joke. Together they engineer one last humiliation for Falstaff. They arrange to meet him in the forest for sexytimes. They get a group of kids to dress as fairies, go to the meeting instead of them, and pinch and burn him.

The nighttime-plus-disguises combo helps the Pages’ daughter elope with her boyfriend.

Falstaff takes the joke pretty well, even though he is still broke and single. Mr. and Mistress Page accept their daughter’s marriage. They invite everybody back to their house to celebrate, including the admittedly entertaining Falstaff.

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Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s book Falstaff: Give Me Life illuminates what’s so compelling to some people about the old gent. If you don’t have time for a whole book, there’s the NY Times review, “Shakespeare’s Hot Mess: What We Can Learn From Falstaff.”

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What happens in Othello

This month in plays that give everybody hives, let’s talk about Othello. A man’s character, his relationship, and ultimately his life get destroyed because he is black. Men murder their wives. It’s all awful. But we do get Iago, the most love-to-hate-him villain maybe ever.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted, “Othello forgoes marital counseling, takes matters into his own hands. Count to 10 before killing your wife.”

What happens in Othello

Othello is a respected military leader. He promotes Cassio instead of Iago. Iago sets out to get revenge.

First, Iago tries to drive a wedge between Othello and his new wife, Desdemona, by manipulating Desdemona’s father with some racist poison (Othello is “a Moor,” meaning he has African heritage). Which kind of works, but not really. Everybody can see the couple is sickeningly in love. Desdemona’s father is not thrilled, but even though they eloped, he reluctantly accepts the marriage.

Next, Iago manipulates Cassio into getting drunk and fighting. Othello demotes Cassio for behaving like a frat boy. He has no idea Iago was involved.

Now Iago has gotten his revenge on Cassio. But he doesn’t stop there. He continues dripping racist poison into people’s ears until everybody is dead. It’s the kind of insidious campaign of destruction that 1) isolates Othello and makes room for the morons of Venice (we’re in Venice) to see him as an alien, 2) actually causes Othello to doubt his own status as a regular member of society toward the end, and 3) keeps Iago’s villainous little hands totally clean.

Iago decides to make Othello think his wife is unfaithful. He suggests that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello is a tad gullible, and although he is made of tougher moral fiber than Iago, he clearly has anger issues. He rewards Iago with a promotion and asks him for help killing Cassio and Desdemona.

Iago plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room. Othello verbally abuses Desdemona in public, accusing her of being unfaithful. Witnesses are shocked.

Iago tries to get Cassio killed, but Cassio only gets wounded. Othello hears Cassio making I’m-hit noises and thinks Iago has killed him. He goes home ready to kill Desdemona.

Meanwhile, Iago “finds” the wounded Cassio. Iago sends his own wife, Emilia, to tell Desdemona the news.

Othello reaches the sleeping Desdemona before Emilia gets there. He wakes her up and accuses her of cheating on him with Cassio. She protests that she is innocent and says she loves Othello. He smothers her.

Emilia enters and Desdemona revives for a moment. She repeats that she is innocent. As she dies, she says that Othello is also innocent.

Iago and some side characters enter the room. Emilia defends Desdemona’s innocence, recognizing that Iago is the mastermind.

Othello sees the truth and tries to kill Iago. Iago kills Emilia and runs off. Othello kills himself. Iago is captured.

The body count is lower than in some Shakespeare plays, but Iago is still alive at the end!! How is this justice?? He’s supposed to be executed later, but still. Even Macbeth dies while the curtain is still up after all that murdering.

Final score:

Non-murderers dead: 3 (Emilia and Desdemona (plus a side character, Roderigo, but we don’t have room for side characters on the Shakespeare TLDR)

Murderers dead: 1 (Othello)

Non-murderers alive: 1 (Cassio) (Someone has to stay alive to take over for the boss in every play. That’s Cassio.)

Murderers alive: 1 (Iago)

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I am so far from being qualified to address the deadly axis of racism and sexism in 1600s Europe or the profound twistedness of Iago’s motivation, but Kiernan Ryan is. Read his article, “Racism, misogyny and ‘motiveless malignity’ in Othello.”

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What happens in King Lear

Dementia. Unexpected socialist leanings. Real estate woes. King Lear is about aging: the regret, but also the loss of control and the shock when you discover you are just as frail as the old people you used to make fun of.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “It’s hell getting old.”

What happens in King Lear

The aging King Lear of England decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He demands each of them prove how much they love him. Whoever loves him the most will get the most land.

Goneril and Regan, the two oldest daughters, offer some patently insubstantial flattery. Cordelia, the youngest, is disgusted by this display. She states the simple truth that she loves her father. Lear misunderstands, gets angry, and disowns Cordelia. She elopes with the King of France.

Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan. Lear’s trusted friend Kent warns that this may be a mistake. Lear gets angry and banishes Kent. We begin to sense an anger-and-banishment theme.

Kent turns right around and goes into Lear’s service in disguise. It may be a clue to Lear’s declining mental health that he doesn’t recognize Kent, but then again, it’s Shakespeare. All it takes is a hat to change your appearance beyond all recognition. Or if you’re a woman, a pair of pants.

There’s a subplot with another noble, Gloucester. We don’t usually do subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR, but bear with me, because this one leads to some very dramatic dying by important characters. Gloucester has 2 sons: Edgar (whose mother was Mrs. Gloucester, making him legitimate) and Edmund (whose mother was, according to a seriously inappropriate dad speech Gloucester makes, not his wife but most impressive in the sack). Edmund schemes against Gloucester and Edgar because he wants a bigger inheritance. Edgar realizes his brother wants to kill him and goes away in disguise.

Back to the main plot. Lear stays with Goneril first, but she gets tired of hosting his entourage of 100 knights and their non-bathing ways. She throws him out.

Lear goes to Regan next. She doesn’t let him stay with her at all.

The two sisters gang up on Lear and demand he let go of some of the knights if he wants any help from them. This is a thinly disguised bid for power: they are afraid he can take over the kingdom again with his entourage of irrational men who have swords.

Lear realizes his daughters don’t love him after all. He gets angry. Usually when he gets to peak rage he banishes people, but this time he’s not the landlord, so he just stomps out into a storm. Kent follows him.

Out on the wild moors, Lear has a crisis of conscience. It occurs to him that he shouldn’t have disowned Cordelia. And one night of sleeping in a hut shows him that he should have been kinder to homeless people while he was in power.

Lear and Kent encounter Gloucester, who has gone out to help the unmoored (sorry) king in spite of orders from Regan and Goneril to stay away from him.

Gloucester goes home. Regan has his eyeballs plucked out to punish him. Later his son Edgar-in-disguise helps him.

Kent leads Lear to Dover. They find Cordelia and her husband (the King of France) preparing to invade England (now controlled by Goneril and Regan).

The battle happens. The French lose. Lear and Cordelia are captured.

Regan and Goneril argue because they are both in love with Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son. Goneril kills Regan.

Gloucester learns Edgar-in-disguise’s identity and dies of, apparently, a happy shock.

Edgar stabs Edmund. Edmund gasps out that he’s sent someone to execute Cordelia and Lear, then he dies.

Goneril is having the worst day ever. She commits suicide.

Lear goes to stop Edmund’s messenger, but it’s too late. Cordelia has already been hanged. Lear dies of a broken heart.

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For a more, with pictures, hie thee to the hilarious Good Tickle-Brain’s King Lear summary.

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Wordy news

Friends! I’m on the Queer Words podcast! This is my first ever podcast, which is obvious from my terrible speaking voice. Wayne Goodman was very kind to invite me on anyway.

Queer Words has me down as “Skye Allen, musician, chicken wrangler, award-winning author of speculative fiction for younger readers.” We may have the wording for the tombstone right there.

And! Today is the book anniversary of Pretty Pegmy queer YA novel. I’m so proud this book has been in the world for five years. You can read an excerpt here.

I’m celebrating the utterly astonishing day I became a published author by hosting a giveaway on my Facebook page. I’d be most flattered if you stopped by.

Happy Pride Month. Keep fighting for what you love.

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On the shelf at Folio Books